One of my second-grade classmates has the demeanor of a little man.
In 1953 Brooklyn, boys are required to wear ties to school; most of us have one or two clip-ons, worn until they become invisible. Except for the little man—he has many ties, and they are always perfectly knotted. Each morning after he takes off his coat he pauses at the classroom mirror and adjusts his tie. “Windsor knot,” he announces to anyone who stares.
One day, the little man and I stay after school to help the teacher rearrange the bookshelves. It is taking a long time, and I start to toss in the books. The little man says, “My father always says, ‘If you are going to do something, get it right.’” I am impressed, and we redo the shelf.
On the first day after Christmas vacation, the teacher—younger than my mother—asks the class to gather in the story area because she has something to tell us. The little man was killed in a car accident over the vacation. She could have told the class he moved away, she says, but she thinks we should always know the truth.
Now a grown man, I can’t remember what the little man looked like. But I can picture this vividly: It’s a December blizzard night. The little man’s family is going visiting. His father is warming up the car. “Hurry up, dear, we’re late,” his mother says gently as the little man stands, his back to me, at the mirror next to the Christmas tree, getting his Windsor knot just so.
I have concluded my self-imposed hiatus from this blog, and will be posting regularly again.
But I wanted to pre-restart with a note about Max Ritvo's forthcoming book of poems, Four Reincarnations, which will be published this Fall by Milkweed. (A poem from the book recently appeared in The New Yorker). Two days after Max joined two of my classes at Columbia in January 2014, I learned that he is terminally ill with Ewing's Sarcoma, a state of being that is in the text or subtext of many of his poems. But his poems—and his life—are about so much more. Max is one of the most intellectually and artistically gifted people I have ever known (he is also a wonderful performer). Timothy Donnelly—among others—has spoken splendidly about Max's work. For now, I will appropriate Max's own words:
A CENTO FOR MAX RITVO’S FOUR REINCARNATIONS
moving, joy, moving I am given a reward
so passionately and imaginatively
though the images vary exhaustingly and troublingly
much more beautiful than either one of our voices
your brain binds around mine, a gold gauze
this is how love works
thou art me before I am myself
you have my thoughts faster than I can
even of the imagination sizzling on top of it
I will live in your small ecstatic brain
for the possession of our smallest sensations
this is purity
who brings a kind of relief
in the middle of a blizzard
no one can speak the language you will rewrite
DD: In her famous essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” Audre Lorde writes: “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Can you begin by talking about how the chapbooks at Backbone Press embody this kind of bridge?
CS: I love the genre of poetry because of its closeness. A poem can be a single moment or span across a 100 years. And, poems are the author’s personal experience and truth, so as Lorde states, poetry can serve as an agent of change. Choosing to focus on poets of color meant, for me, our press would be considered political. In Tara Betts' 7x7 kwansabas, she deftly writes 25 celebratory poems about historic and iconic Black Americans, resurrecting and introducing many who are lesser known to the world. The form kwansaba, created by Eugene Redmond, consist of seven words to a line, each word no more than seven letters in seven lines of poetry, no easy feat. Additionally, Dariel Saurez’s chapbook, In the Land of Tropical Martyrs, consists of free verse, personal testaments of his Cuban heritage. The narratives are about family elders and universal suffering. I would say both of these titles are necessary bridges across generational and racial lines. Backbone hopes to publish many more titles that engage these broader cultural conversations.
DD: As you’ve just noted, Backbone Press publishes poets of color, and seeks work that is “political, invocative, social, gritty, personal, and poignant.” Can you talk about this mission and how it fits in with current cultural and political events?
CS: It’s important to note when I say poets of color this includes poets of all diverse backgrounds: Asian, Latino, Native American and so on. Our niche is cultural writing, not just poetry, by African American writers. We need more venues and spaces focusing on diversity. Not to say there aren’t prominent poets of color publishing and winning poetry contests; there’s quite a few. The publishing world, however, is pretty slanted and while most people (publishers) believe in diversity, they don’t always practice it. As for the terms listed in our mission, we wanted to attract a variety of styles, not a focus necessarily on form or technique, but the different ways we can define poetry with regards to culture: social influences, connecting differences, the various diasporas. Is the author writing across cultures? Is the use of language distinct, that of a vernacular tongue? Lastly, our publications often draw parallels with current political culture. For example, Eric Tran’s chapbook, Affairs with Men in Suits shines a brilliant and essential contra-light on North Carolina’s HB2, a law passed in the state that has been described as the most anti-LGBT legislation in the country. One might infer from Tran’s title that it is simply a collection of LBGTQ poetry, but the poems themselves explore complex issues of masculinity, insecurities, and the lust and lust-shame that occurs between male lovers who are closeted as a result of their conservative viewpoints. Poets don’t plan these things, but it even includes a heedful, ingenious bathroom sex poem. Tran’s collection is one of satirical, imagined scenarios that address the hypocritical standards by which laws like HB2 emerge. I also consider Suarez’s chapbook, In the Land of Tropical Martyrs, a must-read for those considering a visit to Cuba in light of the recent lift of sanctions by the US.
DD: How did Backbone Press come into being?
CS: Many years ago, I was a graphic and web designer and those skills are invaluable in advertising and publishing. While considering my options after MFA study in 2011, which admittedly were slim, I decided not to return to graphic design as a career, but instead to use that skill set to start the press. I am the founder and managing editor, so it is essentially my endeavor. But, I’ve been lucky to have other editors and an advisory board to help steer things. I also knew early on, Backbone would be a non-profit organization. Micro-press publishing is not an industry known for its profits and I wanted the company to align with the grassroots model, not in the sense of political action, but in practicing the strategies of starting small and increasing participation through social media, word of month, and brand recognition.
DD: Your Advisory Board includes some amazing poets and scholars: Lenard D. Moore, Evie Shockley, Cathy Park Hong, and Sheila Smith McKoy. What role does the Advisory Board plays at Backbone Press?
CS: Per our non-profit status and bylaws, we meet once annually to discuss the year in review, future plans, and to pass a budget. This is typically done with members that are local to Durham, North Carolina where we are based. I also seek the council of non-local members throughout the year as needed. Lenard D. Moore, Sheila Smith McKoy, and Evie Shockley are all members of the Carolina African American Writers Collective (CAAWC), Moore being the founder of the writer’s group, which I’m a member of as well. Cathy Park Hong is on the MFA faculty of Queens University of Charlotte, my alum. She is small in stature, but a mighty force in contemporary poetry and someone whose work and efforts I hugely admire.
DD: C.P. Mangel’s Laundry is much different stylistically and structurally than the other chapbooks you’ve published. It’s a chapbook length poem about a hate crime in prison. The poem references Boethius and the Aryan Brotherhood, quoting Walt Whitman, Amy Lowell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Book of Lamentations, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Gustave Flaubert, W. Somerset Maugham, C.P. Cavafy, and others. What do you find most compelling about this chapbook?
CS: The long poem is quite difficult to pull off. The author is challenged to maintain the metaphor, repetition of sound, and direct characters, all while pushing the narrative forward with a natural ease. Mangel, in our opinion, nailed this challenge in Laundry. While there is a rich, interloping narrative that unravels, with both thrill and simplicity, the added epigraphs and quotes interspersed pause the reader, forcing h/she to digest its relevance before continuing in the poem. What compelled me the most was the stunning, in-depth glimpse into prison life and skillful control of the poem from beginning to ending.
DD: Tyree Daye’s Sea Island Blues begins with a fine poem called “When I was New.” This poem includes the following notable stanzas:
The small cedars and pines dancing
under street lamps celebrated
a night without lightning.
And I danced with nothing but gin
in my stomach, Robert Johnson,
in my head,
the devil in my wallet.
When you’re poor hell is the least
of your worries. It’s a hard thing to kick,
loneliness, without drugs or booze.
The angels of sleep press your silhouette
on the wall across the room.
And I heard a Geechee woman sing a song
that flew up like cardinals we were told
to blow kisses at for good luck.
We sat on a live oak branch
that hung men and women
who cried freedom in G major.
These stanzas typify Daye’s skill at creating poems where the present is a place freighted with pasts and vanishings, old grievances, loneliness, and the living legacy of systemic violence against black and brown bodies. Using these stanzas as a starting point, can you tell us how Daye’s chapbook is in dialogue with the work of Dariel Suarez, Eric Tran, and Allison Joseph?
CS: First, I should say I love that poem and I love the depth Tyree accomplishes in his poetry. He is a very young poet, an MFA student, but his soul is old and wise. I think the correlation between the writers you mention is each author’s intention to explore the human condition. While Tran does so through human/homosexuality, the other authors are doing so through race and other means. To delve further, each manuscript examines race through the lens of place. Allison Joseph’s Trace Particles tackles America as a whole. Through pop culture parodies, we are forced to examine our part in America’s social failures. Whereas, Tyree Daye and Dariel Suarez’s poems are immersed in precise places and the reader is afforded close, vivid experiences through their witness and chronicling. Perhaps the more important commonality in these works is the sense of alienation, an often persistent presence in cultural writing. That alienation, the desire for others to understand and acknowledge it, in many ways, becomes a shared culture.
DD: How has your work as an editor and book publisher influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial and publishing work?
CS: I certainly read more poetry now as par for the course in this position. I very much try to keep the two roles of publisher and writer separate. I also volunteer in youth detention homes where I hold poetry workshops for young offenders, usually black boys. The publishing and workshops are community efforts for me. Poetry is exchange—pain on paper, or healing. It is not something the world can afford to dismiss. Being an editor has made me a more recognized writer in the industry.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor?
CS: When I started Backbone I thought mostly in terms of having a space, less about the strategies it takes to maintain or grow such a space. So much of small publishing depends on support from the entire literary community and I was a barely known poet and not yet a publisher. A friend, Jonathan Farmer, recommended I use CRWROPPS to advertise and get the word out, so to speak. Not only did Allison Joseph, the owner and moderator, list our call for submissions for free, she submitted Trace Particles for consideration. I was so moved by her gesture to entrust us with her work. I felt the universe was working in my favor; that Backbone could transcend from idea to actuality.
DD: What is your personal definition of poetry?
CS: I have but one, tell the truth.
DD: Can you tell us about the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize?
CS: The second encouraging experience I had as a young editor was the opportunity to establish The Lucille Clifton Annual Poetry Contest. Clifton’s work hugely influenced my writing life. It was the sole reason I pursued an MFA in poetry. I was planning to attend a summer writer’s conference where she was on the faculty and I wanted to come as a poet serious about the craft, even if that only meant an MFA candidate. She passed away a few months before the conference. With the cordial permissions of Sidney and Gillian Clifton the prize was launched in 2012. It is held each spring and honors Clifton’s prolific work. Sidney Clifton provided the salient words below:
“As the daughter of poet Lucille Clifton, I am thrilled to see Backbone Press honor my mother's work with the annual Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize. My mother's life and work bore testament to her courageous innate ability to distill life's most wondrous and terrible moments into words that will continue to sear and resonate. Her life, her way of seeing and walking in the world were the backbone of her work. I am her daughter. Her backbone is mine. And yours.”
DD: On that note, it would be fitting for us to end the conversation with the words of a poet who has Lucille Clifton’s words (literally) tattooed on her arm. Tara Betts is a spiritual heir to Clifton, and a tremendous poet in her own right. Her chapbook, 7x7 Kwansabas, is, by far, my favorite in your catalog. Here is her poem, consisting of five linked kwansabas:
The Autobiography Suite-in-Progress
You see parents where others see black
sock and white sock. A pair mated
to make you and the hump pushing
you from only child to big sister,
only girl, basket of eggs, not bearer
of the family name, meant for skirts,
singing to moons, putting pins in maps.
Virgin looked like a broken ring shoved
to the back of a drawer. Avoid
telling your mother that pyro sounds like
kiss, pop, boom that creeps to shudder
rush through pelvis and chest. She made
you in such fluent heat. You learn
this tongue leaves you, a popped kernel.
My torch of ire made itself plain.
A man took me on and off
like a pair of pants. I sifted
through books, ever loyal, yet not knowing
what would lift my head, heavy from
stone pressed into my brain. Blues songs
on repeat weigh down each sunrise, again.
When 6 trains smashed ease from joints
and winter stole browns from my temples
so they matched storms numbing my brain,
as it grew to hate paper, ink,
soothe itself with blood songs that whisper
lack of vitamin B, iron, much more.
I curl like wet hair, curved note.
I scaled the ivory tower not wifedom,
found muscles I never thought I had.
I am looking past three short years
when the last two decades blinked shut,
and brought me here. Swept away fog
that slowed me as death turned common.
Clear, urgent, ready to raise these fists.
Crystal Simone Smith is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Routes Home, (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Running Music, (Longleaf Press, 2014) and a forthcoming collection of haiku, Wild Flowers. Her work has appeared in Callaloo, Nimrod, Barrow Street, Frogpond, African American Review, and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop and the Yale Summer Writers Conference. She holds a BA in Studio Art Design from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an MFA in Poetry from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Durham, NC. She teaches English Composition and Creative Writing and is the Founder and Managing Editor of Backbone Press.
The British EU referendum and the supposed decision of certain of France’s unions to go head-to-head with the government over a planned protest march made of Thursday 23 June 2016 a day of future determining.
Towards the evening of that stormy day, Karine and I couldn’t find any useful information on how the referendum was faring, so we decided to go first to see a hip-hop concert and then go to the Nuit debout – Up all night – protest at the Place de la République and see for ourselves what had come of the union-government confrontation, if anything.
The Nuit debout movement in Paris has been staying up all night – a combination of sit-in and continous debate/speechifying – at République since March 31st. The movement has is origins in, especially, protests against the national emergency laws promulgated by the government following the November 2015 terror shootings by religious fanatics. It was then carried along as a general protest against the way things have got to be.
According to Politis, a political magazine, Nuit debout-ers in Ile de France are highly educated, uncertainly employed and Parisian. They are young people who reject party-political commitment and young union activists along with older, “left-leaning” persons with time on their hands. They have no political traction in the broader country. This corresponds with my personal observations.
Intellectually and politically, Nuit debout-ers can be summed up in bold sentiments, such as this one, scrawled in a place usually reserved for paid advertising on the number 3 métro:
“Either everybody gets to share in the wealth or working makes no sense”.
When Karine and I got to République – a teensy tipsy from some impromptu boozy hipping & hopping – some discussion was taking place as to how to separate the Nuit debout movement from its association with the union agenda. There were also some people telling very patient policepersons that a policeperson’s job is a shame to the people and so forth and so on.
All was pretty much tired-out talk and in this respect much like the gnashing of teeth on the other side of la Manche (formerly the "English Channel").
Since 1703, England’s had a pretty good run at world empire. Some of it has been positively brilliant. One thinks of Wilberforce or Paine. Jane Austen writ my Bible and Keats my creed, and Trollope my parliamentary handbook. I still laugh at the Flashman novels and paw around to find what’s newly-published in the iles. I envy Lucky Jim, O! How I envy him. Bravo, les anglo-saxons!
But it’s all like the earnest plea to discuss the independent future of Nuit debout Karine and I heard – just nostalgia-based make up for the hard facts: Bzzzz! Game over!
The European Union could certainly do worse than Angela Merkel or one of those clever Danish women so in view these days. And, as far as I can see, we will do better with schrecklich-dresser Merkel than otherwise. Those ugly jackets hide real spine as well as her womanly ass. Little England will get “One Nation Tory” Teresa May – a campaign idea that seems to me just about a winner for everybody: lucky little England.
As to France, it’s always a sad moment to see nice people full of good ideas drooping under the weight of disappointed hopes for something… something… well, for something better. It is discouraging to have pinned any hopes at all on such unreliable people as political labor unionists. But, thank you, stars, no unpleasant, possibly anti-Republican realignments have taken place in the froth of it all.
And Nuit debout (including the protests that preceded it) has real victories to its credit in the matter of public debate. First, the Nuit debout-ers see themselves as proud citizens of a Republic, not members of some identity-obsessed, complaining interest group in a corporate state. Second, they have come up with ways to conduct organized open debate in disorderly crowd situations. Third, insistent confrontation over control of symbolic public space has meant that today citizens hold the public spaces, not the police and the religious boobies.
Vacation starts today, July 1st. France (and everybody else else in Europe too) are going away for the next few months, including the Nuit debout-ers. Everybody will be able to think things over, but you can bet the Nuit debout-ers will: the legitimation/integration of the extreme right and political realignment generally, immigration into Europe, EU leadership, economic growth (or “no growth”), wealth distribution, individual and collective (identity) rights and empowerment.
We will think these summery thoughts even if, as Karine claims, we’ve all got to adapt to living in a Scotland-like climate of raucous cloud and chilly breezes.
“Wool underpants, mon Tracy,” she adds, hopefully. “We’ve got to make wool underpants. Then we shall be rich as well as adapted. No?”
Thinking about wool underpants and the Nuit debout movement puts me in mind of the fabulous, dizzy moment of Harold Washington’s dead-of-winter 1982-3 Chicago mayoral campaign. In those days, Chicago was the last white New Deal city. Demographics and development made it an new city and, I realize now, was a pre-visualization of contemporary American politics.
President Obama was famously there at that time. But so were many others who figure or have figured in his administration, along with unsung Democratic Socialist activists (who had the wit to see that lifestyle was the coming issue), old guard Hyde Park radicals, journalists and bureaucrats. To the delighted astonishment of our ordinary black neighbors and the disdain of the political ones, I was there, too, with my pals, Jonathan and Tom, putting up posters and knocking on doors.
I think the Nuit debout-ers have been learning about politics in France in the wake of the November mass murders as I learned about politics in America at Harold Washington’s feet.
I learned that American politics are, above all, dirty, cruel and violent. Everything turns on race perception and a whiny feeling of being hard-done by (For this reason, Bernie Epton, an undistinguished but white person, originally the token candidate put up by the hopelessly coopted Republican Party, became a serious contender – Sound familiar?) Politically-minded people care principally about power not principal and certainly not the public weal (The white-dominated City Council refused to accept the result – Sound familiar?).
In short, in Chicago, I saw that politics reflects human beings and a little bird tells me that Nuit debout-ers have seen this, too. If you want to go forward, you’d better get used to working with unpleasant facts and people. Be prepared to be swept away, as was poor Bernie Epton, by your own unsavory, unexplored, impulses.
But, finally, even if politics is the moral equivalent of bonded servitude in a tar pit, it’s both useful and beautiful. Politics is a uniquely honorable, dangerous, undertaking for decent human beings such as the Nuit debout-ers, of whom we have not heard the last.
Meanwhile, Vive la République. Vive la France. Vivement les vacances.
Was "Strangers in the Night" Sinatra's best album of the 60s? Marc Myers thinks so. In today's Wall Stret Journal Mr Myers has an excellent, informative,and thoughtful piece on the song, which rose to the top of the charts in 1966. You heard it everywhere that summer, and as Myers reports, this was most unlikely: it had been years since Sinatra reached the apex in sales. Not even Oscar winners "All the Way," "High Hopes," and "Call Me Irresponsible," had reached number one. This was the generation of Elvis and the Beatles, a generation allergic to the idea of a tuxedo and bow tie.
As to the album that Myers believes was FS's best of the decade, it is certainly underrated -- perhaps understandably so, for the title song, despite or because of its popularity has never been a critical favorite. The song on the flip side of the 45, "Summer Wind," with its Johnny Mercer lyric, is a better song and has had and a more charmed afterlife. It alone makes the album something special. Other highlights are "You're Driving Me Crazy" (despite a humorous lapse into Brooklynese) and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," the Rodgers and Hart standard that, as Myers notes, Sinatra sings at a "breakneck" tempo. But the album also has "Downtown," the Petula Clark song that FS seems to despise even as he sings it, and other okay songs that are not in the same league as such others highlights of the period as "My Kind of Town," "It Was a Very Good Year," and "Luck Be a Lady Tonight."
As an LP "Strangers in the Night" does not compare with "Sinatra's Sinatra" -- a kind of "best of the best" anthology in which, nearing 50, Sinatra sings some of his favorites, from "I've Got Under my Skin" and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" to "Nancy" and "Put You Dreams Away." Because most of us prefer the originals (recorded under the Columbia or Capitol labels in the 40s and 50s), this album does not rank very high critically. But to newcomers it is an excellent introduction to the Voice in the mid-60s..
Myers has clever reasons for dismissing other contenders for the title of best album. But the argument that the albums with Basie are all swing, that "September of My Years" is darkened by moroseness, that the albums with Jobim are too much of a kind -- doesn't hold water. Using that criterion, you would eliminate "In the Wee Small Hours, "Only the Lonely," "Songs for Swinging Lovers," at al, from consideration for best album of the 50s.
To provoke such a discussion is a victory for the writer, and I look forward to reading more of his writings on jazz here: http://www.jazzwax.com/
At the moment  I am listening to “Frank’s Place” on XM-Satellite Radio. Host Jonathan Schwartz just played a song written by his father, Arthur Schwartz: "I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan" from Sinatra’s A Swinging Affair, which he recorded in 1957, a year after Songs for Swinging Lovers. “Sinatra extended the life of this music by twenty-five years,” Jonathan says. Now he’s playing Rosemary Clooney singing Gershwin’s "Strike up the Band." And here's the Duke Ellington band with the maestro’s "Mood Indigo," very mellow, and here’s Sinatra in saloon mode with the same song.
A year has gone by and the show is now called “High Standards.” I wonder why the change. Maybe the Sinatra estate threatened to sue over taking Frank’s name in vain. Anyway, here is Mel Torme, "Dancing in the Dark," and Nelson Riddle, "Out of My Dreams," and Lena Horne, "Out of Nowhere," and Stacey Kent, "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," and Sarah Vaughan, "My Heart Stood Still." And here is the Sinatra of 1946 with "Sweet Lorraine" as arranged by Sy Oliver with Nat Cole at the piano, Johnny Hodges on alto sax, and Coleman Hawkins on tenor. Jonathan brings a lot of imagination to his playlists. I remember, though it happened seven or eight years ago, the day he advanced the thesis that three Hammerstein lyrics – "Make Believe" (from Show Boat), "People Will Say We’re in Love" (from Oklahoma) and "If I Loved You" (from Carousel) -- were versions of the same idea. Each arose as a solution to the problem of creating a theatrically persuasive love duet between two persons who had not yet met, barely knew each other, or were feuding. Each relied on a conditional premise, a supposition or, in the case of "Make Believe," a frank suspension of disbelief. And though I love the Kern song best of the three, I think Schwartz is right in saying that the three exist in a progression, that "If I Loved You" is – from the theatrical point of view -- the best of the three, and that the “bench scene” in which it figures is the consummate example of the Rodgers & Hammerstein strategy.
In his autobiography Schwartz recalls the exact moment he became an ardent Frankophile. It was in the early 1950s and on a jukebox the young man heard Sinatra sing "The Birth of the Blues" (Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson). He says he played it a dozen times. And he's right, it is a fantastic performance, brilliant. Jonathan's fidelity to Sinatra is famous. One Sunday afternoon in December he plays a rare recording of Sinatra singing the Soliloquy from Carousel. It’s an unusually long, musically varied tear-jerker of a song in which the character, a ne’er-do-well carnival barker, imagines that the baby his wife is carrying will be a boy, enjoys the thought, realizes that it may be a girl, and finally vows to make or steal the money needed for the child’s upbringing, “or die.” Sinatra gives it all he has. It’s his birthday, December 12. He has been dead now for nine years. The song ends: “Or die.” There ensues a hush. Then Jonathan says, “I know you’re listening,” and I get the strong feeling that he is talking not to the radio audience but to Sinatra.
In 1986 Schwartz won a Grammy for Best Album Notes, which he wrote for FS's The Voice -- The Columbia Years, 1942-1952. One recent afternoon Schwartz plays "Frenesi," "Perfidia," and "Amapola" back to back to back: three songs with one-word foreign titles. You remember "Amapola," don’t you? Years later it would serve Sergio Leone as a recurrent motif throughout his Jewish gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), a cinematic masterpiece, with James Woods and Robert De Niro. When Sinatra went to the White House in the fall of 1944, the President asked Frankie what would be number one on the hit parade that week and promised he would keep it secret. “Amapola,” Frank said, and for an instant FDR looked a bit confused. Was the singer speaking Italian? Sinatra was so skinny that after he left Roosevelt chuckled. So that’s what the girls are going for these days. In my time they liked a little more flesh on the bone. You didn’t know Sinatra got invited to the White House? What’s more he had an audience with the pope. It was a year later, after the war, when Sinatra was making his first trip abroad to entertain the troops. He was traveling with Phil Silvers. Singing and dancing, the future Sergeant Ernie Bilko had supplied the comic relief to the romantic leads Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944). I bet you didn’t know that Phil Silvers wrote the lyrics for the Sinatra standard "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)." Well, he was a great pal of Sinatra, and the two of them - so goes the story -- were on their way to see Pope Pius XII in the Vatican. “Wait till I see that Pope,” Sinatra said. He was going to give him a piece of his mind about Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rants in Detroit. Of course when he entered the papal presence he thought better of it, and when the pope asked him what he sang he replied earnestly with a list of song titles starting with "Ol’ Man River." Now it was the pope’s turn to look puzzled. By “what do you sing” he had meant to ask whether the singer was a tenor, a baritone, or a bass.
Happy birthday.. -- DL
What follows is a portion of a work in progress examining the way Orson Welles and his films have been appropriated and recast in poetry and fiction. This section focuses on my own experience of writing an unusual kind of elegy.
Finally, it was time to compose my farewell poem on Orson Welles. He had died on October 10, 1985, and public tributes had circulated for a brief period, including editorials, columns, and essays in the entertainment press and intellectual journals, cartoons of homage, and TV network spots featuring the opening scene of Citizen Kane in which the dying tycoon utters the word “rosebud” as he expires. Welles as actor excelled in giving up the ghost in his films, those he directed like Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Macbeth, Chimes at Midnight, Othello, King Lear, and those he graced solely as a performer—The Stranger, Tomorrow is Forever, Black Magic, The Third Man, Three Cases of Murder, A Man for All Seasons. Marlene Dietrich, as a fortuneteller reading her magical cards in Touch of Evil, delivers the death’s head, figuratively speaking, when she tells the doomed Sheriff portrayed by Welles, “Your future is all used up.” That epitaph before the fact haunts much of the posthumous discourse about Welles.
When the mass media swiftly turned their attention elsewhere, poets were obliged by their reputation as the world’s greatest elegists to continue the obsequies. Few did so, but I pledged myself to testify to Welles’s profound corpus of great works on the screen. I knew the conventions; I had written analyses of numerous memorial poems about people, places, and things. The tradition abounds with POV alternatives for speaking well (and ill) of the illustrious deceased. And yet, the key problem of all such testimonials oppressed me: the sense of apprehension, and timidity, at addressing the glorious, or at least worthy, object of one’s reverence. Who was I to approach the casket and declaim about this shape-shifter, this otherworldly being whose now-bloated body had been screened from me by the screens on which I had watched him move and speak? Why write redundant words of praise about his genius? Why not remain mute and let the reigning bards turn their eloquence in his direction?
Who would that be, exactly? Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Robert Lowell—these had all served their generation as effective elegists, but all had died during the previous decade. Elizabeth Bishop may have been the first significant poet to speak in print, albeit in private, about Welles. In a letter dated September 29, 1936 she offered apologies to Marianne Moore for not including her in a group of friends on a New York outing: “I must tell you that we were going to the theatre that evening; we wanted to ask you to go with us, but it was a play just opening that we knew nothing about and hated to ask you to take the risk. It was so fortunate that we did not . . . because it was very bad, hardly endurable—Horse Eats Hat.” Welles and Edwin Denby had adapted this farce by Eugène Labiche in order to “giggle and make giggle” as Byron said of his work on Don Juan. It was the furthest thing from the somber plays of Nobel Prize-winning Eugene O’Neill they could contrive. Simon Callow reports that the play, directed by Welles, was “full of corny jokes, dadaist riffs, and schoolboy double entendres.” Bishop does not report in later letters that she saw any of Welles’s films. None impacted her, in any case, nor, for the most part, her generation of poets for whom Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers remained the more compelling muse figures, yielding to Marilyn Monroe at generation’s end. (MM is still the most frequent subject of poems about the movies.)
Following upon Welles’s first successes in the theater, months before the Invasion from Mars radio broadcast, TIME magazine placed his photo on the cover of their May 9, 1938 issue. He is disguised behind a large beard and his face is wrinkled into the grotesque visage of Captain Shotover from George Bernard Shaw’s play Heartbreak House. Welles loved to disguise himself as old men, a fact that bears on my comments further on. He was 22 years + 3 days old at the time, and you could not have chosen a more awesome archetype of the enfant terrible, already a major figure in New York theater and nationwide radio, with his sights clearly set on the cinema. The headnote for the Time article was “Marvelous Boy.”
Two points need to be made. First, “marvelous Boy” is the telling phrase Wordsworth chose for Thomas Chatterton, poet and suicide at age 17, in his troubled and troubling poem “Resolution and Independence.” Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had previously written a full-dress elegy on this self-thwarted genius, who had disguised his archaic-sounding poems as the work of a fictive 15th-century poet, Thomas Rowley. In “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” the 18-year-old Coleridge plumbed the depths of self-pity in strained locutions as he brought to adolescent consciousness the corpse of Chatterton--as Henry Wallis would do in his famous painting in the next century.
Fated to heave sad Disappointment’s sigh,
To feel the Hope now rais’d, and now deprest,
To feel the burnings of an injured breast,
From all thy Fate’s deep sorrow keen
In vain, O Youth, I turn th’affrighted eye;
For powerful Fancy evernigh
The hateful picture forces on my sight.
Chatterton had conspired to deceive the public and earn fame by putting on a mask, and his presumption appealed to the early Romantics. “I thought of Chatterton, the marvelous Boy, / The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.” Wordsworth’s lament has the effect of a curse as well as a fragment of praise. It is the fate of many ambitious artists to become re-embodied in art works, often as victims. Wordsworth is thinking of himself, and Coleridge, and other aspiring authors likely to be denounced and cast aside by the cultural establishment for daring to re-invent themselves as young heroes of the imagination, immortal bards, “Prophets of Nature.” Time was cautioning the insurgent young Orson even as it was celebrating him.
Second point. One of the likely readers of that issue of Time was F. Scott Fitzgerald, as he languished in Hollywood, tormented by nostalgia for his lost status as the Rising Sun of the Roaring Twenties. As Welles swiftly ascended like Apollo, Fitzgerald was entering middle age, laboring in 1938 as a rewrite man on dismal scripts unworthy of his talent. In his bitterness he published a short story, “Pat Hobby and Orson Welles,” in response to the news that Welles had negotiated a two-picture contract with RKO, with full control of each film down to the final cut. Pat Hobby, whom Fitzgerald regularly exhibited in issues of Esquire, is Fitzgerald’s comic double, a hack screenwriter working, or not working, at MGM Studios, who feels down to his toes the humiliation of the third-rate as he imagines being driven out of his profession by this marvelous boy sporting a beard to enhance his dignity. As Fitzgerald makes clear in the essays published posthumously as The Crack-Up, nothing, nothing, could replace for him the glory of those early years of upward mobility during the Jazz Age. In his droll story of Pat Hobby being mistaken on the studio lot for Orson Welles, because both are wearing a beard, Hobby dissolves into the same melancholy and jealousy that forced Coleridge’s “sad Disappointment’s sigh.” At story’s end Hobby, an embodiment of the superseded author, emerges as both a pathetic spectacle of ruin and, in the final antic scene, a trickster enjoying a momentary triumph.
Contemplating this convergence of themes and figures, I stumbled upon the solution to the question of how to write my elegy for Orson Welles. I would compose a soliloquy in the spirit of fan fiction, borrowing Pat Hobby to front for me as a mourner of the great writer/director/actor. I would constrain the lyric impulse that might make my poem presumptuous—yet still forge a connection to the location and ambition I shared with the actors in this imaginary drama. I grew up in Culver City, home of MGM. On my paper route I had peddled William Randolph Hearst’s signature newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald-Express, in bars on Washington Boulevard including The Retake Room where Fitzgerald drank his way toward debility while trying to finish his novel based on the boy-genius producer at MGM, Irving Thalberg. Like Pat Hobby I had no masterpiece in my vita; he would be my stand-in and shadow. What if he had lived fifty years on, watching Welles’s exile from Hollywood just as he had (in my imagination) grown up watching his own spurned creator decline and fall dead in 1940 of a heart attack? I found the voice I needed in Fitzgerald’s pitch-perfect sequence of slang-filled stories about Pat Hobby, a raffish survivor. So here is the ensuing scenario of envy and identification, my full-throated lament for the makers.
First published in Literature/Film Quarterly in 1988; reprinted in Cold Reading (Copper Beech Press, 1995)
I DOUBLED FOR ORSON WELLES
My creator, the boy wonder
who penned This Side of Paradise
so young it brings sappy tears
to my old jaundiced eyes. . .
at least he never lived to see
how Orson outsmarted himself,
watch Hollywood’s toughest ham
mug his way through fluff
even I could have improved.
Like me, he idled “between pictures”
most of his posthumous career,
like my author, too, shoring up
self-respect a whole decade
with my adventures, or worse,
while glamorizing Kid Thalberg
for his boffo comeback role.
Previews of fading attraction—that’s us,
my maker patching me into
the continuity of the golden age
like the “good man for structure” he was.
I was good enough to survive
thanks to Benzedrine and the races,
good enough to pass, once,
for an American original—
but that insert was a lousy joke
Scott made at my expense,
one of his many jokes on me
who all during deathwatch at the morgue
kept sober reciting his sentences
and touched his wrinkled hands
in the Wordsworth Room, waiting
for the next take or process shot
to lift this ungreyed extra
like Dracula out of his sleep.
He was put to bed with a shovel
and I lived half a century on.
If living is what it was.
The studio gates forever shut,
I drowned my sorrows in The Retake Room,
sponging from East Coast literati
with memoirs of my great original.
I made a pitch to young Orson
but he had his own Gatsby in the can—
a swell picture it was, too—
and roller-coastered out of sight.
Do you need to hear the rest?
A script so full of coincidence,
pathos, bravado, double-cross—
a hack job credits to credits.
And those young squirt producers!
Buttered and served up by the Times
as saviors of the industry,
those overdressed callboys
led him such a dog’s life. . .
Once after some goofy rushes of
The V.I.P.s we talked of Scott;
I said “The poor son of a bitch.”
Orson gazed off, soul-scratching,
and said, “The poor son of a bitch.”
Hollywood made and unmade me.
I learned my craft from The Great
Train Robbery, and I’ve seen all
the classics down to F for Fake—
my heart broke during that flick!
“It’s about you!” I told Orson
at a watering hole on Sunset.
“They’re all about me,” he intoned.
“What happened to heroes?” I shot back.
“Show me a hero,” he smiled hugely,
“and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
I could never script the story I lived;
Orson did, writing behind me,
and that gave us cheer to the end.
No, I didn’t visit his corpse;
I was afraid, if I tottered in,
swollen so fat on medication,
gnarled with disappointments,
I might shock the souvenir hunters.
Like a scene I once wrote for the B’s,
the living dead lurching into view,
the bit players flailing their arms,
gasping out a ghostly name—
“Orson,” they’d cry, “Orson, Orson!”
Laurence Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and the author of four books of poetry as well as The American Poet at the Movies: A Literary History (1995) and Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City (2014).
I had this e-mail exchange with Bill Berkson, April 21-22, 2016, regarding a "a fact check for [his] portrait of Kenneth [Koch] in a book of memoirs [he was] putting together and that Coffee House promises to publish in 2017."
On Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 5:24 PM, Bill Berkson <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
I’m trying to track down some hard facts about the poetry-and-jazz events that Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers and other did at the Five Spot.
In your LAST AVANT-GARDE you write that Billie Holiday’s appearance (the one at which she called Kenneth’s poetry “weird,” occurred on [a] Monday night. I have understood that those events happened on successive afternoons.
Do you recall your source for that event taking place on a Monday night?
Thanks for any help you can provide.
On Apr 21, 2016, at 3:49 PM, David Lehman wrote:
Kenneth told me the Billie Holiday (“weird, man") anecdote during one of the lengthy interviews with him I did in 1994. I understood him to be referring to a date in fall 1958.
But I am not certain where I got the idea that the readings with Larry Rivers took place on Monday evenings. I knew that Monday was Thelonious Monk's night off. (Monk performed with a quartet that included Johnny Griffin on tenor sax and Roy Haynes on drums.) Now did I just assume that poetry and jazz was a nighttime activity since nighttime was the right time for Monk and his crew -- and presumably for the patrons of the place? Or was there a definite reference to Monday evenings in my interviews with Larry and with Kenneth? To answer I'd need access to those papers, which I do not have at the moment.
Are you writing something? I'd be very interested in what you find out.
Just last night I was talking to a group of students and FOH's poetry came up -- "The eager note on my door," but also, less expectedly, "Pearl Harbor" and "On Rachmaninoff's Birthday."
Thank you for writing. I hope you are in good health.
On Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 7:42 PM, bill berkson <email@example.com> wrote:
I’ve wanted for long time to get the Five Spot poetry/jazz story straight, but this is just a fact check for my portrait of Kenneth in a book of memoirs I’m putting together and that Coffee House promises to publish in 2017.
I’ll use the "Monday night” version for now. If I find out differently I’ll surely let you know.
Funny that you got Kenneth saying that Billie said “Man, your poetry is weird,” which what I heard from him too, but later he said she spoke differently. His revisionist account sounded off pitch to me, and I wondered why he was so inclined to spoil a good story.
Yes, good health with few annoyances here. (Just had a successful skin graft operation to replace cancerous scalp.)
I hope you’re well, as well.
On Apr 22, 2016, at 11:21 AM, David Lehman wrote:
Funny that you got Kenneth saying that Billie said “Man, you’re poetry is weird,” which [is] what I heard from him too, but later he said she spoke differently. His revisionist account sounded off pitch to me, and I wondered why he was so inclined to spoil a good story.
He did that more than once under the spirit of revisionism. In "serious" conversations we had, especially around the time of "The Last Avant-Garde," I felt that he deprecated the "comic" as a trait of his poetry -- as if the critics were right all along to denigrate the elements of humor, joy, laughter, surprise, and jest in his work and in poetry generally.
I am still recovering from the chemotherapy and then the radical surgery that I had to endure in 2015. There are aches and pains and then some, but I feel a little better every week.
Kenneth’s humor never left him. He became gentler once he realized, with all his bouts with cancer, how his friends cared for, loved him. The poetry deepened over time, too. Poems like Paradiso and the whole of New Addresses, so wonderful to have. There should be more attention to his work, of course, more appreciation of its range and accomplishment.
Sorry to hear of your health trouble and aches and pains (alla Luke Appling, you will recall).
Here’s hoping the chemo does the trick, and whatever else the good doctors devise to keep David being David.
Please note my new email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I am no longer checking the pacbell email address.
Here is William Grimes's obituary in the New York Times:
My week as guest author has come to a close, and it seems quite fitting to take my leave after leaving you with David Lehman's poem "Radio" to read and listen to. For such a short poem it accomplishes quite a lot. Its brief lines read with ease and clarity and as an invitation of sorts---and somehow you end up right alongside the author as he enters a space filled with music and memory and perhaps a hint of something beyond the reach of language.
When I asked David about the poem and how it came to be he said:
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
And to listen to:
Karine and I met in a café where a giant, silenced television screen scrolls bits of catastrophe: Raaqua drone strike! US mass shooting beneath jerky images. This, near the rue de Rivoli, early in the morning, under the churning autumnal cloud of June 21st.
The first day of summer. Day of the Fête de la musique.
In the Seine and in the gutters, the waters may have receded, but don’t bother sending out any doves. There is an abundance of vegetable matter right here and now. As Karine has not tired of pointing out these past few weeks, months, “O! It’s so green. Like Ireland!”
She’s never been to Ireland. It’s her way of staying sane. She means well. I can’t blame her. This doesn’t stop the spasmodic clutching of my fingers as I stare at her rain-smooth, moon-pale neck and bosom and hear the Ireland thing for the umpteenth time.
My own, well-rutted, way to sanity is to note the date in Unités d’automne universel or UAU, “Universal Fall Units”.
Thursday is Thursday, October 245th, 2015 UAU.
Karine eyes me hard when I use the UAU system and after all this time, I am not fool enough to wonder what she’s thinking.
But my own eyes think back: I could also pretend to be from Down-Under, badly mime the accent and pretend to not to notice this désastre climatique.
Anyhow, Karine knows as well as anyone that none of this is my fault.
For years, I’ve strongly advocated sending all combustion phenomena and associated machinery to Mars. A warm, greening effect on that dry planet, indeed, any effect, would be a welcome change. But because they know neither to read nor to spell, they sent the nasty stuff to China instead, where the rulers are proud of it.
I long ago washed my hands of the affair.
As I scrutinize Karine across the table, her falsely delicate index and thumb pinch the tiny fluted handle of the little white espresso cup hard. I think, “There is something to the pathetic fallacy”.
How intolerable would the world be for me if, from time to time, at least, this woman’s glance did not light the Sun or her Hand recall Tenderness past and to come? It beats constructing gloomy ideas from the stuff scrolling beneath a video of impossibly wounded children in some overwhelmed hospital somewhere.
Karine does look good in her rain gear. Pathetically fallacious?
What if this pathetic fallacy business is the other way round?
That is, the pathetic weather makes us fallacious, not we who fallaciously make the weather pathetic. That is, the breaking sunlight carves the smile from Karine’s pathetic rictus. That is, a warming breeze across my stiff back informs my fallacious adoration of an aging woman’s worry-gnarled claws.
Lately – I don’t read newspapers, so I don’t really know why – I have been interested in what a takeover of power by Know-nothing national-racial bully boys might be like. Sebastien Haffner, a man born in Germany in 1910, had the karmic privilege of getting his Aryan nose rubbed in Hitler’s shit from 1933 to 1938. He writes about this in a book called Defying Hitler.
Apparently, the experience is just as you might imagine and no fun at all.
Haffner intimates that the splendid weather of 1933 smoothed the path of “National coordination” – the set up of a general system of terrorization, intimidation, confiscation and institutional cooptation, with a special focus on selected groups, such as Jews.
Haffner describes, for example, a mid-May smooching idyll with a girlfriend in the Berlin Tiergarten.
Flopped in the sweet grass and in plain view, he says the anti-Semitic calumnies hooted by passing hikers touched the couple hardly at all. Partly, he says, they were already inured to gratuitous insult (after fewer than three months of bully-boy rule!). Partly, he says, it was the splendid weather.
His observation is that in making the whole natural world perfect, the weather made all the mean-spirited menace seem just, well, impossible. Shades of Wordsworth!
Remember, Haffner is writing before bits of catastrophe scrolling out an endless stream of constructible, shareable, delusion was a feature of every public place on earth!
In a digital age such as ours and with a googletruth at the tip of any finger, a test of the pathetic fallacy is surely in order!
It has stopped raining.
The bloated Venusian clouds continue to roil across the whited sky. When it peeks out, a hot sun can now sear away accumulated humidity.
According to the forecast, this state of affairs, punctuated by storms, is to continue indefinitely.
In these days, when my eyes open to luminous blue, I feel quite giddy. The light is like a puff of laughing gas right up a stuffy beezer: such contrast, such relief, makes me hilarious. I pull on a muscle shirt and soldier forward under Sol’s happy gaze.
Opening her own peepers to these same glowing heavens, Karine has no thought to put on her floofy skirt. This year it’s a sort of flaring thing, not-quite-below-the-knee, made of stiff material that I think of as “taffeta”, without actually knowing what “taffeta” might be, but it’s apparently sensitive to raindrops.
Karine has been cruelly climatically betrayed more than once these past weeks of June and May. A little morning sun isn’t going to dissipate weeks of quiet desperation. This is a solid enfant of the French working class: prim, cautious, tightlipped, risk-averse, pettifogging prudence is a Gallic birthright not rendered for the prospect of looking good in a floofy skirt on a late June afternoon.
She slips on a cotton dress from the resale shop.
Blessed silence will settle over the political nation from the 1st of July, when vacation begins and our old friend Ricard reveals the wisdoms to cling to at the Rentrée, the first weeks of September.
Until then, the rolling strikes and demonstrations around the reform of the labor law (called the Loi El-Khomri, after the Labor Minister), which began in March, will continue under the un-summery sky; also the Brits vote on EU secession on Thursday, 245th. Who wins and who loses in the El-Khomri struggle will determine the balance of political power on the left and then through the whole political system in the next elections and looking forward. Hold your breaths. The result of the British EU exit referendum will determine European politics for the foreseeable future. Hold your breaths.
So, what will the pathetic fallacy phenomenon (it’s scientific now, so a “phenomenon”) do to the results of these human phenomena?
Will a giddy CGT flip flip to the right for a great melding of corporatist national socialists, agreeing to get in bed (bbbrrrrrr, shudder) with the egregious Marine Lepen? Or will a glass of commercially fermented anis seed, not too diluted, suffice such a pyrrhic political victory?
If the English push Britain out of the EU, will France and Germany take giddy revenge or demonstrate a wait-and-see prudence? Cotton dress from the resale shop? Floofy taffeta skirt flung hard from the 10th floor window?
When the facts are in, you tell me what the weather is and I’ll predict something both pathetic and fallacious at only a small service charge, plus VAT.
“Coming events cast their shadows before” wrote the English poet Thomas Campbell—and according to Alfred Lindsay Morgan in his March 1949 Etude article “Winter’s End Radio Programs At Their Height”, “Radio belies the frequently quoted line...to be sure coming events are anticipated, but the best are strengthened by what has gone before. We remember a program enjoyed and chalk it down in our memory. How strong a part memory plays in the turning of the dials is proved by changing program ratings. When remembered pleasures are not consistently substantiated in repetition of favorite broadcasts, disappointment is manifest.”
Disappointment is manifest. It seems fitting that by chance I grabbed this particular issue and flipped through the pages landing on this article—given my previous posts which evoke a looking back of sorts, questioning whether we have forfeited more than we have profited from so-called progress. But in truth, the first thing that came to mind when reading Morgan’s article was, and please don’t laugh (or please do), NETFLIX.
Even in 1949 people were complaining about programming and demanding that their favorite shows be restored and put back on the air. I imagine no matter the date or time or century, there has been a practice of recalling how it was done before, resurrecting memories of the good old days. When it was better, easier, simpler.
For some reason I immediately thought of House of Cards—a show I watched and looked forward to seeing again, and admittedly sooner rather than later. But what I am recalling (vaguely) is one of its season's release dates had people up in arms and demanding it be released even sooner. A few characters shy of a social movement, it seemed.
Also, there is now another wonderful word to add to what I called in a previous post our “somewhat collective lexicon”—a showhole. Amazon created an ad that explains the term with the visual of a woman curled up, wrapped in a blanket on her couch in a state of clinical despair as the final credits roll on her favorite show. Then it cuts to her shoveling dirt on top of her TV, as in why bother having one if you can no longer watch your favorite series ad infinitum?
Though perhaps a troubling commentary on present day existence, it is actually very funny.
Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdj9k4jsw-c
But back to 1949 and Alfred Lindsay Morgan who was quite up in arms himself about how radio programming was going down the tubes. In that first paragraph he writes, “One poor program can greatly alter audience appeal. So, to paraphrase the poet’s line, in radio “Events that have cast their shadows before” are most eagerly awaited. For him, he laments the “now defunct broadcasts of the Philadelphia, Boston and Cleveland Orchestras, and that inimitable Columbia musical offering of the past—“Invitation to Music.” He continues:
“The lack of sponsors has removed too many fine programs…There is just reason for critic Virgil Thomson’s recent assertion in the New York Herald Tribune that radio, in general, ‘is gravely misusing its privileges with regard to serious music and skimping its obligations.’”
So, even over half a century ago good programming was being thwarted by lack of sponsors, or to get down to it, the thing that often trumps all—profit. Are our favorite shows cancelled due to philosophical differences between the director and the executive producer? Once in a while, maybe.
Lamentations aside, what were some of these fine programs listeners had the privilege to hear?
“Just when many of us were despairing that no programs in adult music education would be forthcoming this year, the National Broadcasting Company announced its seventeen-week “Pioneers of Music” series, new step in home-study phase of the “University of the Air.”
Again, it seems the showhole variety of despair can trace its roots to 1949—but instead of a vast inventory of shows and films streaming to appease the distraught viewer there was, among other programs, “Pioneers of Music”. A program that was arranged under the guidance of USC’s College of Music in an attempt to “provide organized education for people at home everywhere in the United States.” I am certainly not an historian, and have little knowledge of the radio’s history, but it still surprised me to learn that such home-study programs were in place mid-19th century. Today, of course, you can earn a doctoral degree with a few hundred clicks or taps.
The idea behind this series was “to trace the evolution of orchestral music from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the present.” It also included weekly study guides and other materials which would be submitted to USC and then returned to each student.
The cost was ten dollars for 17 weeks of music and study. 59 cents a week.
The article ends with a description of other programs to come which included Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony for a total of 8 concerts. Turns out Toscanini “made his now legendary first appearance as conductor at the age of nineteen.”
It seems at the time he was a cellist with a touring Italian opera company that was performing in Rio de Janeiro, but due to a “temperamental conductor” who abandoned the company and a lack of replacement options, Toscanini was asked to take his place on the podium with baton in hand.
“He did, conducting the entire opera without opening the score. His ovation was tremendous. This fortunate chance, for which the young musician was well prepared, launched him on his brilliant career.”
So, in bringing it all back home (Bob Dylan, 1965), I suppose it is only natural, at times, to mourn what has been lost, to sorely miss the ways things once were—but perhaps not an altogether bad idea to consider what great opportunities are still available to us that do not necessitate liking and clicking and tapping.
Quite a few, I should think.
I always enjoyed taking a day off from work in June to attend a Mets afternoon game. The schedule maker hasn't been as kind in recent years in making this event possible. And even though I'm now retired, it's still special when one of these opportunities pops up, like it did yesterday: the Mets versus the defending World Champions Kansas City Royals. And so I went, with wife, son and his friend by my side. After all, the lyrics to Meet the Mets tell me to "bring the kiddies; bring the wife". For what it's worth, the last time I saw the Royals was 40 years ago at Yankee Stadium, when young George Brett was making his mark and the road uniforms were powder-puff blue. But that game is a tale for another time.
The weather in Queens was nearly perfect, maybe a bit hot in the sun. But a gentle breeze and a parade of puffy cumulus clouds kept the sun at bay until our seats were shaded for the afternoon thanks to the small roof at the top of the ballpark. We sat directly above home plate, in the upper deck, although the marketing department for the Mets prefer we call it "the Promenade". The view nearly matched the same one I had 50 years ago for my first game at Shea, as I wrote about several weeks back.
The game was good, featuring starting pitchers Danny Duffy, a southpaw, for the Royals and Noah Syndergaard aka "Thor" for the Mets. The breeze provided a good showcase for Thor's long locks. It was a back and forth affair with the Mets taking the lead in the 4th, the Royals scoring 2 in the top of 5th, the Mets answering with 2 in the bottom of the 5th, the Royals tying it in the 6th, and the Mets going ahead for good in the bottom of the 6th on the first home run of Matt Reynolds' career. Mets closer Jeurys Familia nailed down the victory with a 1-2-3 9th inning, his 24th save in as many tries this season. Three years ago, I saw Familia in his visit to Troy (NY) to pitch one inning for the Brooklyn Cyclones against the Tri City Valleycats, whose stadium is 15 minutes from our home. I always remind folks that this was the turning point of his career. Well, at least in my mind it was.
Despite rush hour traffic that turned a normal three hour trip home into a nearly five-hour marathon, we declared the day a success and hope that the Mets season is back on track.
I have one other thought to share. Citi Field now has been the Mets home for eight seasons. I'm still getting used to it. There is a lot to like: wide concourses, wide aisles, wide seats, and lots of places to get food. We have sat in various sections and levels, seeing games from various angles. The last two games have been in the aforementioned "Promenade". I've concluded that I'd rather be higher up and near home plate then sit in a lower level 400 feet away from home plate in the outfield. Shea Stadium never had this problem. There were narrow concourses, narrow aisles, narrow seats, and fewer places to get food. But there were also fewer outfield seats since the stadium was open-ended, a wide expanse to Queens and beyond. Nearly everyone was seated between the foul lines. And I knew most nooks and crannies of the old place. So I ask myself, will Citi Field ever feel like "home"? I don't know, probably not. But a few more games like yesterday and seats in Section 515 Row 6 would help.
"Now, what was it I had to do today?"
Now, I haven't been out yet - kept awake half the night by last night's epic thunderstorm, which has incidentally flooded half of London and the Southeast - but when I got up my social media was full of people talking about their voting experiences, and I've taken, as fast as possible which isn't that fast,a little sampling of the more interesting ones.
This may look one-sided. Very unfortunately, that is because I am not happy to relay the messages of the Leave side. Most of them just look like, if the person was talking to you, they'd be shouting in your face, turning red and spitting when they talk. And they just reel off these insane, incorrect 'facts'. Someone posted up an absurd leaflet that UKIP was circulating in Hemel Hempstead (a prosperous north London suburb):
So most of this is going to be more positive, like this:
Despite the rain
Grab your brolly
"I am off to vote for the first time in my life. Having been raised to believe in equality for all and helping my fellow man, woman and child, it seems my apathy has been overtaken by a desire not to let the LEAVE campaign win."
"I got a bit tearful in the voting booth. Feels so monumentally important."
"Voted and almost shaking as I posted the ballot paper through the ballot box. I voted Remain."
The poet Sean O'Brien on his trip to vote:
"A polling station in a community centre in North Tyneside at about 8.15 am. Bright sunshine. The usual slow-but-steady traffick, mainly of older people who always vote.The usual atmosphere of helpful, slightly embarrassed good humour among the officials, as if the whole business of democracy is slightly implausible. The sort of scene Orwell might have included in his catalogue of English moments. And next to all the electoral documents, a copy of The Daily Mail. This is presumably entirely accidental and coincidental. On the way back I meet a couple of neighbours alarmed at the possibility of a vote to leave. One of them says despairingly of her friends, 'I never knew so many of them were just so...so STUPID.' Let's hope she's wrong."
George Monbiot, the green journalist:
"I went over my cross several times just to make sure. I've never done that before."
A teacher: "The children at school all hugely energised by today's referendum and making cogent arguments for both sides - but the most compelling one of all was this:
Spain is in the EU.
Spain produces lots of strawberries.
Everyone loves strawberries.
"I voted at 7am. There was a stream of people as I left the estate where the polling place was. With 3-or-so-yards (sorry, metres) between them.
I then went shopping. I encouraged a woman worker in Sainsbury's to vote, even though she was going to vote Leave...
Mulling it all on the way back (the rain had almost stopped) I decided it the act of voting was more important than what you vote for. I think that should be sold big-time."
"After the gym I am going to try to help Labour campaign and redeem myself for having been so pathetic over the past months.
A first toe in the water."
An unnamed poet: "Off to vote LEAVE. No longer will this Proud Brit be shackled to the corpse of a tyrant bent on stealing our worglesnurfs." (Then: "Just breaking up the monotony of my newsfeed.")
"I have heartburn."
"[Hipster] Clapton is full of middle-class folks swanning about like they've taken the day off to vote."
"A friend's mother-in-law was leaning Leave but decided to poll her teenage grand-children and vote their wishes, as 'it's their world I'm voting on, I won't be living in it'."
A cartoon by Stephen Collins, not new but apt, illustrates the character of Michael Gove years before he made his now--famous remark last week that, "I think people in this country have had enough of experts." Used with permission; click for full size.
Editing in with two more stories:
"Conversation with Muslim owner behind the counter in the local shop: 'I'm voting leave,' he said.' You'll think a stupid reason. I don't like Turkey. I don't like Pakistan either. If Turkey joins they'll bomb England and and England throw out all the Muslims. And Pakistan, I don't like her, whatever her name is ... Wasi something?'
"I did say I didn't think Pakistan would be joining the EU anytime soon. I also said we shared intelligence about terrorists with the rest of Europe - which has prevented attacks - and it is almost impossible that the UK would decide to banish all our Muslims even after an attack. I said I was an immigrant and he said his father was an immigrant. He then announced very quickly that he'd changed his mind and he promised to vote Remain. But maybe he was just humouring me."
And a other friend says on the phone that as he left the polling station this morning, in leafy south London, he saw an elderly lady hobbling slowly along, shaking her head. As he went past her he could hear her, muttering over and over to herself: 'I still don't know if I've done the right thing...
Off out. More later. (And Sean O'Brien adds, just now: "I'm trying to spend the day working in order to stay calm, but I can feel another observation coming on.")
The next two posts pick up where I left off during a prior week as guest author. I once again dug out my old Etude magazines and once again was not disappointed. The language found in these older magazines is at once a quick and easy source of amusement but also fairly decent cultural food for thought in 2016, almost a century later.
“Why Not Give An Etude Radio Recital” read the title of an article in the January 1934 issue of The Etude music magazine. Why not indeed? Frankly, I became intrigued to read on just after seeing the words radio and recital in the piece’s title. I am so often on some kind of unproductive tear about the shortage of letter writing, or any kind of writing by hand, and the sinking feeling that we are collectively being swallowed up by devices made of plastic, chips and batteries—that the idea of listening to a recital on the radio sounded novel and exciting. I realize the radio was a device of its own and a precursor to those that envelop us now, but the kind we are talking of here were not yet pocket-sized. Not yet, anyway. In many homes, during its Golden Age, the radio was the apparatus that connected listeners to the world-at-large whether through the broadcasting of news, musical programs, radio plays, poetry reading, talent shows, or the great wide world of sports.
The author of this piece, Theon La Marr, certainly does his very (though hardly subtle) best to convey just how exciting, enlightening, educational, practical, rewarding, essential, captivating and fun these radio recitals can be, for music teachers and pupils alike. It seems he also feels all of mankind should be tuning in. Apparently, The Etude was offering regular programs on the radio, one of which La Marr describes in a section called “What Makes Radio Valuable”:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience. We shall have the pleasure during the next period of listening to a recital of compositions taken from the Music Section of THE ETUDE MUSIC MAGAZINE for July, 1933, and played by pupils of Theon La Marr, who is making this announcement. You who are listening over this marvel of marvels must realize that, if it were not for music, the charms of the radio would be reduced about ninety per cent. The radio needs music just as much as the earth needs sunshine and rain. It is difficult to imagine the radio without music.”
The article reveals that part of the program included the Album Leaf by Debussy, followed by more zealous commentary from La Marr.
“A happy frame of mind is a priceless possession and music possibly more than anything else tends to promote this condition. Therefore, music and industry, music and life, should always go hand in hand. Thousands have acclaimed THE ETUDE MUSIC MAGAZINE invaluable to them in helping to preserve this condition. Are you among those who cannot get along without this magazine? If you are a lover of music or if you have children who are studying music you can ill afford not to have THE ETUDE in your home.” (Here the music comes to an end.)”
No one could argue that La Marr was not a fan of The Etude and perhaps his certitude and hyperbolic style of speaking is a bit much. And yet, even though people likely would have survived 1934 and the years to follow without monthly issues of The Etude, he delivers some valid notions about the importance of music, of industry, of a happy mindset (and music as a vehicle for this) and of radio (especially music on the radio). Notions that I imagine were appreciated and applauded then by faithful readers, and perhaps too by modern day readers looking back to an era when a radio program very well could be the highlight of the week, or even month.
This was also a time where receiving a magazine in the mail was cause for excitement, anticipating its arrival for weeks and eagerly flipping through its pages to see what was in the latest issue. And long before the invasion of the box, otherwise known as the television, radio programs offered listeners something to look forward to each day, week, or month. As much as I applaud his ardor for all things musical, it’s worth mentioning that La Marr might have been a tad biased in declaring that “if it were not for music, the charms of the radio would be reduced by ninety per cent.” 90 %? Listeners who were anxiously awaiting the next installment of The Green Hornet or The Lone Ranger might take issue with this. For starters.
But back on point, which is the overwhelming volume of art, music, literature, reality TV, film, world news, YouTube videos of pets or intoxicated celebrities standing on their heads or brushing their teeth—of anything and everything. Continuous exposure and access to this must have some impact on our level of excitement. If something is always in hand, one tap away, one second away, where does the anticipation go, as well as its first cousin, patience? The information and resources, musical, literary and otherwise that we now have more or less immediate access to, is, to be sure, a marvel of its own. And a formidable tool. But I wonder what Mr. La Marr might think of this marvel compared to the marvel he writes of.
In a section called “The Magic of Transmission” he writes this of the radio:
“First there is the mystery of the thing—how the sounds are shot out to the world over invisible channels. This captivates the pupil’s imaginations. “
Mystery. The mystery of the thing. Has that possibly fallen into the sinkhole too? Along with cursive writing, old school thank you notes (not thx on a text), anticipation, patience (waiting more than 3.5 minutes for someone to “like” your post on Facebook before becoming agitated) and dare I say it, curiosity?
Or am I being as hyperbolic as Theon La Marr? I wonder, are we curious about the mystery of our current things? I admit I would be hard-pressed to intelligently, or unintelligently, explain how my smart phone works. (I can picture my scientist father’s look of dismay.) I do, however, become rather curious when it stops working as it should, when icons suddenly disappear never to return, or when, God forbid, the screen goes blank. “The Future Tense” written by Teddy Wayne is a wonderfully written monthly New York Times column that uniquely addresses “the anxieties over our cultural and technological evolutions”.
Figurative sinkholes and technology aside, a radio recital or even a good old-fashioned piano recital sounds good to me. And thank God they still have those around, and I do have to wait to see Sir Andras Schiff, at least in person, and on an actual stage, in real time. This past October I sat in my seat at Carnegie Hall waiting with a child’s enthusiasm to hear the first measure of Schiff’s Haydn to be played.
And, less enthusiastically, for the first phone to ring.
I’m happy to report that not one phone rang and Schiff responded to his admiring, non-phone ringing audience with a beautiful encore performance of the opening aria from the Goldberg Variations. Being physically able to attend this concert, for me, was meaningful for a host of reasons---and a reminder too that whether it is 1934 or 2015, an evening like this can be the highlight of one's day, month or year. All of the above in my book.
'Twas the night before Brexit, and all through the house...
... we're not sure if we're waiting for Santa or Nosferatu.
Tonight, everything is hushed. Where I'm sitting in northeast London there's a lightning storm toying with us. I say toying because 1) everything else is toying with us, so why wouldn't it, and b) the first flashes and rumbles came before the rain. Everyone is still up, judging by my Facebook, writing little last-minute posts and trying to talk some sense into the situation.
In fact, all anybody's been doing for weeks is trying to figure stuff out. Here's some if it:
First, my own Top 10 Reasons to Stay in the EU.
My old friend Ben changed his mind from Brexit to Remain. He's done it as gracefully and kindly, and modestly, as he does everything else. And he's explained it really well.
In the aftermath of the awful shock of Jo Cox MP's murder last week by a neo-Nazi, people are beginning to re-examine the way both sides of the issue have been presented. It's clear that many Leavers are people from the parts of the country where Cameron and Osborne's cuts have done their worst. People feel dispossessed, and they buy into the rhetoric that this is some kind of war between 'the people' and the 'elite'. After eight years of austerity, shrinking incomes and zero-hours job contracts, vanishing safety nets and the creeping privatisation of the NHS, people want it to be that so desperately that they'll vote for anything that looks like a change. Suzanne Moore has been writing about this. The swingometer is swinging all over the place - no one can see how it's going to go on the day...
Anybody who feels confused about the emotive way people are comparing the EU issue to the Second World War should read Patrick Stewart's powerfully moving article from last week.
And the poet Martin Figura summed it up pithily: 'OK people. Let's not saw off the branch we're sitting on.'
There's poetry: here's a letter my publisher's dad (Yay Dad!) sent to the newspaper:
Some logic for voters in Wales to consider:
Wisdom from John Donne:
Wisdom from the Simpsons:
Which echoes the wisdom from the Economist:
Facts from a disgruntled member of the public, who took out a full-page ad in the commuters' paper The Metro:
Ordinary people are also rallying round the memory of Jo Cox, who lost her life to this referendum:
Persuasion and love in capitols around Europe. This one is the Palace of Culture in Warsaw - where, with their own far-right government to worry about, they have good reason to be afraid of the confidence a Brexit would give Putin...
And now, amid the thunder, lightning bolts and suspense, I am going to try and get some sleep before the morning. Will tomorrow be, as one newspaper has it, Independence Day? Or - as a Facebook friend predicts - the last day before the UK's Second Civil War?
The Day Before the Referendum
Today is the day before the UK goes out to vote in a (thankfully) once-in-a-lifetime referendum on whether to leave the EU, or to remain in it. The atmosphere of the past few weeks has been toxic and growing more so, and it builds on certain types of toxicity that have been implanted in the national rhetoric throughout the tenure of the current government. The drift to the far right is not just America's problem; it's global. After a coalition government and then a brutal election campaign in 2010, in which the Conservative party tried to portray itself as caring, the rhetoric has drifted further and further to the right. The much-vaunted 'austerity' needed to get us over the crash of 2008 is still in place even though seemingly every economist in the world has said it won't work, can't work. But somehow, though people have even been dying as a result of its policies, the rich are getting richer and richer. And in the meantime, the rhetoric against immigrants has become somehow actually mainstream.
The idea of leaving the EU (the so-called 'Euro-sceptic' movement) has been around for decades. Certainly it has been the fond fantasy of many a conservative politician, though they are always vague on what they would do after. The economists are more of less united in saying that even though we are the world's fifth-largest economy, this is largely because of the EU and the City of London, and that if e left we would be plunged into a new, ten-year recession.
The country is becoming polarised in a way no one can remember since the darkest days of Margaret Thatcher: the Falklands War, the year-long miners' strike, the poll tax riots.
I'll be talking a little about that over the next few days, but for now here is a little meditation on the idea of Europe as an entity in the modern world, seen through the medium of an unassuming little typewriter. The European Union was begun after the Second World War as a way to keep European countries talking to each other, to create a shared purpose, enable cultural understanding, and prevent another war. Notwithstanding the wars that have admittedly raged round its edges in the Balkans, and the continuing heavy breathing of Russia, the bulk of the continent has had its first 70 consecutive years of peace since Ancient Rome. To that extent 'Europe' is a huge success. This first post can celebrate that.
The plucky little pan-European typewriter I've typed this post on was made not in 1955, as I write below (I then checked), but in 1950 when the memory of the War was still raw. England still had rationing in 1950 (and we're now in our sixth year of 'austerity' once again). And I'll leave it there. Now, for its soothing, imprinted, fixed-space characters...
Katy Evans-Bush is a New York-born poet and blogger who has spent most of her life in London. Author of two collections with Salt Publishing, her latest book is Forgive the Language, a collection of essays published by Penned in the Margins. Find her at baroqueinhackney.com
Thank you, Katy.
I have an awful lot to tell you, I think, and yet actually no news except the first item.
Bishop writes this line to Lowell in 1960 in a letter that is unfinished and later picked up again. It is a funny line in that it is a near-perfect characterization of their style of discourse. Revealing news of the day and in the next sentence one’s deepest regret in life. There is news, and then there is other material. Many of Bishop’s letters wander from place to place, not unlike her physical self. She starts off with an item of news then enters into a discussion of Baudelaire’s translations, and a few paragraphs later reveals to Lowell when mentioning his daughter Harriet that:
…and that is my worst regret in life, although I would have been such a nervous, over-devoted mother probably.
The next paragraph begins immediately and with “Well----…” introducing a new subject entirely, a world away from the revelation of regretting not being a mother and the speculation that she likely would have made a bad one anyway.
Bishop tries to hide herself well, even after blurting out her deepest fears, regrets, and dreams, but masterfully brushes them off with self-effacing humor and abrupt shifting of topic. Back to the newsroom I suppose.
Another remarkable element I recognize in her exchanges with Lowell is that despite her tireless and witty dismissal of self and abilities as a writer and thinker and artist her work continues, perhaps at a slower pace (and with a much smaller output) than others, particularly Lowell. Not only did it persist but it was printed and read and eventually the world was able to witness her talent as her dear friend did. It isn’t hard to understand how Lowell could be so charmed by Bishop. It is hard, however, to believe that he would have been drawn to one more puffed up writer mailing letters filled with self-exaltations and news of their latest achievement. No letters would exist if she wasn’t exactly who she was and he wasn’t exactly who he was. Perhaps their candor with one another from the start was key. And the rapport that formed so swiftly between the two brings to mind a line from Woody Allen’s Matchpoint. His character Chloe strolls through Tate Modern with a friend who tells her of the dumb luck their mutual friends had after meeting during a traffic accident saying, “All their neuroses intertwine so perfectly, and it just works like a charm.”
Which brings me to humor. This is a fundamental part of their letters’ architecture. A former teacher of mine once spoke of this subject in a poetry workshop. He said something along the lines of:
Look everyone, don’t be afraid to be funny. It’s okay to be funny.
I’m not sure if this was a reaction to our small group bringing in poems lined with gloom and doom and sturm und drang. I’m also not sure if everyone understood what he had said or, moreover, how it possibly had anything to do with them. I knew he wasn’t suggesting we morph into Woody Allen by next Thursday evening. What he was saying is that humor has its place in poems, in literature. In living.
Bishop clearly reserved a place for humor in her stanzas and her letters.
In letter 222, she writes:
The good news came yesterday and what wonderful lovely $$$$$, 7,000 of them for 2 years…It is all thanks to you, I know perfectly well…I’ve already written, to Mr. Harry K. Mansfield, who wrote me—it must be that I have a guilty conscience about all this because from his quite innocent and formal little letters I have drawn morbid conclusions that he doesn’t like me, personally; disapproves highly of my poetry; and probably thinks it should have gone to Donald Hall or somebody…
And in “One Art”:
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
When Lowell died in 1977 it is hard to imagine Bishop being able to master this art of losing, not when it came to the loss of her longtime correspondent and devoted companion. And yet, despite her unknowable grief, one wonders after 30 years of living apart yet residing constantly in one another’s minds if she was still writing to him. Just not on paper.
Dear Cal, if you only knew how many imaginary conversations I have with you all the time…
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.