Strand in L'Aquila (wonderful, hospitable place; tragically affected by the earthquake), upon his having won the Laudomia Bonanni Prize in poetry, 2008.
"Solemn truths! Lucid inescapable foolishness! None of that for me! To be the salt of Walt, oceanic in osteality! Secure in cenotaph! The hysterical herald of hypogea! The fruit of the tomb! The flute of the tomb! The loot of gloom! The lute of loot! The work of soon, of never and ever! Saver of naught. Naughtiness of severance. Hoot of hiddenness. I give you my graven grave, my wordy ossuary, tell-tale trinket of transcendence, bauble of babble, tower of tripe, trap of tribute, thought-taxi from one day to the next, nougat of nothing, germ of gemini, humble hypogeum!"
-- from The Monument, Ecco Press, 1978. If you don't know this one, get ye to the bookstore. Harold Bloom tells us that it "teaches us to bear the truths of Unamuno, Nietzsche, Whitman and the other seers of poetic narcissism." Also, it's hilarious, brilliant, and, in its own sardonic way, very touching.
So many people ask David to name his essential Sinatra playlist, more so now with the buzz around his just published Sinatra’s Century.
Here is his lucky 21:
1) All or Nothing at All (music by Arthur Altman, words by Jack Lawrence). First recorded on August 31, 1939, the day before the Nazis invaded Poland, this most famous of the songs Sinatra sang with Harry James’s band became a huge hit in 1943. Track four of the seventeen-track album, Frank Sinatra with Harry James and His Orchestra, released in 1995.
2) I’ll Never Smile Again (music Ruth Lowe), 1940. Here is the sound of the Tommy Orchestra at its best: with Tommy on trombone and Frank’s solo supported by the Pied Pipers, Jo Stafford among them. You’ll find this version of the song in many CDs featuring the Dorsey band. But don’t neglect to compare it to FS’s mature version of 1959, in the album No One Cares, arranged by Gordon Jenkins.
3) Saturday Night (is the Loneliest Night in the Week) (music Jule Styne, lyrics Sammy Cahn). Recorded February 3, 1945. Superb up-tempo arrangement by George Siravo. Instantly brings back the atmosphere of America on the home front during the last year of World War II. On Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra, a must-have CD. Also on disc three of superb four-disc set The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943 – 1952 (1998).
4) The Song is You (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein). Arranged by Axel Stordahl, recorded October 26, 1947. A song FS may be said to own. On disc three of The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943 – 1952.
5) Body and Soul (Johnny Green music, Edward Heyman lyrics). Great jazz standard. Recorded November 9, 1947, with Bobby Hackett on trumpet. On disc three of The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943 – 1952.
6) The Birth of the Blues (music Ray Henderson; lyrics Buddy DeSylva and Lew Brown), 1952. Gem from the end of FS’s run with Columbia Records. On disc four of The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943 – 1952.
7) I’ve Got the World on a String (music Harold Arlen; lyrics Ted Koehler), 1953. No one ever sounded more jubilant than FS here. On The Capitol Years, an indispensable three-disc set released in 1990.
8) Young at Heart (music Johnny Richards; lyrics Carolyn Leigh). A big hit in 1953, this is the tune you hear in the opening and closing credits of Young at Heart with FS and Doris Day (1954). On The Capitol Years.
9) All of Me (music and lyrics Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons). On Swing Easy album (1954), arrangements by Nelson Riddle. The final song on FS’s first album with Capitol Records.
10) It Never Entered My Mind (Music Richard Rodgers; lyrics Lorenz Hart). A highlight of FS’s first “concept album,” In the Wee Small Hours (1955), arrangements by Nelson Riddle.
11) Last Night When We Were Young (Music Harold Arlen; lyrics Yip Harburg). See description of #10 above.
12) I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Music and lyrics Cole Porter). Arguably FS’s greatest up-tempo number. On Songs for Swingin’ Lovers album (1956) arranged by Nelson Riddle. Also on The Capitol Years.
13) The Lady is a Tramp (Music Richard Rodgers; lyrics Lorenz Hart). Showstopper in Pal Joey, 1957 movie starring FS, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. Album: a belated addition to A Swingin’ Affair, arranged by Nelson Riddle (1957). On The Capitol Years.
14) Witchcraft (music Cy Coleman; lyrics Carolyn Leigh), released as a single with a Nelson Riddle arrangement in May 1957. When Elvis Presley appeared on a Sinatra TV show in 1959, each singer sang a song associated with the other. Sinatra did “Love Me Tender” while Presley did “Witchcraft” as teenage girls shrieked. On The Capitol Years.
15) All the Way (music Jimmy Van Heusen; lyrics Sammy Cahn). Released as a single with a Nelson Riddle arrangement in 1957. FS sings it in the 1957 movie The Joker is Wild and it won the Academy Award for best original song. On The Capitol Years.
16) One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) (Music Harold Arlen; Lyrics Johnny Mercer). Arranged by Nelson Riddle. FS’s signature saloon song. Better even than the cut on the album Only the Lonely (1958) is the alternate version you will find on The Capitol Years.
17) Fly Me to the Moon (music and lyrics Bart Howard). Count Basie Orchestra, with arrangements by Quincy Jones, in the 1964 album It Might As Well Be Swing. The unofficial anthem of Project Apollo, which landed the first men on the moon in July 1969. On disc two of the four CD box set The Reprise Collection (2010).
18) It Was a Very Good Year (music James Van Heusen; lyrics Sammy Cahn), arranged by Gordon Jenkins on September of My Years album (1965). Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven. On disc two of the four CD box set The Reprise Collection.
19) That’s Life (1966) (music and lyrics Kelly Gordon and Dean Kay). Arranged by Ernie Freeman. A defiant FS backed by girl singers. On disc three of the four CD box set The Reprise Collection.
20) My Way (1969) The Chairman’s cri de coeur. Arranged by Don Costa. On disc three of the four CD box set The Reprise Collection.
21) Theme from New York, New York (music John Kander; lyrics Fred Ebb). FS recorded it in 1979 for his Trilogy album (1980). You hear him belting it out after every Yankee game in the Bronx, win or lose, come rain or come shine. On disc four of the four CD box set The Reprise Collection.
Without these songs the day would never end. I can’t get along without them very well. And if you thought it was easy to limit myself to twenty, all I can say is . . . you got it wrong and that ain’t right. I couldn’t sleep a wink last night. -- DL
Elizabeth Samet is the author of NO MAN'S LAND: PREPARING FOR WAR AND PEACE IN POST 9/11-AMERICA (Picador) and editor of LEADERSHIP: ESSENTIAL WRITINGS BY OUR GREATEST THINKERS (Norton, 2015). Her other books include Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point; Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898. She is a professor at USMA West Point.
Moderated by David Lehman, poetry coordinator, Creative Writing Program
Sponsored by the Creative Writing Program.
Find more information here.
My first computer, in the early 1980s, is a Kaypro (C/PM operating system) bundled with WordStar (“the most popular word processor ever invented”) and a JUKI daisywheel printer. I select the Kaypro because an article in New York magazine calls it “the computer of choice for New York writers.” I buy it at the purchasing place of choice, Wolff’s (near Columbus Circle), where New York writers are milling about like musicians at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center in the early 60s (well, I assume they’re all writers).
The Kaypro boasts of a built-in “large 9-inch display” with green phosphor characters, and 64K of RAM. (My IBM Selectric has the equivalent of one byte of RAM: if you hit two keys almost simultaneously, it “remembers” the second letter and spaces it properly.) The Kaypro stores files on 400K floppy disks, and the whole machine folds into a hard-shell “transportable” case—convenient if you’re not trying to transport it very far.
Once I get the system up and running, I notice that WordStar defaults to justified right-hand margins, which I dislike (especially in drafts). I change the default, but now the spaces between letters are wackily uneven, making for a disjointed printout. I call Wolff’s and Kaypro, but nobody knows what I’m talking about. Am I the only New York writer who has this issue—I can hear Dylan wailing “Oh my God am I here all alone?” I call a New York writer friend who says he doesn’t have the problem, then looks at a printout and realizes he does but it doesn’t bother him. I am bothered.
Eventually I reach someone at WordStar who says, “I know what you mean. A rabbi called last week with the same problem.” He explains that the culprit is “microjustifcation,” which is what makes justified text look professional but stays on even when justification is turned off. “I guess we should put those together,” he says. There’s a “dot command” (huh?) to turn off microjustification: “Just type .uj off at the top of the page."
Voila! It works! But .uj off has to be typed at the very top of every page that gets printed, which means deleting and replacing the code whenever a page is revised. Back to my WordStar friend, who says he shouldn’t be telling me this but there’s a hidden array of commands that can only be reached by typing a hyphen. He gives me directions to change the default to microjustification-off, and my documents print out perfectly without typing any codes.
Then my JUKI printer quits, with no justification of any sort. I lug the machine to Wolff's. While I'm crossing the street, a stranger looks at me and announces: “Another JUKI breakdown!”
At long last, I am not here all alone.
Anthony Hecht has said of this poem in blank verse paragraphs that it is “about ‘growing up’”; “about the disguises of Pride”; “about the infections of the ego”; “about . . . delusions”; “consuming paranoia”; and “universal moral corruption”. Hecht was forty-seven when he wrote it, and it “may be one of the most personal I’ve written”. “The way we disguise our deepest truths from ourselves . . .”
Before the poem appeared in Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), his third book, he delivered it – the Phi Beta Kappa poem – at Swarthmore’s graduation ceremonies. The effect of the poem on an attentive graduating senior, hearing the poem and facing the world, would be worth knowing.
Was it that extravagant language, “the embellishments,” as Hecht said, “are often desirable in and for themselves . . .”? Or was it that rage, as he also said, is “an important element in any view of my work”? Or that “corruption is intended to embrace the reader”? To me, the poem is less persuasive heard, even less in a public arena, and is better read in a solitude that compliments the “grubby” isolation his character the “Writer” requires.
Hecht opens with the first quatrain of Theodore Roethke’s “Cuttings (later)”, a small poem from The Lost Son (1948), which continues, more abjectly, “I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing”: Nature, mired in awful human dramas.
Roethke sent a draft of “The Lost Son” to his old lover Louise Bogan, who thought it was “written to be read aloud . . . for you to read aloud . . .” and praised it as music. She suggested “a musical sub-title (like Rondo . . .)”, a change Roethke did not make. Hecht might have appreciated her lyricism, though, her distillation of what he called “symbiotic family ties” into a “Suite”. His choice of the word “epistle” in the title, not “letter”, not “correspondence”, strikes a similar note.
“I write at last of the one forbidden topic” is Hecht’s first line, and though it introduces a character, a situation, a topic – not to mention a culmination “at last” in a beginning – none of these develop. They are overtaken, instead, by the “involutions and intricacies” of one allegory after another. Hecht’s “allegorical myth of Plato’s cave transformed into a modern movie theater”, his movies – simple characters and silvery projected “Certitudes” – play out “that perfect world” and block his Writer’s counter-allegory.
He needs the illusion of safety to write and protects himself with anonymity and degradation. The stanza on his arrival in a “grubby little border town” echoes ironically “clearly identified” types and scenes in film noir. The Writer not writing is vividly arresting, leaning into his chosen sad view.
It was this passage Hecht cited, when he claimed that his poem was indebted to W. H. Auden’s “Venus will now say a few words” (“Since you are going to begin to-day”). “W” tried to sound “objective and Olympian”, he said, when leaning into a view immense enough to hold the sun both coming and going.
Auden’s human drama is also encircled with evolutionary force (not to mention Venus); but his blank verse is more propulsive than Hecht’s and amplified with couplets. His tone is appropriately inexorable. Hecht’s baroque allegories are too excessive to be inexorable; his tone, more deliberately mercurial. Perhaps he read Seamus Heaney’s essay on Auden and the “Venus” poem (LRB, June 4, 1987), and it prompted, in his letter of the same date (June 4, 1987), his claim.
Not all affinities are elective. Hecht’s “Green” seems no closer to Auden’s “Venus” than it is to Marianne Moore’s “Nevertheless” (“you’ve seen a strawberry / that’s had a struggle . . .”). Here is another allegory making use of evolution: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny again. Moore wrote to Elizabeth Bishop that her poem “contrives to include a great deal of awkwardness”; so does Hecht’s.
A perceptibly awkward element follows the Writer, as a parasite a host, into the second allegory. Critics rightly praise the beauty of Hecht’s writing: orchestrated understated slant rhymes; ingenious rhetoric; and dramatic energies released into a long-delayed vision: the survival of – not the fittest – the furious. The mutilated, for example, Hecht said (assuming rhetorically, implicitly, a commonwealth of the mutilated), “may have to rely on the energy of rage merely to remain ‘life’ at all”. Rage is more ancient than animals, a mesmerizing intelligent design: magnificent.
As the allegory continues, taking in tainted plant life and “fossil fuels and gems”, the Writer turns more pointedly to “you”, the “Reader”, the epistle recipient. For it is “you” he accuses of fomenting “[r]esentment, malice, hatred . . .”. And it is down among the pronouns the awkward element recurs.
Hecht intended “you” to refer variously to the “Reader”, the “Writer”, the author, and we the readers as well; and yet, the effect is more turbulent and ambivalent than capacious. The accusations flung at “you” are often too difficult to write, and the pronoun is then engorged: “We” replaces “I” or “most of us”; “all of us” (a bolstering phantom chorus), shored against “you”.
A late Sylvia Plath poem, like “The Rabbit-Catcher” (“It was a place of force –”) uses this poetic device to similar effect. Mockery, fear, accusations ignite a battered space her characters share. Readers may reduce the poem to history (he said, she said) but it endures by means of its difficulty. Hecht also often reduced his poem to “science” (“a psychological type”). Science may be easier to summarize in public than poetry.
Hecht knew Yeats’ categories of quarrels: “We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” In this context, in order to be more than rhetoric, the poem must not, in moving from allegory back to narrative, recall the characters as simple, separate types, as they were in his movie theater. If so, the poem would end with a rhetorical whimper, as twee in its way as Moore’s bang (“What sap / went through that little thread / to make the cherry red!”).
But if the poem carries out of the allegory “the quarrel with ourselves”, then the burden of that recognition could account for the depleted energy in the narrative. The effect would be contemplative, still, yet unresolved.
Later, after dinner, we examine your uncle’s photos
of trees, flowers, waterfalls, birds
until I just can’t stand it another second.
I am not at one with nature. Never was.
Some of the people can be fooled all of the time,
even when you yawn right in their faces.
Guests, or ghosts, have taken over the house,
lounging in the living room, watching t.v.
Ugly images of war and politics are all I see.
Cancel the rest of the holidays, please, until this
-- Terence Winch
Have we taught a generation of college graduates to vilify capitalism without doing it the honor of knowing how it works? Spot checks at New York’s Penn Station reveal that a vast majority of college-educated commuters do not have a clue about the relation of the prime rate to the federal funds rate, the tax advantage of capital gains over wages, the difference between a progressive income tax and a sales tax, the reason bond prices go up when interest rates go down, and the best age at which to start taking Social Security benefits. This test for advanced financial literary was devised by a team of professors at Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania. – DL
1) The Dow-Jones Industrial Average was created by
a) Charles H. Dow, either alone or with Edward Jones, two co-founders of the company that bears their names
b) Charles W. Dow in partnership with Ernest Jones, an economist who wrote Sigmund Freud's biography
c) Standard & Poor’s
d) Dow's stepdaughters Jane and Martha Bancroft, on instructions from Clarence Barron prior to his acquisition of the company in 1902
e) Charles X. Dow either alone or in partnership with the Jones of Jones & Laughlin
2) According to the Dow Theory, there are three phases to a primary bull market and three to a primary bear market. The theory was developed by which of the following, for which purpose:
a) Charles W. Dow and Alexander Hamilton, to develop a metric to gauge the wealth factor associated with the Louisiana Purchase
b) Charles H. Dow, and refined and sustained after his death in 1903 by his understudy William Hamilton, for the purpose of predicting stock fluctuations
c) Elmer Bernstein, Carolyn Leigh, and Max Shulman, the Tony Award-winning producers of the musical comedy How Now, Dow Jones? (1967), mainly for laughs and the sheer pleasure of it but also to entertain audiences, employ actors and musicians, and make a profit at the box office, all by poking fun at the academic study of risk, economics, and finance
d) John Maynard Keynes in a 1938 letter to President Roosevelt arguing that “the present recession is partly due to an ‘error of optimism’ which led to an overestimation of future demand” and that continuation of “public works and other investments aided by Government funds or guarantees” was essential going forward.
e) Herbert Henry Dow, a grandson of the founder of Dow Chemical, in 1969, as a way to divert public attention from protests against the use of napalm, which the company manufactured, during the war in Vietnam.
3) Mutual funds are
a) An attempt by rogue elements in the legal profession to monetize the value of a married couple’s community property
b) The amount on the paycheck that is left after all taxes, charges, and fees have been deducted
c) A way for individual investors to hold a basket of stocks and other securities
d) A recurring loophole that allows high-ranking corporate executives to rent hotel rooms at clients’ expense, entertain guests there, and not have to report the sum to the IRS
e) Often cited as proof that “buy low, sell dear” remains the first rule of investing ahead of “sell in May and go away” and “the market has to climb a wall or worry”
4) Standard & Poor’s is a financial firm that
a) traces its history to the 1941 merger of Poor's Publishing and Standard Statistics
b) has Poor in its name as a warning to over-zealous investors
c) is a credit rating agency that roiled markets four summers ago by lowering the credit rating of the US government
d) publishes an index of the stock market performance of the 500 largest corporations in the United States
e) all of the above except b
5) Lehman Brothers
a) arranged the sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees
b) was, in the person of Meyer Wolfsheim, then executive vice president, behind the fixing of the 1919 World Series
c) quintupled its assets by selling the Dow Jones Industrials short in August 1929
d) traces its origins to a dry goods store in Montgomery, Alabama, founded by German-Jewish immigrant Henry Lehman shortly after he came to the US from Bavaria in 1844.
e) broke with Wall Street tradition when Peter Lehman, a war hero who had become the face of the firm, endorsed the economics of deficit spending as articulated by John Kenneth Galbraith
6) When the Wall Street Journal published its first issue on July 8, 1889, it was priced at “two cents” and led off with a story about American “operators identified with the bear party [who] sent early orders to London” in preparation for the opening of the bear market there. Which of these statements is true?
a) From the fact that it was priced at two cents, we get the expression “I’ll put my two cents in.”
b) The “bear market” was a market in bearskins
c) The “bear market” in London introduced the idea of selling stocks short often on the basis of what we today would call “insider trading”
d) The Bull-Moose Party in the United States was formed, in part, because of the pressure of the “bulls,” or long-term investors, to counter the negativity of the bear marketers, on whom the New York Times blamed the panic and sell-off of 1893
e) In July 1889, the President of the United States was Benjamin Harrison and the vice president was Levi P. Morton, a Vermont-born banker and loyal supporter of Ulysses S. Grant, whose gracious good manners made him a natural to serve as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
7) On September 17, 2001, the Big Board eliminated the position of honorary chairman. The last to hold this post was
a) Frederick Usher (heir to the Rodney Usher real estate fortune)
b) Meyer Wolfsheim
c) Mikhail Gorbachev
d) Muriel Siebert
e) None of the above
8) What security analysts call a price-earnings ratio (“p/e”) is
a) the stock’s price divided by its underlying book value
b) the stock’s price divided by its annual dividend per share
c) the stock’s price divided by its net earnings per share
d) the compensation of the firm’s CEO divided by the number of employees in the company
e) the company’s revenues less expenses and taxes multiplied by pi divided by the square root of a number designated quarterly by the Federal Reserve Board
9) Experts tout the benefits of “dollar-cost averaging,” which means
a) the dollar is the safest bet in foreign exchange markets
b) invest a little at regular intervals
c) ever since President Nixon took the United States off the gold standard in 1971, the greenback derives its value from the average daily cost of production of bills and coins at the Department of the Mint (including operating expenses and liabilities)
d) the average of your expenses per month, which, when multiplied by twelve, may be used to predict your ability to take on significant new debt, such as the purchase of a house or the cost of four years at an elite college
e) reversion to the mean
10) Which two of the following are not associated with the Great Depression?
a) a national unemployment rate of 24.9 % in 1933 (whereas, during the Great Recession, the rate peaked at 10% in October 2009)
b) a bank holiday declared by President Roosevelt in 1933 to deter a run on the banks
c) the New Deal
d) the Iron Curtain
e) the Great Society
Extra credit: identify the painting, by title and by painter, that illustrates this quiz.
-- David Lehman
“Extravagance is a legitimate feature of poetry,” Anthony Hecht remarked in an interview, and it’s extravagance that thrills me in “A Birthday Poem.” No mere occasional lyric, the poem praises love within time’s passage. It layers references to visual arts, acknowledges bleak historical moments, engages Shakespeare’s sonnet #53 on the question of substance versus appearance, and risks imagistic whimsy. Its dull title is a mask: the poem hides the book’s flamboyant name within it, in lines borrowed from the sonnet. (How better to emphasize the play between appearance and matter than by cloaking extravagance in bland dress?) The poem’s music darts and shifts, its dozen sestets interlacing five-stress lines with shorter lines of three and four stresses. While many lines are iambic, there’s an ease in the number and placement of lighter syllables that, combined with the rhyme pattern, gives brio. All together, the poem enacts what Hecht described in the same interview as his “rejection of the sort of ‘lyric’ that aims at a single effect or a single emotion.”
To borrow one of its rhyme words, “A Birthday Poem” might be read as a vivid “overplus” of Hechtian tropes. It opens with three similes for the “loose community of midges” whose optical properties the speaker considers. A summer birthday, a bright noon, the air full of humming life…what could be more festive? And yet, do these midges perhaps faintly echo Keats’s gnats in wailful choir? They are eerily likened to a “hovering ghost” and the dots in a “sick child’s” puzzle. They fly through noon light that casts the “summer trees in a golden dazzle.” Still, noon is the balance point of the day, and while the trees are brilliant, they’re not “green-gold,” but almost autumnal-sounding. And that date in the epigraph: June 22, the summer solstice. Or a day past it. We don’t know which age is being celebrated here, but we might suspect it is one nel mezzo del cammin.
It’s not surprising that Hecht, a master of ekphrasis, would include descriptions of visual art. What abundance, though! And what a strangely-curated collection. Within its 72 lines, the poem gestures towards two specific paintings, then a genre, then photography. While the “Flemish distance” seems cheerful enough, the two almost-named works by Mantegna and Holbein are oddly grim to invoke on a birthday. Perhaps important in a poem concerned with shifting perspectives, the paintings are inversely visually striking. Mantegna’s “Crucifixion” foregrounds the death scene against minute details of a background city, drawing our eye deeper into the picture plane. Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” the most famous anamorphic image of the renaissance, pulls our eye into the middle ground with its rich detail of the two men. It then kicks our focus back out: a large hovering skull disrupts the picture plane and can only be seen properly if we radically adjust the angle of our view. Death is in front of us, as it’s in front of the ambassadors; it’s what divides those two men painted in 1533 from us. Yet we can only visualize it obliquely.
Two stanzas then shift our attention from artistic renderings of mortality to its philosophical and historical frame. Hecht brings Spinoza together with modern scholars casting their cold-eyed Zeiss binoculars on military massacres. Part of Hecht’s extravagance has always been his allusive wit. “Those kingdoms come/To nothing,” the scholars archly remark.
It’s not until the eighth stanza that the speaker’s “eye” attaches itself to a particular heart and throat and personal pronoun. What has occasioned this materialization of the speaker, his “birth” as a singular person in the poem, as it were? In the same sentence that introduces the “I,” we meet the engendering source, the “you” whose face —unlike natural phenomena, artistic works, and historical disaster —is “inexpressible.”
When the speaker describes a snapshot of the “you,” aged four, we see why mortality has been so present. The beloved’s face is changed over time, and is cherished now both for its mutability and for the constancy of its “gladness without stint.” This picture of a child in sneakers isn’t just sentimental detail (or, it’s not only that); I think Hecht is creating a dialogue between photography and Shakespeare’s sonnet. “Shadows,” “shade,” and “counterfeit” are crucial words in the sonnet. They also appear in early writings on photography as its status wavered between science, magic, and art. “Secure the shadow ‘ere the substance fade,” reads one popular advertisement for the daguerreotype. (That bit of Victorian morbidity is almost a response to the sonnet’s third line: “Since every one hath, every one, one shade.”) Photographs are time capsules; they hold an instant while reminding us that we’re speeding away from it. Hecht suggests this gently with his mention of the “vanished camera of somebody.” Like cameras, of course, somebodies also vanish. But the speaker has, today, the “live imprint” of the beloved’s smile; it may be her birthday, but he’s the one who’s received that gift.
One last extravagant turn closes the poem. If, as Helen Vendler suggests, the last line of sonnet #53 is really a propitiatory gesture urging its “you” to constancy, Hecht shifts focus, spinning the gesture back toward himself in a birthday wish, or prayer.
click below to read "A Birthday Poem" by Anthony Hecht:
Anthony Hecht was obviously fond of the dramatic monologue; there are examples of it in books throughout his career: “Consider the Lilies”, “Green: an Epistle”, “The Venetian Vespers”, “See Naples and Die”, and “Death the Whore” all come to mind, and all have attracted critical attention. In his last book, The Darkness and the Light, there is an example, “A Brief Account of Our City”, which I have always liked, though it does not seem to have attracted much comment (none that I know of) and was omitted by J. D. McClatchy in the Selected Poems which he edited (Knopf, 2011).
The poem seems to be set in Germany or Austria, perhaps some minor principality, and the period, though unspecified, is neither contemporary nor in the remote past. The unidentified narrator is writing a letter to a friend or acquaintance, who is soon to make a visit to the city where the narrator lives. The first half of the poem offers the visitor a survey of the town, focusing on the Old Fort with its “dungeons, barbicans and towers”, and the “incomparable view” that can be had from it. The survey culminates in a startling, indeed shocking, revelation, the presence in the city of a public executioner, maintained with his family at the city’s expense, but kept in permanent quarantine from the other citizens. Strangely, the narrator seems unaware that this revelation is shocking. This is immediately followed by a brief coda urging the visitor to sample the excellent food (the dumplings are highly recommended) and beer when he comes. And that’s it.
It was not until I had read “A Brief Account” a number of times, over the course of a few years, that I sensed the presence of another poem, a famous one, lurking behind it, parts of it, at least —not in any obvious or direct way, or in lock-step detail, but as a kind of ghostly stencil or watermark just faintly visible here and there. The poem I have in mind is Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, and the similarities I notice are not in content so much as in the shaping and pacing, the rhetorical and narrative strategies. On the face of it, the two poems have almost nothing in common, but on closer inspection some interesting parallels can be seen.
Both poems are in the second person, speaking to “you”: the Duke addresses the agent of a Count, the letter-writer addresses his correspondent. (A minor point: both poems are almost exactly the same length—fifty-six lines for Browning, fifty-eight for Hecht—so they have the same space in which to get their business done.) Both begin abruptly without any introductory scene setting, as though we are overhearing a conversation that has been proceeding for a while: “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall”; “If you approach our city from the south.” The bulk of each poem engages in a detailed account of the ostensible subject, the portrait of the Duchess, or rather her character, the physical details of the city, culminating in a shocking revelation: the removal (in fact the execution) of the Duchess; the city’s executioner and the arrangement with him. Both speakers reveal something repugnant in their character (the real subject): in their different ways they are both self-satisfied and insensitive—the Duke, in his menacing arrogance, is without qualm or feeling for his former wife, and betrays no sense of his own ruthlessness in getting rid of her; the citizen is blithely untroubled either by the fact of his city’s employing an executioner or its hypocritical sequestration of him from civic life. At the same time both are completely unaware that they have been self-revealing: the Duke’s comprehensive demolition of the Duchess’s character and blindness to his own are breathtaking; the citizen’s dismissal of the local barons of an earlier era as “murderous vulgar men” while he and his fellows still employ an executioner is equally blind. Both in fact seem very pleased with themselves and seem to imagine that they have shown themselves in a favourable and enhancing light. Finally, the culmination of the narrative passes without comment, as the speaker abruptly turns aside to another subject and a swift businesslike conclusion: in Browning, marriage negotiations, leading to a glance at the sculpture of Neptune; in Hecht, a recommendation of the local cuisine and beer to the prospective visitor. In each poem the coda contains a sort of conversational injunction to the addressee: “Notice Neptune, though” and “be certain that you dine”.
I wouldn’t want to push the comparison too far. Obviously, the poems are for the most part quite dissimilar, but there do seem to me to be intriguing points of resemblance, which I would like to believe are deliberate.
Click below to read "A Brief Account of Our City"
How did you come to write the book?
I am a big fan of Sinatra, always have been, with ardor enough to sustain a book-length project and survive the process with no diminution of the joy I feel when I hear him sing "All of Me" or "April in Paris" or "Time After Time." A friend asked whether I listen to him daily and when I said yes she said why don't you write a book, and I was quickly persuaded. I wrote a proposal, got a contract, got to work.
How did you come to settle on the final form of the book?
I had plenty of material and some fresh insights. But how would I organize the book, how would I distinguish it from others on the shelf? There were many, many false starts before I hit on the solution of dividing the book into 100 "notes," each of which could stand as a self-contained entity. Once that idea planted itself in my head, I went to town with it. I've never had more fun writing a book.
Lists have become a popular form of presenting material in this digital age. Was that a consideration in the form of the book?
There are lists in Sinatra's Century -- section 13 includes a list of Italian American singers, who, with one exception, changed their given names, while section 24 is an annotated playlist of 40s songs. I love lists -- whether in Whitman's "Song of Myself" or Cole Porter's "You're the Top." That said, I didn't think of Sinatra's Century as a list or as the outgrowth of my fondness for lists. In my mind the conceit of 100 sections as a symbolic gesture on the 100th anniversary of his birth grew into a form. I call it the century, the key element being the division into one hundred parts. The century is elastic enough to allow for switching gears. You can write one note in the present tense and the second-person point of view while another might consist exclusively of anagrams derived from the name Sinatra.
Continue reading here.
In a recent Best American Poetry blog, “On Meditation,” by Victoria Kelly (October 5, 2015), I found myself touched by her reference to Richard Wilbur’s “beautiful, slim volume,” The Beautiful Changes, published in 1947. It was Wilbur’s first book of poems, and Wilbur had been one of my very first poets. As a student (and I thought then an athlete), I had been mesmerized by the delicate acrobatics of “Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning,” collected in his Things of This World (1956). The poem was subsequently included in Lawrence Perrine’s popular mid-twentieth-century anthology Sound and Sense, An Introduction to Poetry, where I initially came across it. The anthology is still in print, I see, now in its 10th edition. In 9th grade, I had no idea what the Spanish Steps were or, for that matter, what the poem’s title referred to. I had studied only some French in school and not yet been to Italy, but I was to become a devoted reader of Wilbur thereafter, thanks, in part, to this anthology.
Kelly’s reference was touching for another reason. Her discovery was of a different sort than mine. She came upon Wilbur later in life and as an author and accomplished poet in her own right, but in between, in the trans-shifting of time, Wilbur’s rather extraordinary first book of poetry had been apparently lost to sight, indeed perhaps to an entire generation of readers. Glad as I was for her discovery, in other words, I couldn’t altogether banish a sense of loathed melancholy that comes with meditating on time and generational change, with each wave seemingly “changing place with that which went before.”
The blog this week which I am guest authoring is not about Wilbur but another gifted poet of the same post-World-War-II generation, Anthony Hecht (1923-2004), whose often sublimely beautiful, highly crafted, and sometimes terrifying poems I came to admire deeply over a long period of time, as I did the person. I was fortunate to edit his Selected Letters (Johns Hopkins, 2013), and from this experience tempted into thinking I had something to say about the poems that might be of interest to others, and perhaps even stave off, if not reverse, the tide of amnesia often involving poetry that is no longer of the present moment. Oxford was kind enough to issue a contract and to publish A Thickness of Particulars: The Poetry of Anthony Hecht in 2015. (Hecht has long had a loyal readership in England, originally as part of the Oxford series of poetry, now because of the ever-growing Waywiser Press and the annual prize it offers bearing Hecht’s name.) The Oxford book cover is from a beautiful painting by Vittore Carpaccio, The Patriarch of Grado heals a Possessed Man, sometimes also called A Miracle with the Holy Relic of the True Cross. I chose the painting partly in homage to Hecht. Venice was a favorite place of his: the intricate, alley-scoped city, with its brilliantly changing skies, serves as the setting for one of his most glorious poems, “The Venetian Vespers.” But I was also attracted by the procession of small ghostly figures in white walking across a wooden bridge—brothers of the Scuola di San Giovanni, art historians tell us. I wondered what they, like so many of Hecht’s ghosts, were doing. I took the book’s title from one of Hecht’s later dramatic monologues, “The Transparent Man.” It aims to situate the reader in the rich particulars of Hecht’s poetry, often in relation to that of the literary past and the present, Hecht’s present that is, from Shakespeare to James Merrill, and with frequent references to those powerful motors of the poetic imagination, love and war. The book proceeds slowly, at least to my way of thinking, but is also, in a different sense, unfinished. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t discover an idea, a phrase, written by someone, that I wish could be added.
Poetry is always in the process of being lost, and found, Hecht’s no less than Wilbur’s no less than Milton’s. Will there be a time when even Elizabeth Bishop’s star will decline? It seems almost unthinkable. It’s possible that Hecht’s poetry is more vulnerable than some to time’s scythe, although it might take Occam’s razor to parse these matters more carefully than I can do. But if so, it’s not, I think, because of his evident mastery of poetic form, which has many defenders as well as practitioners today, but because of his belief in a version of literary history—what used to be called the “canon” when there were enough readers around for that term to have meaning—that requires being at the table a long time in order to sample and digest poetry’s many offerings, the allusions and references, the other voices, that figure into and thicken his verse, one of whose intended consequences, ironically enough, is to amplify and complicate, not diminish, the poet’s voice. Reduce the sound board and the lines become less resonant, harder to hear. Cut out the past altogether, as has happened in many English departments across the country, and yet another writer disappears into the night. When asked by members of the public what I teach, I used to say poetry from Wyatt to the present. Now I just say “Shakespeare.” Soon, it will be “Shakespeare and Film,” but not by me.
Still, “fit audience find though few” has long been poetry’s mantra. As I was musing over Milton’s famous line, and those talismanic words linked by alliteration, a novelist friend, a former winner of the National Book Award, offered some unintended balm. Feeling the sting of oblivion that often comes with the book trade--she had just looked at a long shelf of utterly forgotten fiction by one author—she remarked: “at least poets have the possibility of being anthologized.” So true, I thought. Fit readers of poetry seem always possible, always in the making, as most of us know, and can be found in strange places, can find poetry in strange places, however few such readers are. Who would think that the poet Don Paterson would feel the need to write a 500 page commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets partly in order not to have to pretend any longer that he knew the poems better than he did?
One of the distinct pleasures in writing my book on Hecht was furthering my understanding of a poet’s art and the traditions--verbal, visual, and musical—that helped to nurture it. A close second involved discovering other readers of Hecht in the process, indeed many others along the way in unexpected quarters who also knew, admired, and, in some cases, were influenced by Hecht’s poetry. Paterson, it happens, is one of them, but only one of them. So it occurred to me, in accepting the role of guest author, to invite a few of these fit readers, who are also poets, to write about a Hecht poem of their choosing. In order of appearance, they are V. Penelope Pelizzon, whose most recent book of poems, Whose Flesh is Flame, Whose Bone is Time (2014), was a finalist for the eighth Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize; Stephen Edgar, one of Australia’s finest poets, vigorously and rightly championed by Clive James: James once thought Richard Wilbur was a major source of influence on Edgar until, over a second bottle of Cloudy Bay, Edgar remarked that as much as he admired Wilbur, “Hecht had been the man”; and Judith Hall, a Guggenheim fellow and the author of four poetry collections, including Three Trios, who describes herself as “distantly related to Anthony Hecht." The brief bios given here are slanted in relation to the blog’s subject, and though forming only a small constellation of the many possible Hecht readers, it still almost rings the world--from Sydney to Southern California to Connecticut to Oxford.
This week we welcome Jonathan Post as our guest author. On the faculty at Yale in the late 1970s, Jonathan Post joined the UCLA English Department in 1980, where he has served as Chair of the Department. He is the founding Director of the UCLA Summer Shakespeare Program in Stratford and London and is Distinguished Professor of English at UCLA.
His scholarly and teaching interests range from early modern to modern poetry, with a special interest in Shakespeare, Milton, and the Metaphysical poets, and 20th and 21st century poetics and matters of literary influence. His books include Henry Vaughan: The Unfolding Vision (Princeton, 1982; rpt. 2014); Sir Thomas Browne (MacMillan, 1987), English Lyric Poetry: The Early Seventeenth Century (Routledge, 1999; rpt. 2002); Green Thoughts, Green Shades, Essays by Contemporary Poets on the Early Modern Lyric (California, 2002); The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (Johns Hopkins, 2013); The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry (Oxford, 2013; rpt. 2016). A Thickness of Particulars: The Poetry of Anthony Hecht (Oxford, 2015).
He has held fellowships from The Folger Shakespeare Library, The National Endowment of the Humanities, The Bogliasco Foundation (twice), and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
-- that today is Hoagy Carnichael's birthday, which I imagine him celebrating quietly with a glass of bourbon as he tickles the ivories (and out of Lauren Bacall's sexy throat comes the Johnny Mercer lyric for How Little We Know, which is playing in my mind even now),
-- that if time were elastic I would write a series of popular history novels under the collective title: What Really Happened. Charlie Orr would design the covers. Hell, he already has designed the covers for the first three books in the series. What Really Happened at Waterloo. What Really Happened in Yalta. And, What Really Happened on November 22, 1963. Charlie's hypothetical library is a fabulous construction.
-- that paranoid conspiracy theories, and narrative genres to which they have given rise, are based on our fundamental inability to understand events. What happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, accounted for the penultimate section of a poem I wrote in my freshman year at Columbia, "The Presidential Years." Here is a fragment:
From The Presidential Years by David Lehman
. The day that Kennedy was killed
Was the day before the Stuyvesant-Clinton football game.
There was a rally in the auditorium
And our coach who was from Texas or Oklahoma said slowly, carefully,
“There isn’t a horse that can’t be bucked.”
Meanwhile half the school was marching along
Fifteenth Street to Union Square and then up to
Forty Second Street and Fifth Avenue and some got up to
Fifty Ninth, and they were parading,
Yelling, “De Witt eats shit” until they were stopped by policemen.
I didn’t go. I stayed in school.
That day I almost got into a fight
With a fellow twice my size on the stairway
And he laughed at me. A friend of mine broke it up.
In English the head of the Physics Department walked
Into the room. He said, “I think you are old enough
To understand this. The President was shot today in Texas.”
I stand up. I do not understand. I say, “What”
And I think, the President was shocked today in Texas.
He leaves the room. I am sorry.
I leave early. The Clinton game is called off,
And the series has since been discontinued.
My French teacher is waiting for me. Smiling shuffling his legs
Touching his teeth with his tongue looking at me
He says, “There is a rumor that Kennedy was shot.
Do you know anything about that?”
March 1967 [published in The Paris Review, #43, Summer 1968]
When Edward Hirsch invited Emily Fragos to read with him in the lovely decommissioned train station that is home to The Hudson Valley Writers Center, all who attended expected a brilliant and memorable afternoon of poetry. No one in the standing room only crowd was disappointed. In spite of the many honors garnered by Hirsch over the years and recently by Fragos, I left the reading wondering what it was that made the particular pairing so incandescent. The reading took place on bright, windy October afternoon, the Hudson River and Hook Mountain as a backdrop. But the setting was only the setting and not what made sparks fly.
Fragos read from her most recent collection Hostage: New and Selected Poems and Hirsch read excerpts from Gabriel: a Poem, a searching book-length tribute to the life the son he lost in 2011 and The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems. The affinity between the poets and the poems is striking. Yet these poets seem to approach their poems very differently. In her introduction to the reading, Jennifer Franklin, Program Director of the Writers Center, quoted Hirsch as saying that Fragos’s poems seem “unlikely” to him at first but then surprising in the way they reach us. Both poets are full of surprises, but this observation seems to get at a difference in where the poems begin. In a 2011 interview in Guernica, Emily Fragos quotes, in its entirety, a poem by Ted Kooser: “If you can awaken/inside the familiar/ and find it strange/you need never leave home.” It is the combination of familiarity and strangeness and the poets’ generosity in locating and sharing it that created the sense of sparks whirling in the room. Fragos tells me in an e-mail that poetry should be “mesmerizing and elusive,” qualities she admires in Hirsch’s work. Unlikely, surprising, mesmerizing, elusive: both poets arrive but by different routes. It seems to me that Hirsch most often reaches the strange through the familiar and Fragos, the familiar through the strange.
Here is Edward Hirsch remembering a moment with his small son in an excerpt from Gabriel: A Poem:
I’m grasping his ankles
Giving him a seat in the Grandstands
Just above my head
The sun wants to see
The stage over the crowd
And look down upon the world
Here is the child, riding on his father’s shoulders like any child, but becoming a sun god in a pun few poets could pull off without throwing the reader out of sympathy. The gravity of this long, luminous, heartbreaking poem, given us without any punctuation, allows for the both the play and the tragedy the poet experienced with his son, a life affirmed.
Here is the beginning of Emily Fragos’s “The Scarlatti Sun” from her second book Hostage:
The mute seamstress on her knees
sticks a pin in the hem
and weeps for the cloth;
the dead stop their dying,
their heads warming like stones
in the Scarlatti sun,
Here, we are surprised by the “mute seamstress.” Vivid as she is, the word “mute” distances us, suggesting a permanent condition. And how far into the miraculous world we are in the second stanza, though we feel the warming stones. But Fragos pulls us closer as the postman’s mind goes, “windswept,” and the novitiate in a convent is “taken up” and “rushes across the just-washed floor.” So we come from far way to the music of the everyday.
A recent banner in an email promoting the Hudson Valley Writers Center’s upcoming Gala (Nov. 5) read “Brilliance, Humanity, and Humility”. It was surely inspired by this generous poetry reading. Neither of Hirsch nor Fragos shies from examining suffering in their poems. But I left this reading feeling my spirit lightened, feeling that poetry does make things happen.
Karen Steinmetz is a poet and novelist. Her poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, Coal Hill Review, Southern Poetry Review, So To Speak, and the anthology Still Against War I-V, among other venues. Her young adult novel The Mourning Wars was published by Roaring Brook/Macmillan in 2011.
For my final post, I’d like to talk briefly about my favorite poetic form, the sonnet, which I played around with for eight years, and which I continue to love for its rigor and ductility, its ability to hold and propel contra-diction, bad puns, good-for-nothings, great sentiment, and terrible occasion.
You can read more about my approaches to invoking the form in this article and in this blog post for the versatile literary journal Drunken Boat, but in short, the form spoke to me in a way that no other received one does. I consider myself a weird sonneteer, not a formalist.
I do have a fondness for poems in form by poets who take a similarly experimental approach, letting the constraints push and pull the language, as in this sonnet by the poet, scholar, and translator Douglas Basford, which appeared first in Diagram:
Call it a bore, if you like, or a boor,
but sound has a way of coercing sense
into bottlenecks worse than your parents
find late in the day driving to the Eastern Shore.
You'll hear about it later. You can be sure
images your mother half-absorbed--goldfinches,
drab bramble, wafer sun--will come. Clairaudience
of your eye, let's call it, keeps your eye turned
out the car window when the traffic's stock-still,
with nothing much to hear, no road noise, essence
of life distilled down to siblings squabbling
in a backseat ahead, to a few drunks stumbling
out past the shoulder and back. Something pinches
after you and misses. Reasons to speak dwindle.
This poem is from Doug’s work-in-progress, Very Memory, which he describes as “a Baltimore-centric series of sonnets exploring gentrification, race and class relations, turn-of-the-millennium courtship, and workplace bullying, among other things.”
Along with the poets Ida Stewart and Jason Gray, Doug edits the ever-spritely Unsplendid: An Online Journal of Poetry in Received and Nonce Forms. I was particularly happy to read the resplendent Women and Form issue that the journal published in July of 2014.
And speaking of great literary journals and their ardent editors, I’d like to mention my friend Liz Powell, the editor of Green Mountains Review and an amazing poet with a new book coming out. Her collection Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances just won the Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry.
The subtitle comes Sanford Meisner of the famed acting technique, and the book employs method acting to process the poems’ information, resulting in a provocative mix of verse, essay, drama, and meta-forms in which alternate personas converse as a way to find truth out of erasure. I’ve had the privilege of reading an early draft, which is like nothing I’ve read in the best possible way. Here is the title poem:
WILLY LOMAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER: A Story in Couplets
Willy Loman’s reckless daughter flies quietly,
fluttering like a silk-moth behind me
blocking my life, my scenes
in whichever stage direction she wants.
Sometimes at night I can feel her dialing into me,
her ringing calls like an imperial decree.
When she sleeps she crashes, like a car
into the guardrail of my ambition.
Her curse like a poison I cannot smell,
an asphyxiation of the self by the self, that hell and hard sell.
Split personalities we dream through the night,
of our merger and acquisition, in her half-moon light,
Not even my husband can feel
her there between us—a secret contract under seal.
When I awaken, her irises touch mine;
an awful, indecipherable fault line.
She’s a character in search of an author, a devotee,
trying to recount her history through me,
until I channel her. She’s like a phantom limb,
hymn to the invisible. Her shameless whims,
the subtext of my lies. Under her tinted hair
the forest murmurs, becomes a thought, or prayer.
Until her thoughts tumble into mine;
colors bleed. In the morning, I’m overwrought—
My patrilineal kin, she begins to wear thin,
when she undoes hospital corners I’ve tucked so gently in.
Her cool white rising is meringue completing—
the high-pitched silence of our congealing.
She was always ceremonially unfolding
his white shirts, unpressing the folds
in my circumstance. I did and didn’t want her. I kept
trying to catch her, then let her slip. Any intent
to have her near made her more invisible. Her electric
breasts overfilled my brassieres. An interaction, our dialectic—
She never removes her hat upon entering the door
to my personality. Ma semblable, ma soeur!
I can’t wait for this book and the others I mentioned earlier this week to come into the world.
And now seems like an apt time for me to express my gratitude to the journal and anthology editors who have supported my writing and without whom I wouldn’t be here blogging for The BAP. I didn't know Liz or Doug before I published poems in their journals, but I now consider them friends and fellow spirits, which is part of the reason I started writing poems long ago. And I'm grateful to have the opportunity to share their poetry, which I believe often gets overlooked by their work on behalf of others.
A thousand gratitudes to David and Stacey for inviting me to be here.
And a great holiday week to you all!
“Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”
The above quotation is from Ted Chiang’s meditative and melancholic science fiction short story “Exhalation” in which an argon-breathing person made of aluminum and gold narrates the tale of its planet’s demise and how it examined (literally) the workings of its own mind. A beautiful story, and one that I recently taught in my science fiction writing class at Ursinus College, where I’m the Visiting Creative Writer.
This course has been a thorough pleasure to teach because of my delightful students and because of the readings, which are almost always surprisingly trans- and progressive. Imagining alternate realities and near or far futures can be good for the soul as well as the mind.
And although I’ve worked mostly in poetry for the last decade and more, in the last couple years I’ve returned to writing fiction. (I started as a prose writer, then embraced poetry and fiction in graduate school with the intention of returning to prose and found I couldn’t stop writing the poems.) I’ve written both hybrid-genre and more straightforward stuff, but almost always with a fantastical emphasis. I also regularly teach a course on retelling myth and fairy tale, another genre I love and work in.
I say all this in order to bring you the following writing exercise, which I think works just as well for poetry as it does for short fiction.
I asked my students, who have drafted two sf short stories by now and read many others from H.G. Wells to Octavia Butler to Robert Heinlein to Ursula LeGuin to Samuel Delany to Eileen Gunn, to draft some possible first sentences to sf short stories. The lines might indicate something about the novums of the invented world—or not.
They didn’t have much time, only a few minutes that day (Tuesday), and I had them write the sentences on small pieces of paper (cut up from last year’s The Onion desk calendar). By now they know the drill: if I have them write on these little papers, I will collect them and then redistribute them randomly to the class. The experiment harnesses chance as a collaborator in the creative process, a la the Surrealists and the Oulipians and others. Anticipating the social component of the exercise, the students also will amuse and goad each other.
Their task was to draft a first paragraph to a sf short story using the sentence they received.
Here are the sentences they came up with:
Three bleeding suns split open the cold night. (Dorinda Ma)
“We specialize in the wholly impossible,” said the fading billboard. (Henry Willshire)
Once upon a time, there was an elephant with a bionic left tusk. (Collin Takita)
She woke up in a hospital bed having no memory of how she got there. But how could she? Her brain was in a jar floating next to her bed. (Irina Lessne)
Max the Mallard stood at the front of the courtroom and adjusted his tie before beginning to speak. “Quack.” (Kevin Moore)
We are gathered here today to join the dearly departed in holy matrimony. (Giselle Horrell)
I always thought that the city looked odd at night. (Albert Hahn)
The experiment had gone horribly wrong. (Megan Keenan)
The year was 2054, and two-thirds of the human population was dead. (Kristen Costello)
“Broken is modulator feedback machine time the,” said Morgan gasping.—(Blaise Laramee)
Close your eyes, hold your breath, count to 10. That was what they felt. (Linden Hicks)
Black was the primary color. (Rachel Juras)
The blood-soaked sky . . . (Brian Cox)
The sun, bright and full, rose over the city. (Althea Unertl)
[World ending] . . . (Darrah Hewlett)
I encourage you to write either a poem or a story beginning with one of these provocative sentences. Or, if you prefer to aim for a writing destination, try writing toward one of the following last sentences to an sf short story that the students devised today. Many of them also love poetry and are already astonishingly good poets.
Xylia scrambled to reach her phone. “Hey. Did I leave my self-matter stabilizer at your place?” (Albert Hahn)
They sealed the metal door from the inside. (Dorinda Ma)
A subsonic reverberation, then silence. (Brian Cox)
“I guess you can say, ‘That’s a wrap!’” the deli-man said as he took off his bionic shades and rolled off into the sunset on his hover bike. (Kevin Moore)
And just like that, all hope was lost and the world had yet to be found. (Irina Lessne)
And we held tightly onto each other as we slowly disappeared into the machine. (Giselle Horrell)
And then there was darkness. (Kristen Costello)
The lights went out, but the car continued. Right into a wall, just like before. (Henry Willshire)
She turned off the light, and for the first time in his life he could see. (Blaise Laramee)
And time, finally, began to go backwards again. (Althea Unertl)
And with that, they fall off the edge of Venus into a smoldering, dim rebirth. (Darrah Hewlett)
And, with his thorax now removed, the ant subsisted with just his head and ass. (Collin Takita)
And life continues without reason, without meaning. But they make a point of making it for themselves. (Linden Hicks)
They shot off in different directions, waiting for the next time their paths would cross. (Rachel Juras)
On November 24, 2015, I will premiere my new concerto for piano and orchestra with the Stuttgart Philharmonic and Dan Ettinger conducting.
Each work is a being with its own life, surprises, mysteries and destiny. This piano concerto has one of the most unusual histories of my catalog. It has haunted me for over twenty years – half of my life.
The opening of the concerto, as well as its entire second movement, is based on a dream I had when I was fourteen years old while living in the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains of Russia. One night I dreamt a strange hypnotic music, unlike anything I had ever heard. It was also very different from my own compositional efforts of that time. I was so shaken and moved by that musical dream that I forced myself to wake up and write down its main material. This experience was profoundly powerful and in some ways it defined my life. I have been composing music since the age of four and it was the most natural way for me to express myself. But it was this strange dream in which I felt that this music had chosen me rather than the other way around, which predetermined much of what developed later in my life.
For a long time I tried to find the proper vessel for this dream-music. First, I set it in the form of a Flute sonata (I studied and played flute through conservatory,) but the result did not satisfy me. A few years later, at the age of seventeen, I traveled from the Soviet Union to the United States for a concert tour and spontaneously decided to remain in New York. I entered the Juilliard School for composition and piano studies. Several times throughout my student years I returned to the musical idea that had haunted me since that memorable night. That material became the second movement of my Symphonie-Konzert. It was one of my very first large orchestral compositions. I struggled with its form and content. Its title kept on changing from "Symphony" to "Piano Concerto" to "Symphonie-Konzert" to the youthfully pretentious "Requiem for the Millennium." Its form varied from one movement to three, encompassing anywhere from 12 to 45 minutes in length. I performed it with different orchestras in the US, Russia and Germany. The last performance was my Konzertexam at the Hannover Musikhochschule where this was the very first time in the history of this university that a performer was allowed to graduate performing his original concerto.
In spite of its relative success, in spite of making endless revisions between these performances – I remained unsatisfied. I felt that I was not able to give full justice to this musical material. Perhaps I lacked experience of writing for the orchestra; perhaps I lacked experience in life. The abstract idea of this piece kept on shimmering in the distance, unattainable. I decided then that I needed to put this work aside and wait until I was better able to realize it.
Now, more than twenty-five years since my first dream-sketch related to this work, I had the chance to return to this music. I thought it would be a simple and straightforward revision. With the experience and perspective of the last twenty years - how difficult could that be? I was wrong. Terribly wrong.
Facing this music again was facing my own demons, facing my old fears, memories, facing myself. It was much more difficult than writing a completely new work. I was no longer that teenager who dreamt the second movement, nor was I the ambitious 28-year-old graduating with this work in Hannover. I'm a different person now, in a different stage of life. At the same time, something very essential in me remains as a defining leitmotif.
This work deals with Time and its transformations, one of the most important themes throughout my entire creative output. It deals with our age of decay, post-apocalyptic ruins of human vocabulary; it continues to challenge my personal dialogue with Time. It continues to question, doubt and haunt me, now much older, more experienced, but perhaps, in some ways, also more limited, more inclined to shy away from the essential questions it forced me to face.
I realized that I needed to approach this concerto anew, rewrite it freely. I needed to dangerously balance on a double edge sword: to be true to the person I am now, and at the same time not betray the person I was 20 years ago. Perhaps, it meant I needed to build a bridge between myself then and now, acknowledge and reconcile our differences. I needed to find that hidden leitmotiv that connects me to my past like a mythological Ariadna’s thread, leading me through a labyrinth of memories into the present moment in time. I wanted to preserve that larger-than-life, impractical, idealistic, dreamy approach of the younger me, yet guide it by the knowledge and experience of numerous orchestral compositions (requiems, symphonies, concerti, operas, ballets) that I have written in between these two chapters of my life.
Writing for orchestra can be a magical, wondrous and limitless experience. It can be also infuriating, hurtful and soul-breaking. Many composers never survive the baptism of orchestral writing – not because they lack talent, but because of the harsh, un-fulfilling realities of under-rehearsed performances, combined with the jaded, skeptical or even hostile attitudes of some conductors, musicians, audiences and presenters towards anything new, and general lack of support or even basic understanding of what it means to bring a new creation to the world. I am more fortunate than most. I survived. I flourished. I wrote dozens of orchestral works. The piano concerto kept on haunting me until I knew I had to face it once again. So here we are.
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.