The Quadroon Girl

Remember back a few posts ago when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.

Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.

Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.

Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.

Mpls Longfellow Statue 6!!

This eroded statue of Longfellow stands, missing its hands, in a little visited corner of an otherwise busy Minneapolis park, somehow saying something about how Longfellow is viewed today.

I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.”  I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl”  instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.

I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl”  here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again. The player is below.

An August Midnight

Today’s episode is something of a companion to our last one, what with moths appearing in each. Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson let the Book of Job fly in with her moth, and today Thomas Hardy’s open summer window lets in four bugs.

Our scene: a summer night, window open, a 19th Century lamp letting Hardy literally and literarily burn the midnight oil. The breeze and light brings on the bugs, and beside the moth we get a daddy-longlegs spider, a fly, and a dumbledore. Besides it making his rhyme, I think Hardy must have liked that charming name for his fourth bug, which is either a bumble bee or a beetle, though either will disappoint Harry Potter fans brought here by a search term.

Dumbledore Beetle and DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal

A dumbledore beetle and a DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal. They could be filed under “things you step on.”

 

What was Hardy writing when the bugs arrived? He doesn’t say, though of course to be meta, it should be this poem now shouldn’t it—but even if it was some other piece, the bugs interrupt it, marching over his just-penned wet ink and drawing his attention away to their antics. Susan Gilbert Dickinson called her moth “silly” and Hardy has his insects more or less performing a Three Stooges skit bumping into the glass of his artificial light.

Susan Gilbert Dickinson wanted to remind us of that harrowing Old Testament lesson that God can crush a human as easily as a bug. She wrote “Irony” and underlined it over the top of her poem’s manuscript. Hardy writes a slightly different conclusion. After watching his fab four beetles make a farce out of replacing the poet on top of his manuscript paper, he ends by declaring that those insects know more about nature than he does. I think that little insect play on his desk reminds him that he, like other poets, struggle to understand and portray nature.

Just as the last time I worked with Thomas Hardy poetry, the melody just flowed out effortlessly when I went to set his words. I quickly had the basic vocal and guitar track, and then added a couple of cello parts and an additional guitar melody that followed what I had so easily fallen into as I sang Hardy’s words.

That electric guitar melody line uses a DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal which I’ve been using a fair amount here lately. It’s a very flexible effects pedal, but I won’t interrupt this with any more guitar nerd material than that tonight. To hear my performance of Thomas Hardy’s “An August Midnight,”  use the player below.

Ruined Refrigerator

Cleverness in poetry or writing can be a mixed blessing. While poetry without cleverness can be bland and unexciting, poetry with too much of it can seem a show-offy exercise exhibiting the most exorbitant self in self-expression.

Unlike my pleasant puzzlement with H. D.’s “The Pool”  last time, I can speak with authority about the author’s intent on today’s piece “Ruined Refrigerator,”  because I wrote this set of words. A short aside for those that are new here: this isn’t the way the Parlando Project generally works, we’re normally about “Other people’s stories,” our audio encounters with other author’s words.

But since I wrote this I can say a bit about how this worked with “Ruined Refrigerator.”  This started out as a sonnet I wrote in 1978. I’ve always been attracted to the 14-liner. It’s just about the perfect size to develop a point with a turn or even two, while still asking for concision. The 14 lines can be divided in many eccentric ways into stanzas, sections, and rhyme schemes. And since Shakespeare used it for his best poetry, you have a mighty model to measure up against.

The problem with the sonnet and Shakespeare as a model is that it can fall into clever complexity. Shakespeare was intoxicated with flowery language, language that loves using extra words and similes to express itself. Given the youthful vigor of the mostly modern English of Shakespeare’s day, and Shakespeare’s genius, this is not as tiresome in his best poems as it would too often be in those that were written after him.

Artists already have too much to worry about, but perhaps we should be more careful when we invent something, as any imitators will exploit all the faults in the invention—and so, eventually Shakespeare’s poetics can descend into “poetic language” that violates the call to concision that lyric poetry should heed, and to merely clever works that exercise the skills but not the aims and ends of great poetry.

I can tell you that as an author, writing clever poetry is great fun. Finding what you believe is a new way to say something is wonderful. Engaging in the music of thought where a theme emerges in a surprising and even mysterious way is as great a joy in words as it is when composing music. Fitting the stuff of a poem into the puzzle of meter and rhyme and stanza forms takes effort, but like any number of enjoyable crafts, it’s satisfying. The dance of metaphor as it leaps back and forth from the compared thing to the thing can feel in creation almost God-like.

These things have degrees of difficulty and achievement, yes, but the greater difficulty is engaging an audience for them. What is enjoyable and satisfying to the author is not necessarily the same to the reader or listener. Too little cleverness and the result is bland, too much and the reader will decide: too much effort for too little reward. Or they may read on and decide that it’s much ado about nothing. What the author thinks is clever, based on their effort and self-evaluation, seems mundane to the more sophisticated reader or obtusely obscure to the naïve one. Audiences don’t love or hate cleverness, they just want it to be worth their while.

were_only_in_it_for_the_money_bottom

Subliminal inspiration? Lower section the “We’re Only In It for the Money” album cover
created by Calvin Schenkel, Frank Zappa and Jerry Schatzberg 1967.

 

“Ruined Refrigerator”  may suffer from these issues, from failed attempts at cleverness. I wrote a complete draft around 40 years ago*, and I must have liked the “deep ecology” idea enough that I revised it 15 years ago. So far (small) audiences haven’t cared for it much. Maybe that’s my failing, or maybe it’s the audiences’—though I believe the audiences were good ones. Maybe on the first day of spring in a time when global warming is on more minds this will make more of a connection?

As an artist, you can negotiate a treaty with that failure, knowing that all artists fail—sometimes, depending on the audience. Artists can succeed with some audiences by making the choices that will certainly cause them to fail with others. One can always choose to fail better or differently. The important thing is to try, in the way you think best to try.

Here’s my performance and try of “Ruined Refrigerator.”

 

 

*A note on the 2004 draft I have of this says the first draft (lost) was from 1978. But I also recall stealing the germ of the idea from a Gary Larson “The Far Side” one-panel cartoon, though I have not been able to find that cartoon, and “The Far Side” was first published in 1980.

Poets and Presidents Day

I don’t know if we’ll ever have a person who spent serious time as a writer as U.S. president. Yes, most write—or co-write to some degree—books leading up to their candidacy, and some kind of post-term memoir is now expected; but I’m speaking of a sustained and serious attempt at literary writing.

In my lifetime we had one prominent candidate (Eugene McCarthy) who did write poetry in the mid-century modernist style, and a substantial “leading up to their candidacy” book of political history from John Kennedy, though there is controversy about how much of “Profiles in Courage”  was ghost-written. Jimmy Carter has published books of poetry after leaving office, but at least so far as I’ve sampled his poetry, it hasn’t stuck with me.

Other democracies may have better examples. Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, and that winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature with a side job, Winston Churchill. Farther back there are more chief executives who could fill a shelf with their own books: Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt.

Overall, I’m not sure that “men of letters” (a gender-neutral term doesn’t seem to jibe with that archaic phrase) are, as a class, good candidates for the Presidency. Writing is the perfect example of a one-person enterprise. To do it well takes a lot of effort, but most always it involves the writer setting themselves on that course by convincing themselves of it’s necessity and then carrying on with little assistance, at least until the publishable stage is reached. Leadership and coalition–building aren’t needed in those tasks. Vision is helpful in either field; but if we are to be honest with our selves, democracies only set much value in that in times of crisis.

washington.lincoln.apotheosis

“I extend this laurel, and hearty handshake…”

 

Though neither sought to publish, the two Presidents whose birthdays have been merged into Presidents Day do have poems to their credit. George Washington, as a love-struck teenager penned an incomplete acrostic poem that was to spell out the name of the subject of his affections. Last year the Parlando Project turned it into an angsty soft-loud expression of that youthful boldness-fear, one that, surprisingly, remains the most popular audio piece we’ve ever done.  Here’s the player for “Frances,”  Washington’s love poem:

 

 

Abraham Lincoln, the great American orator and leader, wrote a three-section poem in his 30s while recalling the hometown of his early youth. We set part of this to music for his birthday earlier this month. It’s quite sad, in a mode that was somewhat common in 19th Century literature, but there’s reason to think that Lincoln wasn’t just striking a pose. It’s now commonly believed that he suffered from some level of depression in his adulthood. To hear Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again,”  use the player below.

The Spring 2017 Top 10

Since this is National Poetry Month in the US I’m hoping that I can exceed the usual 7 to 8 posts a month pace I’ve kept up here since the Parlando project began last August. The next audio piece should be up this weekend. For those who haven’t read the early posts here about what the Parlando project is, I usually summarize it as:

The Parlando Project is words (mostly, but not always poetry) accompanied by music (various kinds).

The Parlando audio pieces have been downloaded by podcast subscribers since launch almost 4,000 times. Given that we are now past the halfway point, I thought it might interesting to let you know what the “Top Ten” downloads have been so far. In Casey Kasem form, we’ll count it down upwards from 10 to 1. There are links in the list if you missed one of these audio pieces and the posts about them.

10. The Spring of Dead Things. One of the 3 pieces in the top 10 where I wrote the words. That’s OK with me, but one of the Parlando Project aims is “Other People’s Stories” which leads me to feature other people’s words more often than not. There’s lots of folks reading their own poetry out there, which is good in itself—but there’s lots of people reading their own poetry, so think there’s an unmet need for reading others work.

9. The Garden of Trust. One of my personal favorites. Weston Noble’s thoughts on the power of music, hard-won thoughts he expressed after a lifetime of work, touched me the moment I first read them, and my feeling only deepened when I found I was able to hear him express those beautiful thoughts in a recording made before his death. My thanks again to Luther College for allowing me to use this recording in my piece. If you want to sample one thing that the Parlando Project represents, and it really doesn’t represent one thing, start here.

8. I Felt A Funeral in My Brain. Writing the Parlando music and considering the words for performance has deepened my appreciation for Emily Dickinson, whose words we’ve featured more than any other writer, and I rather like my music for this one as well.

7. For John Renbourn Dying Alone. I hope some of the listeners to this piece who like acoustic guitar music find this a gateway to Renbourn’s music.

6. Arthur Koestler’s Death Song.  Although we’ve featured Dave Moore reading and singing his own work here, and there will be more of that to come later this year, his Top 10 appearance is for a piece where he wrote the words and music, though I performed it.

5. Eros. I sometimes wonder if this one gets a bonus from those searching for or intrigued by its title. Another one where I’m happy with how the recording and the music turned out. I remind myself that I should learn more about Emerson’s Transcendentalist revolution.

4. 2ebruary. There’s no telling what the “bonus” may be that’s lead more people to this piece. It could be the discussion of the movie “Patterson”  in the notes, or it could be the connection to bicycling. Or perhaps it’s the connection to Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems that I treasure and try to emulate. If you like this, I have another bicycle ride poem coming up later this spring.

3. Boris Pasternak’s February. We’re into the top 3 now.  I was remarking to Dave Moore during a break in our recording session yesterday, that February rather than April should have been picked as National Poetry Month, as the deep dark end of winter engenders more cruel monthly poetry. Pasternak gets to help prove that point here. One regret I have with what we’ve done so far with the Parlando Project is that I have not received permission to post our version of Margaret Atwood’s “February”  here.

2. Hymn To Evening. Speaking of things I treasure, hearing Phillis Wheatley’s story on the Freedom Trail in Boston is another one. Art is this thing that, unlike even persons, no one can own. Colonialism is a system that crosses oceans to take things from other lands for profit. Art is the system that sends out messages that can crisscross time and oceans with the information inside our breasts.

dollar-bill

we’re offering pictures of our #1 Parlando Project author for only one dollar

 

1. Frances. Interesting that two pieces from the colonial United States are 1 and 2, and that a piece with words by an young amateur poet tops the list. Maybe this is a tribute to the Pixies/Nirvana loud/soft arrangement trick in the music? Or that when it comes to subjects, love conquers all? Or that acrostics are about to become a thing?

Please continue to read and listen this month. I have a lot of planned pieces I’ll think you’ll like coming up here. Remember that the Parlando Project seeks variety in music and words, so you may hear things you like as well as not like as we go along, but stick with us as we want to continue to surprise you. I also want to thank those that have hit the like buttons on their favorite posts, and those who have hit the RSS button to follow this blog.

To John Renbourn Dying Alone

A perennial question asked of songwriters is “Which comes first, the music or the words?” Here with the Parlando Project, the words often were written centuries before the music; but with the pieces where I write both the words and music, the method is for the music to come first with the words.

By that I mean, I tend to compose the words first, but the words emerge for me as melodies do, as a series of sounds that may precede any idea of their meaning. And even when I sit down to write “about” something, the improvisation of their melody can lead me to change what I am writing, even in the end, change what I believe I think about something.

While it’s a good assumption that my methods may come from my visceral attraction to music and poetry, this sense that the act of writing shapes, even reshapes, the thought is a common finding among writers. Have you ever thought yourself, “I didn’t know what I thought about this until I wrote about it?”

So where do melodies come from, whether they are melodies played on a string or melodies played on words? The answer, after millennia of human thought and knowledge gathering, is “We don’t know.” That area of knowing that it is, but not knowing why, is the genesis of myth.

The classical Greeks and their Roman inheritors ascribed these creative incidents to “the muses”—nine goddesses that could engender music or poetry in humans. Their stories told of the bad ends that would come to those who would mock the muses by claiming they could practice the arts without them.
This sort of thing gradually fell out of favor. Shakespeare in his 38th sonnet claims his beloved is as good or better a muse as one of the nine classical muses, and by the 19th century his humanistic idea that another human could serve as a muse to an artist became the common myth.

Nine Muses and Apollo

No, you didn’t count wrong. I think the 10th dancer is Apollo, wearing the knee-length number.

 

So, what use then is this old myth, the idea of an inexplicable outside source that informs artistic expression? Here’s one use I’m attracted to: it lets the artist relax a little bit about their efforts. Ever try to be inspired? That rarely works. Even the inspiration tricks that worked once, twice or twenty times may wear out and bring nothing. Have you ever been impelled with an idea, shape, thought, or melody when it’s inconvenient and unexpected? Ever beat yourself up when the ideas and expression just won’t come? Using the myth, the metaphor, of the muses you can get a handle on these things. This does not mean you don’t work at art. This doesn’t mean that discipline isn’t a valuable artistic trait. This doesn’t mean you sit on the mountain top and dawdle. Worshiping and honoring the muses just means if you sit on the mountaintop and nothing comes up, you might try the valley next time, but that “nothing” is not your fault. If you look for inspiration 365 days a year and it only comes around a dozen times, that’s a dozen more times than it would come if you never looked. If you look for inspiration only a dozen times a year, it will take 30 years to do what you could have done in one.

That is a long introduction to today’s piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone.”  John Renbourn was very good British guitarist and singer. Beginning in the 1960s, and with a small and wondrous circle of his contemporaries, he was fearlessly eclectic: blues, jazz, traditional British Isles folk music, American Appalachian ballads, 19th century broadsides, Asian music, modern singer-songwriters, or Renaissance tunes—all that could show up at a John Renbourn concert, or on one of his recordings.

John Renbourn

John Renbourn. The picture is silent because he could be playing anything on that guitar.

 
Two years ago this month, he didn’t show up to demonstrate once again his amalgamation of music at a scheduled date in a Scottish club. He was not mocking the muses—it was soon found that he had died alone in his modest home.

The day I heard the news, I hoped his suffering had been brief, or if not brief, useful. I thought of him like Frost’s solitary man in “An Old Man’s Winter’s Night,”  or my father imagined in “A Rustle of Feathers,”  or my own dear friend John who had died alone at home a few years earlier. I thought of John Renbourn and wished to apply this myth, this lie, of the muses to this man. An artist like John Renbourn, who informed us with his art, listened better to the muses than most any of us.

You can listen to my audio piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone”  by using the player below.