See the New York Times version of the story.
This is the real Celtic Thunder, not the Enya-crossed-with Michael-Flatley cheesy-schlocky thing on PBS, the real group co-founded in the late 1970s by BAP's own Terence Winch and his brother Jesse. The sold-out show was presented by the Creative Alliance at the Patterson on Eastern Avenue, and it was wonderful. Great Irish music both new and old, amazing step-dancing, and Terence's poetry between songs, with an appropriately rowdy and appreciative audience clapping, tapping, and singing along.
If you haven't heard Celtic Thunder (the real Celtic Thunder, mind), then I feel sorry for you. You can buy their CDs online (but make sure you get the REAL Celtic Thunder CDs!) In the meantime, here's a sampling of last night's revelries, as they perform Terence Winch's "When New York Was Irish":
(Left to right, Jesse Winch on bouzouki, Dominick Murray on vocals and guitar, Linda Hickman on flute and vocals, Tony DeMarco on fiddle, and Terence Winch on button accordian)
There are faint rumors that this reunion might become an annual event. Here's hoping!
Happy St. Patrick's Day! Or, as they say in the old country, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona!
Patrick Kavanagh (1904–1967) continues to inspire conflicting feelings and opinions. John Nemo, writing in The Dictionary of Irish Literature, puts it this way: “His followers, a varied but vocal group, speak of him admiringly as an important force in Irish letters, second only to Yeats. His detractors, fewer in number but every bit as vocal, dismiss him as a loud-mouthed, ill-mannered peasant who disrupted rather than advanced the development of modern literature.” As a loud-mouthed, ill-mannered peasant myself, I will take my place among Kavanagh’s followers.
One of his most ardent admirers was my old friend James Liddy, an Irish poet who spent most of his adult life as a professor at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee until his death in 2008. Many years ago (in the ‘70s sometime), James sent me a copy of an Irish journal called The Lace Curtain, which included his “Open Letter to the Young about Patrick Kavanagh.” Describing Kavanagh’s work (and, really, his own as well), Liddy writes, “Or there is a poetry in which real ideas from living come at us. This kind can be direct statement with a reference behind to the story of what happened to the poet. It relies on the mind staying alive, on the man making the statement keeping his emotional intelligence alive.”
Kavanagh brings that emotional intelligence, I think, to “A Christmas Childhood,” a poem one encounters regularly this time of year in Irish circles on both sides of the Atlantic. As an Irish accordion player, I relish the mention of his father’s melodeon (pronounced melojin), which is a single-row button accordion.
The poem introduces us to the thrumming imagination of a six-year-old Irish farmboy, ca. 1910, who is perfectly in tune with the magical world around him.
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost—
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven's gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw—
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood's. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
Or any common sight the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy's hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon. The Three Wise Kings.
An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk’—
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade.
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
At his wedding in April 1967; Kavanagh died in November of that year.
One final note: Kavanagh’s best-known poem is probably “On Raglan Road,” which was written to the tune of an old march called “The Dawning of the Day.” Many singers have recorded the song since the ‘60s, including Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor.
In a confluence that was personally gratifying for me, I recently learned that one friend of mine won a prize named for another friend of mine. Greg McBride, who arrived in the poetry world a few years back at around age 60, and who proceeded to make up rapidly for lost time, has been named the winner of the Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry. Greg’s career as a government attorney was preceded by his experience as an army photographer during the Vietnam War. That wartime service has engendered many excellent poems, such as this one from his chapbook, Back of the Envelope:
IN-COUNTRY: DAY ONE
Duffel bag stuffed in the back, he bounced down
Cong Ly on the suicide seat. The sergeant crowed
they’d stolen the mud-scarred jeep the night
before on a whorehouse street in Cholon.
His starched jungle fatigues and boots, a joke
in a city of millions, .45 hard
on his hip. Dressed in yellow, Saigon hummed
like a factory. Fuel-stench hung like a scrim.
The sun seared down on angels in ao dais,
silk panels in a red soft as wet blood,
in the green of his mother’s eyes.
They skimmed the simmering sidewalks,
at ease in their beauty under the palm-leaf
shade of conical nons, the calm rise
of dry heat, skirts wafting in spiraled mists
of nuoc mam, the smog of fried steam rolls.
That night, he sauntered down Tu Do Street.
The bar girls called and the cyclos spat
their two-cycled rasp. Distant iron bombs dropped
from B-52s burst out of the dark,
laying a blanket of moans over him
and the street and the girls too young in the night.
He glanced at the stars and felt himself
holding onto his gun with both hands.
The new book, called Porthole, will be out next year from the Briery Creek Press. Meanwhile, McBride is also the editor of a first-rate on-line magazine called the Innisfree Poetry Journal.
It’s hard to believe that Liam Rector, whom I met in the early ‘70s, has been gone for more than four years. I think he would have been pleased at McBride’s selection for this first-book prize. Liam, himself a notable poet, was a persuasive advocate for poetry and a forceful defender of free speech, once even attempting to explain Amiri Baraka to Bill O’Reilly:
After the publication of his early work Childe Harold, Lord Byron (1788--1824) memorably said that he “awoke one morning and found myself famous.” He became, in fact, something of a global superstar, adumbrating the kind of fame later reserved for the likes of Sinatra and Elvis, who weren’t even poets. English lit students will remember his club foot, his incestuous affair with his half sister, his invention of “the Byronic hero,” his death at age 36 while fighting for Greek independence from the Turks. His great masterpiece is, of course, Don Juan, a poem of more than 2,000 stanzas of ottava rima, a nimble 8-line vessel that rhymes abababcc and is borrowed from the Italians. This extraordinary poem, which Byron called an “Epic Satire,” remains funny, biting, and highly readable. The “Fragment” that usually begins texts of the poem includes these lines:
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!
He is, he writes later, “fond of fire, and crickets, and all that,/A lobster salad, and champagne, and chat.”
I loved reading Byron long ago when I was a student, but my impression has been that his fame has waned, his influence abated, in the 187 years since his death. At least that was my feeling until I came upon one of the most impressive and audacious long poems of our time—Elinor Nauen’s So Late into the Night (Rain Mountain Press, NYC), some 625 stanzas of ottava rima containing a poem that is at once a homage to Don Juan and a completely contemporary comic epic in its own right. Like Byron’s, Nauen’s poem is full of acute observations, wry reflections, loves, resentments, and silliness. You will learn about her two romantic obsessions (Derek Jeter and her husband Johnny Stanton), her thoughts on poetry, politics, even cars:
The fastest car I ever drove (versus
The car I drove fastest) must have been Paul
Stallings’ Ferrari. Slowest? The worst is
My ’70 Datsun 510, which qual-
Ified for many unkind curses
Each time it wobbled. Not a car to haul
Ass in! I loved it, though, as I did my
Every vehicle. Till we said goodbye.
...I can’t seem to endorse
A stance on the presence of God or soul.
I’ve resolved to assign whatever force
Is the reason for existence the role
And name “God.” It’s how to live in the presence
Of the mystery that tests my essence.
Part of the narrative of So Late into the Night involves a road trip, but, really, the language of the entire poem has unrelenting drive and acceleration, a rollicking momentum that gets you home right before the poetry curfew kicks in. Byron and ottava rima, Nauen says in her introduction, gave her the means to “contain, shape and propel everything I could possibly want to say—narration, social commentary, description—in a persona I could both reinvent and stay true to. I knew I would discover more and more ways to live inside this form.” She has certainly succeeded. Next thing you know, she’s going to wake up famous.
Terence Winch's new book, Falling Out of Bed in a Room with No Floor (Hanging Loose Press), his best to date, expresses the poet's defiant resistance to the forces of intellectual conformism -- it asserts the prerogatives of the autonomous self against all that would militate against it. Like a Bartleby for our times, Winch would prefer not to go along with whatever the hell he is supposed to accompany. Sometimes the imp of the perverse takes charge, as in "Don't Tell Me You Love Me": "The students arrive for class, full of a love / for learning, I could care less. / They are happy it's been raining for days, / the drought finally over. But I liked the drought. / That's the way I roll. I don't fucking transcend. / I brood. I complain." Sometimes he bravely presses the reality principle against the insincere promissory notes of a culture that issues them too freely, as in "Oral History": "You promised me a raise, but when I went to see the boss, / they fired me. You said meet me on the corner / and I'll give you a ride. / I'm still on the corner. / You guaranteed you'd call me right back. / I'm still standing by the phone. You said if / I ate my broccoli, I'd grow up big and strong. / Yet I'm a miserable weakling."
Winch's poems exemplify the value of an organizing conceit ("Belief System"), of wit as an engine for invention and discovery ("Remorse Code'), and of "the incessant hum of erotic desire" ("The Jennifer Connelly Sestina," "Sex Elegy," "Eternal Love"). He has great last lines -- the title of the book is one of them. The first poem in the collection defines things to come: "The future sprawls out like a drunk on a bed." The last poem in the book tells of what is past and passing: "The present is the life insurance premium automatically / deducted from your paycheck, while the past burns / out of control in a vacant lot on the outskirts of town." Between the two everything happens: sons rebel against the fathers they become, photograph albums are opened and by the time they are closed the people have died, and the revolution has fizzled into a busted cliche: "We all showed up for the rally that night with our guitars / and sang a Joan Baez song about rivers and stars. / Give a man a fish that wll last forever."
This is a moving book, a funny book ("Dad, you're not funny"), a poignant book, a charming hook, a disarming look, a shout in the street, a cop on his beat who is the hero of his imaginary son's third-grade assignment, a dance with the erotic angels of Paradise, a politically incorrect orgasm, a flagrantly delicious pie in the face of somone who should know better, a dream within a dream with a dish of pistachio ice cream and the prospect of a warm bath with the radio playing the songs of Destiny, a young woman who works for a travel agency in Ottawa. In these pages disappointment turns into the noblest form of rapture. -- DL
At first I felt a profound disappointment, and some anger, when I heard the reports that Bob Dylan had allowed Chinese authorities to censor his setlist for a recent concert in China. There would be no answers blowin’ in the Chinese wind. At a time when progressives in this country are leaderless and de-energized, when “the left” and “the far left” seem more like scare terms of the right than realities, Dylan’s seeming accession to the demands of the Chinese autocracy was even harder to understand and accept.
Particularly in light of the arrest and disappearance of the mesmerizing Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei, whose courage in the face of despotism is truly inspirational. If you have not been following the Ai Weiwei story, there is an abundance of discussion going on. My friend Michael Lally, for one, has been highlighting the case of Ai Weiwei on his blog Lally’s Alley.
Ai Weiwei was arrested by Chinese authorities on April 3rd, and has not been heard from since. News updates are readily available on-line (see, e.g., this piece). Frontline also offers an excellent short film delineating Ai Weiwei's life and career.
By now, I had begun to feel the need for further reflection. One focus of mine was Dylan's attraction to the strange turn, especially in the last 10 or 12 years. Highlights include:
■His awkward and extended appearance on "Dharma & Greg" in 1999.
■His bizarre Victoria's Secret ad in 2004
■His arrest in New Jersey in 2009 essentially for being an "an eccentric old man" wandering around with no i.d.and wearing two raincoats.
■ And my personal favorite—the video he did of "Must be Santa" to promote his 2009 Christmas in the Heart album.
Dylan is clearly playing by his own rules, and I find myself coming around to his side. Is there really a censor in China who could capably de-code Dylan’s performance to ensure his songs wouln't rock the rule of the authorities over there? I think not. I begin to suspect tricksterism. Dylan clearly feels no obligation to be a spokesperson for anything or anyone. He’s made that very clear for a long time. He doesn’t want anyone dictating his behavior as an artist. I find myself thinking that his alleged cave-in to Chinese regime is not worth taking seriously. He likes to confound. As does Ai Weiwei.
Whose father was a famous poet named Ai Qing (1910-1996), exiled during the Cultural Revolution and forced to clean toilets. “To live is to struggle,” he writes in this 1978 poem:
With such agility in your movements,
Such buoyancy in your strength,
You leaped in the foam
And swam in the sea.
Unfortunately a volcano's eruption
Or perhaps an earthquake
Cost you your freedom
And buried you in the silt.
After millions of years
Members of a geological team
Found you in a layer of rock
And you still look alive.
But you are now silent,
Without even sight.
Your scales and fins are whole
But you cannot move.
So absolutely motionless,
You have no reaction to the world.
You cannot see the water or the sky,
You cannot hear the sound of the waves.
Gazing at this fossil,
Even a fool can learn a lot:
There is no life.
To live is to struggle
And advance in the struggle;
Even if death is inevitable.
We should use our energy to the fullest.
(for a selection of Ai Qing's poems, visit this site.)
Susan Campbell, Doug Lang, Terence Winch. Cafe De Luxe, D.C., April 10, 2011
Today marks the 70th birthday of my good friend Doug Lang, who came to the U.S. by way of Wales (Swansea), Greece (Paros), and England (London) in 1973. Since his arrival he has been a major figure in Washington’s literary world, as poet, teacher, impresario, and mentor to many. He remains on the job as a beloved and popular professor at the Corcoran College of Art, where he has taught since 1976. He writes amazing poems that inspire his friends, who are usually the only ones who get to read them. That situation will be corrected when his large selected poems, called In the Works, comes out in the near future from Rod Smith’s Edge Books in DC. Yesterday, Doug and his friend Sandra Rottmann threw a party at the Cafe Deluxe, near the National Cathedral. Some people came from far—Diane Ward came in from L.A., Tom Mandel and Beth Joselow from Lewes, Delaware—and near (Andrea Wyatt and Lansing Sexton, Peter Inman & Tina Darragh, Rod Smith & Mel Nichols, Phyllis Rosenzweig & Alan Wallach, James Huckenpahler, Becky Levenson & R.T. Smith, Bernard Welt and Arthur Gary, Lee Haner & Carla Badaracco, Casey Smith & Laura Peterson, Tom & Linda Green, Kathryn Wichman, Pat Kolmer and Bo Stanley, Jesse & Francesca Winch, and Susan Campbell). Everyone had an excellent time. I delivered the toast, which was called "Doug Is Awesome," a sentiment shared by many.
l. to r.: Lee Haner (back to camera), Rod Smith, P. Inman, Tina Darragh, Mel Nichols, Carla Badaracco, Andrea Wyatt.
Doug has been writing a lot of experimental sonnets recently. Here’s one he emailed me a few weeks ago:
The Sinking Colony sonnet
I am tracing a skinny dribble of memory, playing into a zone of shimmering beauty.
THIS IS MY LIFE. She say my name, she say my name, she say my name, she say my
name. Today, now, today in this metropolis the women are dressed to keel in their
widebrimmed hats, their Manolo Blahniks, their Proenza Schoulers, their Paul Smiths,
their Collette Dinnigans. Their legs are short, their asses are huge, their teeth are
crooked, their lips are luscious, their hands are gnarly, their dogs are vicious, man.
They all dig LeanSpa with Acai. J'espère que je ne vous ai pas deranges. Don’t bogart
that joint my friend… and it’s 1, 2, 3, what’re we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t
give a damn, next stop is Vietnam, and it’s 5, 6, 7, open up the pearly gates. Do you
think that anyone calls Bill Gates “Pearly”? I know who: Buddha ha-ha. In the
darkness of a stand of larches I use NLS Thera A 3mm and a mixture of Dianichi
sinking pellets. This has done wonders for my fronts. I also treat them with Tetra
Jumbo Krill. Penguin poo viewed from space reveals new Antarctic colony locations.
& Bob’s your uncle. I’ll never forget you. I'll never forget how we promised one day
Lee Lally, early 1970s, at home in the house on Emory Place in DC. Photo (c) by John Gossage.
I don’t know whether Lee Lally would have become a poet of significant accomplishment had she lived long enough, but I suspect she would have. I met her when I first arrived in Washington, DC in 1971, the same time I met her husband Michael Lally. We all became good friends. In fact, when Michael and Lee eventually divorced, I was the mutually agreed-upon witness for both of them at the divorce hearing. Lee became a leader in DC's feminist and gay circles for a while, but wound up with a boyfriend towards the end of her short life. In the late ‘70s, Lee and her companion often came down to The Dubliner pub on Capitol Hill when my band was playing there. She loved the music, the beer, the atmosphere, and I was always happy to see her. Lee's enjoyment of life's pleasures sadly ended, however, when she became the unfortunate victim of medical malpractice while undergoing surgery, and wound up in a coma for six years, before finally passing away on March 3rd, 1986, leaving behind two teenage children, Caitlin and Miles. There’s little lingering evidence of her work that I have been able to uncover. The most extensive account of her life and work that I know of appeared in 2007 in Doug Lang’s now largely dormant blog on DC poetry, in a piece that includes a brief remembrance by Doug and a short biographical sketch of Lee by Michael Lally.
Lee Lally published only one chapbook, These Days, which came out in 1972 from our poetry collective, Some of Us Press. Here are two poems from that book:
They name them after women.
You’ve been through a few
I understand that natural rage.
Tropical storm Agnes
swept through tonight
like a real lady.
Greeted rich and poor
with equal vengeance.
The poor will remember her
with less detail.
With wild breath,
Small rivers run
in the streets.
I understand that rage.
Tornadoes, tropical storms,
they name them
Mamie was six foot tall and carried
a hard salami, so hard
she had used it a few times as a billy club.
They were all you needed you told me.
You drank with your friend
and called to giggle at two in the morning
in a way I understood.
He left you alone
with four children
and is not dead yet.
You were 27 one day and 65 the next.
Save electricity, you said, with the one
lightbulb plan. I never noticed the darkness.
The optometrist told me different and I remember
you squinting at Elizabeth Taylor on magazine covers
in the dusk light at the kitchen window.
You were strong enough to open all jars alone.
The daughter died in your arms.
The sons turned their paralyses
into their energies.
The amusement park trips even when I was
a little too old. Mostly for the boat ride.
The apple piggy bank, the apple kuchen,
homemade sausage Easter, Christmas.
You worked, even for fun your hands working.
Worked till you died rubbing the bodies
of the ‘wealthy ladies.’
They loved you.
I loved you, Anna, of the strong hands,
until their troubles had been massaged away.
Ours were just beginning.
Lee Lally & Terence Winch, Mass Transit poetry reading, early '70s, DC. Photo (c) by Jesse Winch.
C E L E B R A T I O N
In our world, nothing compared
with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
God’s power surging through the congregation,
from altarboys in our stiff collars and big red bows,
to the solid men of the parish in their finest array:
Blue suits, gold wrist watches, crisp white shirts.
The women perfumed and girdled, lipsticked
and bejeweled. Enough incense
in the air to do the Wise Men proud.
The procession wound through the church,
organ honking, voices lifted in the special
Christmas sense of the slate wiped clean
and the universe beginning anew.
The tree in the house lit with fat colored bulbs
that looked good enough to eat. The old suitcase
full of fragile decorations, buried treasure found
every year on Christmas Eve and set free again.
The baby Jesus alive and well! Herod thwarted!
This called for presents. Toys, games, maybe
a watch or a knife. Along with Jesus came the whole
cast of Yuletide characters—Santa, Rudolph,
the Chipmunks, Bing Crosby, Frosty, Scrooge.
I’m surprised the Easter Bunny didn’t crash
the event. My father put out apple pie
and a glass of milk for Sanny, the remaining traces
of which on Christmas morning were proof enough
for me and my brother Jimmy of the entire
supernatural infrastructure of Bronx Irish culture.
But it was the party after Midnight Mass
that I remember most. Relatives and neighbors
would pour into our apartment for an all-nighter.
My mother would get the percolator going,
and start making breakfast for half the parish.
Bacon, eggs, blood pudding, plates of fresh rolls
with poppy seeds bought that day
in the Treat Bakery on Tremont Avenue.
Eating breakfast at two in the morning!
This was a miracle for a ten-year-old boy.
Bottles of Seagram’s and Canadian Club
stood at attention on the kitchen table,
silver ice bucket ringed with penguins
awaiting duty beside them. Ladies smoking
and gossiping. Glasses clinking. Laughter
throughout the house. The smell of pine,
the delicious aroma of sizzling bacon,
all welcoming Jesus back for another year.
Then the music and singing would start up,
my father on the banjo, P. J. Conway on the box.
The Stack of Barley, The Lakes of Sligo,
medleys of marches, waltzes, and polkas.
Theresa McNally, from my mother’s own town
in Galway, would sing “Galway Bay.” Steps would
be danced, jokes told, more drinks mixed and gulped.
I would go to bed so filled with the spirit
it seemed impossible to believe that life could
ever return to normal. Lying there exhausted,
but anxious to sneak down the hall at the earliest
opportunity and tear open the tantalizing packages,
I believed in everything: Jesus our Lord, Santa
our magic benefactor, my parents the immortal source
of the ongoing celebration that could never end.
[from Boy Drinkers, Hanging Loose Press, 2007]
P.J. Conway, my father Paddy Winch, and Brian Keenan in 1958. P.J. and my father performed locally in NY as "The Two Pats." If they had a drummer for any particular gig, it would either be me, my brother Jesse, or P.J.'s nephew Brian Keenan, who immigrated from England in the '50s. Brian went on to become the drummer for The Chambers Brothers, who were popular in the '60s and later. He died pretty young, and lived pretty hard, as I recall. I am the steward of P.J.'s Walters D/C# accordion and my father's Vega tenor banjo, seen in this photo. I used to have one of those green plaid tuxedo jackets, too, but it has vanished.
You might also like:
Not long ago, I was contemplating this medley of tunes from an album called Stormy Weather by the excellent traditional band Beginish:
I'm Waiting for You
Touch Me If You Dare
The Gooseberry Bush
And I thought, there's almost a narrative contained in the names of these three reels, an abbreviated sexual story whose climax takes place in a gooseberry bush. And, musically, the tunes seem to belong together. It must have been intentional—Beginish (pictured below) seems like a witty collection of people.
The Moving Cloud, The Flowing Tide, Banish Misfortune, Paddy Gone to France, the Girl That Broke My Heart, The Pope's Toe, We Were Drinking and Kissing the Ladies, I Have No Money, Money in Both Pockets, The Cat's Rambles to the Child's Saucepan—just a random list off the CDs closest to my keyboard. But there is often a high degree of wit, metaphor, and color in tune titles (and here I am distinguishing between songs, which are sung, and tunes, which are instrumental pieces), along with the suggestion of a story.
Of course, many tune names are more descriptive than evocative—George Whyte's Favourite, The Green Fields of America, the Longford Collector, Sligo Maid, and thousands more. But as you enter into a tune, going though the process of learning it so that you eventually know it by heart, so that each note and each line of music has an inevitability to it, it starts to seem that the notes are almost like words with their own story to tell. There are shifting moods, funny turns of phrase, surprising developments in the melody line, satisfying resolutions, all found right there in the music. And often the names of tunes seem exactly right for the music they call forth. The Bucks of Oranmore, a big five-part, get-the-hell-out-my-way reel that everyone knows and that is often the grand finale for any number of group-playing situations, seems to summon up a football-team of Galway linebackers ready to roll right over you. [the video features John Whelan's version of Bucks]
The Rainy Day, on the other hand, has a moody, overcast feel, while the Boogie Reel rocks the house and practically goes airborne in the B part. For me, and I think for many other musicians, tunes speak in their own language, and I increasingly see tunes and poems as very closely related experiences.
It must be said, however, that many musicians, while they may know a thousand tunes, wouldn't be able to tell you the names of a dozen of them. And tune nomenclature can be very inconsistent, confusing, or mistaken. The previously cited Boogie Reel, e.g., is a composition by John Nolan, the first Irish-American to win the All-Ireland button accordion championship, yet I have at least four versions of the same tune by Irish-born players, all of whom call it The Durrow. Tellingly, these misnamed versions of the Boogie Reel seem a bit lackluster to me, deficient in the dynamism you get with Nolan's (or Billy McComiskey's) recording of it. Maybe if those players had the name right, the tune would have taken off the way it was intended to.
(Here's Billy's version of Boogie, followed by his composition, The Controversial.)
My mother's name was Bridget Flynn. One of eleven children, she was born just outside of the town of Loughrea, in county Galway, Ireland, on 23 November 1906. Eight of her siblings stayed in Ireland, so I have many cousins there. The house (greatly modernized) and land are still in the family, owned by my cousin Martin Flynn, with whom I am close. My mother immigrated to New York sometime in the early 1920s. She married my father, Patrick Winch, in 1930. I am the youngest of their five children (first came Kevin, then Patricia, Eileen, and James).
Known as Bridie, my mother died on 14 January 1962, at age 55, after a long struggle with breast cancer. I was 16 at the time, and took her death very hard. In many ways that loss has marked me for life, and its aftermath has certainly had an impact on my writing. I had forgotten about the poem included here, which was written in 2005 and has never before been published.
was funny, smart, and tough, with a bountiful supply of Irish farmgirl wisdom:
you have to eat a pound of dirt before you die, she'd say. Or: you'll be better
before you get married. Or: you could
talk the cross off an ass. I would guess that the photo above was taken when
she was about 17, probably not long after arriving in the U.S. But since she
came here as something akin to an indentured servant, I wondered about the
stylish outfit she is wearing in the photo.
My cousin Mary Winch suggests that the photography studio may have
provided it. My mother missed Ireland all her
life, but loved New York and hated going beyond the city limits. The photo below is one of the last I have of
her, taken by the back door of the Dew Drop Inn on 114th Street in Rockaway
Beach, Queens, in the summer of 1960. Rockaway was "The Irish
Riviera" in those days, and we spent all or part of the summer there when
I was growing up. She was already sick when the photograph was taken, but not
Memo to Bridie Flynn
Your eldest son says he is dying fast, but he’s been claiming
that for years and still seems solid and hardy. Your middle son’s life
is an ongoing party of which he is the host. Your youngest son
has a job with his own little cubicle. He walks a lot, listens to music.
Makes tea every hour and a half or so, like all the Irish.
For your elder daughter, life is a very happy
social event. She lives in a doublewide in Florida
with her husband, who just turned seventy-five. She loves
to talk, but her health isn’t too good. Your younger daughter,
the family beauty, is also the most spiritual of us all.
You’d be ninety-nine if you were still alive. But you found
it necessary to die in 1962. Jesus, Mom, 1962! Kennedy
was president. I was in high school. Even I, your baby,
am now older than you ever were. I knew there was no God
when you died. I knew there was no afterlife when you
failed to visit me from the beyond. I know there is food,
sex, music, books, sleep, art, movies, friends, talk, love.
Please tell me that’s enough. Just once, pay a little visit.
Tell me what I need to know before you go.
I can't remember when I first encountered this poem. I know I stumbled on it accidently, I think
while doing some on-line research during my days as an employee of the
Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. We had launched a poetry feature called
"Pulling Down the Clouds" for
our membership magazine, and I was always on the lookout for interesting Native
work to run as the focus of the feature.
I knew immediately I wanted this poem in the magazine. I loved its directness, its snarly, unapologetic, in-your-face attitude. Its completely sophisticated, contemporary use of language. This was not work that catered to white assumptions and stereotypes: just the opposite, in fact. Hers is a complex voice in which humor, bitterness, and hipness all coexist in service to the poem. This was a voice like that of many of my Indian friends and colleagues, but one rarely heard by the non-Native world (at least beyond the pages of a Sherman Alexie book).
investigation revealed that the poem was written in 1989 and that Diane Burns,
a Lac Courte Oreilles/Chemeheuvi, was
born in 1957 and had passed away in 2006. She "first emerged," we
told our readers, "as a powerful literary voice in the 1970s working as a
poet and model in New York City. Burns’s first and only book of poetry, Riding the One-Eyed Ford (Contact II
Publications, 1981), further established her reputation as a unique talent by
challenging Native American stereotypes through sharp wit and honesty. In the
1980s, Burns joined a circle of poets and writers in Manhattan’s Lower East
Side, reading her work at the renowned Bowery Poetry Club and Poetry Project at
St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery."
You Can Ask Me A Personal Question
How do you do?
No, I am not Chinese.
No, not Spanish.
No, I am American Indian, Native American.
No, not from India.
No, not Apache
No, not Navajo.
No, not Sioux.
No, we are not extinct.
So that's where you got those high cheekbones.
Your great grandmother, huh?
An Indian Princess, huh?
Hair down to there?
Let me guess. Cherokee?
Oh, so you've had an Indian friend?
Oh, so you've had an Indian lover?
Oh, so you've had an Indian servant?
Yeah, it was awful what you guys did to us.
It's real decent of you to apologize.
No, I don't know where you can get peyote.
No, I don't know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.
No, I didn't make this. I bought it at Bloomingdales.
Thank you. I like your hair too.
I don't know if anyone knows whether or not Cher
is really Indian.
No, I didn't make it rain tonight.
Yeah. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
Uh-huh. Yeah. Spirituality. Uh-huh. Mother
Earth. Yeah. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
No, I didn't major in archery.
Yeah, a lot of us drink too much.
Some of us can't drink enough.
This ain't no stoic look.
This is my face.
On Easter Monday of 1916, 150 or so Irish rebels took armed action against their British rulers, seizing the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin. After a week of fighting, they lost to the thousands of British troops arrayed against them, but the Rising ultimately led to Irish independence from the mighty British Empire. Given the musical and literary traditions of the Irish, it is no surprise that the rebellion also gave rise to poems, songs, movies, and books. (In fact, Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the Rising, was himself a poet.) Probably the best-known of the poems is William Butler Yeats's "Easter 1916":
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
One of the best of the many songs that came out of the Easter Rising is "The Foggy Dew," written in 1919 by Charles O’Neill, a parish priest from County Down. This version by the great Dublin singer Frank Harte, who died a few years ago and who was once described by my friend Doug Lang as having "a voice like a tenor sax," is my favorite (listen here to "The Foggy Dew"), though Sinead O'Connor's rendition with the Chieftains also gives me the chills.
And here let me offer a BAP scoop. One of the heroes of 1916 was the socialist and labor leader James Connolly, whom the Brits executed sitting down, as his battle wounds had yet to heal. One of the most stirring songs about Connolly was composed by poet-songwriter-playwright Patrick Galvin, from County Cork. Paddy, now in his 80s, visited my brother Jesse's house outside D.C. in February of 1981 for a house party, a few days after Paddy and Celtic Thunder, the band started by me and Jesse, had performed in concert together. We recorded him talking, reading poems, and singing. So here is Paddy himself singing his composition "James Connolly" from that magical evening ('James Connolly'). Jesse, currently Cathaorleach (chairman) of our local chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (the worldwide Irish music society), accompanies Paddy on the bodhran (drum). Ten years earlier, we got to spend some time with Brian Heron, James Connolly's grandson and the founder of the National Association for Irish Justice, one of a number of groups that were formed back in those days to support the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland. [right: Brian Heron, 1971; © Jesse Winch]
The Easter Rising became the starting point for modern Irish history, its echoes clearly audible throughout the recent Troubles in the north of Ireland (as this song of my own, called "The Streets of Belfast,"demonstrates). In the years immediately following the Rising, the struggle for independence from Britain continued, eventually leading to the partition of Ireland as a condition for the establishment of the Irish Free State. Partition, in turn, spurred a terrible civil war among Irish nationalists that tore the country apart. This grim and bloody period has inspired a number of searing films, including two of recent vintage: The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach's 2007 film starring Cillian Murphy, and Michael Collins, the 1996 Liam Neeson film written and directed by Neil Jordan. But for me the greatest of them all is the 1935 John Ford classic, The Informer, based on a Liam O'Flaherty novel and starring Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan, an ill-fated "gutter Judas," to use the New York Times's memorable phrase. (Here's a clip of McLaglen at work.)
Happy Easter & Up the Republic!
When I was a boy growing up in an Irish immigrant household in the Bronx, March 17th was second only to December 25th in its potent mix of religion, magic, and celebration. We'd wait for the air-mail letter from our relatives in Galway to arrive and we'd carefully remove from it the little sprig of shamrock plucked from the soil of Holy Ireland and shaken free in the Bronx. We'd go to mass in the morning, with everyone singing the beautiful hymn, "Hail Glorious St. Patrick" [click on the title to hear the late Frank Patterson's version]. And, as a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians All-Accordion Band, along with my father and brother Jimmy (now Jesse), we would march up 5th Avenue in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, something I did 11 years in a row. Post-parade, the underage drinking and wilding became part of one's Irish adolescence in New York. [photo above: AOH All-Accordion band, ca. 1955; Terence Winch, front row, far right; Jesse Winch, 3rd from right]
parade began in this country as an assertion of Irish identity and the growing
political power of Ireland's immigrants. In contrast, until
recent decades, March 17th in Ireland itself was much more a religious holiday.
[below: New York City's parade, 1871. A float featuring a bust of Daniel O'Connell passes through Union Square. The first recorded St. Patrick's Day parade was held in Boston, in 1737. New York was the second city to embrace the annual march, beginning in 1762.]
I wrote the poem below on the street, using a mailbox for a desk, on the way to a St. Paddy's Day gig with my band, Celtic Thunder, in the late 1990s.
P R A Y E R T O S T. P A T R I C K
St. Patrick, snake-hating Brit, forgive
us our sins, our wins, our losses,
forgive us our employees and bosses,
forgive us those stupid four-leaf clovers
that idiots confuse with the Holy Trinity-signifying
shamrock, especially around this time of year.
Forgive us green beer, Hostess cupcakes with green
icing, forgive us the moronic greening
of hair, food, water. Forgive us the total
lack of meaning that now attaches to your name.
It is all truly unseemly and insane.
Grant us a moratorium on any more news of
the triumphs of Michael Flatley or Frank McCourt.
God bless Paddy’s pig and Paddy Moloney’s wig,
Mickey and Andy Rooney, Rosemary and George Clooney.
Requiescat in pace, Versace et Liberace.
In nomine Dei, we’ve had enough of Leahy.
Dear saint of our isle, we’d like to send ya
an urgent plea to abolish Enya.
Let the bar owners pay
the poor musicians
a small fortune.
They’re earning it.
Banish misfortune for the Irish
over here and the Irish over there.
Banish “Danny Boy” and “The Unicorn”
while you’re at it.
Let there be an Irish-American fin de siècle
starring Mark McGwire and Margaret Heckler.
Grant another eighty-seven years to my Auntie Nora
and let history smile upon the Irish Diaspora.
Let the music be on the mark.
Lead the fiddle players from the dark
of orthodoxy. Oremus for my brother Seamus.
Let a thousand poems and songs
end the battles and undo the wrongs.
[This poem first appeared in Irish Music magazine (March 2000) and later in my book, Boy Drinkers.]
Equally irreverent is a well-known song, written by Henry
Bennett in the 1820s:
St. Patrick Was A Gentleman [click on title to listen to Christy Moore sing it]
Patrick was a gentleman, came from decent people
Built the church in Dublin town, and on it put a steeple
His father was a Gallagher, his mother was a Brady
His aunt was an O'Shaughnessy, his uncle was a Grady
The Wicklow hills are very high, and so's the Hill of Howth, sir
But there's a hill much higher still, much higher than them both, sir
On the top of this high hill St. Patrick preached his sermon
Which drove the frogs into the bogs and banished all the vermin
There's not a mile of Erin's isle where dirty vermin musters
But there he put his dear fore-foot and murdered them in clusters
The frogs went hop and the toads went pop slapdash into the water
And the snakes committed suicide to save themselves from slaughter
Nine hundred thousand reptiles blue he charmed with sweet discourses
And dined on them in Killaloe on soups and second courses
Where blind worms crawling in the grass disgusted all the nation
Right down to hell with a holy spell he changed their situation
No wonder that them Irish lads should be so gay and frisky
Sure St. Pat he taught them that as well as making whiskey
No wonder that the saint himself should understand distilling
For his mother kept a shebeen shop in the town of Enniskillen
Was I but so fortunate as to be back in Munster
I'd be bound that from that ground I never more would once stir
There St. Patrick planted turf and cabbages and praties
Pigs galore, mo gra/, mo sto/r, altar boys and ladies.
But St. Patrick (385─461 AD), all irreverence aside, really deserves to live on in our collective memory. In his brilliant 1995 best-seller, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill writes with eloquent insight and feeling about Patrick, really giving the man a human shape. Patrick "...worries constantly for his people, not just for their spiritual but for their physical welfare. The horror of slavery was never lost on him [Patrick had been a slave himself for six years]: 'But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.'" A primal feminist! Cahill goes on: "...the greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century." He's earned his parade.
Statue of St. Patrick at Leaba Padriag (St. Patrick's Bed) in Connemara (Galway).
I thought I first met Michael O'Keefe in the late
'70s at the Dubliner pub on Capitol Hill in DC, where for many years my group,
Celtic Thunder, was the house band. In
my version of history, he was in town to do a play and our mutual friend
Michael Lally sent him my way. But
O'Keefe contends he met me when he and the actress Karen Allen, another mutual
friend, came to a Celtic Thunder gig at Folk City in the Village in 1980. In any case, we've been friends a long time.
Michael (O'Keefe) is a man of many parts—actor, songwriter, filmmaker, Buddhist
priest, and now poet. We recently had a brief conversation, via email, that centered
around the publication of his first book.
Q. Your new (and
first ever) book, Swimming from under My
Father, came out recently, and I think most readers want to know: in the
photo on the cover—are you wearing pants?
A. I was wearing pants but was going commando. Probably due to Frank O'Hara's conviction that tight verse, like tight jeans, will induce others to want to sleep with you. [right:Frank O'Hara & John Ashbery]
Q. Your poem "Mission
Impossible" is a take-off on O'Hara's "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" [O'Hara reading "Lana Turner"]. Has O'Hara been a crucial influence? Which
other poets have helped shape your writing?
read an interview with Roberto Bolaño recently where he said, "Reading is
more important than writing." Certainly, that was the admonition I
heard constantly while at Bennington [the Bennington Writing Program, where Michael received an MFA]. O'Hara, Sylvia Plath, Robert
Lowell, William Carlos Williams, are among those I read and revere.
Perhaps Plath more than any other. I was looking to express something
about paternal love, hurt, and disappointment in the poems about my
father. I gleaned many ways into that world from Plath's writing, which
stands the test of time in its ability to articulate a particular kind of
grief [Plath reading "Daddy"]. And, for me, that's one of the things poetry should do.
Poets play their readers like a piano that's been sitting in the corner
unplayed and neglected for years. Suddenly, you read a poem and you're in
tune with poet and yourself.
Q. I'm sorry to hear about your piano, but, speaking of music—you became something of a songwriter while you were married to Bonnie Raitt. Did that experience point you towards poetry? Do you still write songs?
A. I'd always
written lyrics. I had a friend in high
school named Niall Brennan who was a great songwriter. He was always pushing me
to write songs. My music, unlike my
piano, is mediocre but I was pretty good with words. Writing with Bonnie was a good thing, in the
words of Martha Stewart, a favorite prison writer of mine.
[below: Susan Campbell, Bonnie Raitt, Michael O'Keefe, Terence Winch; backstage at the Warner Theatre, Wash.DC, Oct. 1997; photo by Angie Seckinger]
Q. While we're on the subject of your other lives and careers, I must mention your illustrious life as an actor. You've had prominent roles in everything from Caddyshack to Michael Clayton, and I seem to be always seeing you up there on the movie or tv screen, playing scary twins or racist cops, et al. You've also made at least one documentary film that I'm aware of. And I know I've teased you about this—but why poetry? Obviously, there's more fame and money, and even creative expression, available elsewhere. Explain yourself.
A. William Carlos
Williams famously wrote in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower":
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Fame is not the antidote to suffering most people imagine it to be. Acting is cool as far as it goes but I spend ninety percent of the year unemployed. Poetry gives me a chance to waste the rest of the year, to allude to James Wright's last line of "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."
Q. The poems about your father are at the heart of this book. They are vivid, moving, and often funny:
I am swallowing my tongue in an effort
to digest everything I want to say before he dies.
Dragging myself to my feet I am up to my waist
in good-byes. Propelling myself toward the door
they spread and bounce against the walls.
—from "Back at the Motel"
Or your father on Hud:
Even my father recognizes grief when he sees it.
"Paul Newman is an ungrateful prick in this," Pop points out.
"Yeah, that's the role," I offer.
Playing his son seems like it was a tough role, but a great source of material.
A. Yeah, being my father's son was not a cake walk. Someone—was it Joyce?—once said, "You have to dig a deep hole to bury your father in Ireland." If it was Joyce, perhaps that's why he moved to Italy.
Q. And is that why you became a Buddhist priest?
A. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Q. The Lally Dama (AKA Michael Lally) wrote the introduction to the book. But what about the Dalai Lama? Has he read it yet?
A. His Holiness, or HH, as I call him, told me that had I not performed in Caddyshack, he would have been happy to read my poems. But since that film mocks his capacity as a golfer he was still pissed thirty years later. In the words of Arnold Palmer, "Don't give me that Zen shit. This is golf."
We are not having fun. We got more than 30" of snow over the weekend, and another 10" to 20" is expected in the next 24 hours. I am sore from shoveling: shoulders, back, hands, forearms. Everyone is worried that roofs will cave in and basements will flood. The worst, so far, was losing electricity for 36 hours—so no heat, no light, no phone. The house temperature was at 50 degrees and falling when the power finally came back on.
[after digging out the car]
But there are some silver
linings. I get these emails from my
local county government, concerning trash pick-ups, mostly. But this week the
emails, which I always used to think of as anonymously created by some computer
program, have included poems along with information on changes to the
trash-collection schedules. This is
apparently the work of Susanne
Brunhart Wiggins of the Montgomery
County, Maryland, Division of Solid Waste Services, and I salute her.
Here are two of her choices:
Winter: A Dirge
The wintry west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blaw;
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw:
While, tumbling brown, the burn comes down,
And roars frae bank to brae;
And bird and beast in covert rest,
And pass the heartless day.
“The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast,”
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!
Thou Power Supreme, whose mighty scheme
These woes of mine fulfil,
Here firm I rest; they must be best,
Because they are Thy will!
Then all I want—O do Thou grant
This one request of mine!—
Since to enjoy Thou dost deny,
Assist me to resign.
— Robert Burns
The Garden in Winter
Frosty-white and cold it lies
Underneath the fretful skies;
Snowflakes flutter where the red
Banners of the poppies spread,
And the drifts are wide and deep
Where the lilies fell asleep.
But the sunsets o'er it throw
Flame-like splendor, lucent glow,
And the moonshine makes it gleam
Like a wonderland of dream,
And the sharp winds all the day
Pipe and whistle shrilly gay.
Safe beneath the snowdrifts lie
Rainbow buds of by-and-by;
In the long, sweet days of spring
Music of bluebells shall ring,
And its faintly golden cup
Many a primrose will hold up.
Though the winds are keen and chill
Roses' hearts are beating still,
And the garden tranquilly
Dreams of happy hours to be
In the summer days of blue
All its dreamings will come true.
— Lucy Maud Montgomery
And I have been thinking of Jesse Winchester's song "Snow," a classic from 1970:
I was tuning in the six o'clock
And the weather man mentioned snow
As soon as I heard that four-letter word
I was making my plans to go
If I was a bird I would fly back South
A bear I would go to sleep
Anything rather than hang around here
When the snow starts getting deep
Now you know what they say about
How there ain't no two the same
Well, all them flakes look alike to me
Every one is a dirty shame
My ears are cold
My feet are cold
Bermuda stays on my mind
And I'm here to say that if winter comes
Then spring is a ways behind
I don't have no heavy hip boots
I don't have no furry hat
I don't have no long-john underwear
No layer of protective fat
I'd take a plane right to sunny Spain
Oh, but I don't have the dough
But I'd build a bridge and I'd walk there
To get away from all that snow
Oh, I'd build a bridge and walk there
To get away from all that snow
(c) 1970 Jesse Winchester
Since this post is a reply to Laura Orem, I want to thank her for alerting us to Savage Chickens. They made me think of Dave Morice's Poetry Comics, in which parts of poems become the balloon text for comics. (Dave on how to make poetry comics.) A brilliant and silly idea:
David Franks---loveable, eccentric, inventive---died on January 14, 2010, after a long struggle with cancer. The Baltimore Sun obituary gave his age as 61, which seemed suspiciously young to those of us who knew him for a long time. And, in fact, Betsy Boyd, one of his ex-girlfriends, tells me he would actually have turned 67 on January 30th of this year. There was a memorial service at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore on Sunday, January 31, at which I was asked to read. The piece I read is below. [above: David Franks; below: the old Patterson Theater in Baltimore, home of the Creative Alliance]
David was more multimedia artist than traditional poet. Most of what I have by him is on CDs rather than in books. He composed a variety of music, using Cagean and other strategies. But his poems are also wonderful---check out "Alice Gaines Played the Harp" or his very funny piece "Pay Attention!," which he read with the aid of a bullhorn (and which goes beyond humor to map out his personal aesthetic).
Robert Creeley praised David's work, his old friend Andrei Codrescu said that David "...is one of the very few of my contemporaries whose work excites me consistently," and Jackson Mac Low admitted that his "...interest in letter-to-sound techniques was rearoused by David Franks―the brilliant experimental poet, composer, and conceptual artist...."
But it was really in Baltimore―among his many friends, collaborators, and ex-lovers―that David was best known and appreciated. His friend Joe Wall is rebuilding David's website, Baltimore writer David Beaudouin has established a temporary social network site, and his other friends will, I'm sure, keep his legend alive. (Whether David was also the secret "Poe Toaster," who left flowers and cognac at Poe's grave every year, remains a matter of speculation; see here, too. ) For more about David, see Michael Lally's recent post; for photos of David, look here.
[DC poet Doug Lang and Smartish Pace magazine's Stephen Reichert outside the Patterson]
Things I Will Miss about David Franks
No more valentine's day card from him.
I would almost always forget and open
the card too hastily and all that glitter
and all those tiny red hearts would spill out
all over the floor, and it would piss me off.
And that is what David probably intended.
David could sense my presence
in Baltimore. It amazed me. He would always
show up, as though he controlled some satellite
system in the sky that kept track of everything
happening in his beloved city. And it was always
good to see him. His sincere, gentle, but ever
subversive self transforming the event.
David loved attention, but wasn't cheap
about bestowing it on his friends.
His humor, courage, optimism in the face
of illness. His refusal to not be himself
at all times, in all circumstances.
His work: that overflowing energy and creativity.
Bells ringing! Underwater symphonies! Xeroxes
of his genitals! The music of tears, bubbles,
raindrops. Whatever it took, he took it.
Or stole it. I remember in 1975 or so, David and I
and 5 or 6 other poets did a radio show in DC
in which we were each asked to read a poem.
When David's turn came, he read a poem of mine
called "Excuses," verbatim. I was shocked.
He came up to me after the program, and in his
earnest fashion asked, "how did you like my
I said, "what the fuck do you mean, your poem?"
He seemed to consider the worthiness of my objection
and declared he would from then on say that the poem
was in homage to me. "Excuses" was apparently one
of the first of David's "involuntary collaborations."
I could never get angry with him. David Franks was presumed
innocent in all situations as far as I was concerned.
And if he was going to steal your poem
he'd do it right in front of you & on the air.
I will miss his performances.
I have vague memories of seeing David read for
the first time in DC in the early '70s. Might have
been the Pyramid Gallery in Dupont Circle.
He was already an inventor, experimenter,
performer. Collaborating with the xerox machine.
David didn't hold anything back, and if you were
shocked, outraged, offended, or made nervous
by his work,
so much the better.
In not knowing what he was doing,
he knew exactly what he was doing.
The phone calls out of the blue that would
go on for hours. I can't even remember
what we talked about. And after a while
I'd say, David, I've got to pee, I've got to eat,
or go to bed or go to work, or whatever it
was the rest of us have to do that David
had a permanent exemption from.
Ted Berrigan said "Let none regret my end
who called me friend." And Frank O'Hara once remarked,
"After the initial shock, death makes me angrier
rather than sadder." David loved Berrigan & O'Hara,
so I will go along with a lack of regret and some anger
today. But I also have to object to the attitude common
these days that we should just celebrate someone's life,
be happy we knew them, etc.
Yeah, okay, I guess we can do that.
Celebrate. David would probably approve.
But we should also grieve.
He's gone, he's not coming back,
though we will
remember him when we hear
a tugboat's musical belch
or a church bell
anytime in Baltimore.
Over the holidays this year, my two favorite
aesthetic encounters were somewhat complementary: David Lehman's new book on
Jewish composers and Mick Moloney's new CD on Irish-Jewish musical
collaborations. Both projects are
brilliant in their distinct ways, and offer a torrent of insight and argument
that I'm sure will fuel discussion for years to come. Lehman's A Fine
Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook/Schocken) and
Moloney's If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews (Compass Records) both
address complex issues of music and history with nuance, authority, and deep
David Lehman, the co-host of this very site, is a
polymath of impressive accomplishment, but I was unaware of the extent of his
knowledge of popular music, which is prodigious. His goal in this book is set out on its first
page: "...to explain what is Jewish about American popular song. A lot has
to do with sound: the minor key, bent notes, altered chords, a melancholy edge." The story of how Jewish artists,
often immigrants, came to write music that helped define modern America---from
"White Christmas" to "God Bless America"---is a remarkable
one. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin,
Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein,
Richard Rodgers, Sammy Cahn,
Frank Loesser, and others, are all vividly brought to life in this book.
Fine Romance has a sound (npi) scholarly foundation,
but also abounds with stories,
anecdotes, one-liners, and gossip, as befits a saga about a group of such colorful
and creative souls, these "...young Jewish geniuses who wanted to
re-create themselves as Americans and wound up re-creating American culture in
the process." It is also a very personal book, and, in fact,
I wish Dr. Lehman had given us even more of a memoir: "It was the songbook
to which I responded, not the Jewish identity of its authors, though this was a
source of pride for me, the son of refugees. Let's put it this way: Every time
someone in a movie sings "Hello Mr. Cohen/ How's it goin'?" is a
minor victory for the Jewish people. To me it remains a source of endless
wonderment and speculation that certain Jewish immigrants or their American-born
children managed to re-create whole parts of American culture." That sense of personal passion pervades this
I will leave it to the ethnomusicologists to assess David's thesis regarding the symbiotic relationship between Jewish and African-American music. I don't know enough about it. But his argument is provocative: "Let's begin, then, with the mysterious 'blueness' and 'crazy' jazz that links Jewish songwriters tonally and rhythmically with black singers and instrumentalists." / "You can paraphrase the debate about jazz, race, and religion crudely in a pair of rhetorical questions. Did the Jews or the African-Americans get there first, where 'there' refers to the holy land of jazz and swing? Who ripped off whom?" [One final comment---though many individual songs and artists are discussed, and even one playlist of crucial 1930s music is proposed, there is, unfortunately, no photo section or bound-in CD in A Fine Romance. I don't think it would take the book's author too much time to assemble a photo album and a mega-list of the key songs under discussion, with recommendations as to specific versions--that one could put together via iTunes for, say, $20---and put it all up here or on some other appropriate site.]
I recently wrote a little Amazon review ("Hebraic Hibernianism") of Mick Moloney's If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews in which I call him, I think very justly (and excuse me for quoting myself), "the preeminent curator of a nearly lost world of Irish-American music." Dr. Moloney is probably the best-known and most influential figure in the world of Irish-American music. A virtuoso tenor-banjo player, singer, guitarist, record producer, impresario, and scholar, he has, with his last two albums, shifted his attention for now from his lifelong interest in traditional music to the more commercial world of the 19th and 20th centuries. McNally's Row of Flats, which came out in 2006, focuses on the compositions of the brilliant Ned Harrigan (1844--1911), who, with his partner Tony Hart, practically invented American musical theater in the late 19th century. With this new recording, Moloney takes us into the 20th century, to the early Tin Pan Alley era (from about 1880 to 1920), a period of fertile collaborations between New York's Irish and Jewish musicians and song-writers. (In a way, this era sets the stage for the golden age of Jewish music that followed, as outlined in A Fine Romance.) There are all kinds of shifting identities among this flamboyant cast of characters---William Jerome (originally Flannery) "changed his name when he saw the songwriting business switching from Irish to Jewish," while Norah Bayes, who cultivated an Irish audience with such hits as "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?," was originally Norah Goldberg. The list goes on.
[below: Norah Bayes; George M. Cohan; above: Harrigan & Hart]
"These Irish/Jewish collaborations," Moloney writes, "came at a time when the primacy of the Irish on the American stage was beginning to wane. Throughout the century, the Irish and their descendants had been hugely influential figures in the creation of a uniquely American popular culture. Indeed, the story of Irish music in 19th century America is a major part of the story of American music itself during that time." [For a beautifully written and researched exposition of this thesis, see William H. A. Williams's landmark 1996 book 'Twas Only an Irishman's Dream: The Image of Ireland and the Irish in American Popular Song Lyrics, 1800--1920.] This CD, however, is more than an archaeological musical dig; it is a resurrection, a re-creating of some truly wonderful material. Featured on the CD are not only such leading traditional players as Billy McComiskey, Joannie Madden, and John Doyle, but Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks, who specialize in big band arrangements that bring this earlier music to life.
"I hope," says Moloney, "that this small collection of songs will show in some modest measure the diversity and general joviality of that vastly unappreciated part of American musical history." I think his hopes are met.
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.