(Ed note: In a file of rejected letters to the editor from 2011, this epistle emerged. It was never published, perhaps because of the editors’ not unreasonable suspicion that the undersigned was either a pseudonym, a hoax, or a stand-in for the wounded performer.) -- DL
To the Editor,
I am writing in response to today’s front-page article asking when the time is right for an old geezer past his prime to get off the stage. The piece begins with a scathing account of a recent concert by Bob Dylan. You illustrated it with a cartoon of Dylan with a prune juice bottle at his elbow.
My first reaction was yeah. I was at that concert. I’ll never pay to hear him anymore. And it was expensive. The cost to pleasure ratio was way out of whack. However, then I considered the unexamined premise behind the piece, which is that age brings infirmity and loss of prowess without a compensatory gift, in this case the beautiful nobility of Mr. Dylan’s professional presence. I’d rather have a croaking Bob Dylan than 90% of what’s out there.
And how typically inconsistent for the Wall Street Journal to say in one breath that Dylan at 69 is too old to perform and in the next breath that we should extend the retirement age to 69.
As a free-market capitalist I feel that Dylan should retire when the market says he should.
(signed) R. Zimmerman
In memory of Maxine Kumin, here is a short song I wrote on her poem "The Revisionist Dream". This is a performance by Angela Denoke and Roger Vignoles at the Kölner Philharmonie.
For almost a century, Pete Seeger walked the walk and embraced the possible. He was a man who understood the power of art and the dignity and worth of each human being; who risked imprisonment and endured the blacklist for refusing to compromise either his principles or the Bill of Rights; and who worked locally to change the world globally and globally to change the world locally. But mostly, he was a man who never forgot that singing is joy and all of us are singers.
He sang with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Cisco Houston. He saved old American songs from obscurity and gave them new life in a contemporary context ("We Shall Overcome"). He collected folk music from all over the world and brought it to a new audience in America ("Wimoweh," "Guantanamera"). His "Rainbow Quest" television show of the early 1960s was a barebones production that featured as guests some of the most important folk, country, and blues musicians of the 20th century: Mississippi John Hurt, Richard and Mimi Farina, the Clancey Brothers and Tommy Makem, Johnny Cash, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Hedy West, Judy Collins, Malvina Reynolds, Jean Redpath, Bessie Jones, and more. His 1967 anti-war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was censored out of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" as too critical of the President (it was later reinstated after fans of the show objected vociferously). In his later years, he devoted himself to saving and restoring his beloved Hudson River through the Hudson River Clearwater Foundation. He toured with Arlo Guthrie, his good friend Woody's son, to whom he acted as a surrogate father, for many years. In January 2009, he sang "This Land is Your Land" (all the verses!) at President Obama's bitterly cold Inaugural Concert (what a vindication that must have felt like!). Into very old age, he was still fighting for the rights and diginity of all people, once showing up unexpectedly to give encouragement to and sing some songs with the Occupy Wall Street protestors.
The song we all sang at camp, "If I Had a Hammer," was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 in response to the government's charging the Communist Party of America with attempting to overthrow the government. In 1955, Pete himself was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In his testimony, Pete refused to answer the committee's questions, condemning their unconstitutional disregard for the First Amendment. He was found in contempt of Congress and sentenced to one year in jail (the conviction was finally overturned in 1962). Later, "If I Had a Hammer" became one of the great anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. The last time Pete sang it in public was at this past year's Farm Aid concert.
Rest in peace, Pete. We sure are gonna miss you.
Spring 68 at Columbia was the season of the strike,
The occupation of the buildings (Low, Hamilton, Avery
Mathematics, and Fayerwether where a righteous
Mininster married a young couple), and Mitch and I
Went to the West End Bar to talk tactics because
We knew the "tactical patrol force" (TPF) was
Going to come and hit hard. The days went by
And the arm bands worn by angry students
Went from green (amnesty) to black (mourning
For Alma Mater). But I still had my music
Humanities final to face and I was so ignorant
I did the only thig I could do: bought Mozart's
Jupiter, and Beethoven's 3rd, 5th, and 7th,
And lucked out when on the final the prof
Played the slow movement of the 7th.
And the next summer I spent in Oxford
And the bells of one of the churches played
The opening of the Jupiter every hour
On the hour. Years later I learned
Mozart's birthday was also that of Kern,
Jerry Kern of "Show Boat" and "The Way
You Look Tonight" and "Long Ago
And Far Away." So I will just say
To both of you: happy birthday!
(Ed note: We've been watching episodes of Spiral a French police procedural that's streaming on Netflix. It's wonderful, if a bit gruesome (I've had to leave the room more than once). The show has made me want to listen to more French so I have Pandora tuned to Charles Trenet radio and now I'm reminded of Roger Gilbert's post from June, 2008, reproduced below.-- sdh)
What if Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra had been the same person? In France they were, and his name was Charles Trenet.
I’m taking a break from my posts on Ammons to share my newly revived passion for Trenet. While I’ve always enjoyed his lighthearted songs and his buoyant singing, I’ve only recently begun to appreciate his range and versatility. Trenet (1913-2001) wrote and performed hundreds of songs over the course of his more than sixty-year career; best-known in the US are “La Mer,” memorably recorded by Bobby Darin in an English version called “Beyond the Sea,” and “Que Reste-t-il de Nos Amours,” recorded by Sinatra among others as “I Wish You Love.” But there are many other superb songs by Trenet that never crossed over to English. And while Trenet himself spent time in Hollywood, he didn’t achieve the level of transatlantic stardom accorded to fellow performers like Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Charles Aznavour. Yet in my opinion he was the greatest of all the French chanteurs, offering an incomparable blend of nostalgia, humor and joie de vivre, shot through with unexpected streaks of melancholy.
It may in part be a measure of how close-knit the French cultural world was in the 30s and 40s that Trenet associated with the likes of Saint-Exupery, Artaud, Cocteau, Colette, and Max Jacob. He harbored serious literary and artistic aspirations of his own, publishing novels and verse along with his copious chansons. A gay man compelled to keep his sexuality hidden for most of his career, he often called attention to the line between the performer’s mask and the poet’s soul. One of his most beautiful songs, “L’Ame des Poetes,” imagines a crowd of people singing the poet’s words after his death, “not knowing for whom his heart beat.” Here’s a video of Trenet singing it sometime in the 1970s:
His performance here is unusually muted; Trenet was generally known for his energetic, google-eyed manner. Here’s a clip from his first film, in which he calls to mind a singing Harpo Marx (he was known in this period as “le fou chantant” or “the singing clown”):
Finally, here is one of Trenet’s most famous songs, “Je Chante,” originally written in the 30s during the Depression. Trenet brings an irrepressible glee to his performance, but if one listens carefully to the lyrics they tell a surprisingly grim story of a wandering singer who begins to faint from hunger, is dragged off to jail, then praises the rope or “ficelle” with which he hangs himself for freeing his soul from his body:
Like the proprietor of this blog, I’m a diehard Sinatraphile, as well as a lover of the great American standards. But there is no one quite like Trenet in American popular music before the 1960s. While a few songwriters met with success as performers—Hoagie Carmichael, Johnny Mercer—none of them achieved Trenet’s dual standing as one of his country’s most beloved singers and songwriters. His songs are touching, hilarious, sweet, silly, and sad. Ecoutez-les!
Shirley Ross and Bob Hope, "The Big Broadcast of 1938." Lyrics by Leo Robin, music by Ralph Rainger.
In my studio, I used to have portraits of my favorite poets hanging on the wall next to my desk. One day, I realized that most of them either committed suicide or subjected themselves to suicide-like circumstances (like Pushkin who was repeatedly trying to subject himself to a duel). How could it be that the most sensitive people who bring so much joy to others through their writings, would give up on life?
Suicide is still a taboo theme in our society. Yet, it daily kills more people than disease or war. Looking for answers, I came across the diaries of Sylvia Plath, who killed herself at the age of thirty at the height of her powers as a poet. My String Quartet No. 8 ‘Sylvia’s Diary’ is written in honor of Sylvia Plath.
World Premiere Info:
17 November 2013
University, Kilbourn Hall, 3 PM
Lera Auerbach - String Quartet No. 8 “Sylvia’s Diary“
Today I'm thinking about these lines from John Berryman: "Fall is grievy, brisk. / Tears behind the eyes // almost fall. / Fall comes to us as a prize / to rouse us toward our fate." (From his Dream Song 385, which someone has put online here.)
I've been listening to Jon Appleton's The Russian Music this fall. The first disc, mostly: the piano concertos. They ripple and roll. They're a bit akin to Philip Glass (his Metamorphoses -- also well-suited to fall, if you ask me.) But this piano music is moodier. More Russian, I suppose. Though when I ran across the Berryman quote (above) in my commonplace book, it made me think of Appleton, too.
It occurred to me to share the first track with you, the one I've been loving so much, "Julia - I Con Fuoco," though YouTube failed me. I found a young Jon Appleton playing the synclavier, which is a very different thing entirely. I found Moscow Meat, a short film about Jon discovering Russian composers in Vermont. And this short interview with Jon, filmed about a year ago in his home in Vermont:
But he speaks there a great deal about electronic music, and while I have no problem with his electronic work, it's his analog work with which I have fallen in love.
Then I realized that you can hear that first track at the publisher's website. Go to Jon Appleton - The Russian Music -- click on the image of the cd cover, Jon holding a fur hat in front of a wintery wood, and you'll be whisked to another webpage where the first track will automatically play.
You might not think of this 1981 dab of pop schmaltz served up by the Philly duo Hall & Oates when you think about the National Security Agency but the song makes a point. Other than its obvious message about stepping out on a lover and the mayhem that ensues, in the context of our Chicago 100,000 Poets for Change event tonight it’s being used to spread a message that as our local, state, and federal governments become less and less transparent in their activities they are spending huge sums of money in their efforts to watch us. (Recent headlines also show that government employees have also been using their increased reach not only to spy on potential threats to national security but also ex-girlfriends and wives.)
worth mentioning that increased surveillance to some degree does make our world
a bit safer, but the larger question is what are we sacrificing for this safety
and where is the line when collectively Americans need to say enough. From the
elevated train you rode to work, to the convenience store where you bought a
bagel, to efforts championed by some health insurance companies that would
require potential customers to provide DNA mapping, technology and our efforts
to make urban environments more livable are colliding in sometimes strange
Poets, artists, and musicians worldwide tonight are getting together to talk about the issues that affect their communities for the third installment of the global 100, 000 Poets for Change. Join us! Details follow. (I’ve also included a journal entry about participating in my very first 100, 000 Poets for Change event three years ago.)
TONIGHT: Private Eyes (They’re Watching You): A special event in conjunction with 100 Thousand Poets for Change,
7pm at Outer Space Studio
1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago
near the CTA Damen blue line
suggested donation $4
About: On September 28, 2013, thousands of poets around the world will make their voices heard. To declare the change they'd like to see most in the U.S. and throughout the international community, events are being staged worldwide as part of 100 Thousand Poets for Change. This night of poetry and activism in Chicago asks the questions: What is freedom of expression? Is surveillance dangerous? Who chooses the information our government can access and censor? When has it gone too far?
FEATURING: Darren Angle, Barbara Barg, Joel Craig, Nina Corwin, Adrienne Dodt, Rey Escobar, Cean Gamalinda, Laura Goldstein, Jeanette Gomes, Kevin, Gunnerson, Nathan Hoks, Felicia Holman, J'Sun Howard, Noël Jones, Jennifer Karmin, Emily Lansana, Daniela Olszewska, Matthias Regan, Timothy David Rey, Larry Sawyer, Jennifer Steele, Keli Stewart, Russ Woods, and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas
**all proceeds to be donated to Kiva**
Logistics -- near CTA Damen blue line, third floor walk up, not wheelchair accessible
Co-sponsored by the Chicago Calling Arts Festival & curated by the 100 Thousand Poets for Change, Chicago Community Council 2013: Barbara Barg, Laura Goldstein, Jennifer Karmin, Timothy Rey, Larry Sawyer, Keli Stewart, and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas
Red Rover Series is curated by Laura Goldstein and Jennifer Karmin. Each event is designed as a reading experiment with participation by local, national, and international writers, artists, and performers. Founded in 2005 by Amina Cain and Jennifer Karmin, the over sixty events have featured a diversity of renowned creative minds. Email ideas for reading experiments to us at email@example.com.
About My First 100,000 Poets for Change: Bad Date America
I’m trying to remember when I first heard of 100,000 Poets for Change. I know as a poet I picked up on it much more quickly than the general populace probably. Anything with “poets” in the title would end up on my radar eventually. I do remember being on the phone with Michael Rothenberg at some point talking with him about something else and saying “so, what’s this 100,000 Poets for Change? I mean, 100,000? What do you mean by change? Whose change? What does that look like?” I remember Michael answering my questions fairly patiently, if not giving me the impression that I was being too skeptical. Almost the tone of his voice, from what I remember, being kind of like, don’t you get it?
I did get it and he knew I did, but I was asking questions because I was intrigued.
I do think that since being written up by the major news media (Huffington Post, methinks), poets and the public at large are taking it much more seriously as a vehicle for dialogue and a motivator for communities to band together and solve problems with art. Essentially that’s what it is. But its nebulous qualities are what makes it unique. It’s really all-inclusive, nearly to a fault. Bob Holman pointed out that the strength of it lies in the fact that anyone can take the idea and pour it into the mold of what works in their own community. I agreed.
For Chicago, my plan was to provide some sugar, maybe some hilarity, so the bitter pill of what was happening in America would go down a little easier. Everything in the news reminded me of being on a bad date. It was BAD DATE AMERICA. The idea of being stuck in a clock-watching scenario and grimacing through every moment of it. The worst bad dates also involve a CHAIN OF EVENTS that progressively worsens. “Well, at least THAT hasn’t happened, yet.”
Also, giving the event a conceptual theme might make the audience feel a bit better about an event involving 15 to 20 poets. It seemed to work.
After coming up with a viable concept, of course I had to act as MC and participate by reading my own poetry and recounting an actual bad date experience. I dressed up like a waiter, wore a white shirt and black tie, threw a towel over my arm, and seated each reader at the front of the room at the candlelight table we’d propped up just for the occasion. The audience tittered and gasped and I think came away with more of an understanding of how art can bridge gaps between communities and also grease the wheels of change. I enjoyed myself.
After all, has there been a time when more is at stake? In addition to the complacency on the part of many regarding the evidence that the earth is in danger of the kind of climate change that could at the least ruin lives and at the most result in a world war over resources, disruption in trade and eco-disaster, IN ADDITION TO THAT the United States was still involved in two foreign wars and the global economy was in the midst of a recession that had curbed everyone’s enthusiasm for anything. I was astounded to see that so many local poets and publishers agreed to participate, including: Kaveh Adel, Barbara Barg, Jen Besemer, Dan Godston, Laura Goldstein, Ezzat Goushegir, Kurt Heintz, Marcy Henry, Philip Jenks, Jennifer Karmin, Francesco Levato, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Monica Long, Anthony Madrid, Mario, Ario Mashayekhi, Charlie Newman, Ladan Osman, Timothy David Ray, Roger Reeves, Kenyatta Rogers, Jacob Saenz, Don Share, Keli Stewart, Tony Trigilio, and Lina ramona Vitkauskas. These poets have my heartfelt thanks and respect for being the first to light the fire.
When I was a girl growing up in north-central Montana, I
spent many hours exploring the prairie and the coulees surrounding the Marias River. Meriwether
Lewis named it “Maria’s” River after his cousin who said “no” to his marriage proposal.
I’ve always wondered if he chose the name because this river was a “dead end”
in terms of the expedition’s search for a Northwest Passage. But now we
pronounce it with a long “i” as if there is an “s” at the end Mariah.
An expert told me the Blackfeet were probably the former inhabitants of the teepee rings, the circles of stones, that my cousins and friends and I used to walk among. There are whole villages, groups of two or three rings connected, and occasionally a very large ring at the top of a hill set apart from the others. Many doorways and remnants of fire rings are still present. Often I went with neighbors and cousins, but as I grew older, I liked to wander by myself.
The prairie was a good place for the imagination to develop, and it has shaped my perceptions in many ways. It provided me with the solitude to sing, pray, dance. I would stop at the edge of a pond or a quiet spot in the river and become as still as I could be, so the animals would learn to ignore me, the minnows would return, and the dragonflies would forget that I wasn’t part of the surrounding reeds or cattails. I loved looking for prairie asters, sweet peas, or bluebells in acres of dry grass.
Town was twenty miles away. My class consisted of four girls, my K-12 school of 60-80 kids depending on the year, and the town, Inverness, had a few hundred people. The school is now abandoned, the windows broken, the wooden floors warped. I can vividly remember walking to the lunch room, performing scenes from South Pacific and West Side Story in the gymnasium with members of our music classes, lying on the floor in the back of the small library reading biographies of Mozart and Van Gogh and Janis Joplin. There are many abandoned schools on the Hi Line in north-central Montana, where railroad towns appear every few miles with names like Glasgow, Malta, Kremlin, and Havre.
Chester was the location of the Liberty County Arts Council when I was a girl. My family went to most of the events this group sponsored. I saw my first didgeridoo there, my first cowboy singer, and my first opera. The Calgary Opera performed La Traviata, or at least scenes from it, on the high school stage, and of all the programs I saw, this is one that I remember most because I was interested in voice. Shortly afterward, my cousin applied to a youth choir that toured in Europe, and since she applied, I applied too when I was old enough. Maybe the influence of this outreach, alongside a good music teacher, allowed us to believe in our ability.
On the one hand, engagement with family and the natural world fed my imagination. On the other hand, the community and schools supported artistic growth to the best of their ability, and it’s this combination that I wish for every child. Having taught in the Montana Women’s Prison for the past five years, I see more clearly than ever the importance of encouragement and of giving young people a way to direct their skills, talents and energies. I think sometimes that if we could encourage and praise all of the children, the world would change quickly.
Montana has a history of strong, local arts councils that have done much over the years to bring musicians, performers, and, eventually, writers into their communities. There are many small towns at great distance from each other, and the need for outreach persists in all corners of the state. As Montana’s poet laureate, I hope to contribute, and I continue to feel grateful for the adults who made artistic programs possible when I was a kid.
I was recently marveling over this poem by Dylan Thomas, “Who are you who is born in the next room...” (published in 1945) from a series of pattern poems called Vision and Prayer because of what it does or enacts so successfully, and in doing so, how it transcends its arbitrary form. I don’t have the entire series in front of me, so it may be that this particular shape has some relevance that isn’t obvious when it’s viewed out of context because apparently these shapes form a series. What seems most interesting to me is how this writing works so well to set a scene and create a poetic equation with an ending that comes as somewhat of a surprise in a visceral way with such depth of metaphor, while it almost completely resists its own rhyme scheme. It provides an almost perfect balance between meaning and form that still manages to raise interesting questions because of certain effects.
I’m drawn at the outset to the two somewhat cavernous caesuras. The first comes after “In the birth.” It seems appropriate that the poet creates this gap in the line after the word birth (where the reader nearly falls in), and the second occurs after the word “alone.” Both caesuras offer a perfect physical illustration of what is being described (the pregnant pause) because the reader is forced to involuntarily pause after these words, which not only gives them emphasis but reemphasizes in a very graphic way the visual provided a few lines earlier with “I can hear the womb opening.”
From the poem’s opening there is a double meaning established because of the dramatic tension inherent in the first three words. The intentional ambiguity almost has the reader questioning himself or this might also be Thomas asking the question of himself.
Dualities cascade throughout. In the idea that Jesus was God’s word made flesh. The two physically separated rooms exist showing the reader as separate from what goes on in the other room. Also, the mention of a “wall thin as a wren’s bone” seems to underscore a difference between what the speaker perceives as the natural and unnatural world.
It’s quite marvelous that “Wren bone” is an anagram of “new borne.” Other imagery underscores an idea that this event on some level is holy but, again, a duality within the structures finds the reader noticing a shift of perspective in the mirror image of the poem that begins as the lines reach a midpoint and then recede in the second half. The poem’s structure mimics what is described, i.e., the poem itself is turning or shifting. These lines could be read in multiple ways “In the birth/bloody room/unknown to the …” or “In the birth bloody/room unknown to the…”
The poem, although only 71 words, does start with a vision and end with a sort of prayer but is Thomas describing his own thoughts on his own life that started with a similar birth but resulted in the many physical, mental, and domestic problems which plagued him for years? Or is this a meditation on our relation to the natural world and the unnatural, as represented in the poem, is the overlay of religiosity that is placed upon us that begins at birth? Thomas paints a prime moment, birth, which serves as a hinge between these two “worlds” i.e., the natural world and the world of civilization (and all the socialization that civilization demands).
As the wall is a part of the civilized world, the infant is not, yet anyway, and the point is emphasized internally as the rhyme scheme pairs “wild” and “child” together as a final example of the mysterious duality that ripples throughout what might have been a poem that Thomas wrote in one sitting in a very short amount of time.
The visual pattern creates interesting parallels that otherwise might not have existed had the poem been left aligned. The final interesting afterthought is that the form provides the reader with an object to be stared at, which it gives it an element of spectacle. Because of its symmetry the object simultaneously resembles a box, a shape of some sort like a pyramid reflected in water, a crucifix, the human form with arms outspread, and finally and obviously a diamond. Sixteenth Century alchemist Agrippa also included this shape and its opposite, which would look like a jagged hourglass, in his “Of the Proportion, Measure, and Harmony of Man’s Body,” which included diagrams of geometric shapes aligned with the human form. These two shapes comprise the ebb and flow of the alternating patterns in the book.
By starting with such an unanswerable question, by including such vivid imagery (e.g., heart print), and ending with such a violent twist, the poem registers like a minor earthquake and we stare down into its dark abyss and wonder what it meant to the author, as well as what it might mean to everyone facing the riddle of human existence.
Nota bene: See if you can guess which other literary wild child may have served as partial inspiration for this particular song by The Doors.
So, for my last blog, I spoke to some poets to get an idea of what I should do, and I think I’m going to take a cue from poet John Murillo (Up Jump the Boogie), who suggested that I talk about “soul music,” or possibly about “poetic mentors,” but I’m taking a bit of a slant approach to this, and I’m using both of his suggestions: I want to talk about the blues as a form from which we can learn how to close a poem. In fact, the Blues Stanza, for the longest, was the only American poetic form—and still is the only “traditional” American form, which simply is to say it has a long tradition that we can extend, vary, and translate into the 21st Century. And I also want to talk about poets and thinkers who influenced my thoughts on this subject.
My real understanding of the blues as a poetic form came while I was in my MFA program at Warren Wilson College. In our penultimate semester at Warren Wilson, we have to do a craft essay. I chose the Blues as a Poetic Form by looking at the work of Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, and Cornelius Eady. My supervisor was the poet Eleanor Wilner—a great poet, a great spirit, and a blues woman at heart—who guided me and indulged me through thinking about the blues stanza. What place does this stanza hold in contemporary poetics? What can we learn from it? Who were its masters? Etc. This was back in 1997, and I’m still learning from this exploration.
I recently heard Chase Twichell give a wonderful talk on form in which she mentioned how we can’t do form just for form’s sake. We have to push the form to be more flexible. “Amen, sista,” I said in my head, sitting in my seat. I loved the fact that she also pointed out how form, in itself, can be easy to do; it’s making it bend to your will to say something about the human condition that’s hard, making it your own language. When I think about the blues stanza, it’s a form that really forces this need to speak beyond the form. The blues stanza is largely unsuccessful without transcendence.
Transcendence is really what we take from this form into our muscle memory as we write free verse. We need to push the form toward a turn, much like the sonnet, but at the end as opposed to toward the middle. The turn often takes the shape of one or more of the following:
1. Reversal of Fortune
2. Higher Knowledge
3. Stoic Acceptance as a coping mechanism
5. Luck or Supernatural intervention
When you look at this list of ways in which the blues stanza can be resolved—and, to be clear, this is NOT a complete list of possibilities--we find that we can apply these to most free verse poems. But I came to understand this not only through listening to a good deal of blues—Eddie Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bessie Smith, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, John Lee Hooker, and Big Mama Thornton, as favorites—but also from reading some profound books on the subject. Mostly, I read everything the late great Albert Murray wrote, the novels and the essays, and then I read everything he referenced.
Earlier in the week I talked about favorite books. If I extended my list past three, a book that would be in my top ten is The Hero and the Blues, by Murray, who died at age 97 on August 18, 2013, the day before I started this blog.
Albert Murray, known as a novelist and essayist, was also a poet; he published a collection at age 85. If you want to see some real blues transcendency played out in a poem, check out his poem on Faulkner, which was published in the New Republic: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114389/poem-albert-murray-william-faulkner-noun-place-verb .
When I heard Chase Twichell give her talk, I thought about how she’s extending an argument on form that reminded me of Murray. Murray presents an argument for the extension of tradition through working within its original forms—even when artists think of themselves as working “experimentally.” Murray was no square. He was not only hip to change in all its forms but he also was hip to the traditions from which those innovations emerged. With regard to the blues as a form, he aptly makes this case for the extension of its tradition and the tradition of all form in art, in his chapter “The Blues and the Fable in the Flesh”:
“…To refer to the blues idiom is to refer to an established mode, an existing context or frame of reference. But then not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs…Perhaps a better word for experimentation as it actually functions in the arts is improvisation…The more any art form changes, by whatever means and by whatever methods, motivations, or infusions, the more it should be able to fulfill its original function.”
This could be taken both as sound advice on approaching form and as an ambition for experimentation. At first glance this might sound rigid, but upon further rumination one may be able to see how liberating this can be as an approach. When we think of “improvisation,” we often think of a certain freedom, but we’re actually hearing, in music, a musician at play in form. So, I’m constantly thinking about the ways in which we can bring that level of improvisation to our forms. And we have contemporary examples: I think it’s unavoidable to say that Denise Duhamel falls under this category in every one of her books. I also put Marilyn Nelson, A. E. Stallings, and Natasha Trethewey in this category, book by book. Jen Bervin plays with the sonnet form in singularly original ways in her work Nets. Marilyn Hacker belts out a long Coltrane-esque improvisation in Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Evie Shockley is like Miles when he still did ballads in her book The New Black. And Ellen Bryant Voigt bends the sonnet to a blues scale in Kyrie…We have many examples of “improvising” in form in poetry. And, fortunately, we still have poets devoted to extending the blues form, specifically: Calvin Forbes, Sterling Plump, Honoree Jeffers, Tyehimba Jess, and Kevin Young, to name a few.
The basics of the blues form is a three-line stanza in which the first line makes a statement or asks a question, the second line offers a variation of the first line, and the third line offers a response or a resolution. (Often, too, it’s a four-line stanza in which the second or fourth lines may finish a clause from the first or the third lines, respectively.) I say “resolution” because the first line is usually a statement that lays out a situation, a dilemma, in which the speaker is found. I often tell my students that ‘how it is in the poem is how it is in life.’ The “dilemma” posed in the blues stanza is often what most people think of when they think of the blues: a speaker who has lost a job, who has no money, who has lost a lover, etc. But the poem has to find transcendence in some way to respond to this situation, much in the way that we have to respond to dilemmas in life.
We’re most used to seeing variations on this basic form in that three-line stanza, either in an AAB or an AAA rhyme scheme. An example of a fairly traditional blues stanza can be found in this excerpt from Eddie Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” in which our speaker copes with the loss of his lover, four lines at a time:
“…Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul
I wouldn’t mistreat you, baby, for my weight in gold.
I said, Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul.
You know, I wouldn’t mistreat nobody, baby, not for my weight in gold.
Well, I folded up my arms and slowly walked away
I said, Farewell, Honey, I see you on “Judgment Day.”
Ah, yeah, oh, yes, I slowly walked away.
I said, Farewell, Farewell, I see you on “Judgment Day.”
In the blues form, one of the masters on the page is Langston Hughes. Consider the “The Weary Blues,” line by line, in which he reinterprets the blues idiom, often by breaking from the rhyme pattern within the middle of a stanza. Also, throughout, Hughes riffs on the form by extending the possibilities of the stanza. In a framed narrative of reverie, the first-person speaker gives report of our hero in third person. This allows the speaker to dip into the basic blues form, quoting the singer, and still improvise around it, telling his story. Although the “Negro” gets sleep, a relief, Hughes maintains the associative pattern of struggle, even in the final lines, offering the bittersweet transcendence of coping:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man's soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
"Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied—
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.
Humor, Higher Knowledge, and Coping mechanisms abound in “The Weary Blues.” What we can learn from the form is to allow ourselves to play within form, to improvise, and to extend tradition, but—just as we remember in the sonnet with the volta—we can also remember to find our way out of the dilemmas we pose by trying to find transcendence, even in free-verse poems. That’s a lesson we learn from the blues not only for our poems but also for our lives.
The trip to Memphis was a lighthearted escape from the burdens of running a family business like no other. Since 2008, when Eva and her half-sister Katharina succeeded their father Wolfgang Wagner, they have directed the famed summer opera festival founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner and managed by his heirs ever since. In this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, Wagner devotees are now setting forth on their annual pilgrimage to the seat of his still-powerful cultural domain: the charming city of Bayreuth (pronounced BY-royt), nestled far from Germany’s urban centers, in the rolling hills of Upper Franconia. “Wagner without Bayreuth,” observes the cultural historian Frederic Spotts, “would have been like a country without a capital, a religion without a church.”
From July 25 through August 28, the faithful will ascend the city’s famed Green Hill to the orange brick–clad Bayreuth Festival Theater—known globally as the Festspielhaus. It was built by Wagner himself to present his revolutionary works—among them his four-part Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal—in the innovative architecture and stagings he felt they required. The Bayreuth Festival became the first full-fledged music festival of modern times, the granddaddy of everything from Salzburg and Spoleto to Bonnaroo, Burning Man and the Newport Jazz Festival. At Bayreuth, however, only Wagner’s works are presented. After his death in 1883, the festival and the theater became a hallowed shrine for his followers, many of whom embraced his ideology of fierce German nationalism, racial superiority and anti-Semitism. He was idolized by Adolf Hitler, whose rise was abetted by the Wagner family’s support in the early 1920s.
Some works have a destiny of their own, independent of the intentions of their authors. They arrive, unannounced, slam the door in your face, take residency in your house, and boss you around.
In the summer of 1994 I was a student at the Aspen Music School, taking piano lessons with Joseph Kalichstein and spending every moment I could reading books, which my parents were sending to me all the way from Siberia. Slowly, one parcel at a time, our large library was following me to the U.S. I still remember the smell of the thick, blue volume of Maeterlinck’s plays, that peculiar blend of old paper and print smell, which is forever associated in my memories with my childhood and our home in Russia. The moment I opened The Blind, I had a jolt of recognition. “This is a perfect anti-opera, or perhaps an a cappella opera,” was my first thought. “This is insane. There is no such thing as an a cappella opera, this is just not possible!” was my second thought. And before I knew it, I started sketching the libretto and the thematic material. A few weeks later, by the end of the Aspen Music Festival, I had a complete manuscript.
To this day it remains one of the strangest creations in my catalog. It was not commissioned; nobody seemed to want it. So, it went into my desk, where it remained for many years—until 2011, when the Berliner Kammeroper found out about its existence and asked to see the score.
Shortly after the Berlin premiere, Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theater presented its own production of The Blind. For the overture I selected an electronic piece, “After the End of Time,” which I composed in 1993. Its post-apocalyptic soundscape set the desired emotional frame for the opera. The overture was omitted in Berlin and shortened for the Moscow production. Lincoln Center Festival will be the first one to present it in its entirety.
When John La Bouchadiére approached me about producing this opera in the dark, I welcomed the idea. Previously, I had the unique experience of attending Dialogues in the Dark in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum. In our modern society we tend to rely on our vision above all other senses, yet we struggle to communicate and to truly “see” and know each other.
By allowing other senses to take over, although feeling disoriented and lost at first, we can discover and enrich the understanding of who we truly are. Religious symbolism underlying this opera is amplified by this “unseen” staging. By wearing a blindfold, one surrenders to the unknown, to the vulnerability of uncertainty. The illusion of predictability is stripped off, and one is left alone with questions. Questions often reveal more than answers, and I personally look forward to not seeing this visionary production.
The strings are the veins of music.
In the night, inside the piano,
They grow silence
Until it ripens and calls
To the composer, who gathers sounds
In the darkness, like a blind-man
Picking the wild flowers
Guided only by their fragrance.
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.