The most popular piece here this last winter was…

Wait, before I reveal that, let me take a moment to describe what the Parlando Project does: we take words, most often other peoples’, most often poetry, and combine them with original music and present them to you as audio pieces.

I’ve chosen to use other peoples’ words almost entirely because I’m most comfortable writing about that transaction between a writer and myself as reader, composer, and performer in the midst of passing something on to you as another reader and listener.*  The project doesn’t use poetry for every audio piece, but I like pieces with some mystery and ability to create an impact in less than 5 minutes, and poets are the ones that do that.

The music you hear is created for this project. I don’t use library music or borrowed music, and except for computer drums, I don’t use samples or canned loops. For better or worse, most everything you hear was played or scored by a real person.**

I don’t always make these combinations of music and words “songs” in the traditional sense — though our modern sense of song has changed so much in the last few decades that “song” has become a much looser expectation anyway. I try to make my musical settings as varied as I can, which means that I expect some will be more to any single listeners’ taste than others.

Now I’ve caught up any new visitors on the Parlando Project concept, we can complete our Winter ’20-’21 Top Ten Countdown with the most popular piece.

1 End of the Sky  by Frank Hudson (after Thinking of Li Po at the End of the Sky  by Du Fu). OK, this one used my words, though I based it off a classical Tang Dynasty Chinese poem. Since I wrote it last autumn, the meaning I extracted from Du Fu and attempted to convey in my modern English extension of his poem has only deepened in resonance for me personally. When it was written I was thinking about a small group of poets that I’ve met with every month for more than 40 years to discuss our work. I’m the youngest in that group by a short interval and we had all been writing for more than a decade when we first met.

More than a half-century of writing for each of us, yet I think of myself as less accomplished than the rest of the group — viewed objectively from amount of publication and such this is certainly true — but I wonder too if they ask their own version of the questions I ask myself about what’s valuable to say and what we may construct to justify a readers time and attention. Du Fu seemed to be dealing with some of those feelings in his poem addressed to fellow poet Li Po.

The poem’s statement, my attempt at faithful translation from Du Fu’s Chinese: “True literature doesn’t care if it is popular, and/It is only demons that care about a poet’s failures!” is one potential answer to those concerns. Poetry may be what we most care about, but the world cares less than that, and in that is a freedom. “How much difference does that make at this late date?” I ask in addition, a line only implied in Du Fu’s poem. And at the age of the poets in my group, “late date” is a general concern.

Since I wrote it, how has this poem changed for me? Those general concerns have been promoted in imminence. I’ll say in too-brief: two are dealing with existential illness. Loss can be at any hand for all of us. Will it, or any of us, be patient?

Du Fu’s poem concluded with an understated but devastating conclusion, something I often find in his work. He writes, our creations and our cares about our creation are like a customary gesture that would’ve been known to poets of his time and place: throwing poems as a gift into a river where a Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet from the past had leapt to his death.

Qu Yuan and Berryman

They both ran out of patience. Do you see some resemblance? Qu Yuan and John Berryman, “…who was once handsome and tall as you.”

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My modern English solution to my poem’s ending echoes Du Fu’s superficially, but differs in detail. This is what I meant to convey in my conclusion: Berryman’s mental illness and chemical dependency — fed by his doubts, feeding his doubts — weren’t his art or some driving force for it, for they understood none of that.

Say that, then, to your doubts: you don’t understand my art!  Work instead to make your work more whole for yourself and for some potential audience, no matter how small. All doubt and self-abnegation can do is take away — and life and fate will do that for you anyway, it doesn’t need your help.

The player gadget to hear my performance of “End of the Sky”  is below. If you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to play it.

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*When I write or talk about myself, and later look at what I said or wrote, I almost always cringe. In only a short remove of time it seems disproportionate, self-involved, and vain. Every artist must have, at least episodically, some level of elevated self-regard, but for me that self-regard is always being chased by another that reminds me of my follies. I’ve lived a long life, and neither of those two have stopped running, an endless chase, which has allowed me to create — but as the pursuer and their prey, I’m often out of breath by the time it comes to talk about or promote it.

**Early Parlando Project pieces were often live band recordings, but with age, change, frailty, and finally the Covid pandemic, they’re increasingly all me multitracking myself. Computer drums are a compromise I’ve perhaps too easily fallen into.

Winter ‘20-‘21 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-2

Today’s report on the most listened to and liked pieces featured here over the past quarter will show three experiences of the mystery of winter. So, let’s return to our countdown:

4 Twilight Fallen White and Cold  by Joseph Campbell.  I seem to have become something of a promotor of this little-known in the United States Irish-born poet who I still know little about. He published a series of poetry collections before the end of WWI, and then his poetic output dropped off, for reasons I’m not yet clear on, though the politics of his country’s decolonization struggle may have contributed. This piece using his words that a lot of you liked and listened to may be the most mysterious of today’s trio.

Best as I can figure it, this winter nature landscape poem may be an expression of his nation’s detracted state and situation, particularly in the invocation of ancient earthworks (raths) and burial mounds — but I cannot plumb the entirety of the refraining line of “wounds of Eliom/weep on me” that I feature in my setting of Campbell’s poem. Eliom is a plural word for gods, sometimes used for polytheistic gods, sometimes used for the singular monotheistic diety, and as it may be here, used for angels. If that’s so, then the starry constellations, the winged vampires, the curlew birds, the floating mists, the carrying sound of the ocean are all the Eliom, the angels in this changed winter nighttime vision.

To hear my setting of Campbell’s poem, you can use this highlighted hyperlink which may open a new window with a player, or in many cases, you’ll see a player gadget below to directly play it.

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What the Story Tells Itself by Kenneth Patchen

It’s been too long since I’ve said this: thank you for coming to read or listen here.  It’s become harder for me to respond to comments or properly promote this project, but I appreciate so much those who come here, listen, and let others know what the Parlando Project does.

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3 The Snow is Deep on the Ground  by Kenneth Patchen.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose words we met earlier in this countdown, would sometimes remind folks that he wasn’t really part of the Beat Generation, even if he was associated with others who might have been so thought. Patchen is a similar case, or perhaps more so, in that his poetry career started in the 1930s,

As with many of the best Patchen poems, even the political ones, this is a love poem, delicately poised between the enchantment of love and the world that allows the shattering of it. If one can fully absorb the illumination of this poem, as with some of the best of Patchen, you would cry tears of joy and sadness at the same time.

You can hear my performance of Patchen’s “The Snow is Deep on the Ground”  with this highlighted hyperlink, or if you see it, with a player gadget below.

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2 The Sky is low  by Emily Dickinson.  Some years back in this project I once compared Emily Dickinson to one of those unexploded, yet potential, bombs that are still unearthed in Britain or Europe from the World Wars. Originally she was found as the creator of curious little poems from an eccentric woman, then as a prescient 20th century Imagist, and now in our deconstructed age we can stare at one of her tiny poems, and like one trying to follow the decent of a single flake of snow in a flurry, fall as far as one can follow.

You can read, or listen to my performance, of “The Sky is low”  and find a whimsical nursery rhyme, and find enough enjoyment in that — but let it stick in your memory or repeated ear and a little dialog about predestination, first causes and fate is discernible. To listen, use this hyperlink, or you may see a player gadget to directly play it below.

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One more post in the Top Ten countdown to go, and then we can move on from the mysteries of winter to the mysteries of spring.

Winter ‘20-‘21 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Let’s pickup the countdown of the pieces that drew the most listens and likes over this past winter. Each bold-faced listing is a link to the original post on the piece in case you’d like to read what I wrote back then, and those original posts will also contain links to the full text of the poems used.

7 Thursday  by William Carlos Williams.  Quite often when reading through early 20th century Modernist poetry, I repeat my surprise of how plainspoken and outwardly simple some of it seems. This poem by Williams is one of those. There’s not a single word in it that would be unfamiliar to a grade-schooler. One need know no complex allusions to anything other than ordinary life. Not all his contemporaries wrote like this. Wallace Stevens will pleasingly stump us with his love of obscure words, T. S. Eliot will ask us to consider how history rhymes its myths, and William Butler Yeats will make English sing with beautiful and metrical word-music. Against that sort of thing, this poem by Williams may seem ordinary. As ordinary as a Thursday.

There’s only one bit of word-trickery in it — and having no other in this short poem should invite us to ponder it: that unusual use of the common word “carelessly” in the context of “I remain now carelessly/with feet planted on the ground….” Carelessly? Huh? How many quick readers would slide over that and not notice anything out of place! In the opening of his poem Williams has told us his dream has come to nothing. Is this dream one of our ordinary nighttime hallucinations or a strong and potentially life-changing imagination for the course of things? He doesn’t say and may perhaps mean either. His stance on this? Back to observing the world standing simply and unmoved with both feet on the ground, “carelessly” in the sense of “without a care” regarding that; with the sense also that the overlords of guilt and ambition or the lure of more surreal and spectacular verse are saying he should  care and he’s going to ignore them.

In place of that care, of that “tyranny of the shoulds,”* Williams offers us ordinary life, ordinary words, the meditation of breath. That resilience and carelessness, those two steady feet able to stand up to the sky, is this song. You can hear it with a player gadget that may appear below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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6 I wake and feel the fell of dark  by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  What a combination this makes with Williams’ poem that it happens to sit next to in our countdown! Hopkins’ poem has its speaker also awakening from a non-productive dream “Hours I mean years, mean life” — this dream is clearly both a nightly and a life’s dream. And he’s in the opposite of careless: roiled with distress and self-disgusted guilt over it.

What a combination this makes with Williams’ poem…

The language here is extra-ordinarily charged. Some of us have had such a self-castigating night, but few of us could express it in such a tight compressed form as a sonnet that moves musically and emotionally. Hopkins’ feet are not firmly on the ground at all — he’s rolling and tumbling as the great American floating Blues verse has it — and that’s the nature of Hopkins’ song.

This is the distress half of the engine of the Tao. We may more easily recognize it quickly as great poetry, and should, though without some balancing aspect it cannot long whirl.

My performance of this greatest of his  “Terrible Sonnets” can be heard with this hyperlink, or in cases where it appears, the player gadget that may be below.

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Williams-Hopkins-Shakespear 3 collars

Collar styles of poetry, a retrospective. William Carlos Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Shakespeare

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5 Sonnet 97  by William Shakespeare.  I understand there’s this guy, Shakespeare, who wrote some poetry. Is it any good?

Well, the jury’s still out on that one. It is always so with art, as art happens in the present when we look, read, listen, hear. That’s a large part of what this blog is about: encountering stuff written in various ways and times and seeing what we can make of it in the immediacy of a musical performance.

“Sonnet 97: How like a Winter hath my absence been”  is  neither the calm meditation after a dream’s failure nor the roiling disgust our first pair of poems had. Instead, this sonnet is all about the ambiguity. What kind of ambiguity? Shakespeare will pick several. One of the basest tests of mental state is “oriented to time and place.” This poem certainly isn’t — that’s its most pressing point. Is it winter, summer, fall, or spring? Can’t say for sure. The purportedly male authorial voice dons rhetorical drag and speaks of his sonnets as if they are birthed from a poetic womb as if the addressed “fair youth” is the only begetter in a very patriarchal metaphor for these sonnets. And what’s the true nature of the relationship between that authorial voice and the fair youth being addressed? Complicated. Author as vassal of the ruling class?**  Lover? High-minded patronage? Some of all? Well, that’s Shakespeare’s song for us. This hyperlink will play my performance of it, or if you see it, you can use a player gadget that may appear below.

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*The phrase is psychotherapist and author Karen Horney’s, whose mid-20th century work may still have something useful to say about us today.

**It was while dealing with this sonnet that this aspect of the “Fair Youth Sonnets” first occurred to me. I assume it’s occurred to others, but not being a Shakespeare scholar I can’t say who or where.

The Snow Fairy

When it comes to pieces for Valentine’s Day, there’s a great deal of love poetry to draw from. And it’s not uncommon for those love poems to be sonnets — after all, that form has been used from the times of Petrarch and Shakespeare for poems about passionate relationships. The course of love is often complex and unstraightforward, and fittingly most sonnets contain a volta, or turn, where the poem shifts from one aspect to another, a feature that is useful for portraying the alternating currents of passion.

For today’s piece I’ve used a distinctive winter love poem by Afro-American and Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. In this poem, “The Snow Fairy,”  McKay uses an unusual form, a double sonnet, a pair of 14-line poems that allows additional volta/turns. Here’s a link to McKay’s text if you’d like to follow along.

Claude McKay 2

poet Claude McKay as a young man

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“The Snow Fairy”  opens with a fine sonnet about a winter snowfall. If one was to read it as a stand-alone poem it wouldn’t seem truncated or insufficient by itself, but McKay wants to present it as part of a pair, and as we’ll see it’s both foreshadowing — and in a time-twist, the actual conclusion of the poem chronologically. Sonnet I has the snow, as per the title, personified as fairies, a kind of otherworldly being that may have connotations of light-heartedness or simple wonder. But note a very subtle shift in the supernatural creatures fluttering down in the second quatrain: “As though in heaven there was revolt and riot.” The merely fantastic in the opening quatrain has taken a more consequential air. I’m not sure how many readers notice this, but to me this is an unmistakable reference to Milton and Satan falling after the war in heaven in Paradise Lost.

Third quatrain, and we’ve switched our attention to the poem’s speaker, who’s gone to bed without mention of any other person, and awakes to view the once individual fairies/fallen angels, now lying still, yet joined together after their night long whirling dance. In the concluding couplet, as often in a Shakespearean sonnet form like McKay uses, we have a turn. We’ve spent our focus up to now on these snowflakes, but in the couplet he tells us by the end of the day they’ve melted away.

In sonnet II, the poem’s speaker flashes backwards in time, connecting via the memory of the first sonnet’s night of winter snow. He’s reminded of a “you who came to me upon a winter’s night” as did our snowflake/fairy/fallen angel creatures did in sonnet I. In sonnet II’s second quatrain this couple are like our snowflakes of the first sonnet, tossed and dancing in what he tells us is passion. In an echo of the third quatrain of the sonnet I, in the same quatrain of sonnet II, they are tenderly joined and bedded.

And then the turn, the volta: faster even than the by midday melting snow of sonnet I, at the break of dawn the partner is gone, leaving the poem’s speaker alone to be the writer of sonnet I, watching the snow fairies fall in winter.

Read with modest care, the story told in the most minimal of sonnet sequences is plain. Love is wonderous. Love joins us, un-times us for a time — and then, whether parting by the single night or death, it is “stol’n away.” But are there additional undercurrents?

I sense there’s a question in the last row of readers out there, and over the Internet I can’t tell if it’s snarky, sincere, or asked hesitantly: “The title is ‘The Snow Fairy.’   Is this two guys hooking up? Is McKay gay?”

Even today when the acronym for non-heteronormative affections and gender extends ever outward, such answers aren’t always simple binary switches, but yes, it seems generally assumed that Claude McKay had erotic connections with other men. McKay never “came out” in a way that folks in our lifetimes do. In the context of this poem, the question may be focused to a subsidiary question, is “The Snow Fairy”  a coded statement of his sexuality, written so that that those who know would know, and the others would not?

One could write an essay longer than this post, but on balance my reading is that, like his equally lovely summer-day-long love poem “Memory of June”  this feels as if McKay is describing the difficulties of gay people being able to form lasting relationships when that was desired in his time. The subtle turn from fairies to Miltonic fallen angels in sonnet I also seems to be signaling outsider status. There’s also a possible significance in the title snow fairy being singular while the snow fairies/snowflakes are multitudinous. But was “fairy” a clear signaling word? It seemed like that to me when I first read this poem, but upon research that’s ambiguous. Terms used for gay people have a history of emerging and shifting over time, both inside and outside the community. Fairy as a slang word for an effeminate man seems to have emerged in the mid-to-later 1920s,*  and was in common understanding by 1940 or so, but this poem was published in 1922. That means that it might  be too early for it to be understood by other gay people generally, or even McKay, as signaling. On the other hand, it seems likely that a general reader in 1922 would not  read fairy = gay when seeing this poem on the page then.

But in another way, is that the only thing that matters about this poem? No. Love and desire is both complex and unitary. Passing love, passing sweetness, unrequited desires, loneliness for absent lovers — put all the genders, nationalities, races and practices together in one snowbank and you can’t separate out the unique snowflakes. We love and we are gone is one whole part of humanity. Perhaps that’s why Valentine’s Day is but a day?

I performed Claude McKay’s “The Snow Fairy”  in this simple arrangement to get it done in time. I had another version with basic tracks of a more full-band arrangement, but this one with just 12-string acoustic guitar and bass was easier for me to complete. To hear my performance, use the player gadget below — or if you don’t see the player this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too.

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*Somewhere in my research I found citations that seemed to narrow it down to this between-the-wars period, at least for significant usage, but alas I’ve lost my cite notes on that, and, this blog post indicates fairy = gay may have origins as early as the 1890s.

The Sky Is Low

This little poem by Emily Dickinson seems at first so slight, little more than a tiny winter nature lyric using the risky literary trope of the pathetic fallacy* deftly enough that it doesn’t cloy. The language is almost entirely simple and plain-spoken, but in such a short poem the words that aren’t entirely clear may reward further attention.

The Sky is low manuscript

Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript for today’s poem from the collection of Amherst College.

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The Imagists that came decades after Dickinson’s work weren’t much for the pathetic fallacy, but if one ignores that element— something possible to do because it’s so swift and unpretentious about it — this poem does work like an Imagist poem or like one of the models Imagism sought to emulate, the classical Chinese short poem.

Let’s start right at the first line, and the first word that requires some figuring out. “The sky is low, the clouds are mean” sets our stage. A “low sky” and “clouds” would indicate that this poem’s day-moment is overcast, but what does “mean” mean? It would be easy to think it’s saying, pathetic-fallacy-wise, that the clouds seem angry and spiteful. I think many modern readers will hear this sense primarily, and I cannot eliminate that Dickinson intended that at least as an undercurrent, as it seems a pair with the complaining wind we meet in the second stanza. Yet, in the context of the sentence that makes up the first stanza, my best thought is that she is presenting the clouds as a secondary definition of “mean” (now somewhat obsolete) as shabby or stingy. The image she’s setting up is that it’s overcast, but it’s not a snowstorm, there’s only a modicum of that mentioned: a specifically singular “flake of snow,” so that may be all these clouds are producing.

Our snowflake does have feelings. From its actions, aflutter in the wind and singular enough for the eye to want to follow it as an individual, it seems indecisive about what route to take over the landscape. It might fly high (“across a barn”) or low “through a rut.” It’s frozen (sorry, can’t help myself) in a moment in the poem and we never find out. In its concise way, Dickinson’s snowflake is like Robert Frost’s chiding portrait of his friend Edward Thomas: two possible roads, and the snowflake thinks it’s important to choose one.

The pathetic fallacy gets stronger as the second stanza begins. A cool or cold gusty wind is presented as if it’s complaining for hours on end. For an old/weak bicyclist like myself who tires of headwinds that seem to always be in my face no matter that one has changed direction, this is an ascribing of malice and forethought that I can appreciate. If you look at Dickinson’s own manuscript, you can see that she considered using a legalistic term**  “some parties,” but “some one” seems the broader and better choice. Here, in a different aspect from the snowflake who thinks it has at least a binary choice, it appears the wind is saying it’s been diverted or prevented from something.

In this small poem’s presentation, these two things are joined. The snowflake thinks it can decide, but we know the wind will send it where it directs, but the wind thinks it has been in someway enjoined. Pathetic fallacy aside, it cannot choose, meteorological forces and barometric lines will send it where they will.

In the last two lines, Dickinson doesn’t tell us how it comes out — she refuses to leave her poem’s lyric moment. Her final line brings one more uncommon word choice. It has it that “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught/Without her diadem.” A diadem is a ruler’s crown, worn to signify that the wearer, well, rules, decides. Once more, the pathetic fallacy is invoked: nature is the decider, but for the poem’s moment they have momentarily forgotten to put on the device that lets them take on that power — but in a tiny aside (“like us”) Emily Dickinson says we actual humans, who can actually think, feel, decide are sometimes also in this situation, we may blithely follow what seems like a free will choice or complain that we are forced into our directions. Which is it, really? Did you forget your diadem?

Read this poem, or many an early Imagist poem or classical Chinese poem, and it may seem a miniature painting of a mundane scene. We may be charmed briefly, or we may think, “Oh, that’s too slight to be a thoughtful poem.” Did Dickinson consciously or unconsciously intend what I see here? The number of times she was able to pull off effects like this poem can produce, and the subsidiary writings demonstrating how she thought***  indicate that even if she didn’t consciously work out the complexities underneath her simplicities in some grand and lengthy inner symposium, she put herself in the place where she could receive and express these charged moments.

As usual, I’m going to perform “The Sky Is Low”  with some original music. The player gadget should be below, but some blog reading software won’t show it. If so, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my musical performance.

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*The pathetic fallacy is the tactic of ascribing human emotions and thought to inanimate objects or forces. Despite the literal words of this poem, it’s not debatable that snow does that, and the wind doesn’t really have some angry dispute.

**I’m not sure how many scholars have considered that Dickinson grew up in a family of lawyers, and even though as a woman that field was not open to her, it’s likely that some of that was picked up by her avid mind.

***Long footnote ahead! What can we gather from how Dickinson used this poem that might indicate how she considered it? This poem was “published” in a personal letter to the wife of a couple that were long-time friends of Emily. The husband in the couple was Josiah Holland, a medical doctor and lay preacher. By the time this poem was written in 1866, Josiah had become a well-known journalist, lecturer, poet, and author. He was a principal in the Springfield Republican  newspaper which famously published seven of Dickinson’s poems during her lifetime. He had just published one of the first full-length biographies of Abe Lincoln, and would a few years later found and become the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly.  His wife, to whom the letter with the poem was addressed, Elizabeth Holland, has no known literary work — but read the letter by following this link.  Here one may get the sense of how another important literary personage who Emily Dickinson interacted with, the formidable Thomas Higginson, remarked about how Dickinson wore him out. The amount of philosophical legerdemain, reference, and zen parable in this short letter is striking to me. Did Dickinson expect Elizabeth Holland to understand that letter?

Emily Dickinson’s correspondence and friendship with the Holland couple seems to have been one of the most stable and ongoing in her life, equal to those who were Dickinson’s blood relatives. Whatever bonds were between them, this letter shows the expectation of considerable intellectual understanding, and for “The Sky is Low”  to be enclosed indicates that Dickinson had goals beyond the simplistic for it.

The Snow Is Deep on the Ground

Today’s piece is a winter poem for troubled lovers, but in the wandering tradition of this project, we’re going to go somewhere else on our way there.

Next week there is to be an inauguration of a new American President. It’ll be the 13th new President in my lifetime. Though I remember witnessing all these inaugurations in part through news reports, photographs and recorded footage; to the best of my recall, I have only watched two as they happened. Which ones? Most recently, I watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 while working in a place with a newsroom; and then, before that, as a schoolchild I watched John Kennedy’s inauguration.

I believe this is so because in our democracy we have a tradition of our Presidential terms ending and beginning uneventfully and with a comforting regularity. It’s not that we citizens ignore that there’s a new President, but the event itself happening is largely unremarkable.

Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 was contemporaneously recognized as a post-WWII milepost, the Presidency passing to a young former enlisted man in that war, moving us beyond a country ruled before by 19th century men. As I said, I was a schoolchild. My class watched it on a single gray TV set placed up high in front of our schoolroom instead of our usual lessons. I don’t think I was alone in the audience for that event in thinking it was important to pay attention to what was said, watching for news of a new era we knew was new.

Obama’s election and inauguration said something about America recognizing it had changed its evaluation of people of color.*  It’s become a mark of sophistication and analysis to say that was an illusion, disproven by everything wronged people and close examination brought forward then, and since then. I thought, and think, we’re in the midst of things. If more know that now, the marker post of Obama can still tell us where we’ve come from and where we can go.

Is it a coincidence that both of those Presidential Inaugurations had a poet read a poem as part of the ceremony? That’s not a common choice: Kennedy was the first President to ever do so, and only one other President, Clinton, did so besides Obama.

Now, as it happens, I hope to watch the Inauguration next Wednesday, because this one seems more precious to me, more extraordinary, something not to be taken for granted. I will not watch it expecting or requiring great words — no need anyway, because the event alone now has a greatness thrust upon it. Yet coincidence or not, there will be a poet, a particularly young one, reading next week: Amanda Gorman, all of 22 years old.

There are several videos of Gorman reading on the web, but I wanted to bring forward what she says here about her poem for Independence Day, which starts with Phillis Wheatley and mentions that she’s speaking in the Washington-Longfellow house that day. It occurs to me that Gorman seems to be essaying a kind of civic American poetry that Longfellow might recognize.

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So, now I’m ready to return to today’s piece, one using the words of American poet Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.”   If you’d like to follow along with the text, here’s a link to the poem. “The Snow is Deep on the Ground”  seems to fit my times, and perhaps it fits yours too, and so we may think of it as my unofficial poem for this January’s Presidential Inauguration.

What did Patchen intend with the repeated image here of deep snow? As a northerner I know one thing it portends, a restriction of movement, and it’s often too a trope of accumulated time. I read something now in the image that Patchen may not have intended, restricted as I am in movement by our current epidemic and having just endured a cloddish act of insurrection deep in whiteness. It seems, or we hope it is, that that “war has failed.”

Patchen says the snow is beautiful though — but specifically it’s beautiful in a fallen state,  something meteorologically and theologically true in Patchen’s poem.

The poem’s third stanza has muffled terrors. What a strange and yet strong line “Only a few go mad” is! And the whiteness “like the withered hand of an old king” undercuts any sense of simple winter landscape beauty. To say twice “God shall not forget us” implies this is in question, doesn’t it?

The poem has it what we know more than we know by faith: our love, our lovers. How beautiful it is to be loved, to love. And to know that after talking of politics in a world where lies and flags are used as shields and lances to beat each other with!

My performance of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground”  can be heard with the player below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink. The musical core today is my naïve piano playing, over some drums and small percussion instruments. To add some character to the string bass part I doubled it with a synth-bass. Thanks for reading and listening, particularly as my ability to produce new pieces is reduced right now.

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*There was something else about that Presidency. I’ve lived a long life, and yet in all those years Barack Obama is the only President I’ve ever had who was younger than me.

William Carlos Williams’ January

Recently I mentioned I might return to the Modernists of 100 years ago who inspired a lot of the material I’ve used here over the years. And indeed, I read two early William Carlos Williams collections early this new year looking for material as I prepared to do that.

And then, as a novel from 1925 warned: “Somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night….” and we’re borne ceaselessly into Make the Confederacy Great Again. Doomscrolling overcame me, and my concentration scattered without need for pepper spray. Unlike some others this week, I don’t want to play-act armed revolution — and despite the abundant wrongs and injustices of my government, I’m not even enthusiastic about the real thing. If I can’t bear up under the tedium of actual politics and its incremental proposed solutions, why then must it follow I would want the excitement of the barricades?

I had to sidestep new pieces for a while. Yesterday I was granted a few hours in which I might work on them, and so I felt compelled to return to what I had thought of using for the new year, and this poem from American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams was on the top of the stack. It’s called “January,”  and it was published 100 years ago this year.

Young Wiliam Carlos Williams

As to doomscrolling vs. poetry, Williams said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

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By some caprice of the muses, this century-old “January”  seems to address my situation in this one. Williams speaks of the distractions outside himself as he continues to write, and to winter’s “derisive music” he replies he’s still “bound to my sentences.” I can’t be sure what specifically inspired this poem. Williams could simply be sick of winter, that season that litters itself all over the landscape and then freezes itself in place. Or it could be speaking of his place in the Modernist movement, which was gaining traction culturally while (in Williams’ judgement) it wasn’t recognizing his part in it sufficiently.*

For our own arts, that’s an indispensable act for us: to stay committed to our work. Beside the world’s events that tell me that what art does is not quick acting enough to serve as a vaccine for our society, beside doubts that I should be better at what I do before presenting it, beside my own particular guilts that I should spend less time doing these things and more at promoting it, there’s no work to fail or be ignored unless one does one’s work.

I had to work quickly on the music, relying on some things that have become stylistic standbys for me in this Project: bowed strings (contra-bass this time), electric piano, electric guitar, and drums. In his poem, Williams develops the idea that the distracting winter wind is playing music to interrupt his own word-music. He describes this music as featuring the chromatic scale interval of the fifth. Reading the silent poem, you might think he’s talking about a dissonant interval since he also says twice the winds’ music is “derisive.” But the fifth is instead a sweet interval, even if one plays minors or major scales against it or piles on fuzzy overtone-rich distortion. From a musical perspective, I’m thinking Williams is saying that even the winter winds are not as cutting, honest, and to-the-bone as he wants to write. They’re derisive because they are merely sweet.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “January”  should be below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play the musical piece. If you’d like to read the full text of the 1921 poem, this is a link to that.

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*The collection this poem appeared in was titled Sour Grapes.  Williams thought — and some later critics began to agree with him — that American cultural critics were more enamored of WASP writers and overly eager to establish their own Ivy League version of the Oxford-Cambridge hierarchy for poets and poetry. Williams’ father was raised in the Dominican Republic and his mother was from Puerto Rico. Now of course, both Williams and some guy named Trump both went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is officially in the Ivy League. While Williams did post-graduate travel and work in Europe too, unlike some other American Modernists he was committed to making his poetry speak in, and to, an American way.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97 “How like a Winter hath my absence been”

What with Longfellow last time and Shakespeare this time, I’m thinking I’ll return soon to some of the more surreal and avant garde 20th century authors whose work has entered the public domain. That would be the New Year’s thing to do — but then once one penetrates the archaic language of this old sonnet, it gets plenty weird.

Sonnet_97_1609

How this poem looked in 1609. I note that most versions of this poem I find online replace the question marks in the opening sentences with exclamation points. I wonder why?

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How many come here, perhaps via a web search for help in figuring out what some hard-to-understand poem might be on about? Well, here’s the usual “homework helper” summary of Sonnet 97:

The clever bi-amorous poet character* in the sonnet starts out bewailing that it’s winter and he’s away from his beloved. But wait, a few lines in, it’s summer, or maybe autumn harvest time, but the poet started out talking as if it’s wintertime because he misses the beloved so much and that makes it seem as bad as winter.

There you go, a greeting-card worthy poem when reduced to that meaning: “Miss you so much, summer’s like winter because of that.”

But all that ignores the strangeness of it. Don’t put this in your school work if you have a conventional teacher only looking to see that you’ve taken the effort to decode Elizabethan English,**  but is it just possible that the poem is really written in wintertime, or that the portrayed states of winter and summer in this poem are not actual, look-at-the-calendar fact? ***

That supposition that this poem is actually set in summer (or maybe autumn) has to be vague, because the statements about seasons in the poem are spread between four seasons: winter, summer, harvest-time and then near-winter fall — but the actual imagery Shakespeare goes with is much more at pregnancy**** and birth, and he’s not subtle about it at all, working a number of angles on that idea, and with a specifically  patriarchal slant on pregnancy.

Here’s what he says about what his state and season is in this poem: “teeming” (breeding with no concern of to excess), “increase,” “bearing” (and wanton at that), “burthen” (an archaic term that puns on birth, and was used for cargo in a ship’s hold, which the poem notes is owned by the principle, the prime, of the shipping company who has in that way impregnated the cargo), and outright “wombs,” “issue” (a legal term for children), and “orphans” (children again, though patriarchally, orphans from loss of just the father) and “un-fathered fruit” (from what little I know of horticulture and pollination, possible — but in this context, more orphan or bastard status being inferred). Shakespeare doesn’t really care to nail down if it’s summer or harvest because it’s not a calendar season he’s depicting. He’s been impregnated, and magically given birth perhaps more than once from this impregnation.

Now in terms of gender fluidity (no snickering in the back row — and Ms. Rowling, no passing notes you can’t share with the rest of the class) this is outrageous imagery, and something that I’ve seen no other reading of the poem address, though it seems to me overt enough that someone must have noticed it.

What is his point? What’s he getting at? I think the “issue,” the “orphans,” are the poet’s poems, even including this sonnet itself. His beloved is absent, so he shouldn’t be productive (maybe even an undercurrent here of infidelity or artistic parthenogenesis) and at least for the purposes of this poem he is exaggerating the patriarchal attitude that the father (not our fecund womb-bearing poet) owns the children, or if there be “issue” that isn’t his, they aren’t worthy.

There’s also a potential class layer here too, isn’t there. If the “Fair Youth” addressed in this and other sonnets is indeed a titled patron, that purported “only begetter” may be a fancy whose sexual politics shouldn’t be overlooked.

In that reading, it may really be winter outside, as on this late December day in my state it certainly is. And there may be a longing for an absent beloved, but the poet is writing the winter, writing the separation, teeming. I think Shakespeare may be playing with that claim that poetry without a patriarchal father is a dull song and illegitimate. As for us, we should write down our dark verse on the pale leaves of winter, and may you find pleasure in your own ever-fleeting year!

To hear my musical performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97, “How like a Winter hath my absence been,”   you can use the player gadget below or this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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*Modern scholarship has generally come down on the side of thinking that Shakespeare’s sonnets are an invented work, using and playing changes on conventions of Renaissance sonnet topics and plot lines. But the desire to know “the real Shakespeare” still leads a great many to comment on what these poems, seemingly intimate and confessional, say about the person who wrote them. I’m going to write as if the poem is Shakespeare speaking as himself for simplicities sake, as writing “the character of the poet who is writing this poem” is too awkward to keep repeating.

**I wonder how many immigrant and Afro-American students realize that they have a possible advantage in appreciating and interpreting the archaic English of Shakespeare’s time in that they already have a contemporarily developed and working code-switch skill regarding language.

***When I first read this poem I thought of the Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun”  in which (spoiler alert) two women are approaching death on an Earth that is growing ever hotter, only to have the twist ending be that it’s a near-death fantasy of our heroine on a planet that is instead growing ever colder.

****Human pregnancy having a 9 month term could account for some of the seasonal ambiguity and the poem not being clear about it being winter, summer, harvest mid-autumn or near winter/late fall.

I wake and feel the fell of dark

Once more let us look at winter-come darkness and see what we see there, this time through Gerard Manley Hopkins and one of his “Terrible Sonnets.”

The name “Terrible Sonnets” is not a review, though I’ll confess that on first hearing of them, that between Hopkins oh-so-British sounding triple name with an extra schoolboy snicker due for the middle name on top of that, that I too wondered what meaning I’d assign to that word “Terrible”. No, my teachers assured me, terrible in the same way that wonderful and awful can be synonyms in strict derivation English.

No, these are poems that have a good scholarly reputation, and some general readership yet today. If there is disagreement about them, it’s not about their worth or poetic quality, but rather if they show Hopkins in a profound spiritual crisis or in a clinical depression. One can find a number of essays online and elsewhere that argue for either, or perhaps both. Either way, this is the night darkness as we often think of it. Yesterday we had Joseph Campbell making a case for a mysterious outward darkness, the exact nature of which is just out of our understanding. Hopkins darkness in contrast is totally intimate. I find it interesting that both of them were writing in Ireland, then still a colonial possession. Campbell may be expressing his country’s subjugation and its ancestors’ sorrow at that in his poem. Hopkins, in turn, was a patriotic citizen of the empire that ruled over Campbell’s country. That’s not a frame I’ll follow up on today due to space, and because Hopkins wrote these poems in the late 19th century and there’s no way to start a Tweetstorm that he can read back then.

Gerard Manley Hopkins 2

Hopkins, about to be pwned for complicity in colonial exploitation, before everyone realized: wait, 1885, no iPhones.

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Here’s another frame, another one with roots in colonialism and subjugation. In America we have a form, the Afro-American Modernist form forged around the same time that some white Americans were over in London helping create and popularize Imagism. That form was called “The Blues,*” and to some degree that indigo name has let it be casually and incorrectly considered a sorrowful song. And yes, a lot of bad and sad things are spoken of in The Blues, but it’s generally from a stance of: “Look what’s happened to me, what’s been done to me, the absurdity of it—but I’m still here to tell you about it.”

Today’s piece, using Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnet “I wake and feel the fell of dark,”  is not a Blues. But despite the harrowing statement of the inside of this poem’s speaker’s experience, it shares one thing with The Blues that makes it outstanding: “I wake and feel the fell of dark”  is full of energy. The description of the state inside the poem is cascading and vivid, coming at you so fast that it seems all at once. If this is depression being described, it’s not the mode of depression that is numbed beyond caring, but the depression that actively calls out and hates the depressive portion of the speaker’s mind. In this way, it shares something with The Blues, it can be cathartic. And indeed, some sufferers of depression (like too, some religious seekers) find the Terrible Sonnets worthwhile as a voice in darkness that can remind them that there are others who’ve felt and seen the same things.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you’d like to refer to it.

I’ll risk trivializing Hopkins’ revered poem by pointing out two trivial things I noted in looking at the text, as few commentators on Hopkins’ work choose to sink to mundane levels. The section “I am gall, I am heartburn…bitter would have me taste: my taste was me” seems to me to me to be on one level a symptomatic report of the experience of nighttime gastric reflux. And in these days of 2020, with lots of long nights this year before this day of Winter Solstice, Hopkins back in 1885 was prophet enough to speak specifically of our popular pandemic baking fad of homemade sourdough bread in this poem’s line 12!

The player gadget to hear my performance of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “I wake and feel the fell of dark” should appear below. Don’t see a player you can click on? Well, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear today’s audio piece.

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*The Blues of course is a varied and mutating form whose essence exists beyond the bins carrying that label in record stores or playlist names on your phone. I use it as a name because it’s one that coalesced for the art form at the time it emerged around 1900 in America. I stand to be corrected by my betters in these matters, but I believe the Blues essence remains a vital part of Afro-American expression, and from that, American expression in general. I’m an American musician, and the notes are mostly black.

Twilight Fallen White and Cold

What do we see, what do we learn, what possibly do we gain here in the upper parts of the northern hemisphere from so much nighttime at the beginning of a cold and snowy winter?

Some might say we learn endurance, a sense of obligation besides the dark and ice to carry on. Or a concentration, winter solstice as the fasting of light. But night is a filter, a frame, offering another way of perceiving. So, I went looking for poems this month that might allow you or I to look at darkness and see differently. One of the strongest and strangest poems I found was this one by a little-known Irish poet named Joseph Campbell.*

I’m trying to gather more info on Campbell. He was born in colonial Ireland in 1879 and died 1944 in a now independent Ireland. Most of his available poetry was published before WWI. He was imprisoned in the events surrounding the Irish Civil War of the last Twenties** (he was aligned with the losing side) and afterward he lived for a couple of decades in the United States. Shortly before his death he returned to Ireland and died there. I’ve read one of his book-length collections of poetry and parts of two others, all of which predate Irish Independence and the Civil War. I find him a striking poet worthy of more interest. Most of his poetry is brief, rhymed lyrical poems, using short metrical lines, such as today’s selection. One collection, Irishry,  contains incisive small character sketches of Irish life at the turn of the 20th century. Another, The Gilly of Christ,  has elements of Christian mysticism. Inherent in many of the poems seems to be a speaker who has spent time hiking about the country, and in this regard, Campbell reminds me at times of Edward Thomas with his attention to the book of nature and the landscape. While he likes rural and sometimes peculiar words, his language is clean and modern without the taint of worn-out 19th century leftovers.

There are also a handful of poems I’ve read in the collections so far that are very much in the style of the early Imagists, and this is striking because they may date to around the same time as their initial ground-breaking experiments. I so far know of no direct connection between Campbell and the largely London-based pioneering Imagists, but like his Irish contemporaries Yeats*** and Joyce, Campbell seems to be an early Modernist voice regardless of his use of rhyme and meter for most of his poetry.

Twilight Fallen White and Cold

Here’s today’s piece with chords in case you want to make sounds in the winter night

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Today’s Winter Solstice relatable piece “Twilight Fallen White and Cold”  mixes his modes a bit to produce an interesting effect. It’s on one layer a jaunty nature poem, almost nursery rhyme simple. This seems an easy effect to achieve, but particular to moderns, it’s not. Subtly mixed in with the “child in cradle, lamb in fold” comfortable lines are misty undercurrents. Well, yes, those trees are a bit ghostly in fading light and cold mist. Yes, birds are on the wing, but also “Black-winged vampires.” What? No, there are no vampire bats in Ireland.****  And in the last line of the second stanza we meet “rath and burial mounds,” the former a word that has an Irish meaning that an modern American reader might slide over. No, the burial mounds aren’t explicitly angry, a “rath” is the remains of an earthen-walled stronghold dating back to Celtic chieftains. The poem final stanza intensifies that hold and call from the indigenous past. Though Campbell is depicting an Irish landscape, these rounded-over and landscape-worn earthworks bring to mind the areas of North America in my native Midwest where indigenous people built similar structures.

But the most mysterious part is repeated as a refrain to make sure we don’t miss it: “Wounds of Eloim/Weep on me!”

The darkness of coming night may be mysterious, but this is more so. I don’t know exactly what Campbell is getting at there, other than the effect of mystification assuredly delivered. Eloim, which I believe in a variation of “Elohim,” is word that will not become less mysterious if one researches it. It appears to be a Semetic language family word for gods. In the Bible the word appears to have taken on several meanings. The Abrahamic Semites are famously monotheists, and they will use the word to refer to the multiple gods of the other tribes—but even though the word is plural, they will use it to refer to their own, singular god, or to the ambiguous angels that are not human but are also not plural gods. At some point, I believe post-Biblical times, this association with angels has led the word to be used at times as synonym for heaven.

Does that help us understand what Campbell meant to ring out multiple times in his poem? Not exactly. I gather some sense of a lost past, of a suppressed culture, is being invoked, but the mysticism never reduces itself to a “this stands for that, it’s just a code to be broken” level. That may increase its power, and it certainly increases the strangeness of this poem.

Returning to my original question, what might the darkness, our winter-come overwhelming night portion teach us? The example of this poem says that I shouldn’t answer that question quickly and simply—but that I should ask it.

A player gadget to hear my performance of Joseph Campbell’s “Twilight Fallen White and Cold”  will often appear below. If you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.

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*As I have to say whenever I mention Campbell to anyone: no, not the American Hero With A Thousand Faces  and “Follow your bliss” Joseph Campbell. This is another guy. The Irish Joseph Campbell also used a Gaelic name, Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil which would have given him a more secure doing-business-as cultural brand, and near the end of his life a pen-name of Ultach.

**Until this year I was entirely ignorant of the events of the Irish Civil War and now only know the summary story as reflected in things like this Wikipedia entry. I am, so far, unacquainted with Campbell’s political beliefs and actions.

***Like Yeats, Campbell seems to have been a committed cultural nationalist, seeking to use the arts as a way to uplift his country’s prestige and as a foundation for independence from colonial status. Like Yeats he also seems to have been involved with theater and as a song lyricist. One tidbit I found, which may be related to the mysterious element in today’s poem, is that he may have been the source responsible for a broadside folk ballad “Reynardine,”  being performed in a version by several British Isle folk-revivalists later in the 20th century as a tale of a “ware-fox” rather than in its original guise as tale of a bandit. Here’s two of my favorites versions, one by the incomparable Bert Jansch, and an unaccompanied one by the equally special Anne Briggs.

****Maybe St. Patrick and Van Helsing teamed up to take care of that?