Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Another Musical Dialogue

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

The genesis for the essay below dates way back to May 2003, when I had a brief email dialogue with a disc jockey in Dallas. At that time, I didn’t have Internet access on my computer at home here in West Texas; I was using one of the computers at Sul Ross State University to write emails and posts for a previous blog. Since I didn’t have my own Internet service available for music appreciation, I was limited to my small collection of LP’s and the local radio station. All that was played on the radio was country & western and golden oldies. I like classical C&W but not the modern stuff, and I also like many of the old pop hits; but I would have preferred for the broadcasts to be dominated by classical music. Fat chance!
The radio station piped in its music (and national/state news) from Dallas. (By the way, the Dallas station has long since replaced its music format with right wing news and talk shows.) After several months of listening, I noticed that there was a lot of repetition; the same songs were played almost every day. I knew more old records were available, particularly at a shop on Garland Road called “Collectors Records”. I decided the Dallas station could use a little coaching from Bob Litton, so I emailed the disc jockey, Bud Buschardt.
In my first email, I mentioned “Collectors Records” to him and suggested he shop a little there. He replied that he knew of the store and in fact had helped the owner establish his inventory.
I also suggested about half a dozen titles to him, emphasizing the Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”, probably my most favorite of all, which I conceded might not be played much because it is a slight “downer”. Bud replied that he could not recall ever hearing Karen Carpenter’s song, that all the station’s music has to be tested in “focus groups”, and that “if it’s a “downer’, we wouldn’t play it because we have to keep all our music upbeat.”
I began to mull over the “downer” question and felt I had to write something about it, if for no other reason than my own amusement…and possibly Bud’s. I don’t know if it amused him or not, since he didn’t reply to my final email, repeated below with some slight editing in the interest of clarity and fullness.

 * * * * * *
Hi Bud,
¶A phrase in our recent email dialogue — “”probably a little bit too much of a downer” — settled in my brain, germinated into a theme, and now demands hatching. Two qualities in my character predetermined such an event: a lifelong tendency to melancholia, and a compulsion to analyze everything to death. I will write it, and you have the choice of reading it or not.
¶Actually, I fib slightly when implying that the subject of the psychology of popular music only recently occurred to me; I have considered the matter almost every time I have heard a popular song, and even some classical pieces, over the past quarter-century. Perhaps I should go back even further, and I might if we eliminate the philosophical plane. For, in my early teens I know I reacted very negatively to songs I considered silly, such as Eddie Fisher’s “O Mein Papa” and Frankie Laine’s “Cry of the Wild Goose”. On the other hand, during the high school years, I would put my ear to the radio and turn up the volume to listen to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Bill Doggett’s “Honkytonk”. However, these were all hormonal reactions, not discriminating ones. I never questioned whether any of the songs should have been recorded or aired.
¶Perhaps it was while I was at the university that I was first alerted to individuals’ clashing emotional responses to music. I was sitting in the student center at SMU listening to a song I had played on the jukebox — Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (from the TV show “Peter Gunn”) — when a couple of coeds in a booth across the room reacted, one of them complaining, “Why did anybody play that depressing song?” I was surprised but didn’t say anything. I had never considered “Dreamsville” depressing — slow certainly, as most piano bar jazz songs are, but not depressing.
¶Also during my university years, I learned about Plato’s — and the Spartans’ notion that all music other than marches should be forbidden. I never liked marches, excepting the “Entry of the Guests” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser and his “Prelude to Act II of Die Meistersinger.  The idea that anyone would want to ban love songs and other non-martial music was worrisome.
¶I am much older now, and my blood has cooled quite a bit, so, when I hear young people driving with their car windows open and their radios blaring incomprehensible songs, I have to remind myself of the days when my sap was running strong and I had my head up against the radio. Also, I listen more attentively to the lyrics now (if I can understand them), and many of them strike me as not only silly but downright harmful.
¶As examples, I will cite the lines “Anyway you want me, that’s how I will be” (Elvis Presley) and “I would sell my very soul and not regret it” (Perry Como). I have met a few people over the years who were willing to submit themselves to their lovers’ designs, and I felt sorry for them. As for the Como bit, I can’t enjoy any of his songs anymore after hearing “It’s Impossible”.  One day, I was sitting at the bar in a small Dallas pub when a woman (one of the regulars) at the other end of the bar happened to mention that she liked “It’s Impossible” very much.
¶“How can you say that, Nancy?” I exclaimed. “This guy’s saying he would sell his soul and not regret it, all for some love interest. Your soul is your personhood.”
¶Another regular (man) sitting near me said, “It’s just a song, Bob.”
¶Since then, I’ve noted the effect a song has on me as I listen to it, and I have come up with some interesting insights in the process. (At least I consider them insights.)
¶The most pertinent insight here is that the words alone do not necessarily make a song depressing. Sometimes, in fact, what on the surface might seem like a “downer” can be belied to a degree by the music. I think such is the case with George Jones’ “The Race Is On” and, to a lesser extent, with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (naturally)”, where the tempo is fast—mimicking a horse race— in the first instance and lilting in the second. Moreover, parts of each song are rendered amusing — to my temperament even comical — by the lyrics:
“And here comes pride up the backstretch/Heartaches are goin’ to the inside/My tears are holdin’ back/They’re tryin’ not to fall.”
and, from “Alone Again”:
“Left standing in the lurch at a church/ where folks were saying, ‘My god, that’s tough/ she stood him up/ no point in us remaining.”
Another song where the humor of the lyrics counteracts the supposedly melancholy theme of the song is Kris Kristopherson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down (from a hangover)”:
“ I woke up Sunday morning/With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/So I had one more for dessert/Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes/And found my cleanest dirty shirt.”
The old C&W songwriters were really good at sensuously humorous lyrics.
¶Before I depart from C&W, I want to say a little about a couple of my favorites, which in their narratives are “sad” songs yet arouse only admiration in me: ” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil”. Both of these are true poems! Being a Texan, I have lived through enough summers, with the heat waves rising off the railroad tracks, to pick up on the sensual evocation of a southern country June in “Ode”. I love its detailed, sensual imagery. Of course, it’s the story of two lovers with a dark secret (presumably an abortion) which leads to the suicide of one and the anticipated suicide of the other, but their secret is perhaps too secret to involve me; and, after all, it is a ballad — a ballad in the tradition of “Edward” and “Barbara Allen”. They’re always tragic but tragic at a safe distance.
¶‟Long Black Veil” is balladic, too, in a different manner: it’s slower, deeper, more masculine, if you will. The words are very simple, almost all of one or two syllables; and the lines follow one another inevitably, rather like the better poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Of course, the story is supposed to be tragic; but I don’t get involved with it in that way because, had I been the defendant, I would have told the judge that “I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”. No hanging for love for me.
¶There are a few songs I would consider as genuinely touching the depressive nerve but which don’t go all the way because the protagonists are aware of a broader picture. One of these is Frank Sinatra’s “Cycles”. The singer acknowledges that he has been through more rough times than he would have liked “…but so have many others”. He recognizes that life is made up of cycles (“first there’s laughter then there’s tears”). He knows he’ll be able to sing a happy song again…sometime…‟just don’t ask me now”. So we know this guy’s in a bad spot, but he’s not knocked unconscious by it. It’s a moody song, a philosophical song, but not a particularly depressing one.
¶A song roughly similar to Sinatra’s is “You Gave Me A Mountain” by Elvis. Man! Everything happens to this poor chap! The whole closet of woes has been dumped on him. But that’s just it. So many bad things happen to him throughout his life — from his mother dying while giving him birth to his wife running away with his only child — that I am too overwhelmed with his long list of troubles to really empathize. It’s just too preposterous.
¶Now we come to my favorite pop song of all time: The Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”. (It was reportedly Karen Carpenter’s favorite, too.) Here again the singer-subject knows her down mood is not an untraversable chasm. She knows that the means of crossing over it lies within herself.
“I know I need to be in love;
I know I’ve wasted too much time;
I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
a fool enough to think that’s what I’ll find.”
Nevertheless, the danger is there and it’s real:
“Wide awake at four AM without a friend in sight,
hanging on a hope that I’m all right.”
She’s in a dark moment emotionally, and there’s no one available to talk her out of it…except herself. She has sufficient self-awareness to pull herself together. The tension lies in the question of whether she will do it. I have been in that condition many times myself, so the lyrics ring very true to my ears. It is because they so well articulate my own self-criticisms that, instead of depressing me, they hearten me.
¶Well, Bud, that’s the end of my little essay on “downer” music. I hope you read it and get something out of it. As for me, the little egg that’s been pestering me has finally hatched.
Best regards,
Bob

Finis

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Paean to the Sun

©2017 By Bob Litton

Glad to seeya, Fireball,
as you bring a new day —
it’s what I count on — the morn —
thus I take you for a given!
I always assume I’ll view the next.
They say I came from you
as a blown-off cinder
long before I had a name.

Like a smothering mother
you hover around too long
sometimes, drying the grass
and the streams to death
and wrinkling my skin.
Yet I need your radiance
absorbed to keep my bones
from breaking —
which has more value,
the bones or the skin?

On a grander note, I like
the way you light up the horizon —
both at dawn and at dusk —
when the clouds become canvases,
and your beams transform
into pastel palettes, enough — almost —
to refute the atheists.
No one but God, I’ve heard it said,
can paint a sunset.

                       Finis

Thanks

Thank you for visiting my blog, which I am dropping for art and health’s sake. I will leave it in cyberspace for anyone who might want to browse through the 43 months of archives.

Goodbye.

BL

Naughty Children…Rated R.

© 2016 By Bob Litton.  All Rights Reserved.

It’s a good thing Christmas is already done and gone; I would hate to complicate the stockings for any toddlers who might accidentally see this post and become corrupted at a very early age. But, oh heck, it’s bound to happen someday, what difference does it make if that day is today?

Recently, for some unknown reason, I began reflecting on my childhood experiences, particularly on the little ditties my playmates and I used to sing between our giggles. Whoever wrote the lyrics, I have no idea; the tunes, though, went with familiar songs from operas…although we were not acquainted with any operas at that age (5- to 8-years-old).

Here’s the first one; the tune’s source I don’t know, but it was well-known — perhaps “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (?), or the “Bacchanale” from Camille Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Dalila (?):

“All the girls in France
wear tissue paper pants.
All the girls in Spain
go naked in the rain.”

Now, who came up with those verses? The author surely must have been an adult; it is highly unlikely that any child wrote them. I want to make it entirely clear here that the depictions of national habits are fabricated…false. And I do not believe the author of those scandalous lines was intentionally being derogatory; he (or she) was more probably just depending on the countries’ names as sources for rhyme words, just as many of our naughtier limericks include “Nantucket”.

What interests me now, though, is the question: To what extent did our singing those ditties reflect our level of developing knowledge about what is naughty? Actually, in my case it is an unanswerable conundrum. My memory is not that retrievable or specific; I do well just to recall having sung them when I was so young.

And here’s the second, sung to the “Toréador Song” chorus in Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen:

“Toréador, don’t spit on the floor.
Use a cuspidor; that’s what it’s for.”

Those lines, of course, are not “naughty” in the usual sense of the term, merely slightly gross. I can credit them for at least causing me to learn what a “cuspidor” is, for I had never seen one and did not see one until many years later, in a movie.

Finally, here is one which I suppose we can say is derogatory, although not against any nation or even any particular persons. The words are to be sung to the “Bridal Chorus” music from Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin:

“Here comes the bride,
Big, fat and wide;
Here comes the groom,
Skinny as a broom.”

Now, on what occasion would any child sing that?! Only during those times when two or more of them are together and acting silly — which happens frequently; or at least did during my early childhood. I believe you will agree with me that the verse is snide, and to that limited but still hurtful extent “naughty”. Many children, I believe, sometimes feel impelled to be cruel in what they say: What child hasn’t yelled at a parent he/she loves but who is denying them something, “I hate you!”?

Very young children are not as “innocent” as parents and politicians often proclaim them to be.

Finis

A Retrospective of Love Poems

©1962, 1964, 2013, 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Here it is Valentine’s Day morning and it just dawned on me that perhaps I should have resurrected some of my old love poems and included them in the February 11 post along with the essays.

Don’t expect seductive poems from me, people. When I was in a seducing mood in my youth, poetry was seldom on my mind, although I could be incidentally poetic in my conversations with or about a few coeds. For instance, one day while I was sitting in the student center lounge with a young man and a young woman — both acquaintances of several months — I looked at the woman and spontaneously said, “Rhonda, you’re Eve, the apple, and the serpent all rolled into one.”

The young man glanced at me and said, “You’re feeling poetic, aren’t you?”

“Not really,” I replied. “That thought just occurred to me.”

Another time shortly afterwards, I was dating a young lady with one of the most beautiful necks I have ever seen. While discussing her with a friend I mentioned her neck and told him that I had nicknamed her “Fawn”. A few weeks later, when I and “Fawn” walked into another student’s apartment where  a small party was happening, my friend, who was sitting on a couch near the door, announced, “Deerslayer!” I never mentioned to the young lady that I had given her a nickname, so of course she did not gather the allusion intended by my friend’s exclamation. I have since then regretted that I did not inform the lady of her nickname: I think it was not only apt but also complimentary.

I have no prejudice against “sweet” love poems. It is just that when my thoughts turn to romance it is usually after the affair is over, so the poems tend to be melancholic, ironic, or cynical. I must try to write a “sweet” before-the-affair love poem, just to see if I can do it without smearing the lines with licorice.

Well, enough of a preface. Here is the URL to those love poems I promised you. Just click on the post’s heading. Happy Valentine’s Day everybody!

https://boblitton.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/in-a-somewhat-romantic-mood/

Finis

The Widow’s Pique

© 1968, 2016 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  Almost in self-defense, I feel I must provide the exculpatory background for the poem published here today. In 1968, when I composed the first version, I was a fairly young man and still wrestling with some anger toward my parents for not providing me with a “happy home” like some of my friends seemed blessed with. The poem (as I deem it) was a seepage of that anger.
     As I grew older, however, much of that anger dissipated and I began to view my parents in a more charitable light; I began to recall their difficulties and benefices as often as their faults. A growing awareness of my own weaknesses certainly contributed to the forgiveness.
     I showed the poem to my professor in Old English, hoping for at least a bland approval. Then he surprised me by asking me to read it to our Anglo-Saxon seminar class. That was undoubtedly a mistake, since I was the only male in a class of ten students. I don’t think any of the ladies appreciated it; at any rate, none of them applauded after I had finished reading.
∗ Although the “models” for the two characters in this cameo production were my parents, the full scene is not meant to be complete portraits of them: The production is intended to be a broader satire, as is hinted in the title. The widow here is viewed as typical of some women, but not all women. The same is true of the “first man”.
∗ I kept the poem in my files for decades, not sure what to do with it. On the one hand, even I grew to find its “cynicism” a bit overdone and its tone too critical of my parents (for I continued to view them primarily as models here). On the other hand, I retained some feeling of pride in the imagery and rhetorical value of several of the lines and, as always, relished my talent for irony. Oh, how I love irony!
∗ Anyway, I took it out of the files today and worked it over some, particularly in an effort to improve some of the rhythmical parts. I doubt that I was very successful, but I do think it is at least slightly better than the original version. Scansion was never a strength in me.
     So, please, dear readers, try to concentrate on the rhetoric and the irony and don’t become deflected by the cynicism.
BL 

∗The red asterisks above indicate paragraph indentions. For some reason I have not been able to fathom, the editing page will accept some of my indentions but not others. And I have given up trying to correct the malfunctions.

I

Framed where the stair turns, her first man smiles —
sketched in the flesh, painted in absentia,
sepia-and-umber-toned like a Dürer print.
Gray tendrils from ledges of brow
curl down coppery loam toward gold-flecked iris.
Filled with actions and fortunes outside
this mundane scene, one more rainbow’s pot
grandly refracts in his Balboan eyes.
His pollen-drugged thoughts disperse,
cast adrift upon disclaimed, illicit streams.
“Don’t we come out of the soil to leave it —
to seek the sun, bowing upward through
its radiance, hungry for heaven’s nutrient,
disdaining the toilsome tunneling of a root?
The meshes of a root!  Entangling itself
confusedly in the dankness of the earth,
while beyond a shuttered window the sun…laughs…”
But since the window opened to night, not day,
he paused fatally the lunar interim,
an orchid wilting on the widow’s bosom.

II

Now she, broad-faced lily plucked from the pond —
nourished with cold cream here — eyes him warily
as she descends the clef-curve of the stair.
Fearful of the sun’s leer — with its jaundice
that burns into amber — glistening, yes,
like a fly’s neck — she shuts the shutters.  Clack!
Woman’s woes concretized streak her hair,
counted each day with petulant lips
redundantly before a two-faced mirror:
“I must rinse it tomorrow,” she sighs.
On the couch…just so…composed with a pill,
she still rummages for the witch’s brew
or whatever the ad of the living:
auguries, faith-healers, folk medicine ─
anything but gamble and scramble for fool’s gold,
as he did!  Motion is always a circle, it seems.
And this now man who lumps in his bed and wheezes!
Why didn’t someone warn her?  Foolish girl,
to marry again in the giddiness of death’s divorce.
She knows at last: This one, too, won’t blot the sun.
At the edge of lamplight she pinches from her lips
an idea, “After he’s dead, I’ll get a dog.”

Finis

On Words

©2016 By Bob Litton
There were periods in my life when I earned a living employing words. And I have read many more words through a lifetime, a lot of which I never have used in my own compositions. I had to look too many of them up in a dictionary or guess their meanings from the contexts; one such term is “fascicle”, which I came upon yesterday in a book about the poems disguised as prose in Emily Dickinson’s letters. That word was used in this sentence: The poem follows a progression found in some of Dickinson’s other nature poems of the fascicle years: first a simple description of nature and then, in a later stanza, the leap to the transcendental level.” And that is followed by an ambiguous use of the word transitive in one of her briefer poems:
         That a pansy is transitive,
          is its only pang.
          This, precluding that,
          is indeed divine.

Like most English words, the above two terms have more than one meaning. Looking them both up in my dictionary, I inferred that fascicle, as intended by the critic, refers to Dickinson’s habit of bundling several poems together, punching a couple of holes through the pages, and running strings through them—making her own books; for, one of the meanings of fascicle is “one of the divisions of a book published in parts.”

As for transitive, I sensed while reading Emily’s poem that she was using that word in the same sense I would have used transitory or transient, meaning “of brief duration/temporary.” I wondered if her choice had been dictated by a concern for meter and connotation, since transitory contains one syllable more than transitive, and transient summons an image of physical movement, particularly of hoboes, as much as it does of time passing. That poem, a virtual brain-teaser, is difficult enough in its composition and content without adding ambiguous acceptation to the puzzle.

It is not just in academic and poetical works that I find words that halt my reading pace. Recently I was escape-reading in an omnibus volume of Nero Wolfe novels and novellas by Rex Stout. Twice in a single day up popped a word that I had seen before, but long ago, and I could not recall its exact meaning. No dictionary was at hand. I thought I would remember the word and look it up later; I kept on reading; I didn’t remember the word. Such occurrences have  happened too many times.

Before I leave Rex Stout’s works, I want to mention an example of how Stout never passed up an opportunity, even in his Nero Wolfe novels, to castigate organizations such as the FBI and even the G. & C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s New International Dictionary, whenever they breached his principles. The first chapter of Gambit (1962) opens with a scene of Wolfe sitting in front of his fireplace, tearing out pages of the new dictionary, and tossing them into the fire. He explains his activity to a new client, who has just entered the room, thus:
          ‘Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”
          She did fine, She said simply, “No.”
          “This book says you may. Pfui. I prefer not to interrupt this auto-da-fe. You wish
           to consult me?”
I agree with Nero Wolfe’s, i.e. Rex Stout’s, judgment about infer and imply absolutely.

Another problem I have with words, and even proper names, is that I often forget the most common ones — not just the rarely used or more difficult ones — the frequently used ones. And worse still, often I have thought of the word I needed within the previous hour. Naturally, this problem is directly related to my transformation into an old man. If  I were not a compulsive writer, perhaps such a weakness would not be as exasperating as it is; but when I have to pause  in my typing several minutes — perhaps even pull up an Internet dictionary or call a friend — to recover the desired word, well, that’s just maddening.

And that is one of the reasons I don’t produce as much for this blog as I would like.

Finis

 

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