Wednesday, November 28, 2007

from The Gravity Soundtrack

Here's the poem I read in yesterday's class from Erin Keane's The Gravity Soundtrack.

A bit more about Gram Parsons and his strange death may or may not be necessary to make your way into the poem.

Grievous Angel--Erin Keane

Who’s to say what’s serious, a joke made
at the edge of a friend’s grave? A promise.
The desert, a gas can, a light. A corpse

has no value, you’ll only be charged
with coffin theft: a misdemeanor, a prank,
setting a body on fire. My bodysnatcher,

my brother, haven’t we done this, already,
too many times? The many ways to scatter
a burden: hot ash wind lifting like a UFO’s

beam, lizards tracking me, charred, through
the Joshua Tree sand. The left bits swept up,
mailed to New Orleans, God’s own singer

put down near the highway. A laugh, at last:
ours—I rest here. Me reflected in your pupils,
orange, blossoming. I couldn’t give you

anything to hold, so take this wakeful night,
know it can't make sense. What's left? At least
make it a good story. An offering, one last.

Other excerpts from the collection can be found here.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Why We Sing--John Bell

I've mentioned John Bell a number of times as we've discussed hymns and hymn writing in class. A member of the Iona Community in the UK, Bell is, to my mind, one of the best writers and teachers of contemporary hymnody. Two of his books, The Singing Thing (2000) and The Singing Thing Too (2007) form essential reading for those interested in how the church might sing well and with integrity. Below is a summary of his reasons for singing (and reasons why some of us don't sing) from The Singing Thing. The non-Bell quotations are my additions. I hope this spurs you along as you try your hand at hymn lyrics.

Ten Reasons We Sing*

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” --Colossians 3:16, KJV

1) We sing because we can, because it is a uniquely and essentially human thing to do.
“Music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.” --Anne Lamott, from Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

2) We sing to create and reflect our identity.
“Singing functions for Mennonites as sacraments do in liturgical churches. Singing is the moment when we encounter God most directly. We taste God, we touch God when we sing. It is an occasion of profound spiritual experience, and we would be bereft without it. --Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger, from Singing: A Mennonite Voice.

“It is not you that sings, it is the church that is singing, and you, as a member. . . may share in its song. Thus all singing together that is right must serve to widen our spiritual horizon, make us see our little company as a member of the great Christian church on earth, and help us willingly and gladly to join our singing, be it feeble or good, to the song of the church. --Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together

3) We sing to express emotion.
“Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God because by music are all the emotions swayed. Nothing on earth is more mighty to make the sad happy and the happy sad, to hearten the downcast, mellow the overweening, temper the exuberant, or mollify the vengeful.” –Martin Luther

4) We sing to express language.

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
-- Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153; trans lated from Latin to German by Paul Gerhardt; and from Latin to English by James W. Alexander, 1830.

5) We sing to remember our past (and thus to shape our future).
“We are creatures of our past. We cannot be separated from it, and although we cannot always remember it, songs will unexpectedly summon portions of it into mind. If this is true of secular ballads, it is even more true of Christian songs and hymns, especially those which have been in currency since childhood. . . . What we learn in childhood we retain all our life and the images of God we receive from such songs will determine our faith and theology. That means that whenever anyone teaches a child a hymn or religious song, they may be preparing that child to meet his or her Maker. Does that seem too extreme?”
--John Bell, from The Singing Thing

“Singing in church is not the religious equivalent of television commercials to offer relief between prolonged periods of speech. Singing in church is a means by which the worship of those committed to Christ is enabled to happen with engagement and integrity.” –John Bell

6) We sing to tell stories.

7) We sing to shape the future.

8) We sing to enable work.

9) We sing to exercise our creativity.

10) We sing to give of ourselves.

Four Reasons Why Some of Us Don’t/Won’t Sing*

1) Vocal Disenfranchisement
“God . . . never asks people to do what they cannot. When God asks us to sin a new song, it is because God believes that we can. Is it as simple as this? Yes. It is as simple as this. The much more complex matter is for musicians to stop telling children and teenagers whose voices haven’t matured or are temporarily dysfunctional that they can’t sing. And it is even more difficult for musicians—in the face of their academic training and desire to demonstrate choral and vocal technique---to believe that simply by including everyone in the song, and by willing people to sing together, the groaners and the tuneless folk will find their voice.” --John Bell

“The rise of gospel pop also revealed a popular redefinition of the emotions deemed proper in worship. Reverence, contrition, and perhaps a subdued sense of exaltation and had been the only approved emotions in Protestant worship . . . But the new music demonstrated that exuberant excitement and other ‘thrills’ could be a legitimate part of worship. While traditionalists tried to induce reverence by making church music as different from popular fare as possible, evangelical teenagers tried to make worship more fun than a school dance . . . gospel pop functioned as an emotional ‘cover’ that allowed the ecstatic release found in black, Pentecostal, and holiness spiritualities to reenter the world of white evangelical restraint. Theological judgments will necessarily vary regarding how faithfully this music communicated the essence of the Christian faith.”
--Thomas E. Berger, “The Youth for Christ Movement and American Congregational Singing”

2) The Fallout from a Performance Culture
“ Congregational song is a gift of God, with power to uplift, transform, refresh and recreate the heart and soul. As good stewards of the musical gifts God has given us we sing with energy and vigor. Our music-making usues the talents, skills and resources of the congregation. Worship is a participatory activity, a congregational activity, not a performance by the pastor or worship leader or choir or worship band or song leader.” --Heidi Regier Kreider, from “Music in the Church

“In order that the people of God can be summoned to sing, the Church has to ensure that it does not, in the way of the world, get performance and participation mixed up. In this respect, it would be salutary to enquire of church musicians what proportion of their time is spent preparing to engage the whole congregation in song over against the time spent honing their own instrumental or vocal skills.” --John Bell

3) Places and Spaces
“A new organ, a new praise group, a bigger choir will not make a congregation sing any better if they are encouraged to sit all over a church, preserving the maximum private space around themselves. Public worship is not private devotion, and ministers and musicians have to be clear that encouraging this kind if individualism is the enemy of corporate liturgy and community singing. When people are encouraged to sit close to each other and sing together, they will make a good sound even in the dullest of buildings . . . but where they loll in splendid isolation in their favoured pews, they simply cannot fulfill the mandate to praise their Maker as the community of God has chosen.”--–John Bell

4) Bad Leadership
“Worshiping God is not simply a good thing to do; it is a necessary thing to do to be human. The most profound statement that can be made about us is that we need to join with others in bowing before God in worshipful acts of devotion, praise, obedience, thanksgiving, and petition. What is more, when all the clutter is cleared away from our lives, we human beings do not merely need to engage in corporate worship; we truly want to worship in communion with others. All of us know somewhere in our hearts that we are not whole without such worship, and we hunger to engage in that practice. Thus, planners of worship do not make worship meaningful; worship is already meaningful. We do not manufacture worship that addresses people’s deepest needs; true worship already meets those needs. Our job, then, is to get the distortions out of the way and to plan worship that is authentic, that does not obscure, indeed that magnifies, those aspects of true worship that draw people yearning to be whole. - Thomas G. Long, Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship

*Adapted from John Bell’s The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2000.

Two by Stephen Frech

Poet Stephen Frech has written an entire collection of poems based on the life and paintings of Rembrandt. A number of these could be seen as, in part, ekphrastic midrash, a faithful, fervent troubling of scripture for meaning and insight through the further refraction/commentary of Rembrandt's many biblical paintings. Here are two.

Christ at Emmaus—Stephen Frech

One asked the stranger to divide the bread
and the flame wavered as if a breeze crept in.
Pausing for a moment, the inn’s day done,
he listened to the distant kitchen clatter,
a woman bent over a basin
scrubbing the day’s grime from new pots—
tomorrow, who can discern yesterday’s from today’s?

So the stranger took the loaf in both hands,
measured with his thumbs the seam
where he intended to break it,
showed it to one many saying, “This is for you.”
As the crust tore, the cup tipped
and spilled its wine that ran the length
and seeped through the cracks of the table’s planks.

Knowing him at last, am I the one froze in surprise
or the other, fallen to my knees, my eyes cast down
seeing some far field I’ve never lost sight of
and that, if only I’d set out, a day’s walking
would have brought to me.

The Adoration of The Shepherds—Stephen Frech

They entered slowly like birds wanting bread.
Unlike any other seed they know,
it stirs a hunger a day of feeding won’t sate,
a longing so desperate that, skittish, with quick eyes
watchful for the other fist,
they risk feeding from your hand.

The smell of the barn fouled the nostrils:
the day had been long and hot,
the animals labored hard.
Crushed bindweed dried on the hooves of cattle;
the horse’s collar hung on the wall,
its padded leather still damp and rip with horse brine.
And hay, just on the far side of fermenting,
spike the air and kept the cows dreamy and docile.

An old man carries a dim lamp into the light of the barn
and the flame is merely flame now—a busy sliver.
It hardly casts shadows of its own;
its light barely reaches the rotting loft boards.

He hadn’t expected this, not at all:
a new mother, so young and at ease
with the baby as only young mothers can be,
generous with all the strangers craning to take a look.
She doesn’t know—how could she?
The shadow on her breast is only of her hand.

from If Not for These Wrinkles of Darkness (White Pine Press, 2001

Friday, November 23, 2007

Rembrandt: Midrash and Icon

See the power point on Rembrandt: Midrash and Icon from Tuesday's class. Also, Ryan Pendell's blog. Much more to come.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Girl Who Became a Tom Waits Song


It must've happened when no one was looking,
' cause all of a sudden she was a walking accordion,
her arms a pair of slide trombones. There was a pipe organ
in her chest, a bowed saw between her legs
and two tiny midgets appeared on her shoulders
to play her earrings as cymbals. Her trachea
was a mineshaft, her lungs were made of iron ore
and Tom, he was riding on her back,
tipping his hat to a passing parade.

read the rest at Diagram

In Your Lap

If you have time/resources, oh students of mine, go to the Chicago Symphony concert on campus! And write about it.

It looks like, tonight, you could also go to the Jazz Ensemble Fall Concert, or to Greg Halvorsen Schreck's photography exhibit and gallery talk.

P. S. Someone post a list of other live events on campus, in the area you think we should attend?

"The one who sings with me is my brother"

Here's Mark Noll on the unifying and divisive history of Christian hymnody:

An old German proverb runs: "Wer spricht mit mir ist mein Mitmensch; wer singt mit mir ist mein Bruder" (the one who speaks with me is my fellow human; the one who sings with me is my brother). In the world Christian community today, nothing defines "brotherhood" more obviously than singing. As it was in the beginning of the limited Christian pluralism in 16th-century Europe, so it remains in the nearly unbounded Christian pluralism of the 21st century. As soon as there were Protestants to be differentiated from Catholics, Calvinists from Lutherans, Anabaptists from Lutherans and Calvinists, Anglicans from Roman Catholics and other Protestants—so soon did singing become the powerful two-sided reality that it continues to be.

One reality was that believers who together sang the same hymns in the same way came to experience very strong ties with each other and even stronger rooting in Christianity. Psalm singing nerved Huguenots to face death and devastation during France's violent religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Palestrina gave an incalculable boost to the Counter-Reformation when he provided masses, hymns, litanies, and magnificats that for many Roman Catholics became as expressive of their faith as the congregational singing of Protestants was of theirs. In his fine book Singing the Gospel, Christopher Boyd Brown has shown that Bohemian Lutherans survived several generations of imperial Catholic pressure because families and lay groups were so much strengthened by the hymnody of Luther and his tradition.

Anabaptism was a movement of song—non-instrumental, non-clerical, non-élitist—as well as movement of belief; when Brethren or Mennonites sang, unaccompanied and in free form, the hymns of Michael Sattler, who was martyred in 1527 for his Anabaptist beliefs, they were affirming who they were as Christian believers and who they were not.

Which brings us to the second reality. As much as hymn singing has always been one of the most effective builders of Christian community, it has also always been one of the strongest dividers of Christian communities. In the early decades of the Reformation, Calvinists broke with Lutherans over several important matters, but one was existentially apparent at every gathering for worship: the singing. Lutherans sang hymns that with considerable freedom expressed their understanding of the gospel (like Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" or "From Heaven High I Come to You"), and they often sang them with choirs, organs, and full instrumentation. Calvinists, by contrast, sang the psalms paraphrased and with minimal or no instrumental accompaniment (like the 100th Psalm, "All people that on earth do dwell," which was prepared by William Kethe for English and Scottish exiles who had taken refuge in Calvin's Geneva during the persecutions of England's Catholic Mary Tudor). However natural it may now seem for Protestant hymnals to contain both Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" and Kethe's "Old One Hundredth," in fact it took more than two centuries of contentious Protestant history to overcome the visceral antagonism to "non-scriptural" hymns that prevailed widely in the English-speaking world. It was even longer before organs, choirs, and instrumental accompaniment were accepted.

Donald Hall on Poetry and Ambition

Donald Hall, from his (in)famous Poetry and Ambition

So the workshop answers the need for a cafe. But I called it the institutionalized cafe, and it differs from the Parisian version by instituting requirements and by hiring and paying mentors. Workshop mentors even make assignments: "Write a persona poem in the voice of a dead ancestor." "Make a poem containing these ten words in this order with as many other words as you wish." "Write a poem without adjectives, or without prepositions, or without content. . . ." These formulas, everyone says, are a whole lot of fun. . . . They also reduce poetry to a parlor game; they trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art. This reduction-by-formula is not accidental. We play these games in order to reduce poetry to a parlor game. Games serve to democratize, to soften, and to standardize; they are repellent. Although in theory workshops serve a useful purpose in gathering young artists together, workshop practices enforce the McPoem.

This is your contrary assignment: Be as good a poet as George Herbert. Take as long as you wish.

So does this mean we can't teach young poets by such means? Is that all we can do, say, "see that great poet? go be like her!" My students are smart young women and men. They know the difference between an excursion helping them to see and a poem that teaches them something in its making, that resonates beyond the formula. Write a deep context poem. Sure. It's a trick, a pattern, a suggestion. And it comes along with "Don't write a Google-poem, a wiki-poem." And then we talk about that. And then they go to an American lit class and meet the unilimited ambition of Whitman and Melville. And the uncertainty.

Coming soon--"how not to write a google poem" and "what can be taught and when."


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rely on the cantus firmus

Two quotations taken from Dietrich Boenhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, in which he uses the analogy of the fugue to explore our fragmentary lives:

1) There’s always the danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with out whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but are yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there. . . . It is a good thing that that book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian. (Where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?) Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are “undivided and yet distinct” in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Chirst and his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological face and therefore of our vita Christiana? This thought didn’t occur to me until after your visit yesterday. Do you see what I’m driving at? I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus ; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going . . . . Please, Eberhard, do not fear and hate the separation, if it should come with all its dangers, but rely on the cantus firmus. (166-67)

2) The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned, and what material it consists of. For really, there are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin (even a decent ‘hell’ is too good for them), and others whose importance lasts for centuries, because their completion can only be a matter for God, and so they are fragments that must be fragments. I think for example of the Art of the Fugue. If our life also is only a slightest reflection of such a fragment, in which at least for a short while the various themes, growing ever stronger, harmonize, and in which the great counterpoint is held on to from beginning to end so that finally, after the breaking-off point, the chorale Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit can still be intoned, then we do not wish to complain about our fragmentary life, but even be glad for it. (219)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Basic Poetic(s) Question(s)--The Visual Ear

In a review of Mary Jo Bang's The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, Donna Stonecipher raises the/a key poetic(s) question for ekphrastic poetry: "Must I know the work of art to “get” the poem? How much am I missing if I don’t know it?" In other terms, can/does the poem stand on its own and does that matter. Stonecipher rightly describes ekphrasis as "a wonderfully elastic process" and suggests that "Only an art fiend (and Bang herself) would know all the artworks in question, but Bang is so meticulous that this fact doesn’t detract from the pleasures of the poems. Reading her work is such an intensely visual experience, in fact, that trying to keep one picture in mind while being presented with picture after picture in the poems would be pretty much impossible. "

So the spinning and confusion and pleasures of visual discovery in language make the poems, at least for Stonecipher. She
traces the means of discovery in Bang's work and concludes "that the poems proceed as much by sound as by sight. One uses one’s 'visual ear' to read her poems. Puns and double entendres turn into images. Images cede themselves to sonic grandeur. It is this high-stakes game of the visual and the aural, and their interplay as in a whirling two-butterfly mating dance, that give Bang’s poems their particular charge."

Here's the book's title poem, based on a piece by Odilon Redon.

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity--Mary Jo Bang

We were going toward nothing
all along. Honing the acoustics,
heralding the instant
shifts, horizontal to vertical, particle

to plexus, morning to late,
lunch to later yet, instant to over. Done
to overdone. And all against
a pet store cacophony, the roof withstanding

its heavy snow load. So, winter. And still,
ambition to otherwise and a forest of wishes.
Meager the music floating over.
The car in the driveway. In the P-lot, or curbside.

A building overlooking an estuary,
inspired by a lighthouse.
Always asking, Has this this been built?
Or is it all process?

Molecular coherence, a dramatic canopy,
cafeteria din, audacious design. Or humble.
Saying, We ask only to be compared to the ant-
erior cruciate ligament. So simple. So elegant.

Animated detail, data from digital.
But of course there is also longstanding evil.
The spider speaking
to the fly, Come in, come in.

Overcoming timidity. Overlooking consequence.
Finally ending
with the future. Take comfort.
You were going nowhere. You were not alone.

You were one
of a body curled on a beach. Near sleep
on a balcony. The negative night in a small town or part
of an urban abstraction.

Looking up
at the billboard hummingbird,
its enormous beak. There’s a song that goes . . .
And then the curtain drops.

Odilon Redon, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon
Mounts Toward Infinity, charcoal on paper, 1882

A much hipper playlist

Because my playlist is truly odd, I thought you'd like a much hipper playlist from a much hipper poet. Kevin Young, who edited our little Jazz Poems anthology, offers this list . I know about one-eighth of these.

To go along with the playlist I gave you, here's Young's Satchmo.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

And the last few of these DJPH poems for now

Poem for David Hooker—Rachel A.

You have to make your inspiration up;
my art's a job, like any other craft.
Collage-like sculpture, simple lovely cup,
I shape them both, draft after thumb-worn draft,
from clay bricks, in the place of pen and book.
Back in my undergrad days I'd have laughed
to see the way my work would one day look:
wake early, feed the children, sit and stare
at things for half an hour. I'd have took
offense if you'd described my present hair,
my quiet clothes. smudged now with dust, not ink.
Today I'll shave a centimeter there,
here dab a touch of blue. Might do, I think.
Poetry stands just on pottery's brink—
one claw held back, one cross taken back up.

In His Studio--Laura M.

He has a smallish set of wings—
envisioned in a plaster mold—
which don’t belong to anything.
No sinew’d shoulders, nothing—
an absence
of wings.

Is there in mold-land, hid somewhere,
a waiting plaster angel? Will
he find it, claying spare to spare—
a space of wings—raw, cased-in air—
the absence—
of angel?

One Thousand Pounds of Clay—Charis T.

A line is drawn,
Collage created, paint painted
Before the one-thousand pounds
Of clay hits
The concrete floor
Or table.

Carton blue,
And red hues
Eyes of a dog,
A preying mantis
Mantled on the table.

The gray clay
Now portrays
A sarcastic smile
A solemn cry
And the KKK’s
Pinkish eyes

Chaos weaved
In and out
The leg’s about
A foot long
And bends on an arm,
A hand holding a gun.

On Visiting David Hooker’s Studio--Marjorie H.

forget the wheel throwing
– not the pot but –
itself out the window.
process is slow and nothing
like Mr. Rogers concept
– of the art of creating art –
we learned. Instead it is full
of sitting and staring at
– but not sleeping on –
a Britney Spears pillow
and Jesus the son of the Virgin
combine into Britney
– not Madonna –
like a virgin and Jesus her son.

Bekah Explores D. Hooker's Brain

David Hooker’s Studio—Bekah T.


Failed paintings
and his own strict sense of honor.
Art is reams of images:
Scuba divers,
Slave ship diagram,
Bird cage,
And Britney Spears
On a pillow.
Is it right or is it easy?
When the images click
Do they tell a story, ask a question,
Present an answer in three dimensional space?
Resisting the pull of the semester
He lets things sit, rest in his mind
Images colliding with images
On paper, on canvas
Till they begin to take
Concrete clay shape
And even then
The deer is in danger of decapitation
The cat of becoming a Klan member
The Statue of Liberty of losing its head.

2--Waiting the Idea Out

If I sit
Long enough,
If I work
On three casts of dogs
That all break at firing
If I wait
The idea out
Maybe It’ll change.
I wont have to decapitate
The lawn ornament deer,
paint a stormy sky,
Or confuse Guernica with a cartoon.

Making art is having
The courage
To do the ungodly,
Profane the sacred.
Mix cults and crosses,
Dogs and freedom,
A praying mantis
And the cartoon south.

Sometimes the piece is too demanding
And calls me to a direction I am not quite
Ready for.
I am not that brave or that strong.
Check back in three years
After college, a mortgage,
Two kids and a career.
When I get my first gray hairs
And gain the age required for
Following sacrilege.
Maybe I’ll be ready then


It’s too hot to work in a room of 2,000 degree creativity, and a firing squad
Pacing outside. Dogs fly through canvases and eat the statue of Liberty. It’s
Getting too hot as Brittney Spears covers Jesus, and Guernica holds a cartoon gun.
My hands are bleeding
What happens
The fire is too hot, the space too cold. There are miles and miles in between antlers
And doves. Whole cities exist between headless statues and dead
Dogs. What happens
The mind turns and tomorrow and three years from now

Sit for hours and absorb one image, realize the color, the cut
It’s wrong. It’s easy not right
Easy, too easy
Smash 2,000 lbs of clay into cookie cutter lawn ornament molds
Something will turn out
Some point of combined interest,
Asking a question
I don’t know what it means.

The now that bridges the abyss

Music has also played a crucial role in Sacks's work as a neurologist. In his writings, he uses music as a metaphor for his unusual approach to medicine. He cites a Novalis aphorism—"Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution"—in several books, usually when discussing the therapeutic powers of music. But it's clear that Sacks also believes in a deeper, less literal connection between medicine and music, which is why Musicophilia reads like a retrospective. Music encapsulates two of the most essential aspects of his work: listening and feeling. The art form is the model for his method. As a doctor, Sacks is exquisitely attentive, not just to the symptoms, but also to the person. He treats each patient like a piece of music, a complex creation that must be felt to be understood. Sacks listens intensely so that he can feel what it's like, so that he can develop an "intuitive sympathy" with the individual. It is this basic connection, a connection that defies explanation, that allows Sacks to heal his patients, letting them recover what has been lost: their sense of self.

from Jonah Lehrer's profile of the neurologist Oliver Sacks and his new work Musicophilia.

The first chapter, excerpted in the NY Times, narrates the experience of a surgeon struck by lightning who develops a deep desire for piano music, to both listen to and play it:

With this sudden onset of craving for piano music, he began to buy recordings and became especially enamored of a Vladimir Ashkenazy recording of Chopin favorites — the Military Polonaise, the Winter Wind Étude, the Black Key Étude, the A-flat Polonaise, the B-flat Minor Scherzo. [see Ashkenazy playing a Chopin etude] "I loved them all," Tony said. "I had the desire to play them. I ordered all the sheet music. At this point, one of our babysitters asked if she could store her piano in our house — so now, just when I craved one, a piano arrived, a nice little upright. It suited me fine. I could hardly read the music, could barely play, but I started to teach myself." It had been more than thirty years since the few piano lessons of his boyhood, and his fingers seemed stiff and awkward.

What fascinates me, in part, about Sacks and his work is how his examination suggests that music is not decoration but a different and basic way of knowing and experiencing the world. He writes near the end of the book about musicologist and performer Clive Wearing, who suffers from such terrible amnesia that he cannot remember his world moment to moment. He scribbles in a journal on page after page:

“I am awake” or “I am conscious,” entered again and again every few minutes. He would write: “2:10 P.M: This time properly awake. . . . 2:14 P.M: this time finally awake. . . . 2:35 P.M: this time completely awake,” along with negations of these statements: “At 9:40 P.M. I awoke for the first time, despite my previous claims.” This in turn was crossed out, followed by “I was fully conscious at 10:35 P.M., and awake for the first time in many, many weeks.” This in turn was cancelled out by the next entry.

This man who "no longer has any inner narrative," however, becomes, for the moments when he is playing a Bach prelude, "himself again and wholly alive." Music becomes for him the only continuous, linear "now" he has. As Sacks writes, in this man's disconnected world, music is "the 'now' that bridges the abyss."

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Score Is?

A music poem? Discuss


Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal---yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"---that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Through your ears and inside your mind

Sometimes when you are listening to a great jazz musician performing a long solo, you are experiencing his mind, moment by moment, as it shifts and decides, as it adds and reminds. This happens whether the player is a saxophone player or a bass player or a pianist. You are in there, where that other mind is. His mind is coming through your ears and inside your mind.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker playing Ornithology, I was delighted. I was about 11 years old. You are so much alone with your mind as a kid, so when you hear someone else's mind improvising, you feel an excitement you will never get from some music that just wants to keep a steady beat.

George Bowering, Canada's first poet laureate, from a This I Believe essay on NPR

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Some DJPH poems

Our visit to David Hooker’s studio a couple of weeks back has resulted in a variety of very interesting poetic responses, some focused more on David’s work, some focused more on his process. Below is a sampling of what’s been written, with more to come (this is a request for students to send them to me electronically, so I can cut and paste rather than retype).
David’s work is included in a current exhibit at Loyola University in Chicago, the show for which he was making final preparations when he talked with us.

He'll also be giving a talk as part of the Humanities Brown Bag forum this Friday on campus. He claims not to like prose about his work, but you can find some of his drafts of artist statements (along with other ramblings) at his engaging blog.

Functional and Beautiful

For those of you looking for Christmas gifts, David is also busy finishing bowls and mugs that look lovely and functional.

Some of the Hooker Poems

I have been in a ceramics studio--Ian A.

I’ve been in a ceramics studio, yes
I have. And seen the halves of broken
halves of pre-configured clay, collected
in boxes and shelved behind, waiting
for your hammer and you
to sledge out their inconsistencies
like God, only not quite as gradually

as your “Gun-toting Guernica,” but
sometimes that thought can sit, subdued
for months if you fight it when you say
you lobbied for the loud, garbage on the walls
of your college dormitory, the poetry
you would write, such perfunctory verse
could never contain you,

but that’s just a hope to fill the waiting
like we’re waiting, but then it came to you,
yes you said, an idea to solidify
in the absence of could it be
a thousand, giving themselves up
to be the smashed bodies behind, waiting
even more for some kind of redemption
to come, only not quite as bloodily.

David Hooker’s mantis –Dayna C.

The legs force the sculpture
like his fingers in your jeans
whose pistol bruises
the arch of your back.
All the natural dangers
pervert into a man.

We bruise like peaches
and have. We’ve held
the rail at the Canyon,
our adrenaline tart,
because despite what we’ve said
where we’re standing
is the start of the fault.

An Unglazed Frame for Absence--Rachel H.

The ceramic dog, hangs
from a nail in my dusty studio wall,
with an absence for feet, framed
by marbled terra cotta bisque,
right to be naked, fired clay
rough against soft fingers.
Every glance of his master asked,
"Is it right, or is it easy?"
Each kneading touch questioned
if the dog should hang on the nail,
on the plain wall, patient for grief.

Clay—Jason A.

We have but dirt to form a wandering mind,
Brittle crust that shatters between fingers
The formless mud in which our members bind
All to build proud monuments! that linger…
Impregnable fortress against a Sea of Time
Like making bricks without straw, yet still
We grapple matter whose essence, unsublime
We are, enslave it to our sand-castle will,
To harmonize some grander whiteness, or truth
With scripted tablets formed by blood-stained hands
As though in word to ever will our youth,
In small clay ships to sail to starlit lands.
As The Captives, forming soul from rough-hewn stone
We have but adobe slums to call our own.

At First Glance You May Mistake His Artistic Genius for Postmodern Garble—Joe M.

His slightly random 3-
Dimensional cornucopia
Made of clay has a praying

Mantis, headless deer,
And “quick Draw McGraw”
Holds a silver gun,

But look at how he holds
The elbow in tension
Just barely above the base,

IE: (how Michelangelo held
Adam’s finger,
With the slightest space

From touching God)

His headless “Bob the Builder”
Creates intentional spa c e,
He has Britney Spears

And Jesus waiting on a mantel,
But nothing he shows us has he
Not seen before while driving

The highways of his mind,
Things at first, still life
Drenched in anecdotal glory,

His art expressing the tension in presence


How he speaks silently of





Saturday, November 3, 2007

John the Revelator, Son House

So what would the poem about this one look like?

Friday, November 2, 2007


This article by Stephen Burt in The Believer is finally on line. I like this quotation:

The most important precepts are the simplest: look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. Enjoy double meanings: don’t feel you must choose between them. Ask what the disparate elements have in common—do they stand for one another, or for the same thing? Are they opposites, irreconcilable alternatives? Or do they fit together to represent a world? Look for self-descriptive or for frame-breaking moments, when the poem stops to tell you what it describes. (Classic Ashbery poems tend to end with these: “I will keep to myself. / I will not repeat others’ comments about me.”; “A randomness, a darkness of one’s own.”) Use your own frustration, or the poem’s apparent obliquity, as a tool: many of these poems include attacks on assumptions or pretenses that make ordinary conversational language, and newspaper prose, so smooth.

A couple of years ago, I got to interview Stephen for Avatar Review. He is very smart.I asked him a little bit about ekphrasis and he said:

At Yale in the 1990s, it seemed that everyone got attracted to ekphrasis—John Hollander had just written a book on the subject and taught classes on it. When I was writing some of those poems I was surrounded by poets and critics who took a strong interest in how poets could represent paintings (and sculpture and architecture and other visual arts).

I started writing poems about paintings before that, though—I wrote the Velazquez poem when I lived in Oxford. I like paintings. Paintings with character and narrative components—and you can find those components in apparently abstract artists, if you look; I often find them in Franz Kline—give poets a chance to sort-of make up, and sort-of discover, all sorts of stories and scenes. Ekphrases also let you flip back and forth between talking about a work of art as an object (and about the situation of its making), on the one hand, and talking about what the work depicts on the other—between, if I can use the terms here, diegetic and extradiegetic perspectives. I like poems (and critics) who can do those kinds of flips.