Sunday, August 31, 2008


". . . the thesis of Daniel J. Levitin’s lively, ambitious and occasionally even persuasive new book, “The World in Six Songs.” Music, Levitin argues, is not just something to help pass the time on road trips anda swell facilitator for meeting girls: it is, he writes,“the soundtrack of civilization” — a force that shaped us as a species and prepared us for the higher-order task of sharing complex communications with one another."

from today's New York Times Book Review

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Another draft

after Chagall’s Temptation (1912)

My God, you know, how temptation sits
in the belly of the world, red fruit, round,
already bitten.

You know it is not all that matters. Small, hooved creatures,
tiny birds, Eve’s several glances, and the canopies
of red and blue leaves matter as well.

The real fall will be to believe in Pablo.
Apollinaire will love you, your round house and the herring brine
on your father's hands.

Bella loves you, even as you grieve for the Shtetl, for the pale Christ.

I understand, my brother, the desire to pare a body
into something that will serve beauty.

You understand, my brother, how the world
revolves around the edges of the world.

Let the others eat their fill of square pears on triangular tables,
suckle at the circles and the cones.

I want to eat, together, whatever we’ve been given.
The moon behind the garden will be green and will disappear quite soon.

I want, as well, to thank you for this: I woke today
and was surprised, like you, to see that I am still alive.

A couple of notes on process in regards to this poem.

1) Earlier this summer, I read Jonathan Wilson's biography of Marc Chagall. Wording of some lines, as well as some of the context of 1912 in Chagall's world have likely been stolen from this good work.

2) Apollinaire wrote these lines for Chagall: "your round house where a smoked herring swims in circles . . . a man in the sky / a calf peers out of his mother's belly" (See Wilson, p. 51).

3) "Let the others eat..." is an adaptation and extension of Chagall's own comment about Cubism: "Let them eat their fill of square pears and triangular tables." He also announced, later, that as Europe was going to war he thought: "Picasso, Cubism is done for!" Picasso often said disdainful things about Chagall, though the two were able to have a semblance of companionship at points in their lives.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A draft from yesterday in St. Louis

Anaphoric Confession, after  Mark Rothko’s, Red, Orange, Orange on Red

Baby, Monet rhymes with cliché but nothing,
nearly nothing sounds like Rothko—
blood or light, believed to be silent
pound in the temples.

I lied to you when I said I had been in the Rothko chapel.

I have not been surrounded by abstraction, by beauty.

I have not known Fra Angelico, or Signorelli, or Orvieto.

In Venice, for two days, I only loved the gelato.
We posed on the bridges for ourselves.

I live in the saturated, sentimental blood
of my own loud head—hard
amens and blunted blows.

Monet and his light. Degas and his dancers
have no real home here—nor the Germans expressing
themselves in the other room.

You have heard me cursing you when I should have stood silent.
You have heard my language resound in empty temples of bone.

Here I would like to bleed across the room—light, color—like Klee—I pray,
or come into you without a word,
like this Rothko—repeated, blessed,
parallel, and unrhymed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Viewing the view of the viewer

At the Saint Louis Art Museum today, I took a number of photos and started some new ekphrastic poems. My favorite two photos are here, one showing a view from behind Degas' dancer as she views a woman taking a photo of her daughter before the famous Monet water lily. And I am viewing it all as well. And so are you.

I am always reminded of the famous poem by Robert Hayden.

Splash cold water on your vocal cords

I have made a case, and continue to make the case, that music offers a unique way of knowing--of knowing experience, one another, God. It's a hot idea, apparently, one that Michael Linton would like us to question and resist a lot more. Here's a bit from Linton's review of Jeremy Begbie's latest book. When Begbie argues that music can have a profound effect on human behavior, Linton writes:

Well, no. Not really, or not quite. Music's proven effect upon behavior isn't profound; it's actually pretty trivial. The tempo of particular kinds of music played in particular kinds of grocery stores can affect the speed in which shoppers will generally move through the aisles (but it isn't particularly good at selling individual products: funny animated critters are better—think of that lizard selling car insurance). And like the Chippendale furniture and brass sconces in the law office that suggest sober stability, music can be used as décor. As décor it can do all the things that décor can do: set mood, play upon cultural memory, suggest appropriate behavior—but music cannot dictate behavior any more than the furniture can get you to sign a contract if you don't want to. And relationships between parents and peers play the pivotal role in an adolescent's formation, not music. Music is a means of expressing those relationships.

I think it's good to have this tempered view. Music is just music, sound given significance by individuals and by a tradition. It is not salvation or love or God. Does it work uniquely? I think so. Am I too much of an advocate? Probably. Do I want Michael Linton planning the music at my church? No.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Now that you own a victrola

I had thought about writing a poem about my grandparents' Victrola. You know the one? It's really there in my mother's garage, rescued from Grandma Clark's basement when we moved her into the nursing home. It's wooden. I played with it as a kid. It plays music, yes indeed. The needle is heavy enough that you could use it as a weapon, or maybe a cooking implement. It would be the kind of poem that Billy Collins thinks we have enough of. In his famous essay "My Grandfather's Tackle-Box: The Limits of Memory Driven Poetry" Collins points out that:
"Up until the end of the eighteenth century, poetic decorum would remind the author that he must keep himself subordinate to his subject matter, which would be determined by his choice of genre. High matter for the epic, verbal coyness or plangent sincerity for the love lyric. For a poet to write of his own life— his discovery of daffodils in a field or his grandfather's tackle box in the attic — would be not only self-indulgent but of no value to an audience interested in its own edification, not in
the secrets of the poet's past."

Yet it's not because of Collins that I haven't written that object-fetishization poem about my grandparents' victrola. No. I read the advertisement copy from the original machine, and it was already a poem:

Now that you own a Victrola, the whole world of music is open to you. There is no kind of music that you may not hear, at will, for the greatest artists in the world record for the Victrola. Everything is yours, from the magnificent pagentry of the grand opera to the wild swing of the dance. The opera, the oratorio, the gospel hymn, the musical farce, the popular song, the war-song, the military march, the symphony — these come to you in your own home. There is no variety of personal taste and no condition of mind, to which Victor records will not minister.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

All the real artists are thieves?

Taking pride in original songwriting however begs the question, What is an original song, when it comes to folk music (or any genre)?

All aspects of creativity are basically reconstituted bits and pieces of things we’ve seen, heard and experienced, finely or not-so-finely chopped and served in a form that hopefully blends the ingredients into something “new.” The ancient Greeks seemed to know this, expressed in their belief that the Muses of creativity were the daughters of Mnemosyne, Titan goddess of memory. Perhaps we would like to think that the thoughts that go into creating a new song are purely impressions from “real life,” but a melody does not suggest itself as much from the impression of the 6 train ride you took this morning as it does from a melody from another song. The same for chord progressions, song concepts, lyric sounds and patterns, song structures and everything else. Folk music is supposed to be a shared continuum after all, and as Louie Armstrong said, “All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”

Despite knowing all this, as a supposedly “creative” artist I am often shocked to discover that a song I’ve written has been a blatant unconscious rip-off of somebody else’s song, either in its structure, or lyrics, etc; if I’m lucky the other person’s song is not particularly popular or recognizable!

from a column by singer/songwriter/thief Jeffrey Lewis. Here's his Had it all on Youtube.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

On 52nd Street--Philip Levine

Down sat Bud, raised his hands,
the Deuces silenced, the lights
lowered, and breath gathered
for the coming storm. Then nothing,
not a single note. Outside starlight
from heaven fell unseen, a quarter-
moon, promised, was no show,
ditto the rain. Late August of '50,
NYC, the long summer of abundance
and our new war. In the mirror behind
the bar, the spirits--imitating you--
stared at themselves. At the bar
the tenor player up from Philly, shut
his eyes and whispered to no one,
"Same thing last night." Everyone
been coming all week long
to hear this. The big brown bass
sighed and slumped against
the piano, the cymbals held
their dry cheeks and stopped
chicking and chucking. You went
back to drinking and ignored
the unignorable. When the door
swung open it was Pettiford
in work clothes, midnight suit,
starched shirt, narrow black tie,
spit shined shoes, as ready
as he'd ever be. Eyebrows
raised, the Irish bartender
shook his head, so Pettiford eased
himself down at an empty table,
closed up his Herald Tribune,
and shook his head. Did the TV
come on, did the jukebox bring us
Dinah Washington, did the stars
keep their appointments, did the moon
show, quartered or full, sprinkling
its soft light down? The night's
still there, just where it was, just
where it'll always be without
its music. You're still there too
holding your breath. Bud walked out.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Lincoln stares back

My former professor and first serious poetry teacher, Dan Guillory, has for the last number of years been writing poems about Abraham Lincoln. I reviewed his collection of those poems for a forthcoming issue of Illinois Heritage. I was struck by several poems about the iconic photos that have come to mark Lincoln in the American imagination. In the book, each poem is preceded by a short historical headnote. Here's the text of both the note and the poem for one of the photo poems, along with what I think is the photo.

Butler's Ambrotype, August 13, 1860

In the summer of 1860, while Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency, Philadelphia artist John Henry Brown was hired to paint an official campaign portrait. He described his visit to Springfield in these words: "We [Brown and Lincoln] walked together from the executive chamber to a daguerrean establishment. I had half a dozen ambrotypes [positive image on a glass plate] taken of him before I could get one to suit me." The ambrotypist/daguerrotypist mentioned here is Springfield's Preston Butler, who photographed Lincoln on Aug. 13, 1860. The ambrotype shows Lincoln with atypically neat hair, combed smoothly over his forehead. Campaign badges were made from the photograph and sold for 10 cents each or $6 per thousand.

It's all very personal, you know.
You blink, and the camera blinks back
At you, the rolling eye returns
To haunt you, even the crushed satin
Necktie is honored in timelessness.
For once, they got the hair right.
I'm never this neat in Real Life.
But this isn't real -- I'm being
Sold like a piece of soap
Or a view of Niagara Falls.
No matter, for this is America
And I always wanted to become
The first truly modern President.

from Dan Guillory's The Lincoln Poems

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ars poetica

It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].

from Horace, Epistles, Book II, Ars Poetica

call for ekphrasis

The Mississippi Review is soliciting ekphrastic work for their Oct. issue.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Entering the work

Mennonite poet (and friend) Jean Janzen has a wonderful memoir/essay interspersed with poems published in the Spring 2008 issue of Mennonite Life. What I like about the poem below, among many things, is the way she weaves her mother's presence into a Titian altarpiece she sees in Venice. In the painting, she sees "the image of my mother in a studio family photograph in which she holds her first daughter in her lap. Here she was in a city threatened by floods, like her ancestry, 'alive' and glowing." Somehow, though, the poem doesn't make the painting just a Rorschach of her past, but sets up a real exchange, a dialogue with the painter and the viewer. Here's the poem:

My Mother in Venice

She had another life,
not only the vast expanse
of prairie, but this island
adrift and shimmering.

Here she is, in the Frari Church
holding the Child.
Centuries ago Bellini
saw her at the fish market

shivering in the rain,
brought her to the small
fire of his studio
and began brushing her round

face into glow, dressing her in blue silk-my mother
in this city of mirrors
where the centuries swirl

together, where she still holds
the Child, my Brother, where she doesn't hold me.

Friday, August 1, 2008


What I don't understand is the beauty.
The last attempts of the rain, my shoulders
aching from all afternoon with the ladders
and the hour with her. I watch the rainbow
until I have to focus so hard I seem
to create it. Thinking of her watching
this storm, wanting him. This lightning.
This glut in the gutters. Now only
the yellow left. Now the blue
seeped out. The purple gone. The red
gone. People downstairs playing Bach,
the quiet attenuated Bach. She must
have tried and tried. The holes drilled in.
The small man in the movie who looked
like laughter would kill him. The carnation
farmer who left snared birds for the woman
he loved. Who would hang himself after
stitching her ribbon to his chest.
What I don't understand is the beauty.
I remember the theatre in Berkeley where
we sat eating cucumbers, watching the colossal
faces played over with colossal loss.
I would get off early and meet her outside,
her hair always wet. All last night
I listened to the students walk by until 3,
only the drunk left, the rebuffed and
suddenly coupled. What did I almost
write down on the pad by my bed
that someone lowered me into my sleep? One morning
when she and I still lived together,
the pad said only, cotton. Cotton.
Sometimes it's horrible, the things said
outright. But nothing explains the beauty,
not weeping and shivering on that stone bench,
not kneeling by the basement drain.
Not remembering otherwise, that scarf she wore,
the early snow, her opening the door
in the bathing light. She must have tried
and tried. What I don't understand is the beauty.

--Dean Young from Beloved Infidel