To Whom It May Concern (Carry Them Away)

I’ve mentioned previously that our poetic colleague Kevin FitzPatrick, who died last autumn, often wrote poems about work. Here’s one of them from his final collection Still Living In Town.  Kevin titled his poem “To Whom It May Concern,”  and in performance I took a line from the poem and recast it as a refrain, which you’ll see as the subtitle today.

Dave Moore and I attended the memorial service held for Kevin at the end of last month. It was organized by Kevin’s large and talented family, many of whom I only knew as their player-shadows in Kevin’s poems, and many of his family read favorite poems of their relative at the memorial. It seems that Kevin, who was decidedly analog and offline well into this century, would often send them copies of his work in letters mailed across town. Some of them read their pieces after unfolding them from inside their original envelopes.

I’ve been online since online meant wire phone lines. I ran a BBS, I used Gopher, FTP, Usenet, but I found this charming as I listened to their stories in 2022. Typed poems sent in paper envelopes, still bearing cancelled stamps. Poems read by “civilians” recognizably about parts of their own lives. A man whose poetry was generous with “other people’s stories.”

I know many of you are in various parts of the US, or in other countries around the globe. Kevin didn’t “tour” his poetry, and though he often read publicly in the Twin Cities area, his poetry collections were not available other than by being specially ordered through a local bookstore.* You can still do that, but I’m happy to also mention that his family have recently made the books available online via their own website: kevinfitzpatrickpoetry.com. This makes it easy for you to get a copy of Still Living In Town  or one of the earlier collections.

A good picture of Kevin from that web site where one can order his books.

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Now, back to that memorial. Dave gave a fine summary of Kevin’s work on the Lake Street Review magazine at the event. I had asked the organizers to read one of Kevin’s poems. They asked me which one, and I said “Timepiece.”

“That one’s already taken…” which didn’t surprise me. It’s a touching poem, and in writing about his father’s death, Kevin wrote well about the shared underground of grief connecting all losses. No problem.** I suggested instead the short poem you’re going to get to hear a performance of today “To Whom It May Concern.”

I warned her: I sing that poem. “Warning, why?” you may ask. I was largely warning and committing myself at the same time. To say the least, I’m an inconsistent vocalist, and if one was to listen to a great many of the pieces here you’ll see how often I eschew actual singing — and some examples where perhaps I should have more consistently done that. Still, “To Whom It May Concern”  is a story that askes to be sung. And in the folk music tradition that means you’re obligated to sing it regardless of your American Idol candidacy. For logical and cultural reasons*** I decided to increase my own fear factor: I would sing it unaccompanied.

I practiced singing it while riding my bicycle for a few days before the event. Then, just to see if I could at least keep to a level of performance that wouldn’t take away from the event’s focus on Kevin, I recorded two takes**** of me singing it unaccompanied in my studio space.

The day of the event, I got on stage, I softly tried to find a note by singing the phrase with the highest note under my breath and launched into Kevin’s poem. How’d I do? Folks were kind. I myself had no sense whatsoever. That’s one of my problems with live singing: I can’t really “hear myself” well while singing even with monitors or headphones. Even more oddly I had no memory at all of singing the majority of the 2nd stanza. I’d guess I did, but by that point I was thinking of the poem’s speaker and the bard that wrote down their story, and that was all I could remember.

Today’s version of “To Whom It May Concern (Carry Them Away)”  starts out with that first proof-of-concept take in my studio space and then segues into a recorded live performance with Dave and some guitar accompaniment. There’s a player below to hear that, and if you don’t see the player, this highlighted link is another way to playback this audio piece.

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*The web site’s listing of Kevin’s books include the titles and ISBN numbers of the collections that may help at a bookstore or when requesting at a library.

**Dave and I had performed “Timepiece”  long ago, shortly after it was written, so you can easily hear our take on that poem via this link.

***Irish and British Isles singing in general has a strong tradition of unaccompanied singing of songs. The modern scheme of accompanying singing of folk songs with guitar accompaniment was actually resisted as untraditional, at least at first. Logistically it just seemed like carrying a guitar around would get in the way of the event’s focus.

****I’d actually planned to record only one take, which I thought better as the public performance would be just that: getting up and singing. Recordists get the luxury of working into the performance with several takes, and live performers don’t. The second take was no better than the first. Oddly enough, that was comforting.

The Workman’s Dream

Well, here’s an odd choice for a new Parlando Project audio piece: today’s song has lyrics from British-American poet Edgar Guest. It’s likely that you either know who Edgar Guest is, or you don’t. And if you do, you may be older than me, which is a rapidly declining Internet demographic, as most providers refuse to offer service across the river Lethe.*

Famous American wit Dorothy Parker wanted to help you remember—sort of—Wikipedia reminds us that she once poetically needled him: “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test than read a poem by Edgar Guest.” But now, folks may not remember Wasserman tests either. Wit has a short shelf-life I guess.

Edgar Guest was a public poet in a way that is unimaginable today. He had a newspaper column, a nationwide radio show; and ordinary, non-academic folks clipped and memorized his poetry in the first half of the 20th century. What did academic folks think of his poetry? Well, Parker nailed it.

Edgar Guest rocks the mic

Radio. It was a kind of wireless podcasting useful before YouTube.

 

His poetry is often folk-humor related, and his style isn’t always very elegant: doggerel. But unlike poets whose work is always with humorous intent, some Guest poems, like today’s, are meant to make a serious point, often in a sentimental way. While there’s no common objective criteria for “good poetry” it’s still safe to say that almost anyone who would have some criteria to evaluate poetry would agree that Guest wrote bad poetry—or at best, not very good poetry.

So, what am I doing, following up some posts featuring a poet like Yeats, who has both a popular audience and a rightful place as one of the most graceful lyric poets in the English language, with Edgar Guest?   Well, it’s my opinion that “bad poetry” or poetry that has intents and methods that are not in alignment with academic critical modes, may still have some value, some reason to exist. I don’t think this is a common belief, which is somewhat odd. While there are elements of theoretical snobbery in other arts, fans of serious novels may still like a quick plebian mystery series, cinephiles may enjoy an occasional piece of mass entertainment, jazz purists or avant garde composers may have surprisingly impure playlists—but serious poetry authorities tend to view not-great poetry as a Gresham’s law issue for their endangered art form.

I went looking for a Father’s Day text in the public domain and came upon this one. What struck me about it? Well, you and I may agree it’s sentimental, but it wears its working-class heart on its blue-color sleeve. Better Modernist poems have been written on this poem’s subject (Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”  for one)— but most of those are not available for my use today. And it’s not like poems about the world of work are all that common in Modernist lit. Instead, there are many poems about domestic life, lots about the human condition in general, erotic poems of love, visionary texts about the psychic borderlands, poems of scenic trips and museum pieces, poems about parenthood in its physical intimacy, and poems about economic and political injustice—but even the later are often absent the actual world and obligations of work.

Isn’t that odd? It’s as if poets are embarrassed to give evidence of their “day gigs.” Do we secretly expect that we are all still Lord Byron, with an inherited endowment? If we are any good should we be swinging from grant to grant, or have agents digging up the biggest returns as if we were rim protectors who can create our own shot while being a threat to sink the three from anywhere outside the arc? If we are serious, should we be beyond all that non-artistic, non-academic work?

Perhaps there are other reasons for this relative absence of the subject of ordinary work—and there are exceptions  in modern poetry—but even if we were to become one of those making a living with our pen or our mental flights alone, somewhere in our heritage we may have someone like the subject of Guest’s poem. I know I do. And from my age, from my era, I’ve even had the experience of being “the breadwinner” more than once in my life, the one working in a household and bringing in the outside income, while others do unpaid work.

This is no longer a gendered situation in our culture, but in my father’s generation this was the father’s prime job: the  job. Maybe for you this was another generation or even two generations back—we may have had forefathers. A lot of you had two parents doing “the job” (and yes, the unequal, unpaid woman’s work too) or one parent doing it all, or the most of the all.

That said, “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”**  This one goes out to those who didn’t get the service ribbons or the purple heart, who clocked in so we could write about time. In my case, they’re all gone now, but as Guest writes, I’ll sing “Out of this place of dirt and dust.”

The Workmans Dream

In the Broadside tradition, here are my chords for the song version I composed. I played it with a capo at the 1st fret, so the recording is in F minor. My piano, vibraphone and cello parts are simple: fifths, octaves and roots.

The player to hear my performance of the song is below.

 

 

*They say it has something to do with dog attacks on their installers, three-headed dogs at that.

**Leonard Cohen. For six minutes of REM performing “First We Take Manhattan”  see this link.