British poet Edward Thomas, who deserves to be better-known in the U. S., is one of the best nature poets I’m aware of. And today’s ode to the beginnings of spring shows one reason why. Like many a good nature poet, Thomas’ landscape, animals, and plants are infused not only with his region’s specifics, but with his own understanding of the order and significance of life. What takes his poetic observation to a next level? In this poem, it’s, well — bird poop.
You can hear my rock-band setting of Edward Thomas’ “But These Things Also” below, but before I leave off writing about his poem, let me speak a bit about what I note about the poem’s use of rhyme. Like another great nature poet, Emily Dickinson, Thomas here is not over-determined by his need to make perfect rhymes, and the ABCB scheme starts right off with a sight rhyme of “grass” with “was.” Let’s not mark him down a grade, because the poem has a great deal of near rhyme, an effect that I find often more effective than ding-dong perfect rhymes. The pair of adjacent words “earliest” and “violets” are as strong to me as violet’s eventual end-rhyme with “debts.” And “debts” still hears the echo of the preceding “dung” and following “mist.” You may hear other consonance, assonance, and pararhymes in Thomas’ word choices.
It’s these sorts of things that make me resistant to some poetic formalists. While perfect regularity can reinforce a sense of fate (or to be honest about my own response, boredom) — irregular rhyme appearances, and variations to and from perfect rhyme, can evoke surprise and discovery.
OK, enough dancing about architecture. Let’s get onto the audio piece, the performance. Graphical player below for some of you, and if not, this highlighted link that’ll open an audio player. This is one of those pieces where I wish there was a better singer than myself handy, but it was still fun to move from chair to chair to create this one-man-band recording. I recorded this close enough together with our last piece, Anna Akhmatova’s “Like a White Stone,” that I’m thinking if this was a polished prog-rock album that I’d fade the two pieces into a 7-minute medley.
*I decided to insert into Thomas’ ode my own aged vision issues, by making “man” in his text, “old man” in my performance.
It occurs to me that it may have been a while since I’ve reminded new readers what the Parlando Project is, has done, and tries to do. It started as an idea around 2015 to focus on something I’d done off and on for decades: to combine other people’s words, usually literary poetry designed to be seen on silent pages, with a variety of original music.
I did this not only because I think it’s fun, but because the process allows me to more deeply absorb some sense of what the poets are trying to convey. At least for me, I can read a poem with my eyes and sense that there’s something wonderful there — but then to read it aloud, perhaps even to sing it, allows me to inhabit it, to visit the environment inside it, as if one is deep inside some forest, awash at a water-brink, or walking down its street or inside some meaningful building.
Reading a poem silently is like looking at a picture. Performing it aloud is painting the picture with the words still wet.
Early in the Project many of these performances were with others, most often my long-time musical partner Dave Moore. For a number of reasons those opportunities have decreased. These days the typical musical setting here is composed, and all the parts played or scored, by myself. I’ve done a handful of pieces in the Project without instruments, but that’s unusual. I think that even though they are played by a one-man-band I want the words to have companions. Even the loneliest poems can have these here.
I do these pieces myself, not because I have great confidence or a high appraisal of my musicianship. Far from it. I compose and play the parts because I’m available. I’m an amiable contractor to myself, I enjoy playing different instruments, and I’m unafraid to dive into a variety of musical environments. My estimate is that most musicians who hear what I produce for the Parlando Project are unimpressed by this work, in that I almost never get responses from them when they are exposed to it.* My guess is that is because I use simple ideas, and my realization of even these basic conceptions via my own playing has imperfections. My musical “thing” is more at participatory folk music or the punk/indie ethos — and though I try to produce good work here, and I’ve put effort into that, I don’t consider many of the Parlando Project pieces the best realization they could have. When I’ve taken to putting up chord sheets of some of the simpler acoustic guitar pieces here in the past year, I’m thinking that a better singer or player might take them to a better musical place.
Imaginary band gets down in beatnik cellar. Illustration shows my younger self & spouse in the center. W. H. Auden taps his cig on the ashtray in the foreground. Behind the drummer, Gertrude Stein considers Virgil Thomson.
Now let’s get on to a brief rundown of the Parlando pieces that were most liked and listened to this past winter. I do this countdown style, from 10 to the most popular. The highlighted titles are links in case you’d like to see what I wrote about the pieces when I first presented it.
10. All Souls Night by Hortense Flexner. Long-time readers here will know I like to go beyond “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” here, and this spooky piece by a little-remembered author from the time of WWI continued to be listened to long after Halloween.
9. “Uncle Sam Says” by Waring Cuney. This one, jumping forward to the WWII era, is almost cheating, as Cuney, a friend of Langston Hughes, engaged here in straight-out songwriting with bluesman Josh White. I’ve been playing a bit more bottleneck slide guitar this winter, and that’s what I used to accompany this message song about a segregated military.
8. “Now Winter Nights Enlarge” by Thomas Campion. Speaking of songwriters: poet, musician, and Elizabethan-age physician Campion also intended this to be sung — although, as with “Uncle Sam Says,” I didn’t use the original music for my performance.
7. “The House of Hospitalities” by Thomas Hardy. A poet who spanned significant chunks of the 19th and 20th centuries, Hardy was well-versed in poems of rich remembrances, as in this Christmas season memory of holiday celebrations past and gone.
4. “Fairy Song” by William Butler Yeats. Like many a Yeats poem, this one beguiles you and me with its lovely word music. Then I read the play whereupon the poem appears and discovered that its context is exactly that for the song’s singing fairy: a beguiling away of a distressed person from their heart, hearth, and home. That wind that opens this poem is chilling once you know.
3. “I felt my life with both my hands” by Emily Dickinson. I cannot say authoritatively what Dickinson intended the context of this poem to be, but I read it as an examination of body dysphoria, though I’m unsure if anyone else has “read” her poem that way. As I have sometimes done, I’ve performed this with what I call an “Inline Epigraph,” quoting a line from a Lou Reed’s song “Candy Says” before the concluding section of Dickinson’s text in my performance. I often think of poems as being in conversation with each other.
2. Railroad Avenue by Langston Hughes. I spent an enjoyable but inconclusive time searching for the “real” Railroad Avenue, thinking it could be like Van Morrison’s Cyprus Avenue or a NYC address in a Frank O’Hara poem. Couldn’t find it. May be it’s only mapped in Hughes’ imagination, a construction for the purposes of the poem. Long-time reader rmichaelroman reminded us in comments that America’s separations often are lined by being right in one’s memories from the “wrong side of the tracks.”
1. “I’m Gonna Make Love to my Widow ‘fore I’m Gone” by Frank Hudson. Another bottleneck guitar piece that readers and listeners liked a lot this winter. Well — a self-penned piece about good old-fashioned winter randiness made it to the top of the Top Ten. Go figure. They’re talking single digit wind-chills and a March snowstorm as this week ends up here in Minnesota. Codger cuddling is carbon-free heating people!
*I ascribe this to politeness on their part. I tell myself that I overvalue the audacity and aims of what I do, when simple competence with simple ideas might be preferable.
I’m going to take a short break from our February celebration of 1926’s Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists* to celebrate old people — really old people. The audio piece today is also not as solemn as some of the issues we’ve dealt with in other posts: it’s about love, desire, lust — and those feelings are represented as Shakespeare or many of the Afro-American Blues artists of our last decade to be called “The Twenties” might present it, as “country matters.”
There’s a long poetic lyrical tradition of mixing rural metaphors with desire. We’ve done more than one piece here over the years in the bucolic poetic tradition of lusty shepherds and comely rural maids, but it has occurred to me in my present old age that they are almost always young and single. I, on the other hand, am an old, long-married man. Not to put a damper on the prurience factor, but when I say old, I mean old enough to think about not being around to promise love forever. I’ll repeat what I’ve said here before: that at my age when offered a lifetime guarantee on a product, I’ll ask now if there’s a better deal. Yet, oddly enough, that for me makes the desire to connect with my beloved no less ardent. Carpe Diem is no longer just a trope to be trotted out.
Does today’s rambunctious piece do a good job of communicating that? I’m not sure. I presented an earlier draft of this a decade ago to a writer’s group I was participating in — and they, in the springtime of their mid-60s, thought it was a persona poem about someone wooing a rural widow, while I thought the inescapable ribald joke in the piece was that the singer wanted to, ahem, get down with it, before they died making their wife a widow. That group was often right about such lack of clarity, but I sometimes wonder if they were too young — and now that half that group has died, that they might have a different understanding of this lusty Blues poem. And it occurs to me that’s an additional joke! The audience for poetry may be small, but am I expecting the audience for this one to be made up of dead people?
Here’s my Blues-poem lyric. We’ll be back with other peoples’ words soon.
I don’t know, but I wish all of the readers and listeners here, of whatever age, a happy Valentine’s Day. We may not understand love — after all, we barely understand lust — but let us fumble toward that understanding with chocolates and flowers in a cold February. You can hear me perform this Blues-poem with bottleneck-slide guitar using the graphical player gadget below, or with this alternative highlighted link.
Still not able to find time or the skills and concentration to produce as many new pieces, but I thought it was time to finally realize a Parlando version of Thomas Campion’s Winter Solstice poem “Now Winter Nights Enlarge.” I’d first thought about doing it back in 2017 when this Project was a little more than a year old, but for some reason I never wrote music for it, so it was time to set that one right.
Using an unplugged electric guitar so as not to disturb my household, I composed a good tune with an attractive set of chords that were more at a chord-melody approach, with moving notes inside the chord forms than is my usual style. Unplugged, with me mumbling the words to myself, it sounded quite promising.
Earlier this week I had a couple of hours in which to try to record it. I grabbed an electric guitar to play the music I’d conceived, plugged it in, and…
I couldn’t play the more complex chord voicings and keep any sort of appealing groove and vocal performance. I’ve never been a good, or even part-way good, comping or rhythm guitarist, so this shouldn’t have surprised me — but it disappointed me. I tried just laying down the chords with the idea that concentrating on that and leaving the vocal to a secondary, overdubbed, take might fix things. No, it didn’t. A little better, but still not nearly good enough. I thought of all the not-extraordinary guitarists in the world who could have done a passable job of playing what I’d written with some verve, but none of them were in the room with me.
So, I appealed to the composer — who being me, myself, listened with concern and quickly rewrote the tune with a simpler chord progression while the microphone waited. I put the electric guitar back on its rack and figured that Campion (who wrote music for his poems) had probably composed his music on the lute. I grabbed a small bodied acoustic guitar strung with some European silk and steel wrapped strings.* In short order I figured out a cross-picked part for the new music, but my time was getting short. I quickly ripped off three or four takes of the new tune with the acoustic guitar, and I thought the last one just might be worth sharing.
Too many chords old man. What do you think this is, Jazz?
Overnight last night I stayed up recording the piano and cello parts you can hear below. As is common for me, I played the piano left-hand and right-hand parts in separate passes on my little plastic keyboard. I wanted to play a viola part for the bowed-string track, but I don’t have a good solo viola virtual instrument, and so I used a cello VI I did have. This morning I mixed the results, and there it is.
Campion’s words do well to try to convince one of the cheer of long nights and cold temps, and this December we’re to have our fill of both of them this week along with wind and blizzard snows predicted. Is that the message play the Minnesota Theater of the Seasons is putting on? That our lives and loves may be but toys, but playing with the unwrapped toys in dark December** is never an elderly joy, but something always new and discoverable.
*The strings are the Plectrum set from Thomastik-Infeld. They are extraordinarily low tension and smooth, but must be played with a very light touch. Rather than the bright zingy tone that the common steel-string acoustic guitar produces, the resulting timbre is somewhat like gut or nylon strings.
**If your top falls and doesn’t always give you גאַנץ, may it at least fall on האַלב.
A couple of posts back I suggested we do more than poetry prompts or poem a day writing challenges for National Poetry Month. Here’s a demonstration of an idea that’s half-way there. While still a poetry writing prompt, it also acknowledges the tradition we’re working in.
Write a parody of a poem you like, you dislike, or you just have heard too too-often that you want to mess with it.*
One of the first teenage poems I wrote decades ago was a parody of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” titled “Ode to a 1953 Automobile Ad.” I loved Keats’ poem, and while I wanted the smile that my title could engender, my parody was more at pointing out that Keats’ painful air of not-quite-realized truth portraying beauty wasn’t just a 19th century thing. Like most all of Sappho, that one may be lost to the ages, but here’s one recent enough to have been performed in the early years of this project: “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service.”
Did I like, hate, or just want to mess with Frost’s “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening?” Maybe a little of each. Long time readers here will remember that I disliked Frost in my youth. I thought then he was spouting platitudes, but I was wrong on that. When I presented Frost’s “Snowy Evening” here years back I said that the most important thing in the poem has been little realized. The poem’s speaker isn’t being tempted by wasting time admiring natural beauty. He’s not seeking Transcendentalist truth by closely reading the book of nature — though Frost does read the book of nature, his readings are unusually dark. Those are common understandings of Frost’s poem, which do sort of find the poem’s ending as a platitude: “You know what you need to do, get to work.” So is it darker? Is he basically being tempted to crawl into the woods and end it all? Not quite that either. The most important fact in the story of this poem is that the speaker is lost on a rural road in the early 20th century on the “darkest evening of the year,” which would be utter darkness in the days before electric light. There’s no beautiful Currier & Ives woods. It’s so deserted and without information you can hear snowflakes rubbing on each other. The famous opening is (with added italics) “Whose woods these are I think I know.” Not really knowing = lost. When he decides to press on, it’s the act of acting without there being any knowledge that he’s going the right way. The poem sounds beautiful, and that ennobles that act, even if it says the speaker may have been foolish and is risking acting without knowledge at the end.
April is National Poetry Month, and spring is here. Two gentlemen are unbuttoning their coats.
My parody is more lighthearted, and is set in the 21st century, but like a lot of jokes the situation isn’t pleasant. By writing a parody you are acknowledging the poem and your knowledge of it — so even if your parody is meant as a corrective to make the reader never read the original poem the same way again, you are engaging in the type of activity I’m urging more of this Poetry Month: that we should encourage more expression not just by adding to the sum total of poetic examples of it, but by acknowledging it in others.
*There’s a long tradition of this in poetry and songs. It’s not just Weird Al. In my youth they were called “answer records” — and later on in hip hop, a “dis track” might twist someone else’s rhymes or musical samples in service of dialectic. We’ve presented some poetic “answer records” here. Like this famous set of poems here and here. Or this quippish answer I appended to another short poem.
I also sometimes make moves that feel a little like parody in some of my looser or “after” translations of older poems. Here’s one example. And another. And one more. These aren’t meant to be “funny ha-hah,” but there’s a pleasure in finding history’s cultural “rhymes.”
Given the everything I’d rate between losses, troubles, and mere distractions I’ve gone through since late last autumn, I’m not in a mood this week to do the traditional Parlando Top Ten list for the past season. These are the same issues in repertory that have reduced the number of new pieces I was able to present here during that time. You, the audience for this Project, have stayed with this: readership to this blog is growing, overall listenership to the audio pieces is slightly up. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There’s more than three of you — I mean to thank all of you three times.
I know some of you do like these quarterly Top Tens, and I enjoy them myself — if only just to see what pieces from the variety presented here got the most response. That said, let’s rush through the numbers 10 up to 6 for the record:
You can see in those five pieces two from my memorial observance for the Irish-American poet McKiernan who I had the privilege to know and examine poetry with, and one from my February Black History Month celebration of Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues. There in the middle, there’s one by long-time Parlando Project favorite Emily Dickinson. And my own piece in that group talks about the loss of Ethna and also my March memorial subject who Dave Moore and I also knew and worked with: Kevin FitzPatrick. If you missed any of these, each of that above list is a link to my original blog posting and the audio performance of it, just as the following ones bolded titles are.
We join the countdown to the most listened to and liked piece then at number 5.
Spring, a rebuttal.
5. Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie. A lovely, graceful winter poem by a too-often-overlooked poet from “The Last Twenties” in our previous century. I like the music and performance I created for this one just as much as I did when I created it back around the beginning of 2022.
One would think I’d be through with snow experiences this far into spring, but my morning bike ride today was in big wet flakes and a cold enough north wind. Wylie’s velvet snow is more the dry January sort, but then appreciating snow for its beauty qualities may be best done in past-tense. If so, you may enjoy listening to this one in what I hope is a pleasant spring.
4. Lenox Avenue: Midnight by Langston Hughes. “The rhythm of life is a Jazz rhythm” says the first line of Hughes’ poem. I did my best to honor that injunction from one of the first Afro-American poets to unabashedly celebrate that musical form. Although I’m a vary unskilled keyboard player I was able to compose a satisfying two-handed part using MIDI as a scoring tool. I wanted a saxophone solo too, which you can hear a bit of in this performance, but I just couldn’t score or execute enough articulation to “make it.” The piece’s final horn section flourish is one of my rare surrenders to using a sampled musical phrase.
Of course, motif sampling is now an oft honored tactic in the ongoing Afro-American musical tradition, so perhaps I shouldn’t view it as a failure on my part. On the audacity front: I decided to extend Hughes’ lyric which ended with “And the Gods are laughing at us” with a newly written affirmation from after the poem’s time of 1926, one that says that the young art of Jazz and of young writer Langston Hughes’ has answered those gods.
3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge 1959. Staying with Jazz for this one, though with my own words straight through. There are beliefs — some sincere, some insincere — that Afro-American history is but a sorrowful tale, a grievance and a pandering response. If you can heartily do so, I ask you to improvise your own expletive response to the call of that fearful theory, one with as much eloquence and melodic force as you can deliver. Now our response may not be Sonny Rollins level improvisation. That’s not a reason not to — after all, Sonny Rollins wasn’t sure his improvisations were Sonny Rollins’ level improvisations. That’s the story in this piece.
I seem to lack the concentration, or the assured concentration of blocks of time, to do arrangements as full as the one I created for Frost’s poem right now. But you can still enjoy this one.
1. Stones by Ethna McKiernan. One answer to lack of compositional time is to write solo instrument pieces, which for me usually means acoustic guitar. Of the several pieces I did to introduce more of you to McKiernan’s range of poetry, this was the one that by far got the most listens this winter — in fact, more listens than any piece has received for more than a year during its first season after posting.
Before I leave you to listen to it, I want to say that beyond soothing my grief at Ethna’s death, that performing those pieces which used her words this winter made her seem closer than our too casual life connection sometimes had us. Wherever we voyage, the same waves lap the same sounds on the walls of our boats.
Here’s a sonnet of my own about the oncoming spring. I live in Minnesota, and here that season’s arrival is something of a lottery ticket. Oh, it’s likely that by sometime in February a Minnesotan is tired of winter, and we know that somewhere around May Day we’ll not have snow or cold to deal with for a few months, but when today’s high got to 40 F, we know no more than that. When I moved here, I was told that on days like today we might see folks wearing T-shirts outside — and yes that’s so. We are so in a hurry for spring that what would be a 5-degree Celsius winter day in more temperate regions seems time to ditch the jacket. Yet we are still likely to have more cold, and even more likely to get substantial snowfall, particularly in March.
So it is, from late February to late April is a two-month season of “what d’ya got” in our state. That’s what my poem performed today deals with.
Things are still snow-covered around here, but it’s not fluffy, Christmas-card snow— more at rugged crusts. I still ride a bicycle nearly every day year-round, and so winter means that I pay special attention to the surface conditions of the side-streets that I most often ride. You know the old factoid that Inuit peoples have a multitude of words for snow in their vocabulary? A day or two after a snow what’s often found is compressed and polished snow with some patches of white glaze where tires’ friction has buffed a gloss.* A few days later there will be areas where that surface further abrades and patches of dull-brown porridge-like snow aggregates are scattered on the roadway. I call the later “brown-sugar,” and the earlier hard white surface looks to me like the smooth inside of a shell.
Spring-time bike rides in Minnesota aren’t necessarily what you think.
Low-pressure studded bike tires work pretty well on the hard shiny stuff, and large knobby treads are the thing for the loose brown sugar. My deep-winter bike’s tires are a pair of Venn diagram hoops circling both.
That’s a poet’s bike ride for you: metaphors per hour.
The meter’s a bit loose, yet not loose enough to cry “Kings X — Free Verse!” either.
Does any of this help “translate” my poem for those without my climate? That’s my hope anyway. Though the title of my poem is “Unrequited March,” my wish for you, curious or stalwart reader/listener, is that spring will love you back this year. The player gadget to hear about the uncertainty of that is below for many readers, and for those whose way of reading this blog won’t show that graphical player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play the performance just as well.
*The large, knobby, low-pressure tires are also capable of riding on fresh snow before cars get to it. Un-rutted light and granular cold-weather snow is kind of fun to ride in. The wetter and clumpy snow that will likely come in any heavy storms for the rest of the season is much less joyful. That stuff is like riding in deep mud. The tires’ knobs will get traction — it’s not the tires, it’s an old out-of-shape guy like myself who’ll get tired quick riding through that.
This month I’ve been doing a series of pieces based on poems from Langston Hughes’ first book-length collection The Weary Blues of 1926 — but maybe it’s time to mention that I have already presented two early pieces that were included in that book.
Here’s Hughes “Dream Variation” which also offered its title to a section of the 1926 book. “Dream Variation” is an example of Hughes offering a quickly understandable surface message with a plausible deeper intent beneath that surface. The surface reading will connect easily with anyone stuck in a February northern location winter: “To fling my arms wide / In some place of the sun” is something most of us in Minnesota would be ready for, but are only dreaming of right now. Many here like to talk about our enjoyment of the outdoors even in our cold climate, and yes there was some sun when I rode out at 16 degrees F this morning on my bike. I was happy to get the exercise and to watch the crows big as black chickens and the binary oblivious to flurious* squirrels — but I’m tired by now of pulling on leggings and making sure my hands have enough covering to keep my fingers from the cold stiff numbness.
The Weary Blues has another section that takes its title from one of Hughes’ best known poems “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I was talking about this poem this morning to a fellow I sometimes meet in a café I ride to. I was saying this is a remarkable poem written by a 17 year old, one who literally crossed and looked at America’s Mississippi River on his way to New York City in furtherance of a compromise with his father on college education.** Maybe this won’t seem remarkable to you, if you’re here already reading this far down about a poet who died in the last century, who wrote it generations back.
Hughes might have written about the exact details of his current life. He could have written about how he felt, what with the bargain he’d been forced to strike with his father. He was 17, and forming his own autonomous self is the task of any young person. His father probably didn’t know what the rest of the 20th century would be like for Langston, much less what we’d think of things now in the 21st. What would young Mr. Hughes have known? More, or less?
I was recently reading some jokes observing what are considered the perennial follies of youth. One of the zingers was “It’s best to hire young graduates while they still know everything.” Queue the laugh track.
I don’t know if 17-year-old Langston Hughes thought he knew everything. I didn’t think so at that age myself. But as we consider why we might want to read or listen to poetry by long-dead poets, we might want to consider what Hughes’ poem asks us to consider: that we are the accumulations and results of our ancestors and neighbor’s ancestors. That doesn’t mean we are them, we are the sum on one side of the equals sign from a lot of figures to the left of it; and so the possible extensions, solutions, fulfillment and remediations of them.
That’s what’s remarkable about the young Mr. Hughes’ poem, its approachable impersonality and insistence on the distances yet salience of the past. It’s not “A Negro…” even, but “The Negro….” In it, the current of the past is longer than any history of oppression, injustice, or any stories of conquest. Endurance yes, but beauty too. So, despite age-related-stereotypes, at 17 Mr. Hughes may not, and doesn’t have to, know everything — but it helps to know some things that came before you. Rivers flow. Rivers move. Langston Hughes wrote this moving to New York City — the place where he eventually lived most of his life, but not before changing what he did on the banks of another river.
That’s why we have Black History Month,*** and why I’m talking here to what I suspect is substantially a white audience about Hughes and that observance. Some of you may be nodding off by now, whatever color — “We know all this.” you may be muttering. Facts are not the soul, but poetry and music can speak of that.
I’ve always rather liked my electric guitar performance on my setting of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” that you can hear with the player gadget where seen below, or with this highlighted link.
*Yes, there wasn’t a word “flurious” until now. You are present at the creation!
I’ve promised one more piece using texts taken from Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan, and here it is. There are a couple of reasons why I left this one to the end of this series memorializing her work. The first reason: the poem’s persona seems to speak of her approaching death. The second reason: I don’t know if McKiernan actually liked or rated it as highly as I do. Let me make this plain at the start: I think this is a great poem, and I’ll go into why in just a bit.
I believe I encountered “Wolves” at the same writer’s group where I heard other work Ethna was working on in draft form.* These things make my performance today particularly fraught with issues. I only take this step of releasing this performance today because of my admiration for the poem, and my feeling that some out there in the rare and appreciated audience for this Project will welcome it. “Wolves” has what poetry often hopes for: it is beautiful and yet harrowing, and its experience is vivid while not guarded inside defined borders.
I hear the snow crust crack
into spider-fine antenna lines
with every thudded footbeat. It is so still
that their light scratch of nails on ice
rasps the air like flakes of metal filings.
Let’s grab this text as it grabbed me, even on first hearing, with the opening statement: “I hear the snow crust crack / into spider-fine antenna lines…” The meter has a lope of accents that appeals, the internal rhyme of “fine” and “lines” separated by the chime of the assonant “antenna.” The three strong accents together in “snow crust crack” which allow “crust” to not get the full stress it would normally get appeals and announces. “…with every thudded footbeat. It is so still / that their light scratch of nails on ice / rasps the air like flakes of metal filings.” follows — and if you’re not captured yet by this poem’s story, I can’t think of what language can do to do that.
This opening almost registers as synesthesia, as the sense invoking words rush in. “Snow-crust crack” is visual and auditory together — and for a winter clime resident, you feel that texture in your own feet too. Besides the word-music the visual of “spider-fine antenna lines” has the sense of the spreading broadcast of the wolves’ approach. The ordinary snow-surface footfall of a “thudded footbeat” made by the furry pads of the wolf would be only present in an unnatural silence — and then the quiet but more plausibly audible sound of talons on ice. The shivers of it, nails on blackboard-like, invokes the winter.
Listen carefully for those claws on the ice.
I could go on, but I think any listener who is pulled in by this opening will sense equally strong lines and images as McKiernan’s poem proceeds. The creative writers in my audience may benefit from analyzing for themselves why they work their attraction on us. There’s an overall effect of intimacy with nature in the midst of this poem: not a passive, uncomplicated, and easily beautiful nature, but one close enough to be (prematurely) incorporated with the poem’s speaker.
The cave mentioned in the poem means that this is almost certainly a persona poem. The voice we hear telling this story is not the literal biography of a modern Irish-American woman who normally lived in cities, yet the astonishingly vivid images lets us doubt this just enough to not judge that outright. Even the most personal and revealing poetry can benefit from real and fantastical lies.
I’ll not explicate the ending outright, for I want you to experience it in the course of the poem’s story. I’ll only say that it could possibly be why McKiernan did not select this poem for wider distribution while she lived. “Twist endings” can cloy or leave a reader/listener feeling tricked, but my judgement says this one only enriches what’s sensed as the description of the poem’s scene has unfolded. Like many a good ending of a great short poem, it may make us want to read/listen to it again immediately.
Before I direct you to my performance of Ethna McKIernan’s masterful “Wolves,” I’ll leave you with one thought the context of this poem leaves with me beyond the poem’s own effects: what might your art do that you don’t necessarily realize that it can do? For it’s a mystery to me why this wasn’t in a final selected poems. The poem seems to me to be fearless and exact, but the self-editor may have been frightened or dissatisfied.**
*Just before I published this post I thought to do a final string-search for the opening lines of this poem — and found that it had indeed been published in The Poetry Ireland Review of January 1984! This published version uses exactly the text used for this performance, and you can find that text via this online link. That publication date is much earlier than I would have expected it to be. Did I somehow run across it — not as a draft as I recalled inside the Lake Street Writer’s Group — but in a publication that might have been shared with the group?
On publication it was titled “Letting Go the Wolves.” I had recorded the performance you can hear above a decade ago thinking the title was only “Wolves.”
**Another, if unlikely, possibility: Ethna may not have secured rights to secondary publication, though the grant of such is traditional within small-press poetry. As much as the wolves in the poem, I may be clambering on top of thin ice in presenting this poem, even though I only want to point out its value. If I haven’t made it clear recently: The Parlando Project is not even a non-profit organization — it’s a no-profit organization.
I’ve got a gorgeous song for you today, despite a difficult week for new work. I’ll try to get to it shortly, with only a little throat-clearing first.
It was 18 degrees F below zero* this morning. Oh, there was probably some wind chill too, but let’s not put too fine a point on temps like that — Minnesota January winter certainly doesn’t.
Our winter, to speak broadly, isn’t just cold. There’s also ice, snow, and winter cancellations and rescheduling. If that sounds grim, well, somedays it is — but then there’s a little something else about this sort of winter when you run across others out in it. Early this morning I saw another bicyclist with full face mask and goggles sawing their bike over the packed snow pavement. Before that, a woman walking her dog, each of them concentrating on getting such business done. In other duties, some school kids were walking to school. Every one of those fellow citizens are dealing with this shared winter too, and despite not being able to see much of their faces, you can likely feel something of a common cause.
But winter can also be experienced without even such scattered crowds. I used to commute around midnight on a bicycle, and the urban streets on rough winter nights would be the same as some new nowhere, like unto a SciFi paperback cover of the astronaut gazing through alien ruins. My wife sometimes runs just before dawn to a park that has no others but her and the existential animals.
Today’s piece is a winter poem by American poet Elinor Wylie, who wrote absolutely lovely short lyrical poems around 100 years ago. Hers is a slightly different winter. First, she’s walking with someone else. She doesn’t mention the temperature, but I doubt it quite as bitter-brittle as my morning. Hers is explicitly windless, but there is snow, the kind of loose powder that tends to fall when it’s colder than the soggy wet flakes.
Wylie’s reputation dropped fairly rapidly after her premature death in 1928. One knock against her pretty poems was that they were that and nothing else but attractive pictures drawn in word music. Well of course music itself doesn’t task itself with more than to be attractive, and visual art doesn’t need to support a philosophical argument or insight explicitly.
Sure it’s a pretty line: “I shall go shod in silk,” but damn it, open the door, it’s seriously winter out here!
I rather like this poem’s picture, because it’s something of a white-space void with just scant details coming out of the snow, like a Whistler painting. But it’s not even visual clues for the most part — the details are textures, feel images: veils, silk, wool and fleece, feathers and down, and then the velvet of the title. There is testimony that there is no noise, much less talk. Indeed, her partner in the walk is near-totally obscured, and this choice —conscious or unconscious — seems striking to me. Is she alienated from them, or so close that there’s no novelty in mentioning? The sensuality of the imagery may give undercurrents of erotic love, but the obscuring of the partner makes that reading stranger.
Though it’s freshly done, I’m fond of the music I came up with for Wylie’s poem. Maybe you’ll like the little song they make together when I performed it this morning. The player gadget is below for some of you, and if you don’t have that, you have this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.