Sometime around the end of the 19th Century, a century that had seen accelerating change in technology and social order, new artistic movements began to flower on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood looked backwards at things that had disappeared or were nearly gone, and revived them within a the new context of their present day. Interest in neglected folk-cultural traditions of nations began to arise. Others looked to new orders: utopianism and socialism. The seeds of what would be called Futurism began to take shape, a worship of the inherent art in technology.
Here’s a funny thing: all these things mashed-up in the ferment of the times. Some of the artists held to several or even all of these beliefs, participating in more than one of these seemingly different or even opposed movements. Call this brew “Modernism,” for the one thing that united it was a desire for something new, or at least new for the times, to be produced.
As the 20th Century got underway, American artists forged ahead in these movements. The reasons for that are multifold, but one is that they had a head start: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and the Emersonian Transcendentalists had already pioneered distinctly American ways to be modern.
Let’s leave the salons and literary magazines now for a moment. Here’s something else that was happening at the same time, with only spotty distribution beyond its creators. Some African-Americans, presented with nominal freedom, economic serfdom, social repression, and what must honestly be called a sub-human classification by many learned men, continued to come to terms with European instruments and tempered scales, combining them with the already juicy stew of American music and the remembered modes of Africa. They produced their own Modernism, something that eventually got called “The Blues.”
Lyrically, this was an inherently skeptical art. As it percolated through commerce, the Blues got re-defined as a sad song of loss, and loss certainly is part of its subject matter, but the outlook of the original Blues writers was not simply that. A lot of it was satiric comment, and when the Blues dealt with the desire and farce of love and lust, as it often did, it wasn’t just about loss.
I could go on and on about the Blues, but for the moment, I’ll ask you to just absorb this: when William Butler Yeats was having a harp built to chant his poems to, as he believed the Celtic griots of old had done; and when Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, HD, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein or T.S. Eliot were inventing their strain of Modernist poetry, often abroad, some other Americans were back in the States retuning guitars and looking for the notes between the keys of the piano with their own poetry that sought to “make it new.”
Emily Dickinson is a special case in so many ways, but one of those ways is that although she wrote much of work during the Civil War in the middle of the 19th Century, she was only published much later in the century. Her poems, so stripped down, so skeptical of received notions, so vivid in fresh images that didn’t map easily to conventional meaning, fit right in with work being written 50 years later by the Modernists.
Warning: time travel plots often are ridiculous.
Today’s episode “Soul Selector Blues” takes this time travel one step further. What if Emily Dickinson was a serf on the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi early in the 20th Century? Maybe she’d tune a guitar to “Spanish” and grab a slide to get those in-between notes, and then what would have been “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” would come out like this.
To hear the LYL Band cover “Delta Amherst” Emily D’s classic 78 r.p.m. side “Soul Selector Blues” use the player below.
Given that poetry contributes the great majority of the words to the half of the Parlando Project “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s reasonable to suspect, if you are reading this, that you like poetry. That’s too bad. Even during the National Poetry Month and #npm17 that were are talking about this April.
You see, poetry is often a frustrating thing. That high-flown language may be artful, but it’s an earful too. If you were seeking directions to escape some emergency, would you want your rescuer to choose the most precise and beautiful words, words that say more about what a clever speaker your rescuer is than about which way you must turn and where the dangers are?
Do you love the dense allusions and surprising metaphors of poetry? Do you admire the narrative fracturing and careful examination of the shattered facets that expose the common lie of ordered stories? The next time you are searching for how to work some complex gadget or system, do you want your tutorial or manual to scatter its tale in novel ways?
Speaking of too simple statements, here’s one: that there are people who simply like poetry. No, most people who like poetry sometimes, hate poetry sometimes; just as most people who like music, hate music sometimes. The intensity of the like times does not decrease the intensity of the hate times. I think it’s important that poetry tries to capture the allusiveness of things. I continue to admire some poems I don’t really understand—that’s what the music is for, both the poem’s own music and the external music we apply to the words here at the Parlando Project. But there are times when you just want a poet to come out and say what they’re getting at.
The words to today’s episode, by William Butler Yeats, are clear in their meaning. “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing” is an example of “occasional verse,” a poem written in response to an event. In this case, almost everyone has forgotten the event, but the sentiments of the poem apply broadly anyway. Yeats has such a musical way of expressing himself, he could have flown off on some obscure path and we might have followed him anyway. As it turns out, the things he leaves out here, the particulars of the dispute, probably help the poem survive as a general piece of council.
Still, I’m a curious and literal sort. Who was the “Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing,” and what was the work? It was written about and perhaps to a man named Hugh Lane who wanted to donate his substantial modern art collection to a museum he proposed that Ireland should fund. And the man who would lie unashamed to oppose this? A newspaper publisher who opposed the gallery.
Yeats gave him good advice, but he didn’t tell him to not get on that boat.
What happened to Hugh Lane, whose work had come to nothing? About a year after Yeats wrote this poem, Lane went down when the Lusitania was torpedoed during WWI. And his art collection? His will seemed to leave it to the British National Gallery after his proposal to fund the Irish museum failed, but Ireland disputed this will, and later in the 20th Century, after Lane’s and Yeats’ deaths, Lane’s collection was again on display in Dublin Ireland. So eventually, in prosaic history and after the work of some lean solicitors, Lane’s work succeeded.
William Butler Yeats, when he spoke admiringly about the ubiquity that songwriters like Rabindranath Tagore could achieve, had already made his forays into setting his poems to music. As a sometime playwright, and a founder of the Abbey Theater in Ireland, he was already familiar with the dimensions performers can bring to words. Around the turn to the 20th Century he began to forthrightly seek to combine his poetry with music. Working in collaboration with musicologist and luthier Arnold Dolmetsch and performer Florence Farr he had a psaltery (a stringed instrument like a lyre or small harp) constructed, and Farr (a fascinating figure in her own right) then performed Yeats poems with it.
Farr with the psaltery showing Joanna Newsom how to rock it
Yeats and Farr’s performance style was not a conventional art song setting of the poet’s words sung to a melody. Yeats explicitly rejected that (even though his words have often been set to melodies in the years since). Rather he thought the words were best chanted or intoned in a rhythmic and somewhat elongated speech. Such performances are controversial then, and I would suppose they would be controversial now as well. George Bernard Shaw called Farr’s chanting “A nerve-destroying crooning,” but Ezra Pound and other early 20th century modernists took note, and they were influenced by these performances to add a more incantatory and musical element to their poetry.
Now let us break in our story for about half a century.
In the late 1950s an actor and folk singer Burl Ives recorded an album of Irish songs, and one of them was “The Wondering of Old Angus”, a Yeats poem sung to melody that Ives claimed he learned from Sara Allgood, another actor who had performed with the Abbey Theater group and would have likely known of the Farr performances. Around the same time, another folk singer, Will Holt began singing the Yeats poem to a very similar melody, using Yeats’ title “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.” Then in 1962, Judy Collins, having learned the song from Holt, made it the title song of her album “Golden Apples of the Sun,” which is where I first heard it.
No one seemed to know where the tune Ives, Holt, and Collins used came from. Those knowledgeable in traditional Irish tunes do not recognize it. Some credited Holt for it. However, early in the 21st Century a man named Bill Kennedy writing in the folk-song forum mudcat.org linked the tune to a transcription made by Dolmetsch accompanying a Yeats essay “Speaking to the Psaltery” re-published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907. The tune there of course was not meant to be sung, as Yeats discussed in this essay, but it is recognizably the one used by Ives, Holt, and Collins in their singing renditions.
So the tune may well be Yeats’ own, or perhaps it was composed by Farr or even Dolmetsch. Since the words are Yeats’, I’m going to call it, and make him the composer; and if so, that makes Yeats yet another singer-songwriter (along with Tagore and Dylan) to have won the Nobel prize.
But he didn’t sing it, nor did he intend the words to be sung. Since we at the Parlando project are working in something like the same vein, here’s a version, using more or less that tune, but chanted not sung as Yeats suggested. Instead of the psaltery, I used fretless electric bass, some bowed strings and Mellotron to elaborate the tune. To hear it, use the player below, though neither Bernard Shaw nor I will be responsible for any nerve destruction.
NOTE: I just noticed that I miss-typed “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” into “The Song of the Wondering Aengus” here. Oh my. This could be nerve destruction, or my hurry to get ready for a recording session this afternoon. Well, he is wondering after all!
When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a substantial reaction asking if songs could be literature—no, that’s not right, I’m mischaracterizing much of the reaction I read as if it was an honest inquiry into this question. No, the reaction I read was more of a conclusion that songs could not be literature, and so this Nobel award to Bob Dylan was a break with tradition, a loosening of standards.
This is complex subject, one I’ll probably return to, as I have much to say on this; but missed in the hoopla and questioning was this fact: Bob Dylan was the second singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee citing:
“Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.
In 1913 when the prize was given, Tagore had only one such work they could be talking about: “Gitanjali,” a 1912 collection of his song lyrics that Tagore had translated himself from Bengali into English prose poems.
The title page of the original English edition
Tagore is a fascinating man and artist, with achievements in so many fields that you might think I’m making him up. He wrote every kind of literature, started a university, seriously pursued modern painting, and gave Gandhi the title “Mahatma.” But he was no dabbler at songwriting, having written over 2000 songs. He’s even the only composer to score a hat trick for national anthems, having written the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Siri Lanka. His songs are so pervasive in Bengali culture that his thousands of songs have become their own genre.
“Let me lay it on you Mohandas: it means ‘Great Soul.” Also, there’s this girl in Detroit who I’m going to call the Queen of Soul.”
Poet William Butler Yeats wrote enviously in his introduction to Tagore’s “Gitanjali” of the power of songs:
“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”
This spring as I read Tagore’s “Gitanjali,” I hoped to find there on the page what is promised in Yeats’ introduction and what would normally be guaranteed by such acclaim. I failed at this. I couldn’t find it. The English of the prose translations seemed so archaic, the expression stilted, the voice vague. From accounts I’ve now read, this seems to be an acknowledged problem; and it appears that, for whatever reasons, Tagore purposely framed his translated work in an incomplete way. In the longer term, I will seek some of the newer translations. In the short term, I stood back and remembered something.
Song. These are songs.
Not only are they missing their music, but songs, like plays, are works for individual voices and talents to embody. Their creators are not claiming the real, complete thing exists on the page, that they are performing them mutely with ink on the white page. No, they expect, demand, that someone step in them, surmise their meaning, fill the blank white space with emotions, and speak them.
All art is like this really. Songs admit it. Songwriters generously say: I need you to fill these things, your humanity is better than any of my approximations.
So, today’s episode is the second of my attempts to bring something to a piece from Tagore’s “Gitanjali” using his original prose translations, as that’s all I have for now. With the last post here, “Light,” I tried to meet Bengali music partway, but this time I’m staying firmly in the Western side, maybe even a bit on the Country and Western side. As I read this piece on the page I heard it as sounding like one of those weird Lee Hazelwood arrangements from a few decades ago, but since I was producing this myself, I had to sing the Nancy Sinatra part as well.
If you wonder about the floating light ceremony mentioned in the song I call “Maiden with a Lamp,”it may be this one.
To hear me perform my vaguely C&W version of “Maiden with a Lamp,” use the player below.
We’ve already met Irish poet William Butler Yeats with a brief poem earlier this month. Now his words return with a piece suitable for the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, for “A Cold Heaven” is the tale of a rejected valentine. It’s also fitting, because Valentine’s Day comes in the midst of late-winter. February, as Margaret Atwood put it, is a “month of despair, with a skewered heart in the centre.”
Here in the northern Midwest it was a “seasonable” 19 degrees F. this morning, and hardy ice has outlived any soft covering snow. There is a promise of a thaw this weekend, but that will only recall mud and the detritus of what the snow once remembered inside it.
Critics from more temperate climes praise Yeats for his oxymoron here of “ice burned,” but up north we know that’s just what happens to skin in the cold, with no need for poetic intercession. And my back yard, my cities’ parks, and our central greenway have been home to that “rook-delighting heaven” he speaks of as well. Strange isn’t it, that the bird of death is so smart, so intentional, so sure, and yet inscrutable.
In “A Cold Heaven,” Yeats’ winter and his death-omen birds lead to a missed and misunderstood, “crossed” love; and he takes the blame: if not for the season, for the failed love. Like so many, and without the succor of chocolate or flowers, he is left in the rejected lovers worshipful, davening stance, “rocking to and fro.”
But he is a poet still! “A Cold Heaven” breaks itself in two with an image that is also a pun: “Riddled with light.” Yes, we Northerners know that winter light. Brighter than summer, and paradoxically the sign of a piercingly cold day. He knows his love’s in vain, and yet no amount of blame that he can assign himself—even if he exhausts “all sense and reason” to catalog that blame—can account for the failure of his love. What can solve this “riddle?”
Yeats begins again, with a majestic “Ah!” only to take us on a short ghost story, the spirit of his love in purgatory, in bardo, naked as a corpse or as a lover, wandering and asking why clear skies, clear answers, seem like punishment.
So to all those whose valentines were not accepted yesterday: peace. Such riddling has no end to its depths. I know this: that hole is too deep to be plumbed, just know that it’s deep. The correct prayer for such things is unknown.
Look, maybe she’s just not that into you…
As a performance, “A Cold Heaven” had some challenges because Yeats makes use of enjambment, where lines break in the middle of sentences; and where the meaning too, often forks, seeming to mean one thing before the line break and another afterward. Since I like to let the lines “breathe,” so that the music can interject, and so that the words’ impact can sit a little bit before the next line, I resorted to repeating a few words. There are also a couple of other audio tricks in the piece. The string parts, particularly at the beginning have a “backwards tape” articulation where the sound swells from louder to silence, in the reverse of the normal decay of strings, which I hope signifies the drop into the past in Yeats’ text.
To hear “A Cold Heaven” use the player gadget you should see just below this.
Today’s post returns to the issue we touched on last month with “Acting.” What is an artist’s proper role regarding politics and social issues? And why do artists who engage in politics draw especial condemnation for doing so?
This may be the wrong question. Does anyone ask, what’s the proper role of a lawyer, real estate tycoon, school teacher, doctor or fry cook in politics? None that I’ve heard of lately. My working answer to this possibly disingenuous question is going to be long, so if you can, bear with me.
Probably the only other profession that has its participation in politics questioned in any way would be clergy, and I think there are a pair of oddly similar issues with artists and clergy speaking on politics.
Artists, at least good ones, by their nature tend to be “progressives.” Please, if you can, skip by any associated political stances you attach to that label, it’s honestly the best word I could come up with. By “progressives,” I mean that artists naturally seek change, novelty, and the advancement of new ideas even if they are built on older ones. Scientists and technologists have a similar bent, but artists like to think of themselves as ahead of even the sciences in this regard. Religious leaders, teachers, preachers, tend to be “conservative.” Please apply the same caution to that word as I asked for “progressives.” By conservative, I mean that they see the values in cultural traditions as possibly being given by supernatural forces that are of a higher order than mere human thought, or at the very least, that traditions are time-tested in such a way that they need to be honored, and to extent that seems reasonable to them, for those traditions to remain unchanged.
Are there “conservative” artists. Yes, they are. It’s quite possible to be artistically progressive (important for good artistic work) and politically conservative. Shakespeare presents himself as conservative politically, but was a culture changing artist. And it’s easy for me to think of some 20th century artists who are not “conservative” but “reactionary,” Ezra Pound for one. Caution again, just a label, let me explain: I use reactionary as a label here to denote people who believe that some important elements have failed to have been conserved, and that change is necessary to return to that state or set of values that no longer effectively exist.
Are there religious “progressives.” Yes indeed. Remember that religious people overwhelmingly believe that certain values are given by superhuman forces, ones that exceed what humans themselves might honor. There has always been a large part of religious thought that says that mankind is “fallen” and so therefore is in constant need for change toward the good, a good that might never be properly illuminated by fallen human thought.
So for both our “conservative” label (clergy) and “progressive” label (artists) we’re talking associated tendencies, not absolute dictates. Humans are complicated after all; but I think that’s one thing that strangely joins concerns about artists and clergy in the political arena. Opponents to conservative clergy and progressive artists see these groups as respectively prejudiced, temperamentally oriented toward resistance to necessary change or moving toward too broad and untested change. In this outlook, their self-selected temperaments that lead to their professions blind them, and so they aren’t viewing things fairly or deeply enough because of who they are. One proof we can see in this is that it’s rare for conservatives to criticize conservative artists in politics, or for progressives to criticize religious leaders who champion progressive causes. The belief here would be that those who go against natural tendencies in their professions must be significantly immune to that issue of characteristic prejudice.
You might next think or ask: well doesn’t a fry cook or a real-estate tycoon have their own prejudices based on their livelihoods? What’s different about artists or clergy?
My answer to that moves to another thing those two professions have in common: they are both pretty much in the same business. When a religious leader gives a spell-binding sermon, or a writer moves us to tears, when a religious visionary tells us what the angels said to them, or the musician brings sounds together in a way that moves us, when the crowd rises as one, with one hosanna on their lips, does it matter here who is at the front of the house?
What is important to our question comes after these remarkably similar experiences. Are we in that crowd, and yet not moved to rise in praise like the others? Is there often a let-down, however vague and hard to explain afterward? A way in which we feel unworthy, a way in which we feel we thought we were changed and yet we are not changed? Do we ever feel tricked: fearing, or perhaps even knowing, that the artist or preacher has engineered this with the techniques of their craft, techniques that might work regardless of the content they convey?
Now what if the person at the front of the room is not an artist or a preacher, but a political figure? Don’t all the same things apply?
So all this is a prelude to a very short, yet puzzling piece, with words by William Butler Yeats: “On Being Asked for a War Poem.”
Why puzzling? Yeats is good example of an artist engaged both in spiritual concerns and politics. In the struggle for Irish independence, Yeats was a leader in the idea that Irish cultural independence as a pre-requisite for political independence. If skeptical of armed rebellion, Yeats consistently pushed for what eventually became the independent Republic of Ireland and he become a Senator after Irish independence. One of Yeats inspirations, Percy Bysshe Shelley had famously said “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Yeats in effect revised Shelley’s passage by striking “Unacknowledged!”
Couldn’t make it in the NBA, but an artist engaged in politics
What would you expect from such a man in regards the use of his art for political purposes? You’d guess he’d be all in. Well, he was asked, just like the title says. Edith Wharton asked for a poem from Yeats for book meant to raise funds for Belgian war victims during WWI, and this was his response, which indeed was printed and therefore served its charitable purpose. Here is the entire poem:
“I think it better that in times like these A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth We have no gift to set a statesman right; He has had enough of meddling who can please A young girl in the indolence of her youth, Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
So why is Yeats seeming to refuse to put his artist’s shoulder to the wheel and write a “war poem,” as so many others did? Well first, Ireland’s position in WWI was complicated, as it was not yet independent. Ireland’s colonial ruler, England, was engaged. The ancient principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” might make an Irish nationalist (at the least) abstain from taking sides.
He goes beyond that however, on the face of it saying that a poet—“a poet,” unqualified, not “this poet,” or “given that I’m a colonial subject against my will, don’t ask me for poetry about your war.” Poets, he says, have “no gift to set the statesman right.”
I don’t know what was inside Yeats’ mind, nor am any kind of expert on his work, but in thinking about these things, about how the artist, the clergy, and at times that statesmen, are all in the same line of work; an alternative reading has come to me.
That pronoun “He” that starts the fifth line, why did Yeats not make the antecedent clear? Most readers believe that the “He,” the one who’s suited to pleasing an indolent young girl or an “old man upon a winter’s night”—that last, a character who could be that frightened and lonely farmer in Frost’s poem we recently featured here—is the poet, or a poet performing his rightful role. If so, it’s a surprisingly modest, even dismissive, statement of a poet’s worth. However, the last noun before that pronoun “He” isn’t the poet, it’s the “statesmen.” English syntax rules indicate that “statesmen” could likely be the “He.” If I write “Frank went to a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game, saw Karl Anthony Towns, and he scored 42 points.” We know that I couldn’t score 42 points, even in an empty gym, not because of my athletic ineptitude, but because we usually think the pronoun refers to the last applicable noun before it.
Not the author of this post, but he can play some ball
So did Yeats slyly mean to say that a statesman, like the poet, like the artist in general, is engaged in the same game, fooling the youth and the feeble old?
I have more to say about artists with political opinions in the upcoming week, but to hear the LYL Band and William Butler Yeats “On Being Asked for a War Poem” use the player below.
Today’s post, as I’m reminded specifically today about the clergy and political action by his life, is dedicated to Lester Moore, the father of Dave Moore. You’ve heard Dave reading and playing keyboards here (including the various keyboards in today’s piece).