My poetic style is what is commonly referred to as confessional, although, I prefer the term testimonial. I have been writing since I was six years old as a way to purge and replenish myself. Until very recently, I had not tried to publish my testimonial, long form, free verse. Why have I waited so long to begin to try and publish? There are a few reasons. One major deterrent always centers and circles back to the question, “who will I upset?” My work is deeply personal – often fueled by my family, the world around me, and my experiences as daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. Who will I offend? Perhaps everyone I have ever come in contact with.
A few years back a relative of mine published a thinly veiled cookbook/memoir exposing our whole family to scrutiny between recipes. The book offered a bitter feast. I, personally, was happy for the return policy at the store where I ordered the book and promptly sent it back. Suddenly, family members began contacting me. They were beset, upset, and angry by what had been written. They felt betrayed. They had welcomed this person into their homes and lives. They shared family stories not completely understanding the tone with which these stories would be used.
This was not the first time I wondered how my family would feel if I actually tried to publish my work, but hearing their rage did make me start to think about the question more concretely. As a confessional or testimonial poet, when is it time to publish? When everyone you speak of is long dead? The problem is probably best described for me by Galway Kinnell in his poem, “It All Comes Back” in which he asks his son for permission to publish a poem about him as a child:
“…Let him decide. Here are the three choices.
He can scratch his slapdash check mark,
which makes me think of the rakish hook
of his old high school hockey stick,
in whichever box applies:
- Tear it up.
- Don't publish it but give me a copy.
- OK, publish it, on the chance that somewhere someone survives of all those said to
die miserably every day for lack of the small clarifications sometimes found in poems.”
How will they take it? What box would they check off? Would my son, so near now to fifteen that everything his father and I say and do is an embarrassment, even if it is just a passing hello to the checkout person at the grocery store, be flattered by my yearly poem honoring his growth? Doubtful. He twisted his ankle last week trying desperately to get out of the car and into school before my husband could even utter his usual morning drop off farewell of, “Goodbye, have a nice day. I love you.” Would my son embrace or find disgrace in the writing of my poems for anyone to see that expose his foibles and curiosity? Will my husband cringe at the idea of our twenty-three-year-old marriage being exposed? From oxytocin-induced ranting love poems to the mundane dose of daily that becomes a long-term committed marriage? My sister, wounded and constantly and consistently reopening her own wounds; would she turn against me? My mother long dead, would she fly through the ether and set the air to fire at my giving over of the family secrets? How can one know?
I have kept my words locked away for so long that I have a catalog of nearly eight hundred poems spanning over three decades. I have only presented my truly personal work in the safe spaces of workshops. My less personal work has been performed on various stages. Where my poetry has been read by women performers, making it easy enough to sit in the back row and just enjoy watching my poetry being read by a dancer/performer who hears the music in my lines and is able to express it to an audience. In 2014 I exhibited a piece of mixed media work at the New York City, Piq Gallery in Grand Central Station. The show was called “Grand Slam” and exhibited a mix of old school graffiti artists with modern pop artists who customized scale trains as canvases. I was honored to have my piece be part of the show. The main component of my train was my poem, “Subway Songs.” The night of the show I stood far away as I watched people read and respond to it. I was extremely excited when my piece was sold. I even considered not cashing the check, until, I realized I could just take a picture of the check to deposit it. I keep that check as a reminder – a bright badge of bravery.
My second issue I have long hated the word submit. To submit, submission - it all sounds on your knees, bow before me, let me judge what you say. A quick online etymologic search of the word submission produces this definition:
late 14c., "act of referring to a third party for judgment or decision," from Old French submission or directly from Latin submissionem (nominative submissio) "a lowering, letting down; sinking," noun of action from past participle stem of submittere "to let down, put down, lower, reduce, yield" (see submit).
Sense of "humble obedience" is first recorded mid-15c. Modern French submission has been replaced by doublet soumission. English in 16c.-17c. also had an adjective submiss "humble, submissive." Submissionist in various political historical contexts is from 1828.
Poetry is not this for me. I realize this is not the thing most poets consider when they hit the submit button, or lick the now rare envelope, awaiting a reply. Poetry for me is observation, healing, pictures painted with words. Poetry is what has to happen. It’s not a choice. I see something, write a quick line, come back to it, let it go, and come back again hone the words. It was only this summer that I first submitted four poems to a journal. The journal I chose had the benefit of a seven-month response time. Enough time for me to adjust to the fact, and even forget, that I had submitted.
The third, very real, and truest of all these truths is the idea of facing rejection. When work is extremely personal, a true reflection of self, then if it is rejected – as it will certainly be at times – when I do choose to move forward and submit – I used to feel this rejection would be a personal rejection. Not only have you submitted to us but we don’t like you or what you have to say. I am fifty now. As I neared, fifty things became different for me. It took a long time to get here, but honestly, so what if I get rejected? Onward. I am not so caught up in myself as I was in my mid-twenties. When I was at the New York State Summer Writers Institute in the late eighties, Richard Howard told me mine was important woman’s work, and I should get it out there.
Important women’s work, I was too young to understand he did not mean cooking or sewing. I now think he meant what happens in the rare times that I do share my work with other women. Some of them thank me for giving voice to feelings they have had but have never been able to express. This is the closest I have come to a religious moment, when my words have helped heal another. Richard Howard may long have forgotten the hour he spent with me, but it is an hour that rings my ears now and propels me forward. “Important women’s work.” I’ll take it, as the praise I now believe it was meant to be and move forward past rejection, past family anger, towards whatever awaits me even if that means submitting.
Galway Kinnell’s, Strong Is Your Hold can be purchased at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/strong-is-your--galway-kinnell/1116855082?ean=9780544630932, or http://www.indiebound.org/search/book?searchfor=strong+is+your+hold, or visit your local bookstore.
George Balanchine (1904-1983) is tremendously quotable – if only because so many of his bon mots are adapted from others. When he declared himself to be “not a man but a cloud in trousers,” for example, he lifted the line directly from one of Mayakovsky’s greatest poems. Usually, however, the matchless choreographer offered not a straight quotation but an unacknowledged paraphrase. Here’s a basket of Mr. B’s observations.
“God made men to sing the praises of women.”
“When you have a garden full of pretty flowers, you don't demand of them, ‘What do you mean? What is your significance?’ Dancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning, they are just beautiful. We're like flowers. A flower doesn't tell you a story. It’s in itself a beautiful thing.”
In Balanchine’s view, Fred Astaire was “the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times.”
“The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.”
“In my ballets, woman is first. Men are consorts. God made men to sing the praises of women. They are not equal to men: They are better.”
“Dance is music made visible.” (Also, “See the music, hear the dance.”)
“There are no mothers-in-law in ballet” (also known as Balanchine’s Law).
“We all live in the same time forever. There is no future and there is no past.”
“Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don't agree with that because policemen don't have to look beautiful at the same time.”
“In fact I disagree with everybody and I don't want to argue about it.”
“The mirror is not you. The mirror is you looking at yourself.”
And when he received the Handel medallion, he said, “I can't Handel it. . .so I'll Haydn it.”
See Arlene Croce's “Balanchine Said” in The New Yorker (January 26, 2009): “In later years, [Balanchine] waged a personal campaign against the twentieth-century fetish of originality. . . . He saw no harm in appropriating; and he stole and was stolen from – that was the way of art.”
Above: George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell rehearsing Don Quixote in 1968.
“Wartime, here as abroad, made everyone more eager for the civilized and peaceful excitement of ballet. More people could also afford tickets. And in wartime, the fact that no word was spoken on the stage was in itself a relief. Suddenly the theaters all over the country were packed.”
-- Edwin Denby (c. 1945)
George Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" is permanently imprinted on my brain, perhaps because I saw it during the year of its debut as a stand-alone ballet and with the original cast but also because the choreography perfectly matches the music, which is gorgeous, sexy, and haunting (listen to the theme that begins at around 1:30). I've seen it many times, most recently with David, during a NYCB collaboration with The Dance Theater of Harlem, the acclaimed company started by Arthur Mitchell.
Suzanne Farrell has written that she was unaccustomed to dancing a part that required her to be overtly sexual - she plays a stripper in the ballet. Early on in rehearsal, her partner Arthur Mitchell said, "Come on, Suzanne, sex it up!" When Farrell stepped onto the stage, she really let loose. The heat these two premier dancers generated when they performed together was captivating and memorable.
It's hard to pick a favorite from among so many brilliant dances but if I had to, I might settle on Balanchine's Serenade with music by Tchaikovsky (Serenade in Strings in C, Op. 48). First conceived as a lesson in stage technique, Balanchine worked unexpected rehearsal events into the choreography. When one student fell, he incorporated it into the dance; another day, a student arrived late, and this too became part of the ballet.
Balanchine is famous also for his table talk and witty aphorisms: "God creates, I do not create. I assemble and I steal everywhere to do it - from what I see, from what the dancers can do, from what others do" and "I disagree with everybody but I don't even want to argue” and “Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don't agree with that because policemen don't have to look beautiful at the same time.” When a young choreographer sought his advice, he said, "Just keep making dances. Every now and then you'll make a good one." Good advice for poets, too.
I’ll just put this out there: I cannot stop reading Bill Hayward's Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs! It is my "Archaic Torso of Apollo." If I’m not looking at it, it’s looking at me. There is no hiding. When I close the book, it glows from within. Seriously. And I’m only at Act 2, which is where Bill really starts shaking things up.
He introduces Act 2 with a few paragraphs to explain his move away from traditional portraiture and toward experimentation. Traditional portraiture is somewhat exciting and interesting, “but in the final analysis, not lastingly fulfilling.” He documents his transition from formal to abstraction or, as he puts it “I commenced 'bushwhacking' in the darkroom (this is way before digital) and experimenting with print, paint, paper and scissors and following real 'brush strokes' of accident—disrupting what I knew of visual technique and tradition.” Think draftsman turned painter; they well know what they’re rejecting and they’re impelled to take the risk.
Bill continues to observe and admire dancers both in photographs and paintings. He photographs them from every angle and while both still and in motion, nude or partially draped. The nudes in particular are gorgeous, with their long and muscular bodies. Bill captures them uninhibited in their nakedness, as if when set free from the artifice of costume, they can most fully express themselves.
The images below are from the second and eighth sub-sections of Act 2. They illustrate the artist’s progression as he turns away from tradition and toward disruption. We’re not in Kansas anymore, or Vogue.
Much has been said on the frenetic pace of modern life, and its consequences. Writers have been glorifying the wonders of simplicity for hundreds of years: “Let your affairs be as two or three, not a hundred,” Thoreau advised in Walden. But in the past five to ten years, especially, the art of “slowing down” has garnered a mass-market following. Today, it is “cooler” than it ever was (think Eat Pray Love, Lululemon, and the rising popularity of Buddhist quotes in tattoo parlors).
I found my way recently to meditation out of medical necessity; chronic stress and anxiety had been causing stomach pains and other physical symptoms. I did, of course, what all good writers do before embarking on something new—I procrastinated the actual “doing” of the thing by reading about it first. A lot. In Mindfulness, Meditation, and Mind Fitness, Joel and Michelle Levey ponder how, “In a single day we respond to more information and make more decisions than one of our ancestors faced in a lifetime.” I thought about this as I went through my day: sorting through dozens of emails advertising clothing, facials, and charities; walking a supermarket aisle devoted entirely to cereal; stopping at a popular intersection with four competing drugstores, one on each corner.
I spent a great deal of time preparing my meditation. I downloaded just the right app, found just the right space where I would not be disturbed (a carpeted closet), bought a tray for the occasion to hold a candle, beads and fancy Santa Maria Novella incense papers. It was only weeks later that I gathered enough courage to actually sit down in my closet, close my eyes, and try to think… of nothing. I wasn’t very successful.
I’ve learned since then that it takes at least seven hours of accumulated meditation time before one begins to see an actual difference. But I’ve thought a lot in the past month about what “meditation” means to different people. To some it means sitting in a dark closet; to others it means tai chi, or yoga, or reflexology, or reiki.
But couldn’t it also be poetry? Self-help books don’t really reference this tactic. But I think a lot of people would agree that reading poetry slows down our minds in the best kind of way. For exactly that reason, the faster society goes, the more people tend to say to poets when apologizing for not buying their books, “You know, I don’t really get poetry.”
But if we spend the same amount of time on a page of poetry with sixty words as a page of a novel with four hundred words, we get a whole lot more out of it. William Stafford is one of my favorite twentieth-century “meditative” poets (“There are great gray islands that come for us, / where the dreams are / far as the sky and the light…”) but I also recently discovered a beautiful, slim volume by Richard Wilbur, published in 1947, called The Beautiful Changes: “I’ve been / Down in Virginia at night, I remember an evening door / A table lamp lit; light stretched on the lawn …” The comma he places between “at night” and “I remember” makes two sentences glide into one, and he does this often, stylistically inviting a more meditative reading.
I think the key to a good relaxation practice is getting out of one’s own mind and away from one’s own obsessions, however that is achieved. I love the recordings of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles for this, and PBS’s American Ballet Theater documentary, with all its incredible slow-motion footage of dancers on pointe (it is not lost on me how overly-romanticized this seems, talking of nuns and ballet, but truly, they are very calming). Thoreau said, “If for a moment we make way with our petty selves…what a universe will appear, chrystallized and radiant around us.” I keep looking for it; hopefully—one day—I’ll see it.
Are the dead still with us? When the flesh is husk, does the spirit speak? Can a love be everlasting? Can a hurt be overlong? After a predator dies, are his crimes still wrong? When the nightclub closes, do the splintering floors still dance? How many balls are just memory? How many illnesses took lives? I've heard hundreds of eulogies, yet I am not wise. What survives? Why bereft? Spirit-speaking? Spirit-listening? Smoldering ash? Life-theft?
And you, dear Eriq, are you with me? Do you still commentate at spirit-balls? Do you remember the time when we were five years old at Aunt Jackie's house when we first met Mr. Yardley, the predatory man who became our theatrical manager? We were not siblings, but we bled the same blood. AIDS covered you in blisters. You raged through your last hours. "But," you cried through fevers, "I thought I was resistant." Then death was a hiss. Years ago, Mr. Yardley told his new child charges arraigned that day at Aunt Jackie's: the only role that we would truly play as child entertainers was the part of a child. We learned to be cherubic: to smile with our eyes, with our teeth, with our cheeks pinched and puffed. What kind of death attends an abused child who plays innocent for money? What did it mean to perform childhood yet never be a child? Now that you are spirit, Eriq, are you finally a child?
And you, dear Jimmy, are you with me? Do you still dance at the spirit-Show Palace in a ghost-Times Square? Do you still run your hands across your litheness, lick your teeth, blink your eyes, cooing, "Everybody wishes they could have this puertorriqueño skin, this puertorriqueño hair." You were Apollo when you burlesque-danced at the Show Palace, and I was just the nightshift domestic who cleaned the wall-to-wall mirrors (and an occasional fill-in dancer, shockingly homely, weak in gathering tips). Do you remember the night you hauled me to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx while you scored Gutter Glitter from your supplier? I told you that I would never, ever let anyone put me in danger like that again. You replied, eyes dancing with Zip: "If not for Baysay, I would love you." Does the deathplace have Weasel Dust and Bubble Gum and Brooklyn Pearl and DC-Dust? Nothing was free, right? After I asked to crash at your tiny sublet and told you I had no money, you still demanded I write a poem for you each day. Of course, I complied. "Life is about something for something," was what you would say. So, then, what is death? And do you still read Apollo poems in the sprit-night?
And you too, Woody, the standout former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company dancer. Long legs, terrific ballon, alert mind, warm-hearted, off stage and on: a black crane, a swan in human lace. We met at the Paradise Garage. I was sitting in the corner on the floor and you urged me to dance. Then you took me to the round-walled Better Days on West 49th and the cramped Buttermilk Bottom on Franklin Street. And when you came to D.C., we went to the Bachelor's Mill where the cunning catch dates in their fists. And just before you started teaching as a dance professor in Texas, we talk on the phone and you sigh: "What's fame, what's money, what's life without love?" And, oh, you adored the metaphysical poets and house music and gospel songs and soft-spokeness and warm ocean waves. In the 80s, your favorite group was Ten City--you let me listen to their song "Devotion" on your Sony Walkman. "Don't come to Texas, baby," you told me when you were dying, "I don't want you to see me like this. I'm so weak." Are they still singing, "I wanna give you devotion?" Or, "When you're short on cash/I've got your length/when you're weak/I'll be your strength"?
It is Saturday July 28, 1990 at the now defunct Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on West 96th Street in New York City. I am at a middle school children's writing workshop. Improbably, I am the teacher. The night before the workshop I cloister myself in the bathroom. Nervous stomach. Clammy hands. Head spinning. A writing teacher? Me?
Earlier that year I taught a few tap dance classes to children as a substitute at the Hot Feet studios in the nation's capitol. I also taught buffon clowning at a weekend workshop for children at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. But teaching writing? How do I do that? Oh, I knew it could be done. I was molded by superb reading, writing, and performing educators. One such mentor was Samuel H. Wilson, Jr., a founder of the Arena Players, the oldest, continuously operating African American community theatre in the United States of America. Mr. Wilson recommended that I replace him for the Saturday children's writing workshop in 1990. Fred Hudson, the artistic director of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, readily agreed.
I had known both men since I was a child entertainer. Mr. Wilson and I had also led anti-gang violence workshops at public schools in the Mid-Atlantic states throughout the 1980s using techniques from Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. Mr. Wilson was a giant in my world because he genuinely cared about my welfare. "What are you working on?" he always asked, and whatever I told him, he was invariably encouraging. In 1990, Mr. Wilson was occasionally sick. He would have only five more years to live before dying of pneumonia in 1995. It is now 2015: twenty years since his death and I still miss him deeply.
That Friday in July of 1990 before my first workshop the next day as a writing teacher, I call Mr. Wilson on the telephone for help. He asks me to think back to what he told me about writing many years before when I was a child. "Writing," Mr. Wilson always told me, "is just another way of caring about other people." He also said that, "Editing is just another way of caring about writing" and "Reading is just another way of changing the world." Then Mr. Wilson told me that if any of these things are true, then teaching is just another way of sharing this good news. At the core of his reflections was a vision of writing as relationship-building, as affection, and as care.
Over the phone Mr. Wilson suggests that I get the children talking to each other, sharing their own stories, and looking into each others' eyes. "It's not always page-bound," he says to me. "Don't be afraid to use your theatre technique to teach writing," Mr. Wilson bellows into the phone. That Saturday, after we warm-up by running around the room and vocalizing, the children and I create characters based on the real life denizens that occupy our neighborhoods. Then we fashion scenes in which the characters work through conflicts. We move in and out of writing, talking, and performing. And I am pretty sure that I learn far more than anyone else in the room.
For all of my life, Mr. Wilson's reflections about writing, editing, and reading have lit my way through the sometimes dark world of literary fortune. Even today I often begin and end my writing classes with his reflections. His ideas have taught me to be a generous writer, reader, and supporter of others. I see beyond the frequent provincialism of cliques, schools, clubs, and canons. I try to find a way to care about a diversity of writing around me. Rather than focusing on how the writing fits my own predilections, or the fame of the author, or the assumed cachet of the publishing venue, or the friends associated with the author, or even whether the work is narrowly "good" or "bad"--rather than focusing on any of these things, I try to care about the work by understanding the structural principles that seem to govern its design.
Let me close today's entry with just such an exercise of care about a recent poem published by Mary Meriam in the Winter issue of American Arts Quarterly. "It Gets Very Dark until the Moon Rises" is more than a Petrarchan sonnet. It is a poem that seethes forth from the central verb statement in its first line: "darkness drives her pick-up truck." Everything thereafter in the poem structures itself around this remarkable conceit. And then we (the reader) are off on the journey of this hard-living, smart, unlucky woman through the dark of Highway 86 until the turn in the poem when the moon shows the woman's face, and I'll leave the rest, dear reader, to you.
Put earbud in west ear
Put other earbud in east ear
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice
Recorded yesterday, Mt Borredale,
In Amardak, you’re the Last Speaker
Hear? Your voice doesn’t sound so good
You sang good, but the recording was no good
Could you sing now, Charlie, please?
Charlie nods. Charlie listens
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice, please - Now
Now Charlie listens
OK Charlie, we need you to sing Now
Charlie nods and listens
Now Charlie listens
Cue Charlie – listens
Jamesy tells Charlie
Get headphone splitter
Jamesy puts on headphones
Charlie and Jamesy listen
Clapsticks, didj. Charlie’s voice
Jamesy sings a little
Jamesy looks at Charlie
Charlie looks at Jamesy
OK? Charlie listens
OK, Jamesy now speak Iwaidja with Charlie
OK, Charlie listens, Charlie nods
OK Jamesy looks at Charlie
OK clapsticks in fingers
OK Charlie listens, didj
OK now. Now Charlie sings
Asking Charlie Mangulda, the Last Speaker of Amurdak, to overdub his performance from the sacred site of Mt. Borradale, was one of the most complex and unnerving directorial moves—to me, not to him—I’ve ever had to do. John Tranter, our local sound guy, is just a dynamite practitioner. But recording Charlie’s voice, two, cracking clapstick players, and a bulbous didgeridoo on a cave’s platform under an ancient painting of a Rainbow Serpent, proved to be too much for our top-of-the-line digital equipment. This poem tells the story. I won’t repeat it. I won’t even tell you what Ma barang! means, I’m sure you already know. And if you don’t know, then you really do already know.
What I do want to talk about, briefly, is the opening lines. In Amurdak, Charlie’s language, is one of the very few instances where you can actually see a difference in consciousnesses between languages. The idea that some languages are more primitive than others is simply cultural prejudice: you can say anything in any language, and every language has a full syntax and grammatology. But in Amurdak, Charlie doesn’t know his left from his right. This concept, which until the 1960s was thought to be universal, actually doesn’t exist in a few languages. The way Charlie designates direction is simply and solely through cardinal directions. And it’s been shown that it doesn’t matter where speakers of these languages are placed, they are automatically oriented to the compass points, so that they can say of the choices, “I’ll take the one on the southwest.”
Now, you could infer from this that Amurdak people don’t see themselves, each one, as the center of the universe, where left and right is always and only consistent to the person speaking. Instead, the Amurdak people—or in this case, Charlie, the Last Speaker—is simply a point standing somewhere on Earth. But that’s just an inference. Or maybe a poem.
One more thing before we close. When Charlie was translating the creation myth of Warramurrungunji, he listed the dozen or so languages that the Goddess dropped, thus bringing humans to the place she had created. Somehow, under the disturbing lights of the camera, with the intrusion of the microphone, Charlie remembered three words of a language that linguist Nick Evans, an expert on cultures of Northern Australia, didn’t know he could speak. And when Charlie mentioned Wurdirrk and gave Nick some words, it was the first time that this language has ever been recorded. That’s correct. I think this was The Apotheosis of the whole shoot of “Language Matters.” I could see the headline in the Times: Documentary Crew Discovers Lost Language.
The words Charlie spoke translate to: “I want to listen to you,” “yam-digging tool,” and “give me fire.” The first thing that was apparent to Nick from these three words is that they are unlike any other language, which means Wurdirrk is not a dialect—without these words, we never would have known that.
As a poet, I’d like to say one more thing about the words. If you triangulate from them, what you have is a whole culture. “I want to listen to you,” the essence of the community. “Yam-digging tool,” the basis of the community’s relationship with the earth and it also means “digging deeply into the meaning of something.” And “give me fire,” the essence of light, of heat, a great song title, and the best joke in the book.
For “gimme fire,” I envisioned Charlie as a little boy, these strange people coming out of the darkness late at night, shivering and cold, needing some of this precious fire for light and heat. Later, Charlie would give me the deeper meaning of this idiom. Hey buddy, you got a match?
“Foneddigion a Boneddigesau! Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd!” The Welsh is slow and halting, pried off the page, the performance knowing and with flair. If I do say so myself.
I am saying it myself.
It’s me. On stage. Stomp, 2012, Vale of Glamorgan, Cymru (Welsh for “Wales”).
The Stomp (Y Stomp, in Welsh), is the National Poetry Slam of Wales. It is part of the annual Eisteddfod, the national cultural festival of all things Welsh. As I say in “Language Matters,” “It’s a lot like the state fairs in the US, except that instead of prizes for pies or pigs, the prizes are for poetry.”
The first Eisteddfod was in 1176, when Lord Rhys invited poets and musicians from all over the country to compete for a seat at his table. You could sing for your supper, and then get fed. Winning was an entree into the house of the Lords, and a golden meal ticket for the winning poet. The chair you pulled up to the table was a special Bard’s Chair, and to this day, the prize for the winning poet in the Formal Category is a Chair. Hand-carved by an artisan, the winner gets to take the Chair home, sit in it, and write more poems. In Welsh.
For me, as usual, the whole thing started at the Bowery Poetry Club, when we hosted readings by Welsh poets as part of the Peoples Poetry Gatherings, 2002-03. That’s where I began to feel the intensity around this ancient Celtic language. Whenever I bring up Welsh in New York, the response is invariably, “Well, what about Irish?” While the Irish fought and gained political independence, they did so in English. The Irish language is now much more endangered than Welsh. The Welsh never fought for independence, but rather cultural parity, and today Welsh is considered the only endangered language to have come off the endangered language list. It’s a success story by any metric, which is why it got its place in “Language Matters.”
One of the poets I met at the Club is Grahame Davies, who writes in both Welsh and English, and whose work and being was crucial in my decision to study Welsh. Grahame lives the fire and rigor needed to keep this ancient language alive. The fire is contagious, and to prepare for the film, I flew to Wales and began my own formal and informal study of the language.
Grahame picked me up at the Caerdydd (Cardiff) Airport, and we headed for breakfast with Elinor Robson of the Welsh Language Society. I confessed my dream to them, and we all laughed over a full Welsh. What? I, who didn’t even know enough to fly to Manchion (Manchester) to get to Gog Gymru (North Wales), who couldn’t say Blaenau Ffestiniog (the slate-mining town where I live in Wales), let alone spell it, who hadn’t even met Dewi Prysor! was proposing that I participate in next year’s Stomp! I, who didn’t know from “hwyl” (aloha), was going to write and perform a poem in Welsh -- all for this documentary I was making for PBS.
And as you now can see on the front page of the live-stream at PBS.org, the fantasy came real, all duded up in lucky Tibetan cap and Mexican guayabera, taking on all comers at Stomp 2012. “Ladies and Gentlemen! My first line of cynghanedd!” I am saying, to translate the first words of this post. And it really was the first cynghanedd I ever wrote.
In the film, the line is followed by a raucous audience response, Stomp cards held high—unlike the U.S. Slam, at the Stomp the audience is the judge, and they judge by holding up different colored cards to indicate their favorite poet. Watch as I collect a brotherly hug from Dewi, my mentor, friend and Stomp opponent, also an award-winning novelist and Stomp-winning poet, whose current job is translating episodes of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” into Welsh.
The cynghanedd is what separates formal Welsh poetry from free verse; in fact, it is what separates Welsh poetry from any other poetry in the world. There are six different forms of cynghanedd, and to win the Chair, you must write a poem that includes sections written in each. Each form has its own rules, here’s a general description the poetic device Marerid Hopwood, in her handbook Singing in Chains: Listening to Welsh Verse, describes as “consonant chime :” to create a cynghanedd , a line is divided into three sections, a double caesura. The middle section is thrown out. The two sections left, must have all their consonants (except the last) match up. In other words, the vowels, and of course in Welsh, Y and W are always vowels, are immaterial. The sounds we use to make rhymes don’t count.
Now from here things get a little complex. Sometimes there is internal rhyme, sometimes rhyme line-to-line, sometimes both—but let’s just leave it at that. The extraordinary thing is that a Welsh audience can hear the cynghanedd, applauding an especially good one, and be quite aware of a poet trying to slide something by. As an American poet writing in Welsh, even in the Stomp, to come up with a cynghanedd was quite a feat.
(Hopwood’s title is of course a line from “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. The irony is that while we think of Thomas as the Welsh poet, in Wales he’s often not even considered to be in the top tier. Why? Because he didn’t write in Welsh. In fact, many people think that a lot of Thomas’s power comes from his having heard and digested the sounds and rhythms of Welsh poetry as a youth, and then using these Welsh cynghanedd forms in English. For your further elucidation, another poet who used Welsh forms and sounds was that old Jesuit and inventor of sprung rhythm, Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Quick cut back to breakfast—Grahame and Elinor waving goodbye, I’m training/bussing it to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh Cultural Center, where I will begin my formal study of Welsh. Flashback to Stanza Poetry Festival in St. Andrews, Scotland, six months before, where another Welsh poet, Sian Melangell Dafydd, replies to my comment that I want to learn Welsh by saying “there’s this magical place in Llyn…” Flash forward to Grahame Davies’ brillant Everything Must Change, a novel that is a mash-up of the Welsh language protests of the 60s with the bio of Simone Weill. Flash further forward to my two weeks’ immersion at Nant where my Welsh teacher Llinos Griffin is prodding the Cymraeg (Welsh language) out of me, saying “You, know, you really should meet Dewi Prysor…”
…And what was your first line of cynghanedd, Bob? you’ve probably been wondering. “Yn ysgwd yn fy esgyrn.” Which, as you can see in “Language Matters,” I learn how to pronounce as I drive our van (my full title: host/driver) through scenic Wales, and which the show’s storyteller/line producer, Sian Taifi, also tries to instill in me by having me sing the words.
Besides Sian, Dewi and Grahame, the film also shows me learning with David Crystal, Europe’s most famous linguist, and Ivor ap Glyn, poet and TV host/producer. The line translates, “I am shaking my bones,” and as you can tell by my rendering, I really was.
The Stomp is a variant of the US Poety Slams, and I’ve done enough Slams to know that grabbing attention at the top is crucial. So I asked Dewi to teach me something that would bust through in case anyone at the Stomp should heckle my mispronunciation or lack of mutations, (Mutations! The bete noir of the Welsh language. Did you notice back a-ways how cynghanedd mutated to gynghanedd? Not a typo! In English and French we often elide one word into another by dropping the last letter: singing to singin’, eg. In Welsh, you “mutate” the first letter of the incoming word, so that, for example, if you are going to Bangor, you would say im Mangor, the B of Bangor mutating to an M. Which of course makes driving in Wales even more fun.) So the title I came up with for my Stomp masterpiece is: Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg! which, lovingly translates to “Fuck Off! I’m a Fuckin’ Welsh Fuckin’ Learner!”
Not only would I be trying to turn my lack of Welsh into an advantage by begging for the sympathy vote, but I’d also be paying homage to the colorful language the Stomp is known for, especially as used so expressively by my mate Prysor and the training camp he established in Blaenau (The Queen), with occasional side trips to Llan (Y Pengwyrn) and Tanygrisiau (Y Tap) -- three major pubs in three parts of town. It’s also worth noting that there are no indigenous curse words in Welsh; like Ffwcin, they’re all borrowings from bully English.
Playing between orality and literacy is one of my favorite areas of poetic exploration. In fact, it was how I got involved with Endangered Languages in the first place. Of the 6000 languages in the world (I just love saying that!), only 700 are written down. The Welsh oral traditions, from the Celitc storytellers and Druid poemmakers all he way to today’s Stomp, has been crucial to the language’s survival. And it was through my investigations into the roots of hiphop poetry (hiphop IS poetry!), that I first came across the Language Crisis.
Having established myself as an appropriately iconoclastic bardd Cymreig in the poem’s title, I felt it was important that the first line of the poem reverse field and show my respect for Welsh culture: “Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr,” imparts to me a mythic status, as I identify with the deepest image of Welsh mythology: “I feel like the Red Dragon entering into battle.” You may have noticed that Wales is the only country with a Red Dragon on its flag: the symbol of Wales, sleeping underground next to the White Dragon (England), waiting only for the Apocalypse to disinter, and then emerge victorious in the ensuing battle royale. Wow.
I straighten out this lie in the next line: “Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp.” “Actually, I’m just a stupid American poet trying to hold me own in the Stomp.” Another secret of Slam success: flip the script! Set up a high image, and then undercut it with your own vulnerability.
The next lines reference my aforementioned debt to hiphop. Hiphop is part of my lineage, too—for a while there in the 80s my tag was the Plain White Rapper. To write this section took painstaking work at the Blaenau llyfrgell (library) with a correlating a rhyming dictionary and a Welsh-English dictionary—why oh why is there no rhyming Welsh-English Dictionary?
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
My address? The definition of randomness
The contradiction of definition!
This also gives a nod to the course I’ve developed at Columbia, “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance,” using extra-literary means to add even more meanings to a poem via collaborations with film, dance, theater, et al.
After this jangly, dirty, provocative opening, I felt it was time for some “real” poetry, and being a “real” poet myself I knew just what lines to use: steal them, from a couple of great poets.
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
I was truly hoping someone in the audience would out me here (I should have had a plant!), so that my next barrage, taking personal blame not only for my plagerism but also for every crime ever committed during the horrific triumph of Capitalism known as US Imperialism would have more resonance:
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH Parry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
This is followed by the lines from “Language Matters.”
Cynghanedd, defended from the orality of the skalds, has been an integral part of Welsh has survived. Hopwood confesses at one point that she believes you can only truly write cynghanedd in the language that evolved in tandem with the poetic form: Cymraeg (Welsh). In essence, her whole lovely how-to is actually nothing but a piece of propaganda for the perpetuation of Welsh.
Cymru, the Welsh word for Wales, means Us, The People. “Wales” is a Saxon word, what the Saxons, the first conquering invaders of Wales, called the Celts there—“The others,” “Those guys over there.” Isn’t it time for the world’s nations to be known by the name that their people call themselves?
And now, the Grand Finale:
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
in My Big Head of Dreams
It’s true that my relationship with Welsh is a lot like having a lover—you have to give everything and there’s always more and thank goodness it’s never enough. But my head of dreams – in English I wanted this to be my big head, big enough to hold all these languages and the idea that somehow or other that this piece of theater, sacrificing myself on the pyre that is the Stomp, would show my love and respect for Welsh, that I would go to his extreme in order to bring my own personal touch to a documentary that is all about the essence of humanity, which I believe language is, but which can also be talked about in theories and data where it’s possible human contact may be lost.
Of the 12 poets who made it to the National Poetry Slam, Dewi and I were the first two names out of the hat. We went up against each other, splitting our supporters’ votes, and giving the first round to some brilliant whippersnapper poet who had somehow made cynghanedd a mode of conversation—brilliant! As if Byron were crossed with Frank O’Hara, say.
Because we were knocked out in the first round, the crew was able to shoot a wrap-up, right then and there, full of loss that meant nothing, and surrounded by a language that had taught me important truths that would infuse the whole film. And my life.
After the wrap, the crew really wanted to hit the road. I felt bad—for the poet to leave a reading early is bad form, in any language. But it was already late, and our flight back to the States was at 8:00 the next morning, and we had to drive to Llundain, and the Welsh sky was already ablaze. And my big head was full of big dreams but no way sleeping.
The poem and translation below are published in my most recent collection,Sing This One Back to Me (2013, Coffee House).
Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg!
Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr
Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
A dach chi’n gwybod pam?
Mi dduda’i thach chi pam!
Achos -- mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!!!
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
Foneddigion a Boneddigesau!
Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd:
“Yn ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”
Mae’n wir wyddoch chi –
Dwi YN “ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”!
A dach chi’n gwbod pam?
Achos fy mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Fuck Off, I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner!
(That’s the Title)
I feel like The Red Dragon In the Middle of Battle
stupid American poet in the middle of the Stomp
Want an apology? No possibility!
My address? The definition of randomness (The contradiction of definition)
And you know why?
I'll tell you why!
Cause I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner, that's why
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH arry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!
My first line of cynghanedd!
“Shaking in my bones”
It’s true you know
I AM “shaking in my bones”!
And do you know why?
Because I’m a fuckin Welsh fuckin learner that’s fuckinwhy!
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
In My Big Head of Dreams
And so I made my first trip to Hawaii. It’s a long way from everywhere, specks of black lava, folded green jewels in the middle of the largest body of water on the planet – you will now know that, Hawaii is the further from a continent than any other on the planet. No wonder the creation story here, the Kumulipo, begins underwater, with the creation of fish, coral and octopus, and rises up with the spirit of Pele, the Goddess of Fire, a real place—the active volcano in the center of the Big Island. Pele is a real person, too. I met her many-times-Great Granddaughter, Pele Harmann, a teacher at Nawahi, the K-12 immersion school outside Hilo where I spent many a day hearing No English. It’s an honor to be allowed to step inside someone else’s culture. Tread lightly. As Pele said to me, “To you it’s a myth. To me it’s my genealogy.”
This is what you learn. That unlike the rest of the world’s crises, the Language Crisis has a seemingly simple answer: Respect Mother tongues. Let the children born into minority languages live there as much as possible. They will get plenty of the bully language as soon as they walk out the door, as soon as they turn on the TV.
Today there are Hawaiian language immersion schools on every island, but back in the 60s there were none. The number of speakers had shrunk to about 400 with most of them living on the tiny island of Ni’ihau, which was owned (still is) by a single family who allow no non-Hawaiians to set foot there. So the native population lives on in a kind of time capsule of pure Hawaiian. When Larry Kimura, the godfather of the Hawaiian language, and his Hawaiian language students at the University of Hawaii Manao came to the conclusion that just speaking Hawaiian with each other for hours a day was not making the kind of substantive change necessary to keep Hawaiian culture alive, they decided the way forward was to start schools where children would learn Hawaiian the way all children learn languages – by hearing, by mimicking, by conversing. By spending time in a place where the sound environment was always the flowing lilt and glottal stops of Hawaiian. This was the beginning of the punana leo, a language nest. Here children would spend hours daily in a protected place—a nest of Hawaiian. Parents must accompany their little ones (3 months to 5 years ) here, and parents too are bound by the rules. So they end up learning baby Hawaiian, just to keep up with their child. I’m sitting there and a toddler purposefully approaches and starts speaking to me—in Hawaiian. Wants me to read him a book in Hawaiian. I oblige—I may not know all the meanings, but I can read the words, and I’m learning, like he is. But I don’t speak Hawaiian! I’d said to the teacher. Not yet, was her reply.
It was a few kapunas (elders, but like so many Hawaiian words, much more than elders), those remaining from the 400 speakers in 1960, who brought the sounds and traditions of real Hawaiian direct to these students. Auntie Lolena Nichols—I could devote a whole blog to how kinship patterns in orality are as complex as nuclear fission, but right now let’s just say “Auntie”—was one of these native speakers from Ni’ihau. These days she divides her time between the children at the punana leo and graduate students at the University of Hawaii, Manao. In oral consciousness, people are books, and as the language activist/scholar Puakea Nogelmeier is fond of saying, Auntie Lolena is a PhD in living Hawaiian. When I first met Lolena, I presumed a Hawaiian greeting: forehead to forehead, nose to nose, you breathe in the breath of the other. Lolena’s power almost knocked me over.
Nogelmeier, himself is a very special man with a deliciously deep voice. You get to hear it every time you take a bus in Honolulu. Most of the streets still have their original Hawaiian names, but as the language died out so did proper pronunciation. The names became haole, the Hawaiian word for white people, but as the language movement (not Bernstein/Andrews, but the push for mother tongue survival) gained momentum one of the successes was hearing Puakea’s dulcet tones pronounce real Hawaii’an as you take public transportation in Honolulu.
One thing you notice right away in the language is the ‘okina, the glottal stop, considered an actual letter in Hawaiian, one of eight consonants. There are five vowels. Thirteen letters altogether, and one of them is the silent “hitch” you hear when you say uh-oh. Having a language with such a few number of letters, each of which is pronounced in only one way (well, vowels are short and long, but long just means they are longer, not that they have a different sound), gives Hawaiian only 18 phonemes, one of the fewest of any language (English has 57, the Koisan click languages over 140).
It also makes Hawaiian an extremely easy language for speakers to read. Think of the evolution of written English, its centuries of inconsistent spellings and idiosyncratic pronunciations. How different it was for literacy to arrive in Hawaii. When the first missionaries arrived in 1820, they quickly developed a written language and translated the Bible into Hawaiian, the better to convert the populace. They gained the full support of the royal family, who even at this time were considered not the descendants of gods, but actual gods. And when these kings and queens took up the advocacy of reading, it took less than fifty years for Hawaii to surpass the Mainland in literacy, eventually having one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It was said that Hawaiians could read upside-down – because of the lack of reading material, four people would stand around a book or newspaper – two read sideways, one straight on, one upside down.
One of the reasons this happened was the advent of Hawaiian newspapers. Over the next 100 years, more than 100 native language newspapers were founded. But it wasn’t the news they were reporting, it was the incredibly rich Oral culture that they were recording. Every endangered language that is being revived develops techniques for adding vocabulary for new things and concepts (computer, cell pone, defriend, Pringle-ization), and for words that have been lost. But it’s only Hawaii, where the people fell so in love with reading that now researchers can “mine” this trove to find forgotten vocabulary, ideas for new words, and still hear the voices from the days when the language was teeming with energy, the essence of Hawaiian culture full flower.
I want to talk about my visit with William Merwin, who of course lives in Haiku on the island on Maui, telling me that Hawaiian will be back when it is “considered a first language, when you make jokes in it, play around with it.” I want to travel way up the mountain and tell you about my visit with Keali’I Richel,who told me how hula became the way that language survived during the years that the American colonists outlawed it, how “you can have a hula poem without the dance, but you can’t have the dance without the poem.” I want you to meet Kaui sa-Dudoit, the Mother of the Language Movement, whose dozen kids all grew up in immersion schools, all rebelled as teenagers and stopped, and all came back.
And I want you to see David Grubin and me actually getting in the water, up to our knees, daring the Pacific in our bermudas, trying to write a poem while the waves tried to push us over. But instead, it is time to go to Wales, and meet a language that has survived for over a thousand years while the powerful onslaught of bully English ruled the land.
In honor of Percy Bysshe Shelley's recent birthday and John Milton's perpetual relevance, here are two pieces from Doug Lang’s funny, dazzling, and supremely inventive sonnet collection, dérangé (which full disclosure requires me to acknowledge that I happily helped bring to publication):
Paradise Dude sonnet
Of Mans First Disobedience, dude, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, dude, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, dude, OMG, and all our woe,
With loss of EDEN, dude, till one greater Dude, dude,
Restore us, dude, and regain the blissful Seat, dude,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, OMG, that on the secret top
Of OREB, dude, or of SINAI, dude, didst inspire
That Shepherd, dude, who first taught the chosen Seed, dude.
In the Beginning, dude, how the Heav'ns and Earth, dude,
Rose out of CHAOS, OMG: Or if SION Hill, OMG
Delight thee more, dude, and SILOA'S Brook that flow'd, dude,
Fast by the Oracle of God, dude, WTF; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song, dude,
That OMG with no middle flight intends to soar, dude, just sayin’
Yo, Yo, Oz sonnet
Yo, yo, I met a traveler from an antique land, yo,
Who said: Yo, Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert, yo. Near them, on the sand, yo,
Half sunk, yo, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, yo, and sneer of cold command, yo,
Tell that its sculptor, yo, well those passions read, yo,
Which yet survive, yo, stamped on these lifeless things, yo,
The hand that mocked them, yo, and the heart that fed, yo;
And on the pedestal, yo, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, yo, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair, yo!”
Nothing beside remains, yo. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, yo, boundless and bare, yo,
The lone and level sands, yo, stretch far away, yo.
Watch for Jacques d'Amboise's entrance at 3:14. He's performing in Stars and Stripes (Balanchine/Sousa, one of my favorites) and it looks like he's been shot on stage out of a canon.
When asked why he choreographed to Sousa's marches, Balanchine replied, "Because he makes me happy."
The anticipation of Mindy Aloff's posts gave me a hankering for the ballet. As it happens both the New York City Ballet and The American Ballet Theater are in town right now and I had to make a choice. I went with the NYCB for a variety of reasons but mostly I was swayed by two ballets on the program, both by Balanchine. Concerto Barocco, to Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, in repetoire since 1948, always seems fresh and new and Sunday's matinee performance was no exception.
But it was Who Cares? (music by George Gershwin) that made up my mind. I saw the original production in 1970 when I was girl, and have seen it many times since. It is irresistable. (You can search YouTube for clips.)
Here's what Lincoln Kirstein writes about the original production:
Balanchine had an early opportunity to work with George Gershwin: In 1937 Gershwin asked Balanchine to come to Hollywood to work with him on Goldwyn’s Follies(released 1938), which included a Romeo and Juliet number with a mock duel between ballet-dancing Montagues and tap-dancing Capulets. Thirty-three years later, Balanchine choreographed Who Cares? to 16 songs Gershwin composed between 1924 and 1931. Balanchine used the songs not to evoke a particular era but as a basis for a dynamic that is uniquely American and, more specifically, evocative of New York City: Balanchine’s choreography brings out the exuberance of city life.
Who Cares? is both the name of a ballet in the classical idiom by George Balanchine and an old song George and Ira Gershwin wrote in 1931 for Of Thee I Sing. The dictionary says “classic” means standard, leading, belonging to the highest rank or authority. Once it applied mainly to masterpieces from Greco-Roman antiquity; now we have boxing and horse-racing classics, classic cocktail-dresses, and classic cocktails. Among classic American composers we number Stephen Foster, John Philip Sousa, and George Gershwin (1898-1937). First heard 50 years ago, the best of Gershwin songs maintain their classic freshness, like an eternal martini – dry, frank, refreshing, tailor-made, with an invisible kick from its slightest hint of citron. Nostalgia has not syruped the songs’ sentiment nor robbed them of immediate piquancy. We associate them with time past, but when well sung or played, or preferably both at once, they not only revive but transcend their epoch.
The Gershwins’ beautiful manners and high style, their instant melange of insouciance and shrewd innocence, their just estimation of the imaginative elasticity of an elite audience that they had developed, have left a body of words and music that lives unblurred by vulgar rhetoric or machine-made sentiment. To combine an intensely personal attitude with a flagrantly popular language is a feat that few popular artists manage, and it is appropriate that Balanchine has used the songs not as facile recapitulation of a lost epoch, but simply as songs or melodies for classic, undeformed, traditional academic dances, which in their equivalence of phrasing, dynamics, and emotions find their brotherly parallel.
Anyone who visits this site knows I'm mad for ballet and am a devotee since childhood of the American Ballet Theater, which performs regularly in New York City.
Some of my favorite poets were inspired by ballet: Marianne Moore, Frank O'Hara, Hart Crane, Edwin Denby, and Denise Levertov, to name a few. The similarities between the two art forms are clear to one who loves both. To paraphrase poet and critic Jack Anderson, both seek to create something which is uniquely itself, something which can be expressed in no other terms.
Because of this love, I was sad to learn that balletomane Carley Broder, the sister of a close friend, died on February 25. I want her good works to live on in the form of support for Project Plie, an initiative to increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet and diversify America’s ballet companies. Won't you join me? You can find out more about Carley Broder and make a much appreciated donation here.
Anyone who has been visiting here knows I'm absolutely mad about ballet, especially as performed by the New York City Ballet company. When I was a child, my parents subscribed to the NYCB's Sunday matinees. We traveled by car to the city from our suburban home and had a pre-performance picnic at the 79th Street Boat Basin, where Roy Cohn docked his 95 ft yacht.
Our seats were in the Fifth Ring of the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch theater). They cost $1.00 and were arranged one behind the other along the railing. From that vantage point, the dancers were mere dots on the stage below. My father justified the seats by telling us that from this height we would take in the entire stage and be able to observe the architecture of the ballet. Apparently, he was onto something.
When I was finally able to afford better seats, watching a ballet up close was a revelation, in ways both good and bad. On the one hand, you could see the dancers' faces, their lightening quick footwork, the grace of their arms, the beauty of the partnering, but you also saw them working. Hard. Sweat would fly off their bodies, their costumes could become soaked through. There were occasional grunts and after an especially grueling sequence, you could see the dancer fighting to keep his or her heavy breathing in check. Still, one of my favorite sounds is the pad of ballet shoes across the stage as the dancers assume their places.
It wasn't until many years later that I came to appreciate the gift of ballet that my parents gave me. We were witness to the finest choreography of the twentieth century. We saw Balanchine and Jerome Robbins ballets performed by the very dancers on which they were made. I sometimes imagine that Frank O'Hara and Edwin Denby were in the audience for some of the same performances.
The world of ballet is endlessly fascinating. It is a closed world with its own hierarchy and culture. Ballet dancers give their all to their art. Their careers are usually over by the time they reach forty. If they're lucky and manage to be injury-free, they may eke out a few more years in the less demanding roles.They are not wealthy when they retire.
I'm always surprised that more young people do not attend the ballet. While tickets can be expensive, there are usually discount programs available. Who wouldn't want to see young highly trained individuals executing difficult moves to beautiful music? Beats me.
Perhaps this new series, launched by AOL and produced by Sarah Jessica Parker, will change minds and influence how young people spend their money. Instead of blowing $100 on a few fancy cocktails, why not take in a ballet? The Nutcracker Suite begins on November 29. And I'm happy to make recommendations for the 2014 season. Won't you join me?
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.