Best American Poetry's own Jill Alexander Essbaum is featured today in the New York Times' "Learning Network" Blog's post, "Poetry Pairing." Click here to read Jill's wonderful poem "Precipice" and the discussion as the poem is compared to two other pieces about time.
Way to go, Jilly!
One of my favorite holiday television moments. Hokey 1970s Christmas special set-up, but worth it when you hear how sweetly Bing's baritone and David Bowie's crystal-clear tenor blend together, and when you realize that this was Bing Crosby's last television appearance. The special, "Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas," was first shown on November 30, 1977; Crosby had died of a heart attack on October 14.
Thanks to Margaret J. for this one. Proof that there are no small parts, only small performers.
And now, for your holiday listening pleasure, the Marimba Ponies:
My reaction, upon first hearing that Goucher College's theater folks are putting on a production of The Fantasticks, was a not-so-inward groan. A chestnuttier chestnut you could not find, unless it was Oklahoma or Godspell. Goucher has a stellar theater department that has put on some pretty cool stuff recent years, including a stage version of Animal Farm and the infrequently performed but historically important Cradle Will Rock. But The Fantasticks? I mean, come on.
Was there ever a more cheeseball song than "Try to Remember?" Thinking of an 18-year-old singing it was cringe-worthy. What does a college student have to remember - fifth grade? And then there are all those corny, over-orchestrated, throw-up-in-your-mouth-sentimental versions of it. Do a search on YouTube and you get thousands. Ed Ames. Perry Como. Julie Andrews. Andy Williams. The Brothers Four. Roger Williams. Gladys Knight and the Pips (who super-schlocked it by combining it with "The Way We Were" in a medley). Blech blech blech.
But then something occurred to me. There's a reason things become cliches: they hit a universal nerve. And The Fantasticks' original 1960 Off-Off Broadway production is the longest-running musical in history: 42 years and over 17,000 performances (top that, Book of Mormon). Someone somewhere is always performing it. Why?
First off, it's a mash-up of familiar plots. It's (very loosely) based on a play by Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, with some Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer's Night Dream, Greek mythology, and opera thrown in. Second, the scenery is stylized and minimal: some chairs, a kind of balcony thing, a cardboard moon. Third, all you really need is a piano-player, although you can use a harpist who doubles on percussion if you've got one. So you can produce it on the cheap; the original version cost less than $1000 to stage. But it isn't just the performers who like it - audiences love it. An Off-Broadway revival has been running since 2006.
So I decided to go back to 1960 and listen. On YouTube, I found the original cast recording of "Try to Remember," sung by the late and decidedly great Jerry Orbach, who originated the role of El Gallo (left - younger readers may remember him as the voice of Lumiere in Disney's Beauty and the Beast or as Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order). So I listened. And I was blown out of the water. In this recording, Orbach is at the peak of his vocal powers. He sings simply and straightforwardly, no flourishes; it's just his voice and the accompanying piano. Not a mournful oboe or soaring string quartet to be found. Not an atom of schlock or cheesyness. Perfect. And suddenly the song is fresh and new and moving and lovely. Here it is. Pretend all those other singers haven't gotten their paws on it and listen.
Unfortunately, there is only one Goucher performance and it's tonight, so I've missed my chance to see what those fresh, young, unschlocky theater students can do. I hope they've listened to Orbach and trashed the rest of the recordings. I really do. And next time, I'll be less scornful of chestnuts, and more willing to crack open the nutshell and see what's inside.
Stacey asked us to post our gift recommendations for the holiday season. But if I do that, people will know what they're getting from me. So instead, I thought I'd help out you generous souls and offer a suggestion or two for me, in case you were stumped.
I want a cruise to the Titanic.
As reported in an article in today's issue of The New York Times and in honor of the April 2012 centennial of the sinking, Deep Sea Expeditions is offering their customers the opportunity to participate in one of the last cruises and dives to the most famous shipwreck in the world. The 12-13 days cruise costs $59, 680 and includes the following: " [a] dive on MIR submersible for scientific expedition tour of the RMS Titanic wreck; accommodations aboard the support ship; one night accommodations in St. John's; orientation meeting; three meals daily (starting with breakfast on Day 2 and ending with breakfast onboard the support ship on disembarkation day); activities within the program: lectures, briefings, slide/film shows; baggage handling, amenities/gifts, personal video memento." It does not include transportation to the ship or your bar tab.
(This is not their most expensive package. They also offer the "20,000 Leagues Under the Atlantic" cruise, which follows the adventures in Jules Verne's book across the North Atlantic, lasts 35 days, and includes 15 Mir dives. Price tag: $375,000.)
I will take lots of pictures for you and bring you a souvenir baseball cap from the ship. Also, you can be sure nobody else will have gotten me the same thing. Finally, you won't have to wrap it.
Just an idea. I'd also like a Snuggie if that's easier.
I have many things to be thankful for this year. First, that I am alive and cancer-free. Second, for my incredible family and friends who not only have buoyed me on this insane rapid-shoot, but who remind me again and again of how lucky we poets and artists are, to be able to do the work we do. Third...
Well, I could go on and on.
I think most people, if they stop and breathe and think for a minute, can come up with a list like this. We are good at remembering the big stuff. It is, after all, the big stuff. What is more difficult is to be mindful of the smaller bounty we receive every day, the "simple gifts" of the Shaker hymn that enrich us, the things that we take for granted and so almost always overlook.
For me, these are things like strong coffee with cream in it, being able to sing, my animals, the way frozen grass crunches under my shoes, hot baths in my old clawfoot bathtub, getting back my curly hair, birds at the window feeder, The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, cookies (any variety), colored Sharpie pens...and a million others. What are yours?
Here are two gifts from me to you. Happy Thanksgiving, I say. You're on my gratitude list, too, you know.
by Marilyn Nelson
Thank you for these tiny particles of ocean salt, pearl-necklace viruses, winged protozoans: for the infinite, intricate shapes of submicroscopic living things. For algae spores and fungus spores, bonded by vital mutual genetic cooperation, spreading their inseparable lives from equator to pole. My hand, my arm, make sweeping circles. Dust climbs the ladder of light. For this infernal, endless chore, for these eternal seeds of rain: Thank you. For dust.
from The Fields of Praise, New and Selected Poems, LSU Press, 1997
Back in the day, before the Internet and five million cable channels and YouTube and Netflix, television viewers were pretty much at the mercy of network programmers. Of which there were then three: ABC, NBC, and CBS. In the late 1960s, they were joined by PBS; in the early 1980s, by CNN. CNN, however, being an all-news channel, there was little chance of getting emotionally attached to any of the programming.
Otherwise, every season television viewers ran the risk of becoming deeply involved with a show, only to have it canceled after 13 or 26 weeks. (Yes, dear readers, once upon a time, a season was half a year long.) And canceled meant canceled: shows disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again - until the Web arrived to save the day, as long as the master tapes hadn't been erased. (This almost happened to Monty Python's Flying Circus. The BBC were getting ready to pitch the originals when Terry Gilliam, no fool he, bought them for almost nothing.)
One such show was Our World. Broadcast on ABC during the 1986-1987 season, it was a news magazine hosted by the journalists Linda Ellerbee (right) and Ray Gandolf (below left). Each program featured a short but significant era in American history, and explored the historical, political, artistic, and pop culture context of the time with interviews, film clips, music, and commentary. Ellerbee and Gandolf were wonderful hosts - old-school journalists who eschewed spin, but humorous, warm, and cognizant of their audience's intelligence. It was a terrific show, stylish, smart, fun, and informative. It also had the misfortune of airing opposite one of the most popular programs in television history: The Cosby Show.
It is difficult to know what goes on in the minds of television programmers. Our World got rave reviews from critics, educators, and viewers alike, but it could not compete with the juggernaut that was The Cosby Show's audience. News programs always have smaller audiences than entertainment programs; ABC must have known that and known that Our World would never match Cosby's numbers. In fact, over the course of the season, Our World did not lose any viewers; those who loved it, loved it and stayed loyal. But instead of moving Our World to a different time-slot and maybe building its audience, ABC canceled it after one season.
I've been pissed at them ever since.
I thought Our World was gone forever, until a couple of weeks ago, when I found it on YouTube. The only reason it's there is because a YouTuber uploaded it from old VCR recordings. (God bless you, vistavuelounge.) Below is part 1 of the first episode: "The Summer of '69." You also get the benefit of some vintage '80s commercials (no such thing as DVRs back then), but they're fun, too. Then I've included the links to the rest of the episode - you can find other episodes by following them back to YouTube. (And no laughing at Linda Ellerbee's ginormous glasses. I bet you had a pair just like them.)
I wish ABC would release Our World on DVD. It's the least they could do. I've been waiting almost 30 years.
The post-Irene footage from New Jersey, New York, and Vermont is sobering and sad. Our hearts go out to those who have lost so much.
In 1927, Bessie Smith was scheduled to perform in Mississippi when the area was hit by torrential downpours. The Mississippi River flooded, innundating the area, and Smith was taken to the venue via row boat. The audience, many of whom had lost everything in the storm, asked Smith to sing a blues about the flood. She told them that she was sorry, she didn't know one, but she would write one for them. She wrote "Backwater Blues" that evening. This recording features Smith accompanied by the great stride piano master, James P. Johnson.
Jim Valvis is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist who lives in Issaquah WA. His poetry is finely crafted, keenly observed, and often laugh-out-loud funny. There is an integrity in his work that, coupled with his 5-star writing chops, is deeply moving. His poems are smart, but never smart-aleck; personal but never self-absorbed; witty, but never flippant. I love his work and was very proud to publish his poem, "The Extension" , in the most recent issue of Praxilla (click and read it, hurry hurry - it kicks ass!). You can find his work in many journals, both online and in print, including A Handful of Dust, Boston Literary Magazine, Gargoyle, Crab Creek Review, and many, many others. His first full-length collection, How To Say Good-bye, is scheduled for publication in September by Aortic Books. I can't wait.
In the meantime, here is one of Jim's poems. It originally appeared in the now-defunct Wormwood Review in about 1994.
"I smack," she said,
riding the rodeo
of disinfected dreams."
"Huh?" I said.
"But lately the
of the shedding serpent
"What the hell
are you talking about?"
"It's poetry," she said.
"Well," I said,
"cover your mouth, goddammit.
I can't miss
any more days
Okay, I can't take credit for finding this - thanks to Don Share for posting it first. From the 1958 teenybopper drama, High School Confidential! Recognize the guy playing the piano? Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester). And the hep cat smoking at the table with the square chick is John Drew Barrymore - John Barrymore's son and Drew Barrymore's father.
(Oh, and the reason I can't be a beatnik? I don't own a pointy bra, Daddy-O.)
After a long hiatus, Praxilla is back! Issue #3 features:
Poetry by Alison Doernberg, Alan Britt, Ann Bracken, Barbara Lefcowitz, Calder Lowe, Charles Bane, Chris Taylor, David Lehman, David McAleavey, Elizabeth Johnson-Miller, Ernest Hilbert, Ernie Wormwood, Eugene Ritchie, Fork Burke, Gregory Luce, J.P. Dancing Bear, James Valvis, Jessie Carty, John Lane, John McKernan, Kathy Douglas, Naomi Thiers, Nin Andrews, Richard Harteis, Rosanne Wasserman, Stacy Grimes, and Wendy Chin-Tanner.
Fiction by Lane Jennings.
Non-Fiction by Vivian Faith Prescott
Check out this exciting new issue at our new website at www.praxilla.net.
We'll be reading again April 15-May 15. Details and submissions guidelines can be found here.
Yesterday, Stacey, Leslie McGrath, and I visited the Tibor de Nagy Gallery to see the last day of the "Painters and Poets" exhibit. As we were standing there chatting, we were joined by this fellow: Lucas, the resident gallery pup.
Toad Hall Press is pleased to announce that Damon McLaughlin of Tucson AZ has won their 2011 Chapbook Prize for his collection, Olduvai Theory. The judges commended "his deft lyric voice, his mastery of language across a breadth of subjects, and the chapbook's thematic coherence and depth." Olduvai Theory will be published in July 2011.
"This Great Something"
by Damon McLaughlin
Long before September Oh-One and the History
Channel, before Hernan Cortés and Jerónimo de Aguilar,
the Maya profiteered a thousand years and more,
their purest children offered to the Maize God
before their millennium circled to its end and civilization
started over—more fiercely—again. These ancestors
to present-day Maya of the Yucatan
rolled three stone gears into one giant pre-
Colombian Mesoamerican fusion du jour that predicted
this great something’s end. Why give it a name?
In the beginning was the word: a non-Mayan, non-
Anglo precept preceded by the sex-whistles of birds
of paradise, howler monkeys, mambas, pre-speaking
bipeds with their rock jaws and low-slung
thumbs good for nothing but dangling like a cow’s
loose dewlap, bipeds whose first performative I!
ruined everything. Before this, slow-moving giant sloth
herds and herds of mammoth of flat-toed steel drum feet
drowned-out by euphonic La Brea burble, black fire,
the atomic bomb a meteor
that drummed T-Rex into mute earth
like any young punk jazz trumpet should be drummed
by a maestro, occasionally, of the cosmos and its scales,
and this predated by coelacanth—that old guiro!—
trilobites, bacteria, sea gulps that dripped off Pangea
rising like a split pea on a seraphim’s spoon, the soup
this volcanically heated slop of evolutionary aromatics
—onions, chromosomes, bay—reduced to a concentrated
nothingness stirred once by the Big Bang stirred once
by another stirred previously by another we’ve written off
unlike we write our own, ours the only endlessly
climbing wave, not another too-low-to-be-heard
frequency freeform at a level that resists
definition other than bop, an eons-long, monotonous
beeeeeeeeeeee-bop. Not even a dial tone. Not a
if you’d like to make a call….And before this? Beneath it? Utter
moonshine jug and washboard band
noise, Top 40 Jew’s harp (that is
its proper name) singles we slap a spoon to when we hear it
with our Hadron-Colliding good ear
over the Good Book’s good thumping, that primordial beating
one more mystery to rock apart underground where all
great mysteries are buried and tabulated and well-reasoned:
The Kennedy Assassination. The Vikings at Greenland.
The Twinkie Cream Procedure. And—
is God mass or massive? Immaterial? Balanced?
Come here my darling, my moonbeam, my honeybunch.
These are questions to which you are the only answer
anyone’s arrived at after decades of doughnut-
dunking coffee-slugging number crunching.
See how this year’s robins litter the sidewalks like war-
time propaganda? Hold me. Everyone’s going to lose
this latent spring of excess comforters and cold-wind
afternoons. The bud opens quietly, so it can close.
(This poem originally appeared in The Journal, the literary magazine of Ohio State.)
Today marks the 94th birthday of Robert Lowell, one of the most influential poets, both personally and artistically, of the mid-20th century. He was difficult, brilliant, lascivious with female students. He was tormented by bipolar disorder for years before effective treatment was developed; his breakdowns were epic and legendary. (Robert Giroux reports him as saying, when lithium became available, “It’s terrible, Bob, to think that all I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.") He was a Conscientious Objector during World War II (the "good" war) and spent a year in prison. He was one of the pioneers of the poetry workshop, and the list of his students is long and impressive: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, George Starbuck, and many others. Almost all of them wrote about the experience of having him as a teacher, and it became, as Sage Stossel writes, "a mark of distinction to present at one of Lowell's infamous breakdowns." They wrote about that, too, and because they were all exceptional writers, we have descriptions of his mania and his misery in vivid and evocative detail. His marriages and their messy breakups; anecdotes like his pitching a tent and spending the summer in Allen Tate's front yard; his odd and moving friendship with Elizabeth Bishop (could two people be more temperamentally different?); his famously disarranged person and wild hair - all are part of the Lowell narrative as we know it today. But he was also a poet of great power and skill. During his lifetime, his poetry moved from tightly-constructed, meticulously crafted formal verse into something entirely new at the time: what we now call confessional poetry, raw, open, exposed - but in Lowell's case, still equally crafted and shaped by the poet's brilliance.
Here is perhaps Lowell's most famous poem - widely anthologized and studied (I've taught it myself), it does what great poems do: it lives on past the circumstance of its making and claims relevance in our time, too.
"For the Union Dead"
"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
e has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die--
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year--
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessèd break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there ’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne;
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
from "The Buried Life" by Matthew Arnold
I often tell my students that one of the most useful writing skills they can develop is eavesdropping. Yesterday, I found myself in the waiting room of the county Adult Probation Office (I was waiting for someone I gave a lift to, not reporting myself, you'll be happy to know) for a couple of hours. This was the result. Almost verbatim - I just arranged the lines a little.
Adult Probation Waiting Room – a Found Poem
How do you spell “education?”
That’s a funny word to ask how to spell. E-D-U-C-A-T-I-O-N.
E-D-U-C… You sure? I thought there was a J in it.
Yeah. That’s okay, though – I’m not good at spelling, either.
I’m better at math.
Did you just get out? The shoes give it away – you worked in the kitchen. I worked in the kitchen too until I got into a fight and they threw me in the hole.
I’ve never been in trouble before.
What did they get you for?
Possession with intent.
When did you plead in?
What’s your name again? Belinda? Oh, Melinda. You’re pretty.
P.O. caught me coming out of a bar – he hid behind a planter and caught me as I came out the door. He jumped out and said, “Jenny! What are you doing?” I said, “Shit, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” The sheriff came to the halfway house that night and cuffed me.
That bitch Shelley reported me for printing out a picture of my kid from MySpace when I should have been job-hunting. They violated me for that. For that! I haven’t seen my kid in four months.
Where is Mike? I needed to report within 24 hours of release, and it was 24 hours at noon. I’ve been waiting for two hours.
Well, you shoulda said no. It’s not my responsibility.
I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t do anything wrong.
What’s the matter with you? Maybe your higher power is teaching you patience today.
Shut the fuck up.
Have you been to the Eclipse? How about the Gemini? They’re fun – well, I guess they were fun. I can’t go there anymore.
Didn’t we go to junior high together?
You gotta attend meetings, too? Go to AA. Unless you like the dysfunctional shit - then go to NA. But AA is a half an hour faster.
Can Steve see me today? I gotta talk to Steve.
I was in for nine months. Then they gave me time served. They dropped the other charges.
Yeah, I remember you. You got any kids? Three? I got four.
Who’s your P.O.? Debbie? Oh, lordy, she’s a real pain in the ass. If you can survive her, you can survive anything.
You aren’t on the schedule.
I report every Tuesday.
We have you down for the 5th.
I know it says the 5th on the card, but that was Saturday. I report every Tuesday.
E-D-U-C …Are you sure there isn’t a J in it somewhere?
Things you might need to know.
In response to the previous post, and in continuing honor of Jerome Kern's birthday, here are four versions (three video, one audio) of the remarkable song, "Ol' Man River," written with Oscar Hammerstein for the 1927 Broadway production of "Show Boat." It is a seminal song in American music for many reasons. For one thing, it was meant to be sung as a bass solo by the character Joe. For another, the song expresses - without caricature and with deep sympathy - the interior lives of the black characters in the play. It acts as a leitfmotif throughout "Show Boat," which, despite its "happy" ending, is perhaps one of the most melancholy pieces in 20th century American musical theater: the two major characters are a woman abandoned for five years by her gambler husband and a woman ruined by the exposure of her true racial identity, drawn against a backdrop of the racism of the deep South in the late 19th century.
Kern and Hammerstein knew what they were doing with the song, and they were very nervous about how it would go over. There is a story of both of them sneaking out of the theater during the premier, lurking in the lobby because they were too jumpy about the audience's response. (It was originally sung by Jules Bledsoe [right], although the song is most associated with Paul Robeson's performance in the 1936 movie version.) As the song ended, there was a deep, unnerving quiet. Kern and Hammerstein looked at each other in alarm and finally worked up enough courage to take a peek. The audience was sitting in stunned silence, many of them quietly weeping, too moved to applaud, too moved to move.
Paul Robeson (left) is actually known for two versions of the song - the version sung in the 1936 James Whale movie, and a later version which is in a way a defiant response to the song's sentiment of resignation. In earlier productions, the character of Joe is a comic figure, resonant of minstrelsy and typical stereotypes of the time. Robeson changed the lyric - slightly but in important ways - in later perfomances to reflect his commitment to civil rights and his own sense of personal dignity.
Interestingly, the lyric had already been changed in each major production, indicative of what was acceptable language during each era. In the 1927 version, the lyric went: "Niggers all work on de Mississippi/Niggers all work while de white folks play." In the 1936, this was changed to "darkies;" in the 1946 revival (and in the 1951 movie), it became "colored folks." Finally, in the 1946 movie, "Till the Clouds Roll By," a biopic of Kern's life, it morphed into "Here we all work on the Mississippi," sung by Frank Sinatra (above right) in a white tux against a white background, accompanied by a white orchestra and about a thousand white dancers all dressed in white. Apparently, no one got the irony.
--Wandrers Nachtlied (1780)
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
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.