William Zantzinger died on January 3rd, almost 46 years after he was held responsible for the February 9, 1963 death of an African-American barmaid named Hattie Carroll. Bob Dylan transformed Zantzinger into a national villain and a symbol of why a civil rights revolution was needed. Dylan's memorable song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" was recorded on October 23, 1963 and released on January 13, 1964 on his album The Times They Are a-Changin'.
However vicious, repulsive, racist, and cruel Zantzinger may have been, the facts of Hattie Carroll's death don't completely cohere with the way the song presents them. Zantzinger was at a fancy event dressed up and carrying a toy cane. According to news reports, a drunken Zantzinger hit several employees with the cane and repeatedly used racially derogatory words. At one point he went to the bar and asked Hattie Carroll for a drink. She was evidently too slow for him, and he began calling her racially insulting names and hitting her on the shoulder with the cane. Carroll, whose heart was enlarged and who had hypertension, went to the kitchen. She left and later collapsed and died of a stroke. The medical examiner thought Zantzinger's nasty language had bothered her as the caning. A three-judge panel concluded that the caning itself could not have caused her death and so reduced the charges to manslaughter. Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in jail. In the song, Zantzinger's sentence has much to do with Zantginger's high political connections. In fact, his father had served a single term as a state legislator and been on the Maryland Planning Commission.
Writing for the January 26, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, David Simon (creator of The Wire) notes that he interviewed Zantzinger 25 years after the death. The most interesting part of the interview is that Zantzinger claims he was going to sue Dylan. He told Simon, "Scared that boy good." Zantzinger claimed his lawyer had contacted both Dylan and Columbia Records but refrained from the suit because Zantzinger had had enough of courtrooms.
But there is a lingering question. It was just about the time of the album's release and its immediate aftermath--the very time that Zantzinger's lawyers would most likely have threatened Columbia and Dylan with a lawsuit--that Dylan began to move away from explicitly political songs.
His reasons for doing so--the desire to explore the personal and a refusal to be owned by any movement--continue to make the most sense, and there is no reason to conclude Dylan ever lacked courage or felt legally or artistically threatened by a possible lawsuit. Indeed, Dylan was always a particularly courageous artist. But it would be interesting to see Columbia's legal file on the matter. And I wonder if the realization that the political songs could not be written without sometimes getting a nasty reaction and potential confrontation also contributed in some way to Dylan's move away from those explicitly political songs.
BAP fan and blogger Bill Cohen is looking for submissions from tattooed poets! Bill wants to post an image of a poet's tattoo on his blog Tattoosday every day this April, National Poetry Month. Bill tells us that your tattoo doesn't have to be literary in nature to qualify. If your tattoo gets featured, Bill hopes to give a little history of your tattoo, some background about you and your poetry, and he'll include links to your own website, books, and poems. With your permission, he'll even post a poem on his companion blog, BillyBlog. Contact Bill at email@example.com.
(Bill's tattoo, left)
Links of Snow
Snow to me, I say,
Is what bananas are to
I thought snow useless
Until I saw a book sez:
A physicist cried:
Wake up, David, you never
Thought snow was useful!?
No, no, no., never
Have I ever thought that snow
Was useful! To skis
trees, warming flowers,
giving symbolists white hours--
SNOW IS NOT MONEY!
A snowman blinks, War.
Time of the empire, fat whore!
On the lawn, new snow!
As if pardoned from
death by the Czar of all Rus:
he received her note!
Swifter than haiku,
deeper than Prospero's book,
E-mail like snow...Look! [DS, 1 / 17 / 03]
Music of Poetry, and Ginsberg’s Box Remembered
Violin on floor --
Haven't practiced in months now--
Hear planes in the air!
Mute violin there--
No more sound than Al's squeeze-box--
Practice haiku more-! DS, 1 / 18 / 03
Greetings from my hut
in Manhattan where I slept
late this cold morning.
Breakfast at noon, no
strings but a piano plays
"Shall We Dance" (Rodgers).
Yes, I still live back
in the fifties in Brooklyn
cheering the Dodgers. (DL, 1/ 18 / 03]
Borges: Baseball is a metaphysical game because it need never conclude
And I in NJ
I make the snowy commute
Over the nude bridge!
How I've ended there!
It may never end!
I walked Weequahic Park ("wekwak”)
Now my family is gone---
Let's take mental walk! (DS, 1 / 19 / 03]
Obama wrote "Pop" when he was 19. To my mind the most potent line in the poem is one of the shortest: "Fail to pass." The multiple extra meanings of pass (a football play, a satisfactory grade, a highway maneuver, et al) and the particular resonance of the word in African-American history (i.e., “to pass” as white) make it worth pondering. The young poet’s ability to create a drama and build to a climax is impressive, and the line-breaks (“broken / in”) are not, as charged by Ian McMillin in The Guardian, gratuitous. While the poem's earnest emotional intensity is its most salient feature, the appearance of "easy" and "hard" in alternate lines (eight and nine)
and the internal rhyme of “stare” and “unaware” (lines nine and eleven)
suggests a degree of literary sophistication. Finally, consider the simile Obama uses to describe the shrinking of his grandfather in size and significance until he resembles nothing more than "A spot in my brain, something / That may be squeezed out, like a /Watermelon seed between / Two fingers."
Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world, since
Things have been easy for me;
I stare hard at his face, a stare
That deflects off his brow;
I'm sure he's unaware of his
Dark, watery eyes, that
Glance in different directions,
And his slow, unwelcome twitches,
Fail to pass.
I listen, nod,
Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,
Beige T-shirt, yelling,
Yelling in his ears, that hang
With heavy lobes, but he's still telling
His joke, so I ask why
He's so unhappy, to which he replies . . .
But I don't care anymore, cause
He took too damn long, and from
Under my seat, I pull out the
Mirror I've been saving; I'm laughing,
Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face
To mine, as he grows small,
A spot in my brain, something
That may be squeezed out, like a
Watermelon seed between
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I've got on mine and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem
He wrote before his mother died,
Stands, shouts, and asks
For a hug, as I shink, my
Arms barely reaching around
His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; 'cause
I see my face, framed within
Pop's black-framed glasses
And know he's laughing too.
-- Barack Obama
After my parents’ accident, the pies kept coming: chicken
pot pies (sized for one person), blueberry pies, ice cream pies, peach
cobblers, lemon meringues, pecan pies, pies that were still warm in their tins,
apple pies, another chicken pot pie (a big square one), pies with chocolate
pudding inside, rhubarb pies, cherry pies, pies with crisscross slats of crust
on top. Pies from the church, pies from my mother’s quilting group, pies from
the neighbors, pies from the aunts. Pies lined the kitchen counter, pies packed
the freezer. Holy pies, pies with painkiller filling, herbal pies, prayer pies,
pies that kept vigil, pies brimming with novenas, pies full of secrets that
even doctors don’t know, magic spell pies, smooth soothing pies overflowing
with the music of rainforests, pies made from circles of light, pies with
“Healing Pies” from Ka-Ching!
Also by Denise Duhamel from
the Pitt Poetry Series: Queen for a Day $14.00 American Poetry Now (ed. Ed Ochester) features poems by Denise Duhamel, and many others from the Pitt Poetry
Two and Two $14.00
Queen for a Day $14.00
American Poetry Now (ed. Ed Ochester) features poems by Denise Duhamel, and many others from the Pitt Poetry
From the forthcoming film by Bill Hayward, Asphalt, Muscle and Bone, about a man at risk, the persistence of imagination and the impossibility of love. Produced by Bill Hayward and Anna Elman.
See more of Bill Hayward's work here.
The Poets March On Washington
What do we want?
When do we want it?
What do we want?
When do we want it?
What do we want?
When do we want it?
-- James Cummins
from The Best American Poetry 2005 (ed. Paul Muldoon)
Next week, as we all know, Elizabeth Alexander (left) will read a poem composed for the occasion at the inauguration of Barack Obama. The welcome mat is being extended by communities beyond the sphere of constant poetry-readers. George W. Bush disdained the presence of a poet at his two inaugurations, and in fact there now seems to be a party split as to the desirability of having a poet share the limelight with the pastor and the new president. Republicans say no, in thunder, and Democrats gladly schedule a few minutes of verse as part of the ceremony. Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and Miller Williams have spent time at the podium, thanks to the sponsorship of center-left presidents-elect. This situation seems rather odd, since conservatives historically have respected the literary, and more generally the cultural, tradition. Who is more conservative than a poet—he or she who seeks to conserve or preserve the riches of the English language and the wisdom of the ages? Modern poets were more politically conservative than not, as with Pound, Eliot, Frost, Tate, and Stevens, though the term is clearly insufficient for the complexity of their poetic temperaments, to say nothing of figures like D. H. Lawrence (an honorary American), William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Alexander is an excellent choice because she carries forward what I think of as the great tradition of public poetry by African American authors exemplified most ambitiously by Robert Hayden(right). That is, she has worked hard to construct a pantheon of black citizens and artists, and victims, in order to write the African American person into the complex narrative of American history. Hayden worked programmatically to place the lives of figures like Phillis Wheately, Nat Turner, Cinquez (Alexander has also written a long poem featuring the Amistad), Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Paul Robeson, Tiger Flowers, Bessie Smith, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and others, into the literary record. (He was completing a poem about Josephine Baker when he died.) His agenda evokes the statues of presidents and generals and suchlike that populated most communities in the nation until recently. Nobody seems to miss these statues, except Tom Wolfe who has argued for them in several essays, but we would certainly miss the presence of neglected public figures in poems if writers like Alexander, and Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, Rita Dove, Sam Cornish, A. Van Jordan, and many others, stopped writing them.
Once it was a culture war, or perhaps a race war, as to which people were to be celebrated. Don L. Lee addressed white readers in the 1960s in what he called a nationhood poem, “u take artur rubenstein over thelonious monk . . .u take robert bly over imamu baraka . . . u take picasso over charles white . . .” Hayden made no such binary oppositions in his poems and criticism, which earned him the enmity of poets like Lee (now Haki R. Madhubuti), nor does Alexander, though in her signature poem “Today’s News,” she imagines the host of the old TV program This Is Your Life as an apparition with a message: “Ralph Edwards comes into the bedroom and says, ‘Elizabeth / this is your life. Get up and look for color, / look for color everywhere.’” A self-confessed “child of Gwendolyn Brooks and Walt Whitman,” in her poem “Stravinsky in L.A.” Alexander has the composer looking for color everywhere, and juxtaposes his welding of found colors into sounds with the syncretic towers of Simon Rodia in Watts.
On the National Mall and by our TV sets all Americans will be looking for color at the inauguration and seeing plenty of it, a feast for sore eyes. And listening for Alexander to read a poem that will bring memories of Robert Frost at the Kennedy inauguration, unable to read his long prepared text, “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration” in the blustery weather, but speaking “The Gift Outright” as a full-throated discourse on the nation’s marriage to the land.
Poetry critics need something to write about, so the old debates continue, like those between
Ticklish no longer
Nor rooted, crimson, over
The worm's inching stupor
Little but a spirit
Costly and volatile
Am I, want of my touch unstoppers
Now that you suffer it.
-- James Merrill [1926-1995]
from The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace 
A quick plug for a class I'm teaching at the 92nd Street Y beginning in February: It's on reading poetry--your own and others'--aloud to an audience (very useful for poets and public speakers). Here's the description: This hands-on performance workshop, combining literary and theatrical practice, looks closely at what makes a poetry reading compelling, clear and resonant. Through textual analysis, vocal technique and group discussion and critique, students will create a pliant and powerful reading style to best serve their work. (Below is an anthology--my favorite when I was a kid--that has a poetry reading on the cover.) The class runs for eight Tuesdays beginning February 10, 2009 (6:30pm-9:00pm) at the You can read more about it and register here.
A quick plug for a class I'm teaching at the 92nd Street Y beginning in February: It's on reading poetry--your own and others'--aloud to an audience (very useful for poets and public speakers).
Here's the description: This hands-on performance workshop, combining literary and theatrical practice, looks closely at what makes a poetry reading compelling, clear and resonant. Through textual analysis, vocal technique and group discussion and critique, students will create a pliant and powerful reading style to best serve their work. (Below is an anthology--my favorite when I was a kid--that has a poetry reading on the cover.)
The class runs for eight Tuesdays beginning February 10, 2009 (6:30pm-9:00pm) at the
You can read more about it and register here.
If you were empowered by the gods to travel back into the canon of poetry in English and change or delete one line, which would it be? On occasions, sometimes years apart, I’ve put this query to literary acquaintances, and the winner of this unscientific survey is. . . Percy Shelley’s plaintive cry, “I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed.” The reason often given, and it’s clear by the swiftness with which this line is proffered that many of my contacts have not heard the question for the first time, is that this line is a blemish on a great poem that has no other bad line, not even a so-so line, but is poetry at its purest and most consummate perfection. The poem, of course, is “Ode to the West Wind.” Actually, I have come to like “I fall upon the thorns of life,” which is thoroughly in tone with the fine succeeding lines, “A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.” One has to hear and feel the desperate abandon of the whole passage to appreciate the upsweep of canto 5 when the poet becomes a seer of divine power who, “by the incantation of this verse,” trumpets a prophecy to mankind.
But “I bleed” is, admittedly, beyond the pale, over the top. Within the decorum of the poem it reaches too far and the strain of the gasped two words causes an audible snap. How might we improve the line. Substitute “, and need” or “, a seed”? Those are bland enough to not claw at the reader’s taste. I recall the story of Paul Valéry pausing at a bookstore window and reading two pages of verse from an open book. France’s reigning poetic genius, he tries to improve even one word of the text before him, and fails. He goes into the bookstore and finds that the book is Racine’s Phèdre. No, I am not Paul Valéry, and will not presume to tamper with Shelley any longer.
Another favorite response is (you saw this coming) the last line of the first stanza of Stanley Kunitz’s great poem “Father and Son.” The speaker pursues the phantom figure of his dead father, who never shared the boy’s childhood (and who, we know, took his life while Stanley was in the womb). The boy is lost in “the silence unrolling before me as I came, / The night nailed like an orange to my brow.” The principle is the same as with Shelley: the high quality of the entire poem casts a brighter light on the offending lapse. As it happens, a younger and brasher version of myself asked Kunitz about this line on the occasion of his visit to the University of Michigan . He smiled wanly and gave what I took to be his standard response. Many people had asked him about the line over the years, but now the poem is so well-known, so often anthologized, even (I reminded him) praised as a precursor to the movement of Confessional Poetry, that it was now too late to change it. He looked down and said again in a whisper, “Too late.” Never too late I wanted to reply, but I felt intensely his desire to change the subject.
There is the problem of failed locutions – Matthew Arnold’s “Who prop, thou ask’st, in these bad
This is the story of a poem.
Here is a link right to the poem: The poem.
A long time ago, in a galaxy you are soaking in right now, I was just another crazy kid with a taste for the macabre living in the big city and teaching on Long Island. It was New Years Eve and I was tarting up to go to my bff’s party and also probably predrinking and wrote this poem that I wrote because I didn’t have a New Years Boyfriend that particular December and yet my dour was alleviated by the fact that I had this great party to which to go, and in gratitude I sat down and wrote it, the poem of which we speak. I am that poet up with which you are putting right now.
I guess I was already writing Doubt then? No. Not. I was probably still writing academic articles on the Society of Mutual Autopsy and cetera. Still the work was on atheism and we talked about it and always mostly shared ground. I guess M just musta said to me, in laughter, that she thought I might leave her if she started to believe in God again, as she had in her youth. I wanted to say to her dude, I don’t mind if you give in to feeling too much, believe me, in my way I have always given in and would be glad if you did too in whatever way you want to feel too much, I’m with you, as I am your bff and as I respect feeling too much.
So the poem was about passion -- to me, awe is awesome. Getting pretty for the party I was not in the basket of the zeppelin of joy but was above the great balloon itself that’s rising. So I wanted to get that feeling on screen, so I wrote this long praise poem and I brought it to the party that night (on paper) which I went to early (as requested, bff style), and in tote, the poem. M read and it teared her up and totally mussed her New Years Eve mascara, for which I was duly berated and even perhaps physically knocked around. Wink. (In person I would have demonstrated the girlfriend spank, a back and forth slapping motion applied up and down the outer arm).
I never published the poem until I put it in my book, my first book of poetry and my first book at all. It seemed too full of secrets and it is, but don’t think you know which are mine, or Ms or anyone's for that matter. It is full of secrets, like a nicked bloody heart pumping at the center of the text. But what are you gunna do, right, yer a poet, you spill, you’re gonna get some of it on your shirt. I shuddered to put it in print in a way, but I weigh it and figure: unshutter.
Posted by Jennifer Michael Hecht on January 14, 2009 at 12:44 PM in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Lion and the Honeycomb | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Graduate students have a sorry game in which they try to imagine dissertation topics that sound impressive but would only take a week or less to complete. A Variorum Edition of the Complete Poems of Chidiock Tichborne is appealing since this sixteenth-century Brit left behind only one extant poem before being executed for treason. The Influence of Emily Dickinson on Dostoevsky’s Late Fiction. The Old English Novel. And some wag will always toss in Humor in Milton. It’s true that Milton seemed to regard humor as the sign of a depraved nature, rather like that mad monk in The Name of the Rose who deduces from the fact that Jesus is never depicted in the Gospels as smiling or laughing that those who pursue the ideal of imitatio Christi had better remain as sour-pussed as possible. Milton does put one moment of humor into Paradise Lost that Milton scholars always point out when trying to humanize the old man. It’s in the War in Heaven section, just after the fallen angels have learned how to make cannons and shot from the rocks of Hell. Belial, in “gamesome mood” and “pleasant vein” reports to Satan on the angelic response to requests for negotiations with the Almighty:
Leader, the terms we sent were terms of weight,
Of hard contents,and full of force urg’d home,
Such as we might perceive amus’d them all,
And stumbl’d many. . . (VI.621-24)
Surely they didn’t learn how to laugh in Heaven; it’s a mark of Belial’s fallen nature that he cracks a joke. (The more I think about it, Milton’s humor might be a terrific subject for a dissertation.)
It’s hard for lyric poets to be entirely humorless since wit is the leavening for most poems about human beings. Emily Dickinson wrote about death a lot, but she can be hilarious on the subject, as in “I Started Early – Took My Dog,” my favorite poem of hers (death disguises himself as a sex-starved sea-creature that wants to eat her up, just as he puts on his courtship clothes in the more famous “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and fools her again). And she can write straight-out screwball comedy as in “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed.”
But I’m more interested these days in Humor in Ethnic Poetry, which I offer to graduate students around the country who may believe that their professional best bet is to write about Virginia Woolf but just can’t bring themselves to sign on the dotted line. I know this topic from the inside, being a Jewish poet and having observed all the strategies of my co-religionists, ever since high school when I recognized that “Howl,” supposedly so full of despair and rage, was essentially a series of one-liners closer to the art of the Catskills than the dark attics of Manhattan:
These and dozens of other morning-after lines hold their own with Pope and Byron. And they seemed to speak to the same sense of being a misfit in American society shared by all immigrant cultures. Ethnic poets first and foremost announce their fallen natures as a ticket for admission into the more dour society that looks them over suspiciously at the figurative border. Their humor is propitiatory, ingratiating, self-mocking, as fertile in likeable gestures as Chaplin.
Gary Soto’s “Mexicans Begin Jogging” is a prime example:
At the factory I worked The timeliness of the poem is a given; it will always be
timely, and not just in the United States.
In the fleck of rubber, under the press
Of an oven yellow with flame,
Until the border patrol opened
Their vans and my boss waved for us to run.
“Over the fence, Soto” he shouted,
And I shouted that I was an American.
No time for lies,” he said, and pressed
A dollar in my palm, hurrying me
Through the back door.
Since I was on his time, I ran
And became the wag to a short tail of Mexicans,
Ran past the amazed crowds that lined
The street and blurred like photographs, in rain.
I ran from that industrial road to the soft
Houses where people paled at the turn of an autumn sky.
What could I do but yell vivas
To baseball, milkshakes, and those sociologists
Who would clock me
As I jog into the next century
On the power of a great, silly grin.
The timeliness of the poem is a given; it will always be timely, and not just in the United States.
Subj: Re: A little group to compensate for senior miscounting; more on KK
Date: 1/13/03 9:42:35 AM Eastern Standard Time
Let the breeze of So What
Blow through you, said the masters:
Now it does: And so?
Kenneth liked the Rules:
But preferred smashing them Smash!
Why count? Huh? Go Fish!
If I could love all
The way I worshiped Her once
I'd be a Saint Paul!
If I loved each Thing
The way I adored that Girl:
Spinoza would sing!
That's my Father---there!
No, just a butterfly re-
turning to its branch!
Are not haiku? What say you?
Black holes, flat screens:
Is a new word poetry?
Old snow falls slowly--
Don't tease me, young Dave!
Let's plop like Ken into pond
Make happy sound wave! [DS, 1 / 13 / 03]
Date: 1/13/03 7:15:47 PM Eastern Standard Time
Even the master
of So What has off days, days
off, days of fire.
O for a muse of
fire on this green lake of
snow in the mountains.
We no can count but
why keep account of our
A bird's eye disturbs
this winter landscape of hills
like white short stories.
On the other hand,
one thing's left to do, to say:
I've forgotten what. [DL, 1 / 13 / 03]
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.