The Most Popular Parlando Project Piece for Winter 2020

December seems so long ago doesn’t it? More so this spring in our current crisis. Back on the 10th of December I awoke, took my bike ride to breakfast in a pleasantly crowded café, where I read that it was Emily Dickinson’s birthday. While eating breakfast I decided I should try to make a Dickinson piece before the day was done.

This morning in March, I rode to that same café. Normally there are 20 or 30 folks there drinking coffee, eating breakfast, talking, reading or fiddling with notebooks or notebook computers during the morning on a weekday—more on weekends. Today they are to close their dining area for the duration at noon, and the two couples eating breakfast several empty tables apart (along with some not-present more) will need to do what I did and pickup takeout fare to keep this place a going concern.

Last morning to dine in at Turtle Bread

Cold but sunny morning, and taking their last chance for awhile to have breakfast together.

 

When Emily Dickinson was a child, her family grew up not in the grander family house her grandfather had built and lost due to debts and business ineptitude, but in another house across the road from a cemetery. Some biographers think this molded the young mind of our great poet, but then the literature of that time had a decidedly gothic tinge to it anyway. And that’s not the place she lived as the poet we know.

Her father worked assiduously to repair the family wealth and regained the homestead. Emily’s room is in the front of the house. Out to her left would be the garden and orchard that she became the master of with the illness and eventual death of her mother. Below her, the kitchen where she and the family’s immigrant Irish servant fixed the family meals and baked. That garden and orchard is now gone as the world of her family and town moved on from its former rural self-sufficiency. Also gone is the 11-acre Dickinson meadow that would have been more or less straight-on in view for Emily at her writing table on one of her December birthdays.*

The famously sequestered Dickinson of her later adult years would have been living our current Covid-19 life of “social distancing” and stay-at-home self-isolation. You might think her poetry would be more solipsistic for that, but she really was a mind forever voyaging. The winterscape she portrays in this short poem is quite likely that Dickinson meadow or her bare garden.

Though the creation of the music and recorded performance of it was rapid even by this project’s quick pace, I don’t think it suffers from that at all as I listen to it again today. The post I wrote about it in December was not one of the most liked or read this winter, but the audio piece was listened to more than any other one during the past three months,** and by enough to score the top spot anyway.

As I consider my sequestered music making today—something I can create even in these times, by myself, playing each part in turn—I feel for those other musicians whose art and the revenue to support it requires a live venue, a paying crowd coming through the door. Of course, cooks, wait staff, musicians—small businesspeople for the most part and only a portion of our world—are not the only ones who will suffer through the duration of our current crisis, but they were in my thoughts as I write this.

Is Dickinson’s poem lighthearted and playful or more gothic in mood? My current reading of Dickinson is that it’s both. She is amazed at the shapes and filigrees of the barren landscape, yes—but it is a place of stilled and departed artisans as she portrays it. She sees an absence, that resonate line: “Summer’s empty room.”

My performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Snow” also known as  “It sifts from leaden sieves” is available with the player gadget below.

 

 

*Here’s a highly detailed blog post about the vantage point of Emily’s room in the Dickinson homestead. It even goes so far to suggest that the irregularities of mid-19th century glass may have been the genesis of some of the impressionistic or even visionary imagery in Dickinson’s poetry.

**The second most listened to piece was #6 on the list “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is.”

February Twilight

The cosmos says we need to get a leap year, and extra day, and yet we put it in February. It was a dozen degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and my bike ride back from breakfast was into an insistent north wind that explains to me that we’re in Minnesota and we’ll probably have a snowstorm or two yet before we can see spring—a spring that sometimes seems too short to form memories.

So, before we leave this month and season, I thought it a good time for a short poem referencing a short month from American poet Sara Teasdale. Teasdale is like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet that 100 years ago was thought a leading voice in this country’s verse, after which we spent the rest of the century more or less forgetting or down-grading their place.

When such re-evaluations happen, it’s common to assign them to the refined judgement of posterity, the further assay that separates momentarily sparkly stuff from the for-all-time classics. How does that happen?

One could assign this downward path to Teasdale (like Millay) writing metrical and rhyming verse in their prize-winning years early in the 20th century. The evil Modernist free-verse hordes in this view laid waste to all who dare to rhyme or march to a one-shoe-off beat.

There’s a factor there, sure, but this story doesn’t account for two giants whose statues were not toppled: Frost and Yeats. Nor the monuments on many campuses to canon sitters like Auden and Wilbur et al who were not primarily free-verse poets.

No, I think there are more important factors in this determination, one that is currently under revision in our new century. First, both were essentially lyric poets. “Lyric” in this sense doesn’t mean that they wrote song lyrics. Though of course this project finds them sing-able and otherwise suited to presentation with music, “Lyric” in the literary sense means that their poems tend to be set in the impressions and immediacy of a moment, and their final and considered judgement of that moment is not necessarily explicit. Lyric poems don’t usually have great themes developed with long arguments in verse. Nor do they have narratives the way a novel or story does, were we turn the page to find out what happens next. What happens in a lyric poem—happens! Right then. Right now.

The pioneering Modernists in the years before the end of WWI, those that were or wrote like Imagists, were fine with that. Indeed, this was the point of Imagism. Teasdale wasn’t called an Imagist, but she could write like one, albeit with rhyme and meter. The Imagists didn’t call for the end of rhyme and meter, they called for an end of poems that existed to fill out those forms without the vividness of the lyric.

But post Eliot and the Pound of the Cantos, post the sheltering of poetry inside the academic monasteries which could too easily fall into a rout of poems to be taught rather than poems to be experienced, these poems could seem slight. The Imagists were a fine exercise to break from the past, but they were not, in this outlook, the way to write great poetry.

And here’s the other reason. Gender. The academics were overwhelmingly men and were steeped in the things men were thinking about. And the world of the middle of the 20th century had a lot of concerns that made the concerns of Teasdale and other women poets of the early part of the 20th century seem like the line in Casablanca  uttered by Humphrey Bogart “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

For the first part of our double feature: 90 seconds of cinema that was an emotional touchstone to many. Also, mansplaining.

 

It took the culture until nearly the end of the 20th century to see that part of the world’s craziness was because men were still explaining how it worked to women.*

All that may be too much of a burden to bear for this short poem by Teasdale. But if “February Twilight”  was signed Frost or Yeats, I suspect more attention might be paid to her poem. It doesn’t read much like Yeats, but it could pass for the shorter, lyric Frost.

The lyric impulse in poetry survived the mid-20th century when colored with Dada and Surrealism. “See, it’s not me! I’m a serious poet, but I just chanced into this charged moment.”

 

What does Teasdale experience in the charged moment of her lyric? That it seems like she’s the only one that views this star, a manifest untruth we could explain to her, but which I think she knows as the final line presents. She doesn’t explain this to us, but we can stand in the cold, snowy February and experience it with her.

I’m choosing tambura and acoustic guitar again for my performance today, this time with an organ keyboard part. Click on that player gadget below to hear it.  “If you don’t, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”

 

 

 

 

*Which I’m doing here. Ha Ha! Here’s where one of the principles of the Parlando Project comes in: “Other People’s Stories.” I’m not claiming the exclusive right to mansplain mansplaining, but men speaking up about it has its place and value.

Oh, and explaining has value too. And I happen to like Casablanca  as a movie. And defeating fascism might have a value greater than the optimum choice for a snuggle-bunny. And I had huevos rancheros for breakfast. A hill of beans would be meaningful and sustaining to me!

The Times Are Nightfall

There’s a musical theme in today’s audio piece: things that pretend to be another instrument, and while they don’t quite get there, are still something else.

That low bowed-string sound that opens today’s piece? It should be no surprise to long time followers here that it’s a Mellotron,* the primitive magnetic tape ancestor to today’s computer-based virtual instruments. It doesn’t really sound like a cello as it lacks any variation of articulation, but it does have a sound of its own.

There’s no bass guitar (the cello part is solidly in the bass register anyway), but to add a little punch I added an emulation of the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass most famously used by The Doors. Used as The Doors did, it can do a fair job of sounding like the plunk of an electric string bass, but I filtered it here so that it sounds less like a real bass. And yes, there’s an old-style electric piano in there too, an instrument that doesn’t really sound like a piano, having more of a bell-like timbre. I love the sound of a real piano, but there’s something else in the electric piano that I like too.

And finally, there’s the instrument I wrote the song on: electric guitar. I don’t know that we still think of the electric guitar as a “not quite” approximation of a “real” acoustic guitar, but one can define it so. There was more than the usual unamplified leakage of the electric guitar’s strings into the vocal microphone when I recorded the live take of the guitar and vocals for this. Normally I’d consider that a fault and record a clean pass of the vocal without that extraneous noise, but I kind of liked the accident and decided to keep it.

A little past half-way a pair of “real” violins doubling a new melody line come in, but since I don’t play real violin once more it’s a virtual instrument played on my MIDI guitar. Even in this simple section you can probably hear the difference in articulation from a modern VI instead of the Mellotron.**

My Red MIDI Guitar and G M Hopkins

“I see only the basic material I may use…you may ask me why do I fail” I put a MIDI pickup on a cheap battered guitar that found in a used shop. David Sylvian lacks Hopkins fierce collision of images, but shares a sensibility with Hopkins in his song.

 

Well, all this is backward from the usual post here, were we talk about the encounter with the text used*** and then have only a line or two about the musical process, but the Parlando Project isn’t about consistency—it’s more about its opposite. Which is part of why you, the listeners and readers here are different. If you were someone who likes but one kind of music or one kind of poetry, we could disappoint you here. Our way is not the way to do it for maximum audience size, but if you’re a writer or musician—and even if wise council may be to find your style and consistently present it—an experience of alternatives can enrich that.

And then too, think of all those failed, not-quite instruments that don’t actually sound like the real thing. They sound like the exact and different failures they are.

To hear the performance of Hopkins’ poem, use the player gadget below. The full text of “The Times are Nightfall”  is here if you want to read along.

 

 

 

 

*It’s not actually a Mellotron: a rare, complicated and maintenance-requiring electro-mechanical instrument. The technology that greatly extended that concept, the modern “virtual instrument,” can more than handily represent it. Unlike the Mellotron’s single tape strips for each note, a virtual instrument can (all in software) represent different articulations and the various electrical subtleties of how the Mellotron was amplified and recorded back in the day. Even the peculiarity of the Mellotron’s notes being stored on strips of tape (not loops) that meant that after a few seconds the note would just end abruptly can be emulated or bypassed.

Music geek section: The Mellotron “VI” I used today is the M-Tron, who pioneered the idea of a software Mellotron. So far, I’m not quite grasping all its options, and I think I still prefer the Mellotron that’s part of MOTU’s Electric Keys collection.

**If you listen to “Endless Circle”  from late last month here you’ll hear how today’s piece might sound with more realistic instruments: cello, violin, piano, acoustic guitar, and vibraphone. It’s very much the same palette as today’s piece. My frank opinion today? I prefer the musical accompaniment of “Endless Circle”  and could never get a mix I was entirely happy with of “The Times are Nightfall.”  But I much prefer the vocal performance on “The Times are Nightfall”  and was unhappy with the vocals on “Endless Circle.”  In each case, I settled for the best I could do that week so that Genevieve Taggard and Hopkins’ poems could get presented.

***Hopkins’ most famous series of poems are called The Terrible Sonnets  not because they’re failed works, but because they are saturated with terror at failure and imperfection in human life. This poem has that too, but in its final section it seems to draft, in a New Year’s Resolution sort of way, a hope that personal discipline can lead one out of that state. The poem ends with ellipses, and I believe the poem may have been left unfinished by its author. My dictionary tells me that “ellipses” comes from the Greek for “falling short.” Even if unintentional, those things add meaning to the poem for me.

Though human discipline can do mighty things, it will  fall short. Whether divine or personal, some grace, some mercy, some beauty in imperfection is necessary. Thus that blessing I give: “All Artists Fail.”

Song from Love’s Labour’s Lost

When I select which texts to present here it’s most often an informal, beneath the consciousness, process. This week I thought I’d follow on from my last post and continue on the theme of a poet’s experience of age, but instead the events and times we live in overcame me.

Earlier I was beginning to translate a French poet, but I couldn’t concentrate on that task. Thrashing about, I eventually found myself working on this song from a Shakespeare play. After all, songs in his plays are usually diversions: a little light variety to help entertain the audience or something to help bridge a scene change. So OK, a diversion—but when I check for the context of this song in the play that uses it, Love’s Labour’s Lost, I find that it comes at the very end of the play.  Could it be a diversion then, or is it an unusual summation?

On one hand it’s a very simple song isn’t it? A short nostalgic seasonal scene, though in Tudor-England times perhaps not so old-fashioned. Winter. Log hearth fires. Warm milk from the cow freezes in the pail. Icicles. The way-paths all fouled-up with snow and ruts.

But to throw it in at the very end of a play—a comedy yes, but one that I’m told is full of reference to all kinds of political events of Tudor times—that makes me ask if more attention is required.

One thing I notice is that although written centuries before the early 20th century Imagists, it operates just like an Imagist poem: it’s short, nothing is an elaborate metaphor developed over many lines. If it’s about winter and the cold, it never says “I’m sick of this lousy winter” or “It’s so cold!” Though a sense of palpable cold and wintertime stress pervades the poem, it’s only through physical images that this is portrayed.

A few minor language tweaks and it could have been written in 1915 not 1595 or so. Robert Frost could have hauled those logs. Ted Hughes could have witnessed the herdsman blow on his hands for warmth. The song could’ve appeared in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.

Scene from The Skin of Our Teeth2

“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in.” A scene from the first act of Wilder’s  1942 “The Skin of Our Teeth.” That’s Tallulah Bankhead who’s broken up the chair for kindling.

 

 

Shakespeare’s winter song here is immediately preceded by another song in his play (the first song invoked spring.) Each song of the pair features a symbolic bird, and for this winter song we’re given an owl in its refrain,* a bird omen of unseen dread whose song, breaking with the Imagist show/don’t tell rule, is described as “a merry note.”

Merry? A little dark humor there I think. But even if that bird’s a bad omen, the fact that it’s singing means that it’s enduring. And the poem’s second and final stanza continues that theme of endurance. Everyone in church is sick and you can’t hear the sermon for the coughing (but coughing means you’re breathing, and who can tell how useful the sermon’s lesson might be anyway). The visible birds are hunkered down in feathers. There’s some crabs** sizzling in a bowl. There’s a fire. Tom’s brought more wood. There’s someone there to see greasy Joan cooking.

That refrain repeats and the song ends. Shakespeare’s play’s characters are kings, courtiers, and princesses and the plot their fancies. His actual world was full of war and deadly factions, brutal executions; a world of connivers, fools and tyrants, and even those who could combine all three. Yet, here he ends his comedy not with a wedding but with a song about modest endurance.

I think I lucked into this one this week. If one pays attention to this little song, it says something about those of us who are not kings or principal ministers.

Those who’ve endured my singing may be glad to hear this one is spoken word. The music is drums with a mix of four wintery synths played with my little plastic keyboard and MIDI guitar. The player to hear it is below. The full text of this short Shakespeare poem is here. I wish you the sustaining fires that are warm and illuminating, instead of the flames of fools.

 

 

 

 

*The refrain also features one of the more obscure words in the piece: greasy Joan is “keeling” the pot. I thought “stirring,” and there is some sense of that, though it may be particularly skimming fat off some stew.

**I thought of steamed crabs hissing, but if Shakespeare is remembering his rural Warwickshire it might not be seafood, but crabapples. Hot ale punch with floating crabapples was apparently a thing.

Winter Sleep

What age are we when we write poetry? What age should we be?

Poet Donald Hall while writing memoir in essay form after age 80 said that part of why he turned to prose was that after a certain age he no longer felt he had the urge to, or could, write poetry. I’m not that old yet, but after so many decades of writing poems I’m more likely to ask myself why this poem needs to exist.

This never occurred to me as a younger writer. It was enough that the urge was there, that the work of shaping it was rewarding, that the existence of some new set of words in some novel order representing a moment of experience had occurred. There are times when we may suppose this always is—at least approximately. We’re all our own first reader. For some of us, some of the time, our only readers. Even if we believe we’re writing a poem for someone else, that first audience is still inevitably connected with the poem’s creator.

I don’t know that there’s any pattern in that first audience disliking its own poem at times. Does one get better at crafting poems or observing experience with time? Does one get better at staying out of the way of the poem when that’s necessary? Does one get more preceptive at the ways the poem fails to meet, or cannot meet, some more perfect state? Does one just realize that some days you eat the bear, and other days the bear eats you?

A couple of years back I had some fun looking at a compiled list of the 20 most anthologized American poems of the modern era. Now of course such a list reflects any number of factors, some of which are extra-literary, such as prejudices, impact, and probably even some ivy-tower log-rolling. But still, these poems can safely be considered as successful with an experienced audience early in our century.

One thing surprised me. About half of these poems, the ones that are presumed to reflect the author’s masterpieces, were written in the author’s 40s. Six more were written in the author’s 30s. Just one was written by a writer past 50 (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” published when the writer was 65). Only two were written by writer’s in their 20s (the list’s youngster was T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”,  completed when the author was 27.)

But how old were these poets in their souls of experience, the place from where they wrote these poems? It’s not unusual for younger poets to take on the air of more experienced people in their poems. This past fall we presented a couple of well-known and liked poems considered to be about old age: Rilke’s “Autumn Day”  and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.”  Rilke wrote his autumn of one’s years poem in his 20s, Shakespeare’s was penned in his 30s.

Yet neither sounds false to this older reader.

Similarly, there are times when I’m writing that I feel younger than my years. It’s a commonplace that there’s a sense of play in the arts, something that past a certain age is increasingly rare to find in off-hand physical activity.

So perhaps you, like I, may feel unstuck in time when writing. Our writing may not be objectively timeless, but our mental flight seems so.

While thinking about these things this winter, I came upon this poem* that seemed to me to be a fine expression of the experience of old age experiencing the unsettledness of sense of age.

Edith M Thomas engraving

Edith Matilda Thomas. One thing I’ve found out: Emily Dickinson classmate Helen Hunt Jackson helped launch Thomas’ writing career.

 

There’s not much here today about the author, American Edith M. Thomas, who published “Winter Sleep”  in 1896, when she was just in her 40s. I don’t know that much about her yet. It’s strictly metrical and all rhymed up, but once or twice it seems to strain natural speech to make its rhyme and meter.

What’s impressive about it is that it strikingly presents not just old age, but the approach of death as an unstable state, the dream of life. This isn’t an “autumn of my years” poem—it’s a “winter of my years poem.” I immediately sought to set it to music for performance. To hear what I came up with, use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*”Winter Sleep”  is another poem and poet I was introduced to by Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. Here’s a link to the text of the poem and you can sign up for Poem-A-Day there too.

Lights (There Is No Darkness)

We’ve come to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, much more night than day where we live. But it’s also the season of lights: extra holiday lights decorate homes, Christmas markets, and some streets. Some are the lure of commerce, some the lure of religious worship. Some lights say that the desecrated temple can shine again. Some are an abstract decoration set against the dark and grey.

NASA photos of night-time Earth from space

Dave sings below: “Seen from space the earth is glowing…luminescent as a cinder…”

 

This has probably gone on at some level since we discovered fire. It could be illusion or illumination, but the lights are our human communication with the dark. We know the dark is larger, we know the dark will return—but we still want to speak our piece.

A few years back Dave Moore and I recorded a performance of a song he wrote: “Lights (There Is No Darkness).”  I improvised two longer guitar solos in the performance, neither of which are in any hurry, but I’ve come to rather like them along with Dave’s loping, chiming keyboard part. There’s a longer night to decorate, so why not share it here today I think.

The player gadget for “Lights (There Is No Darkness)”  is below.

 

 

Emily Dickinson’s Snow

I woke up this morning to learn that it’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday—and I didn’t get her anything.  Well, we do know how to do something here at the Parlando Project and that’s create musical presentations quickly, and it’s not like we’ve run out of Dickinson poems to use.

So today’s piece is a Dickinson poem about snowscapes. Having had the opportunity to visit the Dickinson family house in Amherst and hearing there that the area across the highway road was in Dickinson’s time a farm field helps me visualize Emily writing this. I can clearly sense her looking out the window from her bedroom writing table on that road and field that are this poem’s landscape.

This is Dickinson in her playful mode, but that doesn’t stop her mind from creating some exact and fanciful descriptions for the snowscape, starting right out with the snow fall being sifted like flour (do cooks still sift flour?) *

The least playful image in my mind is also the most striking in the poem, it’s a description of that farm field as “summer’s empty room”, not yet filled with snow (the furrows are still visible) and some now deserted plant stalks are jutting through picking up windy veils of snow. This is likely a poem written about an early winter, December, snow fall

In other work Dickinson can be harrowing or she might present us with some concise mysticism or philosophic equation, but that’s as close here to a darker note as we’ll get in this one. She seems content in her vision of a stilled winter and a smoothed and sparkling world—as I was today watching the white outdoors and below-zero temps just the other side of my glass as I wrangled a dense percussion track for this piece. It was afternoon before I moved on to a few keyboards. Then the final musical task was to add the 12-string electric guitar parts.

DeArmond S72-12

My electric 12-string, “recordless, but for them”

 

Long time readers here will know that the Twin Cities is something of a center for the 12-string guitar, an instrument I’ve used since shortly after I arrived here, but the electric 12-string remains a rare instrument here as it is elsewhere. Acoustic or electric, for each of the guitar’s conventional six strings the 12-string adds a paired string right next to it. Most of those additional paired-strings are conventionally tuned** an octave higher than the regular guitar strings, and the two strings when struck never quite vibrate in unison, adding a slight wobble that’s either charming or sea-sick depending on one’s taste and ear. I added to that with a whole load of echo, delay and reverb today, and all this called for the parts to be played sparsely and slowly. Even with an echo effect glitch*** that ruined the first couple of takes, I was able to lay down the parts quickly enough that you can hear it tonight with the player below. If you’d like to follow along with today’s poem (sometimes cataloged under its first line “It sifts from Leaden Sieves”)  the full text is here.

 

 

 

*Emily would have sifted as the household’s baker. The flour in her time was less refined—and sifting also removes things like bugs or foreign matter that might be mixed in with the flour. And sifted flour is more suited for blending with other ingredients. Sifting seems metaphorical matter for creating art, doesn’t it?

**Conventionally the high B and high E strings are tuned in unison and the bottom 4 in octaves, but some players tune additional strings in unison rather than octaves (Steve Tibbetts and Huddie Ledbetter/Leadbelly for two unlike examples).

***User error on the part of the producer, engineer and musician, which is easier when they are all me. I also make the tea, so there’s no one else to blame.