Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service for National Poetry Month

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.

Frost Drake

April is National Poetry Month, and spring is here. Two gentlemen are unbuttoning their coats.

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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.

Three ways to hear The LYL Band rip into this snowy poem: this is the link to a lyric video, or (for some of you) a player gadget below to hear just the audio, and finally there’s this fallback link that will play it also.

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*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.”

Winter 2020-21 Parlando Top Ten (abbreviated edition)

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:

10. Song to the Dark Virgin by Langston Hughes

9. Winter Solstice Consolations by Frank Hudson

8. I died for Beauty —  but was scarce by Emily Dickinson

7. Oh, Maria by Ethna McKiernan

6. Letting Go the Wolves by Ethna McKiernan

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.

Tommy Thaw card 800

Spring, a rebuttal.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2. After Apple Picking by Robert Frost. I made my pitch that Robert Frost was verging on being a bluesman elsewhere this winter, but that piece didn’t make the Top Ten as this one did. His Black American contemporary Langston Hughes called his first book and a featured poem in it The Weary Blues,  but this poem of Frost’s could have that name too. Both Hughes’ Weary Blues and Frost’s end in sleep.

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.

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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.

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Unrequited March

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.

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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.

Unrequited March

The meter’s a bit loose, yet not loose enough to cry “Kings X — Free Verse!” either.

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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.

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*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.

More from Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”

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.

I talked about my encounter with the poem and it’s sometimes discussed deeper connotations here. You can hear the audio piece with guitar and piano clustering around a three-months-into-winter drone with either a graphic audio player that some of you will see, or this highlighted link.

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I was quite taken by this photo of Roy DeCarava’s “Graduation 1949” when I saw it this winter.

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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.

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*Yes, there wasn’t a word “flurious” until now. You are present at the creation!

**My original post on this poem has a longer summary of Langston Hughes’ family situation at the time he wrote this poem. In short, his father was adamant that instead of literature that Langston study engineering. Langston agreed, but then after trying to go along with his father’s wishes, he dropped out, shipped out to sea on merchant ships, and on return to the U. S. worked various lower-end jobs. I think of John Keats’ decision a hundred years before Langston Hughes’. Engineering and medical field students: I’m not suggesting poetry instead. Really, I’m not. Perhaps rather an and instead of or is best.

***It may not be coincidental, but one of the jobs Langston Hughes eventually had was a stint working with Carter Woodson, who first suggested an annual observance of Black history. So, all the more reason to focus on his work this February.

Letting Go the Wolves: I praise Ethna’s wolves

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.

ice pond

Listen carefully for those claws on the ice.

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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.**

A player gadget to play this performance appears below in some ways this blog is read. Others will need to use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it.

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*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.”

Did McKiernan feel it was too immature a work when making final judgements for her final “New &Selected” collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards  compiled a few months before her death? I don’t judge it so.

**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.

Velvet Shoes

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.

Here’s a link to the text of Wylie’s Velvet Shoes,  in case you’d like to follow along.

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.

Elinor Wylie at the door

Sure it’s a pretty line: “I shall go shod in silk,” but damn it, open the door, it’s seriously winter out here!

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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.

I seem to be specializing recently in taking leaps at alternate readings that even I don’t think likely, though not impossible either, like my wild-ass guess that Truth’s body moldering in the grave next to Emily Dickinson’s Died for Beauty could plausibly be John Brown. Don’t bet your grade on that one, students! But I thought of the woman walking her dog this cold and snow-covered morning. No reason to talk there, nor was the dog taking time out for a barking address. Wasn’t that dog wearing a wool sweater? Less romantic a poem, but not impossible.

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.

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*That’s minus 28 C. Minus.

Winter Solstice Consolations

I ran long the last time, let me be short today. Last week after Ethna McKiernan died, Dave Moore and I talked briefly, and I said that I was going to try to write something for Winter Solstice.

“Make it a happy one” Dave requested. I’ve written at length about the losses Dave and I have had with poetic colleagues in recent posts, so for those who want more details, I’ll refer you to the last couple of posts here instead.

How far did I get to that “happy?” Not all the way. The piece I wrote and you can hear my performance of today is more at bittersweet. I’ve talked to Dave about how I’m hearing Kevin FitzPatrick’s and Ethna’s voices, very distinctly at times when I’m quiet. And since I knew them largely as poets, I’m hearing them reading their poetry. I tell you honestly I don’t find this eerie at all. I find it comforting. I expect that those voices will fade with time, but right now to hear them keeps them with me.

I suspect grieving people have heard similar departed voices since we first began to speak, and that those voices would be more sure to come on a long dark winter night. But here’s my modern variation: due to the pandemic the last few meetings of the Lake Street Writer’s group happened over Zoom Internet videoconferencing. I became accustomed to seeing Ethna’s face after she began her cancer treatment on the same home screen I’m typing this on, and so now when I’m on a Zoom conference I sometimes expect to see her face again as one of the squares on my grid — and I will allow myself to visualize my expectation. You can read all 2916 lines of “In Memoriam,”  and you won’t find Alfred Tennyson having that exact image to deal with.

Winter Solstice Consolations

Here’s my own text I performed from. Due to short recording opportunities, I worked out the drums and percussion, and then rapidly laid down a bass, piano, and then an arpeggiated 12-string guitar part to further establish a harmonic flavor. I had time to quickly improvise three passes of a lead electric 12-string part, and this was the best of them.

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Then the last time I saw Ethna McKiernan, it was her book launch reading at Celtic Junction on August 6th. I recall she wore a brightly colored headwrap on those last Zoom conferences, and for the public reading she was all in bright red. I melded those two visual memories with our seasonal gift-wrapped packages in the poem.

Ethna McKeirnan reading August 6th 2021 2

Ethna with bright red shinning over frailty, on stage for the book launch of “Light Rolling Slowly Backwards” this August.

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So those are some of the consolations the poem’s title refers to. And too, one of the fine things in winter and on winter solstice is to be inside, in our lights, at home with our partners, family, house-pets, and welcome ghosts.

Here’s what I speak of in the final line: our lakes and ponds and the still parts of rivers have ice surfaces now. Whichever side of the ice you are on: under it and in the underwaters, or over precarious ice not thick enough to securely separate yourself from those cold underwaters — laugh with more than happiness, laugh with that knowledge that that ice is a fragile and temporary division.

A player gadget to hear my performance of “Winter Solstice Consolations”  will appear where possible below. If you don’t see it, you can use this highlighted hyperlink to play it.

A Winter’s Tale, Revisited

Here’s one of my favorite pieces from the five-plus years of the Parlando Project, and given that winter has fully started off in Minnesota, it’s an apt one for what I see out my window. As I post this, I remind you that the archives here going back to 2016 have nearly 600 audio pieces, covering a considerable variety of words (mostly poetry) and music.

I’d planned several new pieces to start off December here, and I even had a few recorded tracks and sketched out compositions as the month began. Then stuff happens.

First off, the teenager got sick, which meant recording in my studio space was out for a week. Then just as they were getting better, I got sick — sick enough that sitting up in a chair was a goal and thinking, reading, and writing —much less playing instruments and singing — was a stretch. I’m still operating at less than 50%.

So instead of a new piece today, this piece created from a poem by D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence was perhaps better known as a novelist and literary critic, but his poetry took interesting approaches in the Modernist era of the early 20th century.

His “A Winter’s Tale”  is as mysterious as any exotic Surrealist poem, and though metrical and all rhymed up, largely observant of the Imagist rules that broke English language poetry from off-the-shelf metaphors and the lot of tell-not-show imagery. Here’s a link to the text of Lawrence’s poem. It’s a lovely text, the words are a pleasure to put in one’s mouth or ear; and I’m also fond of the musical setting I created for this one. I’m often telling myself when arranging my music to give the compositions more patience and space — and then I go on and add one more thing and another, defeating that thought. Here I listened to myself.

When I first presented Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale,”   I said I wasn’t quite sure what it means. More than two years later, I don’t know much more. Many readers sense some kind of “end of a romantic relationship” situation here, and taken that way the poem works. Strangely works, but works. Other possibilities occur to me as I’ve revisited “A Winter’s Tale”  since I performed it. Some sort of animal hunting* seems implied here as much as human romance. Is that hunting subject, or the metaphor? Sometimes poems refuse to choose on that question.

Battle of the poets. Smokey Robinson brings it with this opening “Everyday brings change, and the world puts on a new face. Sudden things rearrange, and this whole world seems like a new place. Secretly I’ve been tailing you like a fox that prays on a rabbit.” Now, go to the bottom of this post to see what I can do to try to meet Motown’s popmusic-craft with my own thing.

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Is it possible that what the poem speaks of and searches for is winter itself? At first this may seem a strained reading, after all the poem spends a good deal of its brief text describing winter scenery, so how can it be something the poet is seeking when it’s in front of them? Some of that description though is of winter’s haunting and elusive qualities: obscuring mists melding with snow, far off winds that sound like sobs or sighs. The winter in this poem does seem to be winter’s arrival, perhaps even earlier than normal arrivals, with grass blades at first not even covered by the early snow. In such a reading is what the poet has to tell this promptly arriving winter is that spring will follow it?

The player to hear my performance of “A Winter’s Tale”  is below for some of you. Don’t see it? This highlighted hyperlink will also play the piece.

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*One of my favorite early English sonnets, Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me”  makes use of deer hunting as symbol for love’s vulnerability, long before Smokey Robinson’s song first presented by The Marvelettes “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”  did likewise.

Awaiting the Velvet Underground film tomorrow

I’m working on some new pieces this week, and after all the loud and sometimes abrasive sounds I’ve been exploring this fall, I think some of then verge on pretty — well, pretty as anything can be with my voice. But before we leave abrasive….

I’m looking forward to Todd Haynes film about the beginnings of the Velvet Underground band that is released tomorrow, so I thought I’d put a couple of links to things I’ve done directly referencing that pioneering experimental rock band. Not everyone will be as looking forward to that as I am. I fully understand that. But in case anyone else out there is, here’s my “awaiting” post tonight.

The first piece is one of the earliest pieces I presented here, first posted almost exactly five years ago,  called “The Day Lou Reed Died.”   It’s my own elegy to one of the Velvet Underground principals and it’s principles too. I wrote it after attending a wedding reception filled with kids and Halloween costumes, celebrating the marriage of two brides, held just as the title says, on the day of Reed’s death.

Some will see a player here to play that audio piece, but if your way of reading this blog doesn’t show that, here’s a highlighted hyperlink that will play it too.

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And while it’s still autumn, let’s prepare for winter with a cover I did of a Nico song written by another member of the Velvet Underground, John Cale. To paraphrase Tina Turner (who was not a member of the VU), “we’re going to take the beginning of this song and do it nice’n’easy, but then we are going to finish it nice’n’rough.”

The LYL Band’s cover of “Winter Song” from Nico’s Chelsea Girl LP

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Perhaps I should have included a note that no guitars were harmed in the creation of this piece at the end of the video.

Back with new stuff here soon. Acoustic guitars. Quieter.

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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.