The Worlds of Poetry–Part Two

When I “signed on” for both Facebook and Bill’s Blog, I quickly became aware that other people were posting (on their sites) material I felt belonged elsewhere (in “private life,” not “public”), and I made a pledge never to post photos of food (and recipes), endless Selfies, videos of various animals performing cute tricks, hackneyed slogans, political proselytizing, and news of “medical issues” I might be dealing with myself. I gave in on the latter, when, because I have written about music (mostly jazz) for years, I received invitations to attend local performances I was not able to show up for (because of my own “visual” and “vestibular” medical issues) and I felt an obligation to tell the artists why I had to let them down.

I’m going, now, to break my “pledge” one more time—for another occasion. The day of the election (November 8), I wrote on my Facebook page: “A good feeling in the air. Life may soon (tomorrow) get back to real life”—and I offered a joyous video of Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again.” That evening, as the election results came in, that road ahead failed to assume the shape (or “turn”) I’d hoped for, and the next day, November 9, I found myself quoting Stephen Spender’s “You must live through the time when everything hurts”—and listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (the song coupled, in an inspiring video, with migratory birds: “The birds they sang / at the break of day / Start again / I heard them say / Don’t dwell on what / has passed away / or what is yet to be. / Ah the wars they will / be fought again / The holy dove / She will be caught / again / bought and sold / and bought again / the dove is never free … Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

I remembered a pilgrimage to the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis (when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece for a year.). The inscription reads: “I hope for nothing / I fear nothing / I am free.” I vowed to maintain that stoic stance in mind, but also a sense of hope (“That’s how the light gets in.”) for us all. And I vowed to keep on, in the words of Willie’s song, “makin’ music with my friends.” And that’s all I have to say (publicly) just now regarding “politics.”

Here’s the inscription, in Modern Greek, on Kazantzakis grave (Photo credit: You can find the YouTube video of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” at:


Returning, now, to where I left off at the close of “The Worlds of Poetry, Part One”: Another curiosity aligned to Po Biz today (and the world of writing in general) is the plethora of MFA degree programs available—a situation similar to that facing aspiring young jazz musicians who complete such programs in music, but whom are not likely to find venues (given the conversion of so many jazz clubs into sports bars) in which they can actually practice their trade, or “play.” Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, has posted a perceptive article, “The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?”, on what poets (and writers in general) are likely to face once they have completed heavily advertised programs in “creative writing.” His first paragraph concludes: “Everyone, it seems, has MFA programs on the brain” (and in the works!), and he goes on to cite a special issue of Poets & Writers titled “MFA Nation” (the cover displays thirty-one people of a wide range of ages and ethnicities). This special issue makes information available to aspiring writers on everything from the “social value of these programs” to ranking systems, and includes “fifty pages of ads from writing programs throughout the country.” Nye, a graduate of an MFA program in creative writing himself (as I am), confesses that he has “begun to wonder if the MFA is, in fact, a bad decision.”

It’s interesting that, as editor of an esteemed journal, Nye avoids or evades what seems to me the most crucial issue or serious consideration for genuine writers: just where the Hell, once they graduate, is this mob of MFAs going to publish (the equivalent of where are all the jazz hopefuls going to play?!)—but he does focus on the more “practical” issue: “Let’s not fool ourselves about where program graduates end up.” They compose “an army of people that are asked to teach low-levels of composition [not creative writing] … for adjunct pay” (which was pretty much the position I found myself in back in 1963, although since then, the odds of finding such jobs seems to have decreased while the number of poets seeking the same has accelerated).

I showed this, my own essay, to a young poet whose work I much admire, and his response was, “Who is your audience?” He more or less chastised me for saying what contemporary creative writing MFA graduates or candidates all already know. And painfully so (he himself in the position I’ve described). Whereas I do not object to offering an occasional “shock of recognition” (to others, and myself!) regarding the state of poetry today, my intent here is not to offend (anyone), but an attempt to understand, at my age (80) just what is going on or taking place in those “worlds” that surround or have grown out of (or “upon,” like barnacles?) an art form I love—an art form I have studied and “practiced” (that’s all I would claim for my efforts now) for fifty-eight years (fifty-three since I graduated from San Francisco State). When I try to imagine myself attempting to “get a start” in the world (any of those worlds) of poetry today, I feel considerable empathy for those poets doing just that.

Here are some literary journals I was fortunate to have poems in back in the “good ole daze.” Notice the then cost of december (a journal which has been resuscitated and is going strong; check out: and Hanging Loose ($2.50!)—considerably less than the entry fee for poetry contests today (chalk it up to “inflation,” ho ho). Poetry West was the journal edited by Carolyn Kizer:

cover-december      cover-poetry-northwest

cover-hanging-loose     cover-quilt

Quality print journals seem to be going under at a fearful rate, and even incessant online publication is not likely to allow practicing poets to find themselves on a tenure track.  In 1967, sans Ph.D., I was allowed to become an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, on the basis of selection for inclusion (alongside Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates) in an anthology (published by NYU Press) of Best Little Magazine Fiction—but the days of such blessings may, I fear, be long gone. “What if programs honestly told students that if they want to teach at universities,” Nye writes, “that MFA graduates are a dime-a dozen? … what does this degree actually prepare our graduates to do?”

These imperative questions suggest “ethical” issues regarding anticipation on the part of anyone who starts out to engage in the art with serious intentions—“not for glory and least of all for profit” (To quote William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech). Right up to the age of thirty, I failed to ask why the world of poetry should be any different from the “worlds” one encounters in any other human activity. I just assumed it would be because I wanted it to be! I wanted poetry, within the world at large, to be a Special Preserve, a Great Good Place, a Pure Land where none of the ugly demeaning laws of “life” (such as “business”) prevailed or could be imposed—a world exempt from all human fads and follies.

I can recommend an interesting and valuable book on writers who’ve graduated from one of the most highly regarded universities offering courses in creative writing: We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (by Eric Olsen and GlennSchaeffer, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). The book includes valuable testimony from those who went on to become “superstars” (whatever that means), John Irving, T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley; those who simply went on to continue writing as much and as best they could (given their “day jobs”), and even those who eventually just gave up writing. And I would also recommend a brilliant (and very funny, very readable) comic version of the same experience: John Skoyles’ A Moveable Famine (The Permanent Press, 2014).

The only “world” of poetry worth pursuing, I’ve come to feel, is that world of our own we experience when we attempt to set what we regard as a “poem” down on paper (or computer or perhaps just simply as the “music” of a poem we hear in our head). Everything else (whatever small “world” the poem might be accepted as part of, or excluded from) is irrelevant. Poetry is not and never will be a “team sport.” The genuine poet is engaged in an act that has ancient roots: in its lyric form extending as far back as 1100 B.C. Egypt—and in its most primitive form, perhaps as far back as “The Singing Neanderthals” (I also highly recommend Stephen Mithen’s extraordinary book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, in which he argues that we actually sang before we possessed syntactical speech and set vocabulary). Other archeological experts claim the Sumerian hymn, the “Seikilos Epitaph,” as “The Oldest Complete Song in the World” (a complete composed inscription rediscovered in Aiden, Turkey, in 1885)—“an inspiring tune from 100 BC.” Yet how many poets really know their own history? I have a suspicion that what is being taught now is not so much the rich and abiding history of the art form itself, but the best way (if there is one) to commence (or acquire) a “career” as a poet.

Here are We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body:

we-wanted-to-be-writers-book       the-singing-neanderthals

Philosopher/poet/critic George Santayana claimed that the world (and this single word could apply to the many separate “worlds” of poetry) “is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.” In his essay “The Poetry of Barbarism” (from his book Interpretations of Poetry and Religion), Santayana makes a distinction between the “earliest poets” (who are the most “ideal”) of primitive ages (such as that of Homer) which furnish “the most heroic characters and have the clearest vision of a perfect life,” and our own time, in which poets seem “incapable of any high wisdom,” incapable of any imaginative rendering of “human life and its meaning” as a whole. If what he says holds any truth, it’s because the poetry of the era he admires—the “original poetry”—was wrung from necessity, and not as a partial or casual preoccupation. It was an integral and absolutely vital part of the “world” that surrounded it: the whole of existence.

In his view, paradoxically, when existence itself was “barbaric,” full of “insecurity and superstition … singularly poor in all that concerns the convenience of life,” poets possessed “a sense for civilizations,” and the poetry of that “simple and ignorant age was, accordingly, the sweetest and sanest that the world has known: the most faultless in taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration … it bathed all things human in the golden light of the morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty, instinct with both self-control and heroic frankness.” According to Santayana, “[Poets today] are things of shreds and patches; they give us episodes and studies, a sketch of this curiosity, a glimpse of that romance; they have no total vision, no grasp of the whole reality, and consequently no capacity for a sane and steady idealization.”

I’ll confess I like Santayana’s outrageous contentions, and I can find considerable “truth” or insight in them. In an age of “material elaboration,” our separate and divided (and exclusive) “worlds” of poetry do seem to encourage a “fancy” that is, in his words, “whimsical and flickering; its ideals, when it has any … negative and partial.” Our work may seem to be just a “verbal echo” of the “imaginative disintegration” that characterizes the larger world that surrounds and contains us.

Many contemporary poets do lack a sense of their own history, and the uses of the past in general. Santayana writes, “We study the past as a dead object, as a ruin, not as an authority and as an experiment … To us the picturesque element in history is more striking because we feel ourselves the children of our own age only, an age which being itself singular and revolutionary, tends to read its own character into the past, and to regard all other periods as no less fragmentary and effervescent than itself … the habit of regarding the past as effete and as merely a stepping-stone to something present or future, is unfavorable to any true apprehension of that element in the past which was vital and which remains eternal … [we lack] a common point of reference and a single standard of value … Religion and art have become short-winded. They have forgotten the old maxim that we should copy in order to be copied and remember in order to be remembered.”

W. B. Yeats wrote a poem, “Three Movements,” in which he traced the “progression” of poetry from the time of Shakespeare down to Yeats’ own day, and, had he witnessed it, I feel he would have included our own era:

“Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from the land /  Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand; / What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?

Here are two major figures from the world of poetry: George Santayana and W. B. Yeats (Photo credits:;

george-santaya         w-b-yeats

I am fortunate to live in a place (the Monterey Bay Area) that can take pride in a history of encouraging artistic activity on a high level (John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Ansel Adams, et cetera) and the local scene, while not really worthy of the name “community,” does inspire work of quality and interest—even poetry! I have read, and admired, the work of local poets, and attended praiseworthy readings by them: folks that are not just fine poets but with whom it is possible to be friends (and that’s a rare thing among our tribe!).

Aside from this fortunate context, I will confess that too much of the work I read and hear now that passes itself off as poetry strikes me as something other than or not quite poetry—as work afflicted with piscatorial “gasping” on some strand rather than what I regard as the true music of the art. So much of what I am exposed to sounds like cute or clever verse; outright therapy; jottings from a diary or journal, maudlin memoriam (so many indulgent death bed scenes!), unfortunate habits acquired in (and encouraged by) group “workshops”; inept imitation (bad ears!); political propaganda, a pathetic attempt to establish a “persona” (but not a genuine alter ego so much as just wishful thinking on the poet’s part). I find too much plain out carelessness when it comes to language (bad ears again!);  I hear raw “matter” as distinct from form (in the Aristotelean sense)—potential that lacks the patience to reach a state of entelechy (actual achievement). Robert Frost said, “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” but so much of what I read and hear today sounds as if the poet had never encountered any other poem aside from the most recent poem she or he has written or is in the process of writing. And the reason I can rattle off these faults or shortcomings in such a glib arrogant critical manner is (should I find them in the work of others), I also frequently find them in the poetry I write myself.

In his excellent book, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, exceptional poet Anthony Hecht writes, “To begin with, one is able to write a poem because one knows what a poem is—not from dictionary definitions, but from experience.”

On the matter of “form,” Hecht writes, “Conventionally, when we speak of ‘form’ in poetry, we fall too easily into discussion of received forms, traditional stanzas, like sonnets, villanelles … and quatrains of various kinds. Those who condemn form in poetry are often given to venting their wrath upon these received forms,” finding imagination limited thereby, language forced into “set molds.” Yet Hecht ably points out that what “our greatest formal poets—Donne, Herbert, Champion, Herrick, and Hardy”—really did was to “conspicuously and brilliantly … invent forms of their own. This means that with such a poem the poet is free to create whatever pattern and music he cares for,” even if, in the past, the original music and pattern of subsequent stanzas was acknowledged and held to (creating its own imaginative potential). Another “formalist,” Michael Drayton, thought of his poetry, “excellent yet conventional although it be, as ‘wild, madding, jocund, and irregular’”—and that might be an admirable quality to aim for.

Hecht states that “modes of feeling themselves go in and out of fashion … but not the eternal verity of mesura [italics mine]: Maurice Valency’s definition: “measure, that inner restraint which governs the appetites and keeps the subject to the intellect”; Greek moderation or prudence, or in the 12th century, employing a word I like: “courtesy”–to oneself and to the “reader” or audience. Hecht reminds us that “measure” is a musical term, and a metrical one, saying, “the music of forms requires some kind of regularity, some pattern that allows us as readers to judge proficiency, that engenders expectations which it can then fulfill in some novel way, withhold for strategic reasons, satisfy with dissonances or harmonies that surprise and delight.” I have my own mantra: Variety and surprise! Active imagination—the mental and verbal risk of life itself!

Some last words from Anthony Hecht: “Poetry as an art seems regularly to oscillate between song (with all the devices we associate with musical form and formulations) and speech, as it is commonly spoken by ordinary people … A serious and durable work of art, whatever its medium, will make the sort of demands upon us that invite repeated experiences that will fail to exhaust the work … Great works of poetry continue to yield a new sense of themselves, and prove, to our delight and astonishment, utterly inexhaustible.” In another context, Hecht states, “I believe we may gauge the success of a poem by the fact that it reads as effectively the second time as the first, and the third time as the second; and with any real merit it will outlast a lifetime.” And he quotes W.H. Auden: “A poem is a rite … the form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure, and aptness to that which it is the form of.”

So how does a genuine poet create such poetry? I have devised (he says modestly, and with much more than just a trace of humor, I hope, with regard to a subject, poetry, to which in many ways I have devoted my life) a playful exercise: my own MFA program–one that would not require any “school” or facility other than individual initiative: a program that can be carried out “at home,” alone—tuition free, although there will be some self-determined (as to the extent of it) expenditure for books. Don’t take this too seriously (and certainly not personally, should you fall short; I had fun imagining and setting this up, and, believe me, I fall way short on enacting the full curriculum myself.).

(1)   Teach yourself (or with able assistance, if necessary) to read poetry in at least four languages other than you own (at best: one such being Ancient Greek, or Latin, or both).

(2)   Acquire a working knowledge of the complete history of poetry (from 1100 B.C . Egyptian “lyrical” down to the present day): assimilating learning that can be carried over comfortably into your own poems.

(3)   Undertake a full study of Quantum Physics (I highly recommend a book, Quantum Physics for Poets, written by Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill–and another: Roger S. Jones’ exceptional Physics as Metaphor) for an understanding of the “cosmic code” that rules all forms—this supplemented by reading Aristotle on both hyle (matter) and morphe (form), enhanced by a solid understanding of Thomist theory of the same (“material prima” and “forma”).

Here are the covers of : Quantum Physics for Poets and Physics as Metaphor:

 quantom-physics-for-poets        physics-as-metaphor

(4)   If you don’t already know how, learn to play at least one musical instrument (and please do not offend its individual nature the way a particular poet does by mistuning a bouzouki); acquire elementary knowledge of music theory and extensive knowledge of all poetry set to music (where poetry began) down to the present age.

(5)   Memorize a poem a day—and not just favorites but any poem that possesses qualities you admire. Take poems into your mind and body and keep them there.

(6)   Study and “copy” set forms of poetry (sonnets, villanelles, terza rima, etc.) before you attempt to free yourself from them, not after (or “practice” all forms simultaneously, if you can do so without getting too confused)—and slowly but surely acquire what jazz musicians call a “vocabulary” of effects (in poetry: slant rime, enjambment, assonance, etc.).

(7)   Undertake four or five months of gigs “on the road” as a stand-up comic. This will acquaint you with a full range of tones, moods, and inflections you can apply to your work as a poet (having learned to truly listen to what you sound like out loud)—and also prepare you to withstand and assimilate hostile audiences you more than likely will, in the future, encounter as a poet; or evenings when no one shows up to hear you read (Thanks to good friend and excellent poet Elliot Ruchowitz Roberts for bringing those gigs to my attention).

I’ll confess that (although I’ve had more than a little help from my friends, and teachers I treasured along the way), I do fall way short with regard to such a self-imposed “program,” but I was fortunate in being a somewhat messed up kid who couldn’t fix on just one “career.” I was an English Literature major alongside majoring in painting, drawing, and printmaking, and I did receive assistance from truly splendid teachers (already cited) when I got a Masters Degree in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State in 1963—this quite some time before the present MFA degree “explosion” took place.

But trust me: you shall truly know you’ve earned your diploma if you carry out this modest “program” on your own!

Here are two of my favorite poets: Anthony Hecht and Mary Ruefle (Photo credits:;

anthony-hecht      maryrufle

I’ll close with (what I feel may be) some excellent advice on how poems best get made: hard won insight from a book that is filled with it, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle, a most remarkable poet herself. She quotes another remarkable poet, Paul Valery, who said, “The opening line of a poem is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall”; and Mary Ruefle then goes on to suggest just how this act may be made possible (“potential” converted to entelechy or fulfillment): “Between the first and last lines there exists—a poem—and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other … the lines of a poem are speaking to each other, not you to them or they to you …   The poem is the consequence of its origins.”

Enough! It’s time to go in search of that individual seed (unrelated to any “worlds” of poetry!) we plant in order to turn our opening lines (and by an act of Greek poiesis: the kind of making poets do) into our very own tree.

Next post on Bill’s Blog: back to jazz!



The Worlds of Poetry–Part One

I was going to take a break from “heavy” blogs. Most recently I’ve posted on science (“Imagination and Hard Science”) and literary criticism and philosophy (“Mikail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence”), but I was going to switch back to having some plain ole “fun” and write about what may be my favorite subject: music—a single post on some fine music I heard on a recent trip to Connecticut, and this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, which took place in September.

However, I am going to hold off on “music” for one more post: this one on poetry, because I took a look at a draft for a personal essay I wrote some time ago, and I felt a strong urge (in light of much that I see and feel going on around me just now) to bring the piece up to date. When I originally wrote “The Worlds of Poetry,” I was quite self-conscious about the possibility of offending whomever might read it, but those days seem bygone, for at my current age (80), I find myself increasingly willing to state what’s really on my mind (and heart and soul). This inclination may only be a sign of the times in general (not my own actual age), for lots of folks (of whatever age) seem to feel that way just now—there seems to be a lot of my new stance “goin’ around.”

Whatever the current trend, here are my own thoughts and feelings—so many I amassed twenty-three pages of text, so I will have mercy on you, Good Readers, and present this material in two parts, two posts rather than one—thoughts and feelings on “The Worlds of Poetry.” I also just discovered I’ve had a very good day for Bill’s Blog (November 2): 32 views, 25 visitors in the United States, Mexico, France, Argentina, Italy, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Kuwait, Germany, and Singapore. Wow! Thanks all! You have truly “made my day.” I have waited until now to post “The Worlds of Poetry,” but as Charlie Parker “played” in one of his own tunes: “Now’s the Time.”

When I first started to write poetry seriously, I was extremely naïve and idealistic. I didn’t have a clue there were distinct or different worlds of poetry—many, each as separate, tidy, exclusive and sometimes cruel as all other social phenomenon (cliques, clubs, fraternities, institutions) I had been exposed to up until that time.

I don’t know how I escaped with my aesthetic or artistic idealism intact for so long, but I did. I was twenty-seven years of age, married, the father of two small children, and a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at what was then called San Francisco State College. The year I received my M.A., 1963, I was also awarded S.F. State’s Poetry Prize (with its attendant $25) and poems of mine were published in the college journal, Transfer. The following is one of them:


Pure form is like a nun who never works: /You will respect her chastity, but wish /That she would pray for you, or teach a child, /Or do some menial job among the sick. /By her work her grace is best exposed, /As in this world of rhythm and of shape /Where line is both itself and loving Persia.

Whose face and gilded horse peer over hills? /A man of valor and a thing of line. /This green umbrella titlts to make a shape /But also tilts to shade a Sultan’s head. /The light blue horse on which the monarch sits, /Surrounded by a galaxy of flowers, /Is music of the painter’s craft alone,

And more; for there the Sultan really sits. /Upon a horse whose midget feet reside / In fields of white and dark vermilion flowers. /This quiet work, in which each part is placed /To tell and yet transform the Sultan’s day, /Outshines the brightest flame, and makes one think /More secrets lie in fabric than in fire.

Pure form is like a nun without a church, /A Sultan who has lost his canopy.

Here are two examples of Persian miniatures: not, unfortunately, the one I based the poem on—but fair examples (depicting horses) of what attracted me to this visual art form (Photo credits:;

persian-miniature      persian-miniatures-3

My own poem strikes me now as a bit stiff and stilted (O hindsight!), but it was written, deliberately, in iambic pentameter (At the time, I was a fan of Shakespeare, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens). I had also been trained originally as a visual artist, and by way of Pratt Institute’s very comprehensive Bauhaus-based program, which encompassed everything from anatomy lessons and day long life drawing labs to revolutionary concepts in color and design (Philip Guston, one of our instructors, taught us how to render pump handles in charcoal by day, and directed us to his Abstract Expressionist exhibits at night). No revolutionary, I was most enamored of conscious craft and form, and I carried those preferences with me into literature at San Francisco State—preferences not exactly the rage in college poetry circles at the time.

The legacy of the Beat Generation was still strong, its heirs apparent everywhere. They preferred their poetry dished up “uncooked,” open, naked, organic, “raw.” Their approach was still regarded as pioneering, “revolutionary,” experimental, somewhat “fugitive,” “underground,” improvisational, spontaneous, forward-looking, “free.” It favored large-canvassed “instantism,” and distained anything “academic” or formalistic. With its combined tribal or communal spirit and fierce “American” individualism, this approach also came complete with theories that would grow increasingly dogmatic, and a host of idealogues with definite programs they espoused or imposed: Charles Olson with Projective Verse, Robert Creeley with “form is never more than the extension of content,” Robert Duncan’s belief that a poem (like the physical universe) “has only this immediate event in which to be realized,” and Jack Kerouac with his (mistakenly: there is very little un-mindful activity when it comes to a fine improvised solo) jazz-based automatic writing.

I had excellent, exciting advisors and teachers at San Francisco State—Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Wright Morris, Mark Linenthal, Leonard Wolf, Bill Dickey, James Schevill—and they exposed me to a range of writing styles, but I was pretty much a loner at the time, and I went my own small way, following my own bent or beat, whatever it was. Kenneth Rexroth, the paterfamilias of the Beats, had lived just up the street from our first apartment in San Francisco, on Scott and Hayes, and I was encouraged to drop in on his Sunday salons; but I was also quite shy and never attended. Jack Spicer was a poet whose work I much admired: especially Billy the Kid, which my wife Betty actually typed out for me in its entirety (from a library copy) and presented as a gift on my birthday because, finding the original (just 750 copies published in the Stinson Beach Enkidu Surrogate version) in City Lights Books, I could not at the time (it probably sold for about two dollars) afford to buy it. Spicer, awaiting the arrival of the next pretty boy poet from New York, held court at The Place when we first came to the city in 1958, but I was married, heterosexual, and totally naïve about terms of acceptance, so even though I noodled on the piano there occasionally, I didn’t profit from his tutelage, or even get to know him.

Here’s a photo of Jack Spicer at work (thinking!)—and City Lights Books, home of the Beats and my new “home” away from home in 1958–a place where I was discovering a brave new world in North Beach—along with Vesuvio Café, The Place, and The Cellar (where Rexroth read, accompanied by jazz musicians—neither party really paying all that much attention to the other at this early stage of the game; unlike Bob Dorough’s fine fully “in sync” rendering of Ferlinghetti’s “The Dog Trots Freely in the Street”). (Photo credits:;

jack-spicer   city-lights-bookstore-1950s

I could sense the intoxication and vitality of “Beat” poetry, but that wasn’t my way (even though I seemed to be able to hold my own in the collateral cause of alcohol consumption), so I continued to write poems that contained, I felt, their own formal music (another “craft” I was enamored of, having played jazz piano since the age of fifteen, and later, professionally, as both a drummer and pianist with several combos or groups). When I received the $25 Transfer prize for “Persian Miniatures” and another poem, I was pleased, but terrified when informed that I would have to read the work that had occasioned the prize at the S.F. State Poetry Center. I did so before a sizeable crowd, and took shelter in my natural shyness by (probably) mumbling my way through the poems. I did not even bother to look up from the podium—thereby missing my own boycott! A group of “Neo-Beat” poets had assembled in the rear of the room, with banners protesting the fact that a poet (me) who still employed iambic pentameter and rhyme and other insidious “formalistic” devices (one of my poems, called “The Barmaid,” was modeled on the intricate syllabic stanza patterns of Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” to which I’d even had the audacity to add rhyme) had received the prize, rather than one of their own kind.

This boycott was my first run-in with the Politics of Art, with The World of Poetry, and, because of my—at the time—self-effacing, or timid nature, I missed witnessing it.

In 1966, after the disastrous experience of my first teaching job, at the University of Hawaii ($5,500 a year for basically remedial work that made me feel whatever “poetry” I may have once possessed was being snuffed out of me), I took a year off and just wrote, then took another job teaching English at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater. I’d had my first poem published in a national journal: “The Weekend,” work Carolyn Kizer accepted at Poetry Northwest, saying first, “It could be a major poem”; then, “Congratulations on a noble effort” when it was published. At age thirty, and still naïve and idealistic as hell when it came to the “world” of poetry, I was asked to serve as director/coordinator of the university’s segment of a Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit, a tour made up of nationally renowned poets who gave readings.

The first poet to arrive was W.D. Snodgrass, who’d caused quite a stir with his 1966 book Heart’s Needle. I had practically memorized every line in a book that had an immense emotional impact on me. Snodgrass employed meter, rhyme and set stanza patterns to disclose the pain of divorce and “visitations” with his daughter (“The world moves like a diseased heart /packed with ice and snow. /Three months now we have been apart /less than a mile. I cannot fight /or let you go.”). At the time I—having never met a real poet (aside from professors who fit the art into their busy schedules as best they could)—I honestly believed that poets must be like their work, resemble it in every way; that is, in their private lives. If their poems were sensitive, sincere, responsive, strong, or sweet—well then, so were they. The Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit would quickly and cruelly cure me of that illusion.

With all due respect for W.D. Snodgrass, my impression of him in the late 60s was of a somewhat neurotic, highly insular man unwilling to make eye contact, a man who spent most of his time talking to distant friends (his real “support” group?) on the telephone, a man who—after we’d arranged a reception for him well-stocked with food and booze—was not at all interested in either, or his hosts. I do recall his reading vividly, but not because of his own work. I recall him reading Randall Jarrell’s powerful short poem, “Protocols” (about Jewish children on their way to showers that “drank” them: “And that is how you die”). I’ve never forgotten that poem, nor the brutal realization (how had my idealism and naivete managed to hang in there until I was thirty?) that poets were not necessarily at all like their poetry. Later, I would realize, and accept (somewhat), the fact that they were just themselves–fully vulnerable, fully human, beings–and that their poetry was … well, just their poetry. Something they’d happened to write. However, at the time, the impact of the initial discovery was substantial.

Snodgrass was an absolute delight compared to our next visitor, John Berryman, who would commit suicide by jumping from a bridge in winter a few years later. In Wisconsin, Berryman had consumed a fifth of whiskey by noon and thrown up in Bink Noll’s car when the latter brought him over from Beloit, where he’d read the night before. That afternoon, in Whitewater, he continued to drink, could barely read that night (slurring his words, then sitting down with his back to the audience, saying he was contemplating a Zen koan)–and he preceded to stay up all night, talking, drinking, talking, drinking, talking, while devoted disciples, students, sat at his feet. Devastated by reality once more, I later wrote a poem about that evening:



After the famous poet read– /the party. I squat between /Berryman, slumped /and Jan (my friend), his new girl, Cathy

so finely rumped within /the carpet, all /our fingers laced too firmly (unopposed) /on many whiskies and words …


That’s over now, an evening, /remorseless braille remembered, like Cathy /–that poet’s poem–her body /bedded like rhyme, dead now

in someone’s world (unknown) /who’s not my friend, and Berryman /(I hardly knew: a poem, pick any one) /and Jan? We stay, alive. Yes, pal.

Here’s my first editor, Carolyn Kizer, of Poetry Northwest; and John Berryman, who was on the Minnesota/Wisconsin poetry circuit. (Photo credits:;

carolyn-kizer   john-berryman

Next to arrive was a poet who has since acquired a substantial reputation (and fully devoted following; so out of consideration for his disciples, I shall not name him. A friend once stopped speaking to me because I labeled this gentleman “The P. T. Barnum of Poetry”). In those days, before he wrote about and took on archetypal or mythical significance, he wore a serape, and sashayed about like Louis XIV. A gentle white-haired couple called the Millers owned a bar in Whitewater called The Brass Rail. Their gift of culture to what was, despite the university’s presence, still a farm town, was a large reproduction of Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” which stood proudly behind the bar. At the Brass Rail, our visiting poet climbed atop that bar and, pretending to unzip his fly, threatened to piss on the Miller’s prize painting, before he was sufficiently restrained.

Gary Snyder, who came next, was something of a relief after this episode, but the then revered guru reprimanded me with a severe lecture when I couldn’t remember the name of the Native American tribe that once inhabited our region (Was it the Win-ne-ba-go tribe, or the Pota-wa-to-mis?) and he then proceeded to order the most expensive fish dinner on the menu at the restaurant my wife Betty and I took him to before his reading, and wash it down with “fire water” (soda and rye).

Diane Wakoski’s book The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems came out the year I left Whitewater (1971), prefaced by the statement “This book is dedicated to all those men who betrayed me at one time or another, in hopes that they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks.” I’d seen her photo in another book. She posed with a gun pointed directly at the reader, a sullen grimace beneath her glasses. At Whitewater, she wore a mini skirt (no gun) and I was invited to give a reading with her (in a gymnasium embellished with aluminum foil on which strobe lights fluttered and danced), which was enjoyable, but after, at a reception, she slunk into a heavily cushioned chair and glared–as perhaps she had a right to–at all us local yokels, Midwestern hicks, and hardly said a word to anyone.

What was going on? I would continue to read contemporary poets, but felt I did not want to meet a single one of them in person ever again, even though I was obliged to remain in charge of the cycle of university-sponsored public readings.

Salvation came in the form of X.J. Kennedy and William Stafford, two genuine gentlemen: the first of whom brought a beautiful bouquet of flowers for my wife; the second of whom was an absolutely delightful person in every way. I still cherish a photo I have of William Stafford and me standing side by side the night of his wonderful reading (only about forty people showed up, but he read as if reading for four hundred), and I recall his scarcely concealed trepidation when we took him to the airport and he first saw—it looked like one of the balsa wood models I’d assembled as a kid—the small flimsy airplane he must board to be flown to his next “stop” on the Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit. Years later, I would get to know “Bill” Stafford fairly well, and he remained the jewel of a man he was when my wife Betty and I first met him. These two poets were like their poetry; but I emerged from those years—1966 to 1971—totally disillusioned by much of what was going on around me: the “Revolution,” which included having the most sacred building on campus, prized Old Main, burnt to the ground (five simultaneously fires set); the National Guard on campus; daily bomb scares and the school’s President confined to his home under armed guard; but mostly I was dismayed by the discrepancy I’d discovered between the work of poets—what they wrote—and the poets themselves, how they conducted their lives. I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered, because I would eventually also realize—slow to learn, as always!—that the same thing was more than likely true of myself.

Here are X. J. Kennedy—and William Stafford and myself in 1968. (Photo credit:

x-j-kennedy  stafford-and-me

I have watched, over the past forty-nine years, lots of poetry “worlds” come and go. The Beats. Black Mountain poets. New York poets. The Confessionals. Folk-Rock Troubadours. Academic or Scholar poets. Black poets. Feminist poets. Poets who “take nourishment from a variety of camps.” Poets who’ve served time at the University of Iowa at one time or another. Roethke-oriented poets of the Northwest. Neo-New York poets. A host of “Young” or “New Voices in American Poetry” poets. Sophisticated or Virtuoso poets or what I call the Neo-Edwardians (whom I won’t name—I’ve come close enough to being libelous already). Neo-surrealists. Science Fiction poets. Prison poets. Gay poets. Children poets (a la Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies and Dreams). Geriatric poets. Language poets. Spoken Word and Slam poets. Asian-American and Latino poets. Poets who practiced Found Poetry.

If we continue on through the many “worlds of poetry” in vogue today, we find: Trash Poetry, Nerdy Poetry, Environmental Poetry, Health Care and Medical Relevance Poetry, Underrepresented Poetry, Tanka and Haiku (in English), Inspirational Poetry, Gay Christian Poetry, Atheist Poetry, Occult Poetry, Gothic Poetry, Politically Engaging Poetry, Adirondack Poetry, Limericks (or a Revival of), Evasive Poetry, Collaborative Poetry, Grief/Loss Poetry, Coming of Age Poetry, Transgender Poetry, LGBTQ Poetry, Queer Paganism Poetry, Minimalist Poetry, Old People Poetry, Poetry of 140 Characters or Fewer, Paranormal Poetry, Animal Rights Poetry, Fibonacci Poetry, Eating Disorders Poetry, Disability Poetry, Ekphrastic Poetry, and Erasure Poetry.

I will not attempt, now, to establish my own “relationship” to or within any of these “worlds” or groups (for the most part, there’s been little or none aside from what I’ve already described), but I should add to this astonishing list of “options” for aspiring poets, a phenomenon that’s not a “genre” exactly (if that’s what these various approaches to the art are), but a current practice that, when it first became prevalent, struck me as something just short of criminal activity or extortion: and that is requiring any poet who desires to enter contests (almost as numerous now as the various ”worlds of poetry” just listed) to pay anywhere from a $20 to $30 fee for submission of a manuscript (even a chapbook manuscript—at one buck per page?): contests which themselves cater to a wide range of specialized interest groups based on age restrictions (“midcareer U.S. poets, etc.”), statehood or geographical location; race, class, sexual orientation or a mandatory obsession with physical disability or social injustice.

The original justification for this practice was the (once legitimate) desire to preserve and sustain publication of high quality literary journals, but that noble end appears to have succumbed to the same avarice that characterizes our current era or age in general, and at the expense–literally–of those least fortunate or favorably (financially) endowed (writers!). The inundation of such contests may have one redeeming value: it keeps the “world” of poets who judge them occupied or “employed” with the privilege of rejecting thousands of other (fellow) poets.

On a similar note, not long ago I was contacted by a writer whose work I respect very much. I was invited to participate in an online venture that would allow me to call attention to my own work and books, in alliance with other poets whom I also admired and respected. The “house” providing this opportunity was one with a solid reputation—or so I thought until I had posted information on some of my own “stuff” and then learned that the company sponsoring this worthy enterprise had suddenly “gone under,” was bankrupt. I was “out” the $250 I’d just paid to insure a brighter future (wider recognition) for my poetry. The operation wasn’t a “scam”: just another sign of the times (financial failure seems to have taken on the status of a fad, a popular, prevalent endeavor) and I would have been better off had I kept my distance (as I’d been keeping it for some time) from anything that smacked of Po Biz. There is a relatively extensive “small business” side to the world of poetry just now—a “world” that vacillates between attempting to provide legitimate opportunities or benefits for poets alongside “going out of business” or bankruptcy.

Here are two covers from a “once upon a time” practice: anthologists would “comb” literary journals (no matter how obscure) for new writers. I got lucky. Chicago editor Curt Johnson found not a poem, but a story (“The Anniversary”) I’d written and had published in the Colorado Quarterly. Curt selected it to be included in his Best Little Magazine Fiction 1970, published by New Yok University Press:

cover-colorado-quarterly       best-little-magazine-fiction-1970

This seems a good spot to end Part One of “The Worlds of Poetry.” In Part Two, which I will post soon, I’ll take a look at the plethora of MFA programs in creative writing that abound today, literary journals, and thoughts on poetry in general provided by George Santayana, W. B. Yeats, Anthony Hecht, and Mary Ruefle—ending with what I feel might make an ideal creative writing program in poetry: one that would not require any “school” or facility other than individual initiative.

And after that final post on poetry: it’s back to jazz—the other art form I love.



Mikhail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence

I received positive response to my last blog post, “Imagination and Hard Science”—a piece in which I referred to a number of “hard science” books I’d read in the hope of acquiring information on how our minds and bodies work, or function (or fail to function). I tried to keep the tone of the post as light (as in a “lite” beer: fewer calories?) as I could manage, yet substantial in content. One of the nicest responses I received said the post was “a great read,” focused on “all that stuff” that person thinks about “all the time,” and he felt I’d provided “some wonderful new sources to explore”—which is exactly what I hoped the piece might be and do.

In this post, I am going to stick with fortunate discoveries by way of authors and books, but turn from “hard science” to a philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and scholar (literary theory and history, ethics, and the philosophy of language) whose writing has truly “changed my life,” my own thinking: Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian writer who spent his life under continually harsh conditions during the Soviet era, but produced prose (a brilliant theory) on the “dialogical nature of artistic creation,” as opposed to the “monological.”

In the Introduction to Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Wayne C. Booth summarized Bakhtin’s elaborate belief that a genuine artist achieves “a kind of objectivity quite different from that hailed by most Western critics,” focused on “the essential, irreducible, multi-centeredness, or ‘polyphony’ of human life.” In freeing us from “narrowly subjective views”, the best works of art achieve “a universally desirable quality” … a “sublimity of freed perspectives,” in Bakhtin’s own words.

Here are photos of Mikhail Bakhtin and his subject, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Photo credits:;

bakhtin  dostoevsky

“From the beginning,” Booth writes, paraphrasing Bakhtin’s intricate insights, “we are ‘polyglot,’ already in process of mastering a variety of social dialects derived from parents, clan, class, religion, country. We grow in consciousness by taking in more voices as ‘authoritatively persuasive’ and then by learning which to accept as ‘internally persuasive.’” Finally we acquire, “if we are lucky, a kind of individuality,” but it is a “we,” not an “I.” Polyphony, “the miracle of our ‘dialogical’ lives together, is thus both a fact of life and, in its highest reaches, a value to be pursued endlessly.”

Booth states that commentators on Bakhtin argue over just how large, how extensive his views of dialogic life are—that is, they dispute about the degree to which his “unsystematic system is religious or metaphysical,” but Booth himself feels Bakhtin’s overall view “rests on a vision of the world that is essentially a collectivity of subjects who are themselves social [italics mine] in essence,” and that–because he does not rely on religious language–anything resembling a “God-term” in Bakhtin tends to be an abstract phrase like “sympathetic understanding” or “comprehensive vision”–always seen in terms of the “multi-voicedness” or “multi-centeredness of the world as we experience it”; our language “permeated with many voices—a social, not a private language.”

Thinking of what might be religious or metaphysical in Bakhtin’s overview: whereas Wayne C. Booth hedges on the issue, is skeptical or ambivalent about it, I’d like (and here comes another Bill’s Blog baroque diversion, folks!) to say I feel a genuine polymorphic view of life (with all the altruism that entails, our individual selves as empaths, and given its “view of the world superior to all other views”) must be religious or metaphysical. Such a totally inclusive and transcendent view renders the life and work of any genuine artist (whether literary, dramatic, visual, or musical) religious, by nature (Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: and come before his presence with a song.”)—an act of praise and artful prayer.

At the heart of our dialogic lives an inevitable paradox, or duality, resides. Another author (Roger S. Jones, in his book Physics as Metaphor, commenting on Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death—so we’ve got four writers on our hands now, and I intend to get as dialogic as I can!), describes the condition this way: “Fated to exist as a paradoxical dual, a symbolic spirit imprisoned in a material body, a human strives, through countless heroic activities, to deny the raw facts of his or her existence and to create personal meaning and value.” One such heroic activity is “art,’ and, for me, personal meaning and value are the goals of art—and should be the goals of existence itself.

Ernest Becker himself writes: “Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate significance, for cosmic heroism. This invisible mystery at the heart of every creature now attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation. This is the meaning of faith.” Cosmic heroism is, admittedly, a massive undertaking. In the words of another of my favorite philosophers, Miquel de Unamuno: “For the present let us remain keenly suspecting that the longing not to die, the hunger for personal immortality, the effort whereby we tend to persist indefinitely in our own being, which is, according to the tragic Jew (Spinoza), our very essence, that this is the affective basis of all knowledge and the personal inward starting-point of all human philosophy.”

“To persist indefinitely in our own being.” Wow! Jones is a physicist who refuses to adopt “a dualistic framework,” although, when it comes to cosmic heroism, he acknowledges that by facing the human condition “without pretenses and illusions, the very terror it strikes in our hearts can become the source of new and ultimately sustaining metaphors and faith”—and I agree. He finds encouragement in what he considers Becker’s “stoic and ironic approach to life … defiantly optimistic in the face of inevitable tragedy. There is no escaping the human condition, but there is the possibility of the creative and heroic use of it.”

Here are: Jones’ enlightening Physics as Metaphor, and a photo of Becker, whose book, The Denial of Death, has been cited as “one of those rare masterpieces that will stimulate your thoughts, your intellectual curiosity, and last but not least, your soul.” (Photo credit: Encyclopedia of Death and Dying):

physics-as-metaphor    ernest-becker-2

Both men, sharing an uneasy ambivalence (which I, at times, in conversations or dialogues with myself, share with them too) when it comes to pure “faith,” concede that the goal of cosmic heroism may well be “a mad self-deceptive activity,” but they regard human creativity as “the homage we pay to creation beyond our capabilities, a creator more extensive than ourselves.” I am grateful for the “leap of faith” I first encountered in Meister Eckhart, Miquel de Unamuno, Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, and even William James’ “salvation through self-despair”; and Jones does acknowledge that, by way of such despair, “we destroy the vital lie of projects and transferences” in order to “make room for a new life, for death and rebirth.” He cites Paul Tilloch’s “courage to be,” and the Hindu Creation Hymn on primal cosmologies “prior to any manifestation … pure unalloyed being—timeless, spaceless, featureless, prior somehow even to existence”—such as that primordial state celebrated in Osip Mandelstam’s poem “Silentium.” The poet sees Aphrodite as foam: both the soul and original foundation of life, simultaneously. Here’s my own translation of “Silentium”:

It is the unborn, still— / She and the music and the word / Sustaining, unbroken /The living coherence. / Let my lips discover / What they cannot say: / Some crystal note / In pure birth!

For Mandelstam, ocean foam symbolized primal chaos, but not as a “negative value, an evil, or a threat.” Chaos, like silence, was “a collection of all possibilities, a prenatal anxiety, a formless proto-unity.” It was precisely this proto-unity that made it possible for the word to be “united with music.”

O Aphrodite, remain foam! / Let words return to music, / Heart, stay heart, ashamed /If not coupled, always / With where and how you began.

Here are: the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (around the time he wrote “Silentium”), and Botticelli’s painting of Aphrodite rising on her half shell from primal foam:

mandelstam  aphrodite-1

If a bit grudgingly, Jones acknowledges “transferences to the greatest of all beyonds” [and to my mind and soul: withins] to the most transcendent [and to me fully “present”] thing imaginable.” In line with a classic existentialist position, Jones asserts: “Humans are the creators, or at least the participant-creators, of their own world and … they must take full and honest responsibility for it”—what Becker calls “the living drama of [their] acceptance as a creature,” becoming “part of such a larger and higher wholeness as religion has always represented” [or attempted to–in light of our own current era, or history).

Both men reflect on “grace”; Becker stating, “The jump doesn’t depend on us after all—that’s the rub: faith is a matter of grace”—which Jones qualifies with: “An ideal is never attainable; it is faith that gives us the will to keep striving. Seeming contradiction is the nature of the beast.”  (Miguel de Unamuno: “Love is a contradiction if there is no God”; Meister Eckhart: “The Generosity of Infinite love in an act of love, creates us in the image and likeness of love for love’s sake alone, moment by moment, moment by moment.”). Jones turns his speculation back to our responsibilities (on earth) as human beings: “What matters is to be more conscious of our myths and metaphors, to recognize that they are the only reality we have, and to learn how we participate in creating them”—which brings me back (after an admittedly lengthy digression or diversion) to my man, Mikhail Bakhtin.

Bakhtin earned his insights, his philosophy, his verbal acuity the hard way–living through a sequence of “voices” (each characteristic of an era) and surviving long enough to sort them out, make sense of each, and put them “all back together again” in his concept of the dialogical self. Bakhtin was born in Oryol, Russia, to (source: Wikipedia) “an old family of the nobility. His father was the manager of a bank and worked in several cities.” For this reason Bakhtin spent his early childhood years in Oryol, in Vilnius, and then in Odessa, where in 1913 he joined the historical and philological faculty at the local university (Odessa University).

His major study of the work of Dostoevsky, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art (at which he’d been at work since 1921), was published, and caused (in the words of translator/editor Caryl Emerson) “considerable stir in literary circles”—and political, for he was arrested (perhaps in connection with an “underground church”). Ironically, Bakhtin escaped being sent to a death camp (“on the plea of poor health,” although his leg was amputated), and was sentenced to exile in Kazakhstan, where (according to Emerson) he “lived and worked in relative obscurity” for thirty years. His book on Dostoevsky was discovered in the 1950s by a group of young literary scholars in Moscow, and he himself found alive, teaching at the University of Saransk. In 1963, “after some ominous delays in publishing houses,” a second edition of his book appeared, and Bakhtin was “back in print in the Soviet Union. The publication of other long-delayed manuscripts followed.”

Here are two of Bakhtin’s important works: The Dialogic Imagination and Rabelais and His World:

bakhtin-the-dialogic-imagination    bakhtin-rabelais

I have read Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (the book’s current title in English), The Dialogic Imagination, Rabelais and His World, and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays—but would like to focus, here, on the work on Dostoevsky (from which I have quoted from Wayne C. Booth’s Introduction). I’ll include one last important observation Booth makes: “It is in Dostoevsky and Dostoevsky alone that Bakhtin finds the polyphonic ideal realized. The greatest of all contrapuntalists genuinely surrenders to his characters and allows them to speak in ways other than his own … Characters are, in short, respected as full subjects, shown as ‘consciousness’ that can never be fully defined or exhausted, rather than as objects fully known [by their authors], once and for all, in their roles—and then discarded as expendable.”

Bakhtin wrote that Dostoevsky treated a character as “ideologically authoritative and independent … perceived as the author of a fully weighted ideological conception of his own, and not the object of Dostoevsky’s finalizing artistic vision … Dostoevsky, like Goethe’s Prometheus, creates not voiceless slaves (as does Zeus), but free people, capable of standing alongside their creator. Capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him … a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels … Dostoevsky is the creator of the polyphonic novel. He created a fundamentally new novelistic genre.”

Bakhtin found Dostoevsky’s world “profoundly personalized … He perceives and represents every thought as the position of a personality … Through this concrete consciousness, embodied in the living voice of an integral person, the logical relation becomes part of the unity of a represented event.” For Bakhtin, the epoch Dostoevsky lived in (and through) made the polyphonic novel possible. “Subjectively, Dostoevsky participated in the contradictory multi-leveledness of his own time: he changed camps, moved from one to another, and in this respect the planes existing in objective social life were for him stages along the path of his own life, stages of his own spiritual evolution. This personal experience was profound, but Dostoevsky did not give it a direct monologic expression in his work. This experience only helped him to understand more deeply the extensive and well-developed contradictions which coexisted among people—among people, not ideas in a single consciousness.”

I’m quoting a lot, but it’s Mikhail Bakhtin: and I would love to make the insights of this man of genius fully accessible, available to every writer I know, including myself! In Dostoevsky’s novels, Bakhtin states, “Every act a character commits is in the present, and in this sense is not predetermined; it is conceived of and represented by the author as free … What is important to Dostoevsky is not how his hero appears in the world but first and foremost how the world appears to his hero, and how the hero appears to himself.” And Bakhtin offers the following in a section called “Conclusion”: “We consider the creation of the polyphonic novel a huge step forward not only in the development of novelistic prose, that is, but of all genres developing within the orbit of the novel, but also the development of the artistic thinking of humankind … A newly born genre never supplants or replaces any already existing genres. Each new genre merely supplements the old ones, merely widens the circle of already existing genres.”

Reading this (and thinking of much that I am surrounded by at the moment in the year 2016), I thought of something Schopenhauer said: “There are two ways of not keeping on a level with the times. A man may be below it; or he may be above it.” Mikhail Bakhtin rose well above his time—and ours.

Here are two novels by Dostoevsky in which Bakhtin’s theory of the polyphonic novel appears very well put into practice–thoroughly:

brothers-karamazov-2               dostoevsky-crime-and-punishment

Some final thoughts on this philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and scholar who genuinely has had a profound influence on my life (and writing): I will not attempt to resolve the issue of whether or not Bakhtin was “religious” or “metaphysical,” but he certainly–somehow–has given me a sound sense of what those qualities (when they are genuine) might entail, or be. When it came to translating Bakhtin, Caryl Emerson, who edited and translated Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, states: “One of Bakhtin’s major premises, in fact, might be called the vitality of nonequivalence. Multilingual environments, he argued, liberate man by opening up a gap between things and their labels … Nonequivalence is not a matter for despair but is rather the impulse to life. In fact, the interaction of two different, discrete systems is the only way a true event ever comes to pass … In place of the comfortable patterns of synthesis and Aufhebung (to “lift up” or remove abnormal growth), Bakhtin posits a dualistic universe of permanent dialogue.”

Mikhail Bakhtin coined the Russian word raznomirnost: “the condition of containing many separate and different worlds.” According to Caryl Emerson: “A voice, Bakhtin everywhere tells us, is not just words or ideas strung together; it is a ‘semantic position,’ a point of view on the world, it is one personality orienting itself among other personalities within a limited field … How a voice sounds is a function of where it is and what it can ‘see’; its orientation is measured by the field of responses it evokes. This understanding of voice lies at the base of Bakhtin’s nonreferential—that is, responsive—theory of language. An utterance responds both to others without, and others embedded within itself.”

And, O Lord, how I wish I could hear a few more voices such as that in our world just now (rather than slogans, political proselytizing, confrontation, outright antagonism and invective)! I’ll let Caryl Emerson have the last word: “For Bakhtin ‘the whole’ is not a finished entity; it is always a relationship. An aesthetic object–or for that matter any aspect of life–acquires wholeness only when an individual assumes a concrete attitude toward it. Thus, the whole can never be finalized and set aside … That one aspect of Bakhtin’s style most inseparable from his personality is the developing idea. Its subtle shifts, redundancies, self-quotations—ultimately, its open-endedness—is the genre in which, and with which, he worked.”

Here are: Caryl Emerson, and another of Bakhtin’s works she translated (Photo credit:

caryl-emerson  bakhtin-other-books

I changed my mind. Mikhail Bakhtin himself should have the last word: “Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.”

Such as my next blog!



Imagination and Hard Science

At the risk of offending my poet friends (and prose writers too–especially those espousing “creative nonfiction”), I am going to make the claim that the most imaginative, the most innovative, the most inspired (I’m tempted to truly get in deep trouble and add words such as “expressive,” “original,” “visionary,” even “artistic”) work I find being offered at this time (this era, now: 2016) is being done in the hard sciences: work undertaken by evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, linguists, and psychophysicists.

There—I said it, and I am prepared for execrations cast upon my head.

When I was a kid, a fledgling visual artist and musician “by birth” (that is, I just fell into it without a thought but lots of “heart”), I drew pictures of everything that came in sight, and attempted, simultaneously, to learn to play four instruments: clarinet, piano, drums, and guitar. In high school, I was granted exemption (by an English teacher named Vida B. McGiffen) from reading both MacBeth and Moby Dick so I might produce a comic strip for the school newspaper (Vida also taught journalism), and render posters for fellow students aspiring to political office (class president, secretary, treasurer, etc.). On the basis of this work, and the fact that I had an “orchestra’ (called such, but really just a combo) which played dance music for proms (and jazz, when we could fit it in), I was, in my senior year, voted “Boy Most Likely to Succeed”—an honor for which I was totally unqualified. And, to add insult to injury (with regard to the “standards” of the era), I was somehow, without having ever taken a course in biology, chemistry, or physics (I did take geometry and did OK with that, for it was mostly “pictures” I could comprehend), I applied for and was accepted as a student at the University of Michigan. In the College of Architecture and Design—with a major in painting and drawing (of course, not architecture).

Here I am as wannabe musician at age 15 (playing piano in J.P. Wolff’s combo; dig the gut bucket bass played, in a bow tie, by Dave Campbell) and yours truly as a fledgling visual artist (age 19) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (I’ll confess I took a required course in anatomy—as close as I ever got to “science”–and here are some of the drawings I did at that time):

bill-with-j-p-wolff-band  bill-at-pratt1

pratt-drawing-9        pratt-drawing-10

So much, at the time, for my acquaintance with hard science. When, a few years later, I became interested in literature—especially poetry, and began to write it (or attempt to write it), I fell in love with William Blake and fully endorsed his concept of imagination, and his disdain for “science”: “A fourfold vision is given to me: / ‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And threefold in soft Beulah’s night / And twofold Always. May God us keep / From Single Vision & Newton’s Sleep.”

To Blake, Sir Issac Newton’s major fault or failure was his inability to see beyond objective reality, beyond a strictly material universe. For Blake, two fold vision was seeing not just with but “through the eye”: the perception of spiritual forces in material objects. For Blake, things get even better with threefold vision, when an image in the mind is seen so vividly that it takes on objective reality—(as did the face of God at a window when Blake was just four years old, or Ezekiel sitting placidly under a tree.). Fourfold vision was best of all: revelation—the sort of extremely intense impression of eternity which became the source for Blake’s poetry and art work: something “sanctified.”

Here are: a portrait of William Blake and his “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.” (Photo credits: and Philip Coppens)

william-blake   blake-auguries-of-innocence

The products of such creative perception were not, in Northrup Frye’s words (commentary on Blake I devoured, and adopted as “truth”), “an escape from reality but a systematic training in comprehending it”: the experience of complete or totally fulfilled reality: permanent living form outside time and space. As we grow older, we gain control of the abstract ideas that make up society: politics, science, and religion; but if such control replaces true vision it becomes enslavement to hopeless convention. We sacrifice our own mental and spiritual birthright, and adult maturity only proves to be degeneration, just another fall from grace–binding with briars our joys and desires. I came to the conclusion that all human failures are, truly, failures of the imagination. In Frye’s words again (paraphrasing Blake): “The only happiness that exists is derived from the free creative life.” In Blake’s view, the highest faculty is a human being’s imagination—his or her very own life!

Once again: so much for hard science! So how, having once “entertained” such beliefs, did I ever arrive at the attitude I espoused in the opening paragraph?

I am now eighty years of age and “entertaining” medical issues that range from those that affect my vision (macular degeneration, ophthalmic migraine, and being at risk for detached retina) to vestibular (daily vertigo) to esophageal (GERD). “Boy Most Likely to Succeed” indeed! (ho ho). However, a longtime fan of Oliver Sacks (accept the condition, recognize the compensations, and move on!), I am attempting to acknowledge “a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder”; opportunities that might make existence even more meaningful than it was before the “decline” or “deprivation” or “disease” set in.

Enter, for the first time in my life: hard science! I seem to be the sort of person who finds it possible to accept nearly any unanticipated condition, once I am in a position to understand it, to comprehend what’s going on.

Facing serious changes or “alterations” in both body and mind, I began to study whatever it might be that had caused them (how such systems function, or fail to function): an undertaking which has led me to read some of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever encountered–and to a revision of my up-to-now conception of imagination. I’ve been devouring contemporary books by dedicated scientists who write quite well, science writers not committed by nature to overt acts of imagination, but to examining every possibility in the pursuit of hard “truths” about our brains and bodies, exploring every hypothesis that might lead to further, more extensive understanding, even when—in the words of one of these practitioners (Michael Gazzaniga, in The Mind’s Past)—the answers may not “point to a body of knowledge where one result leads to another,” but activity in which revised opinion is incessant (new discoveries building on old ones), or a “truth” arrived at is controversial and may be quite difficult for many people to swallow–such as, in the words of another practitioner (“leading evolutionary theorist” Robert Trivers, in The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life) : “The time is ripe for a general theory of deceit and self-deception based on evolutionary logic, a theory that in principle applies to all species with special force to our own. We are thoroughgoing liars, even to ourselves. Our most prized possession—language—not only strengthens our ability to lie but greatly extends its range.”

Here are: Robert Trivers, and his book: The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Photo credit:

robert-trivers            robert-trivrs-the-folly-of-fools

“I don’t consider my ideas controversial,” ground and “gender-breaking” biologist Lynn Margulis said of her theory on “endosymbiosis” (having studied the evolution of mitochondria, and formulated theories rejected up to 1967), “I consider them right.”

One of the amazing things I have discovered in the well written books I’ve read, is just how imaginative work devoted to the pursuit of hard won facts can be, work that insists on taking a good solid look at every alternative, every possibility; work that asks vexing questions for which there may only be ambivalent answers (if answers at all), work relying on guesswork or speculation—work for which no easy categorization is available; and yet I did find many of the options, potentials, or alternatives presented wildly imaginative!

For example: in Harnassed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, neuroscientist Mark Changizi presents just about every hypothesis regarding the origin of music—one of which is the “art form” began with the fetus “listening” in its “Momma’s womb”: “Our in-utero days of warmth and comfort get strongly associated to Momma’s heartbeat, and the musical beat taps into those associations, bringing back warm fetus feelings.” Considering this possibility (and just how warm and fuzzy that nest really might have been), Changizi asks, “Why aren’t there other in-utero experiences that forever stay with us? Why don’t we, say, like to wear artificial umbilical cords, thereby evoking recollections of the womb?” Great! What a fine act of imagination! Have fashion designers ever thought of this? Or poets at Blake’s two, three or fourfold state of “vision”?

And speaking of such (extraordinary “vision”), in The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Bor writes: “The semi-chaotic activity of our 85 billion neurons undergoes a kind of temporary natural selection every moment of our waking lives, as attention shapes the contents of consciousness … Those [neurons] with the most powerful voice recruit others to their case, and suppress any dissenters, until the strongest thought is carried by millions of neurons, all with one voice– … for instance. to look for the black hair of your lover as she approaches.” Did you have any idea that such lively conversation, such artful dialogue, was being carried on in those three pounds of jello (or tofu) at the top of your head—and for every thought, not just those regarding your latest infatuation? I didn’t, and I’m thrilled … although I may have trouble falling asleep from here on in, knowing I am responsible for providing some (temporary) rest or surcease for those 58 billion neurons!

Elsewhere in The Ravenous Brain, Daniel Bor offers one of the most insightful observations–or lines of poetry–I’ve ever found on the art of quiet thought or contemplation: “An ideal meditation is one where you try to be as aware as you can of as little as possible.” Poetry–pure and simple!

Bor also offers intriguing insights on the fact that our brains, with all their elaborate machinery, are not as inclusive as they would appear to be, for at any given time, only “a small number of items are available to much of the brain”—actually just four at a time! “Our working limit of a handful of items is basically the same as a monkey’s, though a monkey’s brain is about 1/15th the size of our own.”’ Fortunately, our great human gift, “working memory,” is “available to every corner of the brain,” and lets us see much more and “carry out our most complex tasks, such as language and planning.” Bor concludes: “The process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience.”

Here’s a photo of Daniel Bor, and the cover of his book The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning:

daniel-bor    daniel-bor-the-ravenous-brain

Hard science writing, ironically, seems infatuated with metaphor—more than likely because it occasionally (frequently?) runs up against difficulties describing or explaining its discoveries (outside the “precision of numbers” it relies on so heavily). Much of the work I read (and relished) had resorted to (verbal) analogies: metaphors, say, for the intricate “computational landscape” of the brain, the massive array of networks it contains—analogies such as the “interpreter” offered by Mark Garraniga in The Mind’s Past: “What system ties the vast output of our thousands upon thousands of automatic systems into our subjectivity to render a personal story for each of us? … A special system carries out this interpretive synthesis. Located only in the brain’s left hemisphere, the interpreter seeks explanations for internal and external events. It is tied to our general capacity to see how contiguous events relate to one another … In general the interpreter seeks to understand the world. In doing so it creates the illusion that we are in control of all our actions and reasoning. We become the center of a sphere of action so large it has no walls.” Having discovered that, I am attempting now to get on better terms with my own “interpreter.”

Other analogies I found are: Stanislas Dehaene’s (from Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts) “global neuronal workshop” (I love it! I want to attend that workshop!); Victor Lamme’s “recurrent processing” (or “neuronal chatter”), to Giullo Tononi’s “Information integration theory.” And when it comes to the study of delays between inclination and conscious awareness of enactment: I like Gerald Eldeman’s “the remembered present” (from the book with that title; see also: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire and Wider Than the Sky)—and Mark Changizi’s insights in The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision on “future-seeing” (the 10th of a second delay that makes it necessary for visual perception to foresee the future and “thus perceive the present,” for otherwise every ball thrown to us would be just a ball thrown at us, landing smack in the face before we had a thought to catch it.

Here are some photos of “neuronal chatter”—the brain at work talking to itself. (Photo credits:; medical;

Neuron cells
High quality 3d macro render of Neuron cells

neuronal-chatter-1   neuronal-chatter-3

In his groundbreaking book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, a self-confessed “enthusiastic Darwinian,” provided a thorough but “necessarily speculative” (“Nobody was around to see what happened.”) account of the origin of life: a “primeval soup” that “constituted the seas some three thousand million years ago,” permitting organisms or “survival machines’ (such as “us”) to adopt existence—and then he took a big jump, in chapter eleven of his book, to “Memes: The new Replicators,” acknowledging that, for an understanding of the evolution of modern man, “we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution.” Dawkins finds Darwinism “too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene”–“selfish” or not—and he confesses: “The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” So Dawkins gave birth to the “meme” (a word which rhymes with “cream”—a word derived from Ancient Greek μίμημα (mīmēma), meaning “that which is imitated,”“something copied.”

I’m not able to do full justice to his theory here (again, The Selfish Gene, and a subsequent book, The Extended Phenotype are sources to be checked out), but here’s a taste of genetic inheritance, today: Memes are “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,” etc. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation … If you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a spark plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, after your genes have dissolved in the common pool … What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself … All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes then evolve that exploit the capacity to the full.”

Dawkins ends his chapter on memes “on a note of qualified hope,” saying, “One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and if you allow the speculation in this chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious, blind, replicators.” BUT … “We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world … We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Amen, Brother! Long live altruism!

I’ve read every book I could get my hands on by superb stylist Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works; Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature; The Better Angels of Our Nature), but my favorite book of his is The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature—a book in which he combines exactitude and thorough disclosure (with no skimping on the demands of “hard science” here) with his quick wit and rare humor and outright charm. In The Stuff of Thought, he offers sections called “The Blaspheming Brain” and “The Semantics of Swearing,” as entertaining and enlightening as the work of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin (both of whom he cites), and Pinker takes the reader on a tour of the “linguistic, psychological, and neurological underpinnings of swearing”—focusing on the most obvious thread: “strong negative emotion,” “what kinds of thoughts are upsetting to people, and why one person might want to inflict these thoughts on another,” the major source of taboo words: sexuality; and the cathartic release that swearing provides.

Here’s a photo of Stephen Pinker, and his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. (Photo credit:

stephen-pinker   stephen-pinker-the-stuff-of-thought

Writing on the “joys of swearing” for language lovers, Pinker quotes one of favorite poems (Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Voice” (check it out!), and concludes that, “when used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive … More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest … It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern.” He quotes one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Caliban speaking “for the entire human race when he said, ‘You taught me language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse.” And Pinker points out the irony that, when Norman Mailer “wrote his true-to-life novel about World War II, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, he knew it would be a betrayal of his depiction of the soldiers to have them speak without swearing. His compromise with the sensibilities of the day was to have them use the pseudo-epithet fug.” Pinker adds, “When Dorothy Parker met him she said, ‘So you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.’”

Robert Trivers (The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life) has a sharp, smooth, easy-going conversational writing style which, like Steven Pinker’s, takes you right into his confidence and keeps you there. Because of the “aging process” I appear to be undergoing myself, I was curious to see what he had to say on that subject, and thoroughly enjoyed what I found. I’ve already presented Triver’s main thesis (“We lie to ourselves the better to lie to others.”), but he finds an “old-age positivity effect” (which he regards as similar to “choosing to listen to pleasing music”): “a striking bias” that sets in, by age sixty, with regard to “positive social perceptions and memories.” If you study the eye movements of older people, you find they “spend more time inspecting faces with positive expressions than negative, and the positive ones are remembered later more often.” Trivers traces this “measurable effect” to the brain’s amygdala, “where positive faces evoke a stronger response than negative ones in older people but not in younger people.” This trait even affects the immune system: “In old age it hardly matters what you learn, but greater positive effect is associated with stronger immune response, so you may be selected to trade a grasp of reality for a boost in dealing with a main problem, that of internal enemies, including cancer.” So why, with so much good stuff going for us, are old people “perceived as being cranky or grumpy”? Triver’s response: “With increasing age, for reasons that are not entirely clear, people suffer greater deficits in their inhibitory abilities, that is, their ability to stop behavior under way that they may wish to stop.”

Here’s a sample of the way he approaches “The Value of Being Conscious” (a section title in his book): “There are two great axes in human mental life; intelligence and consciousness. You can be very bright but unconscious, or slow but conscious, or any of the combinations in between … We may easily embrace false narratives. To be conscious is to be aware of possibilities, including those arising in a world saturated with deceit and self-deception … Consciousness and ability to change are two different variables … This to me is the real paradox or tragedy of self-deception—we wish we could do better but we can’t.” Yet, consciousness of deceit and self-deception allows us “to enjoy it more … to fight such tendencies in ourselves should we wish to. Mostly it gives us much greater insight into the social world surrounding us, everything from the lies of the government and the media to the deeper self-deceptions we tell ourselves and our loved ones.”

And I love what Trivers has to say about friendship: “Friends are also useful as commentators on our ongoing life … they see the interaction from the outside, as if others were actors in a play. I am embedded in the play but they are not. They can see what I cannot … I have often thought the popularity of plays partly came from the fact that the audience could see all, while the actors were constrained by their position on the stage.”

Let me close with one last book: Ed Yong’s extraordinary I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, a work that has been extolled by one reviewer as “Beyond fascinating … It will change the way you think about the world. It’ll change who you think you are.”—and I agree. I would, if I could, make this book required reading for every-one—from poets to potentates (of whatever persuasion) to plumbers. Like some of the other science writers I’ve cited, Yong is a master of analogies. He compares the immune system to “a team of rangers carefully managing a national park,” saying that if microbes breach the park’s fences (read “mucus”: “Nearly all animals use mucus to cover tissues that are exposed to the outside world. For us, that means guts, lungs, noses, and genitals.”), the rangers “push them back and fortify the barrier … They keep equilibrium within the community, and constantly defend this balance from threats both foreign and domestic.”

Here are: Ed Yong giving a Ted talk; his book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life; some microbes; and an illustrated account of endosymbiosis. (Photo credits:;; daniellachace,com;;–E. Virginia Armbrust)

ed-jong   51wjytbxpel-_sx336_bo1204203200_1

microbes-1  microbes-2


endosymbiosisMy wife and I are going to celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary in January, in Kauai, where, in 1957, we spent a honeymoon summer in a shack on the Wailua River, just about half a mile up from the Pacific Ocean. We hoped, now, to renew our vows, but Hawaii law requires either a church or official courthouse ceremony for that ritual, so we plan to create a “comic rite” of our own (to share with our two sons and their wives, and four grandchildren), and Ed Yong’s exceptional book is filled with examples of cooperation (among microbes) that I feel we can readily adapt to our own marital situation. Here’s a sample that he begins with a quote from H.G. Wells: “Every symbiosis is, in its degree, underlain with hostility, and only by proper regulation and often elaborate adjustment can the state of mutual benefit be maintained. Even in human affairs, the partnerships for mutual benefit are not so easily kept up …”; and Yong takes it from there, as applied to the ways and means we, as humans, have found to stabilize “our relationship with our microbes, of promoting fealty rather than defection … Like all the best relationships, these ones take work. Every major transition in the history of life—from single-celled, from individuals to symbiotic collectives—has had to solve the same problem of how can the selfish interests of individuals be overcome to form cooperative groups.” Or a “group” such as two people who’ve been married for 60 years.

Here, just for the fun of it (neurons, microbes, and all) are some photos of my wife Betty and I, living in a shack on the Wailua River in 1957 (when we were 21 and just married): Betty eating pineapple with our host, Mr. Eisenberg; Betty joyous beside the river; me sitting under the lanai, contemplating the universe from afar; and Betty feeding one of our charges, Joe the Goose (who didn’t like me at all and nipped viciously–bad microbes at work!–at the back of my legs because I never fed him):

betty-and-mr-eisenberg-eating-pineapple   betty-in-hawaii

bill-under-lanai-kauai         betty-feeding-joe-the-goose

Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes (poets will notice the “lift” from Walt Whitman) is loaded with so many wise gems that, should I not restrain myself, I could quote endlessly. Let me bring this blog to a close by citing two more examples from his book—the first of which affected me “personally.” He writes at some length about a scientist, Bruce German, who is doing extensive research in what he regards as a “superfood,” “the perfect source of nutrition”: milk—and the ambivalent service provided when obtained from a mother: “little spheres of fat, encased in proteins that resemble those in [our new friend] mucus”—globules that “provide nutrition to a baby,” but also may “give baby’s first viruses a foothold in the gut.” German’s research has disclosed much about the “huge interwoven system for stabilizing our relationship with our microbes … viruses can be allies, immune systems can support microbes, and a breastfeeding mother isn’t just feeding a baby but also setting up an entire world.” Breast milk is “far more than a bag of chemicals. It nourishes baby and bacteria, infant and infantis alike. It’s a preliminary immune system that thwarts more malevolent microbes. It is the means by which a mother ensures that her children have the right companions, from their first days of life. And it prepares the baby for life ahead.”

I took a special interest in this section of Yong’s book because, as a baby, I was allergic to my mother’s milk, and it was interesting to learn just how much I might have missed out on. Then, in a chapter called “The Long Waltz,” Ed Yong composes a symphony (or poem) in praise of our “beginnings” and relationships (between animals and bacteria) in which “partners have been waltzing together for millions of years”—honoring vexing questions about “the first steps of the long waltz” that are almost always “lost in deep time, and have left few footprints for us to follow”—but essential questions which scholars of symbiosis–in spite of the fact that “all animals evolved from single-celled predators that ate other things”–hope someday to answer.

Here are some photos of interesting specimens: “The adorable Hawaiian bobtail squid” which house “a single species of luminous bacteria, which hide it from predators.” and “the fearsome beewolf” that protects its larvae “by painting their burrows in antibiotic-producing microbes.” (Photo credits: Carly Brook;

hawaiian_bobtail_squid041  beewolf

My acquaintance (so long forestalled) with the world–the universe–I have been describing has not just been exciting, but thrilling—and not so far removed from William Blake’s vision as it seemed, at first (Yong himself writes: “To peer into this world is to peer into William Blake’s grain of sand.”). If nothing else, I learned that it most certainly is possible, at age 80, to learn something “brand new”—to domesticate the unfamiliar and add it to the familiar inhabitants of the brain (all that “artsy fartsy” stuff I’ve carried there throughout my life). I joke with my wife Betty that at the age of 80, I’m thinking seriously of going back to school and become a neurosurgeon, but now, having read Ed Yong’s amazing book, I just might switch my “major” to microbiology.

So far, Betty has definitely not “bought into,” or even acknowledged, my crazy advanced-age ambition (or dream), so my life remains focused on getting a consistent amount of writing done and making music whenever (and wherever) I can. I was exaggerating, of course, when I said—at the start of this blog post (I was just trying to get your attention, ho ho)—that I considered hard science work the most imaginative, most innovative, and most inspiring work being done just now, although I wasn’t exaggerating by much.

I do continue to “devour” the work of inspired poets in whom imagination continues to reign supreme (Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Li-Young Lee, and my good friend Robert Sward, to name just a few), and I just returned from a weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival, having heard music as expressive, original, and artistically inventive as any I’ve ever witnessed (Josh Redman, Ron Miles, Brian Blade, Somi, Gregoire Maret, Claudia Villela–to drop a few more names).

What I love about all that I am exploring, and enjoying at this time of my life, is being able to set two seemingly disparate worlds–“Art” (if you will) and hard science–side by side: allowing them to converse with one another and take delight in their own symbiosis, “promoting fealty rather than defection.” Even though my own vestibular system may be somewhat shot, I have a far better sense of balance now between William Blake’s “free creative life” (“fourfold vision” and a world “in a grain of sand”) and the world of science I had ignored—and I thank every microbe, good and bad (Yong: “By partnering with microbes, we can quicken the slow deliberate adagio of our evolutionary music to the brisk, lively allegro of theirs.”) for the fortunate union I’ve arrived at–my vertical DNA in mutual accord now with busy neuronal and microbiome life so rich with all its vivid horizontal inheritance.

I also want to thank everyone who takes time (and has patience enough) to read this blog (I have jokingly referred to these posts, or “essays,” as a unique genre: “Blog Baroque.”). Since I undertook Bill’s Blog in February of 2013, I have gathered 3,501 visitors from counties all over the world (from Algeria, Australia, and Azerbaijan to Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and United States to Venezuela and Vietnam). Unfortunately, I don’t know who all of you are (as individuals), even when I am provided with information as to where you are—but I am very grateful for the time and attention you have paid to what I write.





Music, Prose, and Visual Arts

This will be a short, casual, comfortable (I hope!) blog piece—not an essay. Lately, I’ve been focusing, in essays I’ve included here, on poetry and music, but I think it interesting, doing the research I’ve done and also random reading, just how often–in prose–I keep finding analogies between music (the eternal source of everything?) and whatever subject is being discussed.

In his book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Antonio Damasio, a neurologist/philosopher writes: “Feelings of pain or pleasure or some quality in between are the bedrock of our minds … there they are, feelings of myriad emotions and related states, the continuous musical line [italics mine] of our minds, the unstoppable humming of the most universal of melodies that only dies down when we go to sleep, a humming that turns into all-out singing when we are occupied by joy, or a mournful requiem when sorrow takes over.”

Here is a photo of Damasio (as if he were conducting an orchestra!), and his book: (Photo credit:

Antonio Damasio     Looking for Spinoza

In “Breaking the Rules,” from The Writing Life, novelist/short story writer Ellen Gilchrist says, “Rules are made to be broken … Show, don’t tell, always ricochets because every great writer has told us plenty. The work for the young writer is to find the balance. This is the work of the ear [again, italics mine]. A good writer is a person with a good ear who can hear what the sentence or paragraph is supposed to sound like to the reader. It must ring with the writer’s voice. Voice, ear, the ability to write is like a singing voice.”

And here are Ellen Gilchrist and her book: (Photo credit:

Ellen Gilchrist 2      Ellen Gilchrist The Writing Life

In “On Going a Journey,” classic 19th century personal essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “The mind is like a mechanical instrument that plays a great variety of tunes, but it must play them in succession.”

And from contemporary essayist Phillip Lopate’s excellent prose account (“Chekhov for Children”) about getting New York school kids (ten to twelve year olds: fifth and sixth graders!) to bring off, successfully, a performance of Uncle Vanya: “Here at last would be a chance to dig in and demonstrate how a great literary work was like music [italics mine], with patterns and refrains and variation, adagios as well as allegros.”

I’ll complete this set of “illustrations” with a drawing of Hazlitt (an engraving after a sketch by William Bewick, 1829) and a photo of Phillip Lopate: (Photo credits:;

WILLIAM HAZLITT   Phillip Lopate

I’ve been playing music most of my life (since the age of twelve), but I was originally trained as a visual artist (University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, University of Hawaii, University of California-Berkeley), and while I was at Pratt in the mid-Fifties, and Abstract-Expressionism was not just “in the air” but everywhere, there was much talk of and much effort spent on attempting to have painting attain “the condition of music”—or in the words of one of the early advocates of this ideal, Wassily Kandinsky, permit “technique and intuition to merge with the sort of immediate sensory experience provided by music.”

Here is a portrait of Kandinsky painted by fellow artist Gabriele Munter; a color woodcut by Kandinsky called “The Singer”; and samples of five of his subject-free “musical” works: (Credits:; mrspicasso’artroom;;;

Kandinsky portrait by Gabriele Munter      Kandinsky Singer

Kandinsky painting 5

Kandinsky painting 3   Kandinsky painting 4

Kandinsky painting 1    Kandinsky painting 7

In the words of another early advocate, Paul Klee, painting should aspire toward what “the time-bound art of music has gloriously achieved in the harmonies of polyphony.” According to author Will Grohmann, at one point in his life, Klee felt that “modem music was more advanced than modem painting” (paradoxically, he felt it had been his good fortune “to develop painting, at least on the formal plane, to the stage reached in music by Mozart”; he regarded Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony as “the highest attainment in art”). Music held a central place in Klee’s art (he was also a fine musician). He told his pupils that he preferred the word “absolute” to “abstract” for the “new” art, because the absolute was something “in itself,” like the “absolute of a piece of music, psychical not theoretical.”

Grohmann cites such musical features of Klee’s paintings as “their rising or falling rhythms, brief or broadly arching melodies, subdued or cheerful keys, polyphonic or harmonic phrases, tonal and atonal counterpoint”–and even such strict forms as fugues and sonatas. “All the music that was in him,” Grohmann writes, “he utilized as a foundation on which to build a science of artistic form.”

Here’s Paul Klee at work—and three of his “absolute” or musical works: (Photo credits:;;; sai/

ikleepa001p1    Paul Klee painting 1       klee.southern-gardens     Paul_Klee_-_The_Lamb_-_Google_Art_Project

It also seems that for much of my life, I have attempted to merge or fuse these three art forms: music, literature (both prose and poetry) and visual art—most recently integrating two of them (poetry and music) as song. Unlike the sources I’ve cited here, I do not have all that many theories on the process of reconciling such seemingly “discordant elements.” I just try to do it!

In the past, on this blog, I’ve cited a song I have written (based on a poem, “My Fingers Refuse to Sleep,” published in the journal december), as sung by vocalist Jaqui Hope (with Heath Proskin on bass and yours truly on piano). Now I’d like to “exhibit” some of my own visual art work which I feel may qualify as “musical” in effect. Aside from a bit of identification, I’ll just let the examples speak (or sing) for themselves:

(1/2)   Two paintings from my own “Abstract [Absolute] Expressionist” phase; (3) Just for the heck of it: drawings I did for an anatomy class at Pratt Institute–included because I’m still pleased to see how much m0vement (“music”) I could find in those static old bones; (4/5) two woodcuts of poems by Archilochus and Buson in which I tried to capture  the original “dancing” words of Classical Greek and Japanese; (6/7) a woodcut and ink painting (mythological themes); (8) woodcut on a Biblical theme, and (9) Jaqui Hope, Heath Proskin, and I (the You Tube video of “My Fingers Refuse to Sleep,” for which we have had 550 visitors, can be found at: ).

Berkeley-Honolulu Paintings 5       Berkeley-Honolulu Paintings 6

Pratt Drawing 9      Archilochus2

Buson1       Gypsy Wisdom2

Goat Pan and Couple Dancing     Woodcut Prints Lilies    It's a Wonderful World 3

Perhaps, in a future blog post, I can come up with some reflection (theories) on the “marriage” of these different art forms, or music as “a foundation on which to build a science of artistic form”; but I hope, for now, you have enjoyed this somewhat casual edition of Bill’s blog. I certainly do not intend to compete with Kandinsky and Klee, but thanks for a chance to show my “stuff” (my own art work).



Poetry & Music: A Preface

Having revised and posted (on this blog) some pieces (I liked) from a manuscript I’ve been at work on for some time, I’ve been (semi-) joking about forsaking, or abandoning, that project as a potential “book”—one that bore the burdensome title “Poetry & Music: An Autobiographical Historical Study from the Birth of Speech in Song to the Present Day,” altered (and you shall see why) to “Song: A History of Poetry and Music from the Singing Neanderthals to the Present Day.”

The problem I’m having as a writer with my own defection is: I keep finding “stuff” I like in the original manuscript: material which, I feel, not only presents a unique approach to the subject, but (forgive the lack of modesty) was well written as well, even in draft. Consequently … I’d like, today, to offer a new version of the original “Preface,” re-considered and re-written, but still dedicated to that point at which my interest in the subject of the marriage of poetry and music began–the journey revisited, but with a fresh “take” for this blog.

I realized I could not come up with many “illustrations” (photos) for this blog post, for the ancient forerunners (especially the Neanderthals) were shy about having their pictures taken—but then I thought of something I could do, just for fun (and I am not at all opposed to having fun on this blog)—even though it might prove incongruous: I could accompany the text with photos taken of major musical artists I have been fortunate enough (no blessed) to hear; those I have written about and actually came to know—and my own musical experiences with local artists, and even family members. That way, we can merge ancient origins with a “slide show” of musical life as we know it today.

As a start, here are three giant jazz pianists: Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Hank Jones. Only instrumentalists, I know, not poet/musicians (sorry, ho ho), but I shall never forget the experience of hearing the first two, “live,” at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, Michigan in 1952; and I came to know the latter well when, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I interviewed him for a 1987 JazzTimes article:

Art Tatum  Erroll Garner  Hank Jones

The subject of the evolution of music (whether instrumental or “song”) is huge, I know, and I wouldn’t have attempted to write about it at all had I not loved and studied and played music for sixty-six years and loved and studied and written poetry for sixty-one years. I have a large stake in the topic, am obsessed by, and thoroughly curious, especially, about the marriage (and occasional breakup and sometimes messy divorce) that occurs between these two art forms.

In an essay called “Poetry & Religion” (one I did somehow manage to keep down to a single essay, not a book!), I concluded that while I am, admittedly, no “anthropologist” and may not have read all the right books on that topic, it seemed to me a common sense conclusion that poetry may have begun as a form of music-based incantation, an extension and refinement of crude chants already in use by which people attempted to pray, praise, petition, plead—whatever form their natural inclination might take. As evidence (highly personal, I’ll confess—but confession is a significant portion of religion too), I offered examples of just how closely the rhythm of poems I loved and would later learn by heart (poems by Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Yeats, Rilke, Gerard Manley Hopkins; even Robert Burns’ highly secular–bawdy–poems) matched the cadence of the prayers I’d learned and intoned at night (and sometimes by day) as a child—having been conscripted as an acolyte at age eight.

I’m still no anthropologist and still, perhaps, have not read all the right books on this subject, but I’ve read enough of them and discussed the topic often enough with those purported to know, to have sensed that poetry, indeed, may well have originated in such music. Once again, this conclusion seems common sense. Have you ever found yourself sitting, feeling you were not just in a “pretty good” but an excellent mood, or else not just “down in the dumps” but feeling the true blues, and you suddenly find yourself tapping on a table top while you begin to hum some vague tune and even attempt to match that tune, to embody it, with words, even if those words seem somewhat nonsensical at the time? I do this often and I’d be willing to bet that you do too, (or at least on occasion). The process seems natural, instinctual; it’s what links us to those distant ancestors who first wed music with “poetry,” however crude that poetry (and the music as well perhaps) may have been. I’ve yet to find an exact date as to when this marriage first took place,but that seems beside the point (when they “dig up” the fossil phonograph recordings someday, we’ll know!)—the point being that the marriage and its evolution were inevitable.

Let’s take some time out (“Take five”) from the main focus of this essay, for some more photos of musical folks I came to know and have written about—international artists: pianist/vocalist Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh from Azerbaijan (whom I interviewed in Moscow for Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Though the Soviet Union); pianist Kotaro Tsukahara from Japan (with whom I played in Tokyo in 1996); drummer Akira Tana (for a program promoting my Jazz Journey’s to Japan: The Heart Within at the San Francisco Public Library in 2004); and with flugelhornist Tiger Okoshi, with whose quartet–the thrill of my life!–I sang (“Saint James Infirmary”) at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2005:

Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh   Bill at Piano with Kotaro

Akira Tana    Flugelhornist Tiger Okoshi                                    Bill with Tiger Okoshi Quartet 2

Fond memories to look back on—but back to the track: I don’t write down what I find myself humming at the kitchen table, for much of it is tentative (a euphemism for “nonsensical”), not yet of “literary merit,” while some of it may well emerge as a poem someday, just as in the case of our ancestors. Most of my poems seem to “arrive” in the shape of musical cadence; I hear the overall rhythm, first, before the words arrive.

What poetry first came down to, or up to (perhaps) was not just the need to pray, praise, petition, or plead (as I assumed in “Poetry & Religion”), but a very human need to retain and transmit “information” of some sort, information about oneself and/or one’s own “culture.” Whether tapped out on a crude tabletop or on an equally crude “drum,” the rhythms that gave birth to words allowed people—first perhaps as individuals attempting to communicate, then “families,” then as “tribes”?—to use their own voices as instruments: instruments that could convey information at will. Not that the world was neatly divided up into tidy units of bassos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, mezzo-sopranos and sopranos at the start (I’m not sure I would want to have been on hand to hear those first attempts to speak, or sing, in chorus!), but sound invites patterns of repetition, and it might be assumed that the next step was as natural, as inevitable, as the first: once the possibility of “poetry” (repeated verbal patterns) was in place, people began to recognize the basic ingredients of poetry: ingredients that made it easier to say or sing it (and more about that in a moment).

Once I had formulated my own brilliant theory on the origin of poetry in song, I did undertake extensive reading on the subject, and I discovered–of course–that the subject was far more complicated than I’d thought, that not everyone agreed with me (how dare they not!), and that there was a wide range of discrepant opinion—some of which placed words or language in the lead as far as evolution came about, somewhat or even far ahead of music. With regard to “origins,” opinion ran the gamut from sex (Darwin thought music preceded speech as “an elaboration of mating calls,” both sexes attempting “to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm”) to the notion that music is “species-specific,” based on our, in author John Blacking’s words from his book How Musical Is Man?: “Essential physiological and cognitive processes  … musical composition and performance may even be genetically inherited.”

Igor Stravinsky suggested that we might have had to travel a bit further along the line, or “down the road a piece” of development, when he asserted that “tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organized and that such organization presupposes a conscious human act.” Other “experts” maintain that, given “group” needs, “the use of rhythm and melody for the purposes of speaking sentences grew directly out of its use in choral singing”–as the result of  “social-bonding.” Some anthropologists did maintain that vocal music began as a special way of communicating with the supernatural—the first collective “church” music (how well I remember standing up, abruptly, at a very early age, when the collection was taken in church, attempting to lip sync “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”). Yet Blacking finds, in national dance performances, “the highest degree of individuality is the largest possible community; a combination of opposites rarely achieved”—as anyone who has ever been abandoned, or lost, in one’s own “self” at a rock concert knows.

Another theory finds the origin of “poetry” in music far more intimate, personal–claiming that the “lulling of infants” or mother/child “talk” is responsible. Ellen Dissanayake writes: “Music originated in the ritualized verbal exchanges which go on between mothers and babies during the first years of life.”

And speaking of childhood, it’s time for some photos of my early efforts as a musician: a fledgling pianist at age 14; then with the J.P. Wolff Band (a “professional,” no less) at age 15; a wanna-be guitarist at age 15; behind my first set of drums (Slingerland Red Pearl) at age 16; and playing those drums (behind a vocal trio) on a fraternity Mardi Gras float in Ann Arbor, Michigan at age 17.

Bill age 14 at piano   Bill with J.P. Wolff Band

Bill with tenor guitar age 15  Drum Set1

Bill on Drums Sigma Chi Float 2

To extract one more theory from the deck: author William Poe claims that “the earliest forms of music probably arose out of the natural inflections of the voice speaking”—or adult “talk.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau put the musical cart before the horse of speech (or alongside it), saying that “at the early stages of human society there was no distinct speech apart from song” (that must have been fun; I’m sorry I missed out on it: our earliest conversations chanted, or sung!) and Giambattista Vico believed that “human beings danced before they walked”—the world according to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or better yet, Nijinsky, gravity challenged from the very start!

I have not attempted to present these theories in any systematic order, or to arrange them thematically (those that seem to agree with one another somewhat, as opposed to those that beg to differ)—but to present them as I “fell upon them,” so to speak, or as they came to me, with all the consternation such multiplicity can cause. Things really got good when authorities began to discuss the origin of musical instruments. Daniel J. Levetin writes, “Music predates agriculture … musical instruments are among the oldest human made artifacts we have found.” The Slovenian bone flute, for example, dates back 50,000 years–and percussive implements, apparently, go back thousands of years before folks began to blow into such a thing as a flute.

In Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, Robert Jourdain describes the first trumpet: worn atop the head of Parasaurolophus, “the most majestic of the hadrosaurs,” a family of dinosaurs that evolved late and thrived “right up to the great extinction sixty-five million years ago.” Parasaurolophus was “nobly crowned” with a five-foot-long tube arching from its nostrils “to well beyond the back of its head”—if not exactly a trumpet, close enough (regarding its originality): a “resonator—a closed vessel for amplifying particular frequencies”—an instrument that Parasaurolophus “used to trumpet its cries far and wide.” Jourdain claims that hadrosaurs may have been smart enough to identify each other by way of these trumpet blasts, and that the sounds they produced were not “just any old sounds, but musical sounds—tones.” He regards this crest as one of the first musical instruments.

With that in mind, here are: the trumpet skull of Parasaurolophus; an archeological shot of me (in the middle) when I played with a folk-rock group called Bill, Blake, and Rick in Wisconsin in the late 1960s (I was writing my own songs by then); playing tenor guitar (alone, and with “Big Lee” Rexroat, an amazingly versatile musician); an aging pianist with a slightly smaller nose than Parasaurolophus; the same guy playing drums; the same guy with two groups he’s been fortunate to perform with: The Something Cool Quartet (guitarist Brice Albert, vocalist Julie Capili, me, and bassist Heath Proskin); and my favorite group: The Something Cool Trio with drummer Jenn Schaff, Heath on bass, and your truly on piano:

Parasaurolophus_skull_NHM   Bill, Bkae and Rick2

Middle age Bill on guitar   Bill Playing with Lee  Rexroat  Bill at Piano1  Bill at drums recentBill at drums

Something Cool with Brice and Julie2  PG Something Cool DVD Cover

Something Cool Trio Alternative

Meanwhile … whatever, or whoever got there first, it seems to be a “fact” that by the time of recorded (written!) Greek history, music and poetry were inseparable–an important feature, according to author Anthony Stour, of domestic celebrations, and religious rituals. In this sense, Homer reciting the latest news from Troy (accompanied by a lyre) was the very first Anchor Person. Thank goodness the equivalent today–whether female or male–is not required to sing the news. The Greek word melos (the origin of our word “melody”) does stand for both lyric poetry and the music to which a poem was set.

All of these experts seem to be asserting what another author, Raymond Firth, assumes: songs are not, as a rule, “composed simply to be listened to for pleasure. They have work to do, to serve as funeral dirges, as accompaniments to dancing, or to serenade a lover.” They serve a purpose—however humble or grand that purpose may be. Song is the means, as Bruce Chatwin has written, by which “the different aspects of the world were brought into consciousness, and thereby remembered.”

Most of these theories imply a certain degree, or even a high degree, of intentionality. Reading, or discovering them, I did feel my own account wasn’t really that far off the mark, even if the origin I’d concocted seemed a bit simple, casual, suitably “primitive” (ho ho) by comparison. Before “aging” set in (limitations on legs, vision, and vestibular system), I was an inveterate “walker,” not just because I may be one of those odd creatures who doesn’t drive an automobile (although I am), but because I love the act of walking. I have a feeling that “feet” may have proceeded both music and speech—given birth to them in fact. I get my best poems, I feel (or the initial rhythmic sense of them; as I said, for me, the rhythm of a poem often precedes actual words), while walking; and the great Russian poet Osip Mandlstam, in his essay “Conversations with Dante,” insists that in order to read The Divine Comedy properly, one must equip oneself with  “a pair of indestructible Swiss hobnailed boots,” because Alighieri himself must have worn out countless “oxhide soles” or “sandals” walking the goat paths of Italy, composing his work—work that, in Mandelstam’s view, glorifies “the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the footstep and its form.” The human “step, linked with beauty and saturated with thought” Dante understood, according to Mandelstam, was “the beginning of prosody.” “The metrical foot is the inhalation and exhalation of the step.”

Add to this basic “beat” the use of rhyme (one of those ‘ingredients” of poetry I mentioned previously—this one to assist the singer in remembering what she or he is supposed to sing), plus the various other tricks of the trade we are now familiar with, such as “alliteration,” “assonance,” “consonance,” and “onomatopoeia,” and poetry is off and running—or walking, as the case may be. Accompanied, always, of course, by that essential, concomitant, ingredient—its source, that which gave birth to it in the first place—music, now absorbed, embodied in the words, having taken up residence within them.

As time passed, the emphasis seems to have become reversed in people’s minds, so much so that in an essay called “Poetry as Music, Music as Poetry,” Al Rocheleau finds it necessary to remind poets where and how their art began, and to recommend close listening to Chopin’s “Nocturns” as a means to improve their own poetry—music which he feels “captures the dynamics inherent in all fine poetry.” Starting with the assumption (fully valid to my mind, and ears) that “it is the music of poetry that truly sets it apart,” he claims that close listening to the right sort of music (Chopin is his preference—but Radiohead would serve as well for me, Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, or the work of a first-rate jazz vocalist such as Kurt Elling or Karrin Allyson with their fine phrasing–and certainly Hector Berlioz in just about everything he did!), such close listening will improve every aspect of what they write: “lines will become more elastic,” meter “more flexible,” assonance and consonance “less forced” (“but probably more prevalent, as tone colors come out in the form of intermingling vowels and consonants”). Elements frequently used in jazz emerge, such as “rubato,” the pulling or stretching of rhythm as “written” (in a score) or prescribed—accents placed just before or just after “what is expected” (slowing down or speeding up, all those wondrous, sophisticated “tricks” that keep a listener slightly off balance but alert) to enrich and enliven one’s own poems, and certainly enhance “live readings” or performance.  My Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music translates “rubato” as “robbed time”—“what is ‘robbed’ from some note being ‘paid back’ later, creating “an admirable sense of freedom and spontaneity.”

And if you can abide one more “photo shoot” of musicians in action … it’s friends and family time, for here are: harmonica master Ricard Rosen and I; good friend and clarinetist Joe Gallo and I; and yours truly performing with son Tim (clarinet); with son Steve (bass); with Steve’s wife Yoko (“watashi no subarashi yome”: my wonderful daughter-in-law), singing Japanese folk songs; and a folk trio made up of singer/songwriter Nancy Raven, Karl Dobbratz and me.


Bill and Tim Playing Music   Bacon Fest Steve and I Jammin 5

Bill with Yoko Singing    Nancy, Bill, and Karl Dobrettz

Although much of the historical evidence I found may seem “tentative” (until something better or, as the song says, “the real thing comes along”), inconclusive, it makes good sense to me that music, in no matter how crude a form it may have arrived (grunts and groans attempting to locate a common pitch) may well have preceded speech with its crude yet gracious (in intent) attempts at love-laced song. Not long after I felt that, in my initial draft, I’d wrapped up this Preface, I discovered Steven Mithen’s book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, a book which seemed to substantiate the “hunch” I had about the marriage of poetry (or early “speech”) and music.

Steven Mithen is an archeologist who surveyed the earliest-known musical instruments (discovered by Nicholas Conrad and his team from the University of Tubingen): 35,000 year old “ancient flutes carved from the bones of swans and the ivory tusks of mammoths.” (quote from Elena Mannes: The Power of Music: Pioneer Discoveries in the New Science of Song). Subsequent discoveries in 2009 led to a five-finger-hole flute “made out of a griffin vulture radius”—an instrument on which “one can play any song you can hum.”

Archeologist Mihen felt that, until recently, music had been regarded as “purely a cultural phenomenon” (“something to do with expertise and performance and something you could specialize in”), but he believes music pervaded every stage of human life, and he turned to fossils for evidence—to the Neanderthals, surmising they were more than likely anatomically equipped to make “as wide a range of vocalizations as we can.” (Rather than attempt to summarize The Singing Neanderthals, I will rely here on Elena Mannes’ succinct quotes from interviews she conducted with Steven Mithen for her two-hour PBS special, The Music Instinct: Science & Song, reproduced in her book The Power of Music).

The Neanderthals had stone tools, but these tools remained the same for thousands of years. They were not “advanced” tools whose origin would have required language ability. So what use did the Neanderthals find for their suitably “empowered” vocal tracts? Mithen’s answer is “music.” “They must have had a sophisticated form of communication. Just like modern humans, they would have had to have told other people how they were feeling. They would have had to look after their children and nurture them [those “ritualized verbal exchanges which go on between mothers and babies during the first years of life” again!]. They would have had to make plans for group hunting and general movement.” Mannes summarizes: “Mithen imagines a kind of musical language made up of ‘holistic’ phrases with specific meanings”—each phrase “being complete in itself. For example, there could have been a musical phrase for ‘let us share meat’ or for ‘we’ll go hunting.’”

Mithen says: “And it’s not half-language or half-music. It just is what it is. This is just a perfect, adaptive form of communication that evolved. The ability to use rhythm, to use variations in pitch, to develop melodies, to sing in harmony. That comes … long, long before language—hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions of years before language. It’s a much more basic, instinctive capacity that we have than even language itself.” No such thing as syntax yet! No set vocabulary! We sang to one another, before we learned to speak! But, in Mithen’s words: “I really don’t want to separate sound from body movement and dance. I think they go together. And it’s in our society today when we separate them, it’s a really artificial separation … I think the way we should express it is that musicality came before language.”

Steven Mithren ends The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body: “My conclusion is the same as John Blacking’s in How Musical Is Man? [previously mentioned]: ‘It seems to be that what is ultimately of most importance in music can’t be learned like other cultural skills: It is there in the body, waiting to be brought out and developed, like the basic principles of language formation’ … In spite of all this, words remain quite inadequate to describe the nature of music, and can never diminish its mysterious hold upon our minds and bodies. Hence my final words take the form of a request: listen to music … [and the following, more than likely, in response to Harvard cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker’s contention that music is “auditory cheesecake”—enjoyable, pleasurable, but not essential to natural selection] When doing so, think about your own evolutionary past; think about how the genes you possess have passed down from generation to generation and provide an unbroken line to the earliest hominid ancestor that we share. That evolutionary inheritance is why you like music—whatever your particular taste.”

I couldn’t, of course, help but like Steven Mithen’s book and its basic hypothesis, which I felt “fleshed out” or granted fully articulate (fully researched) verification of my own initially crude thoughts and feeling as to the origin of “song.” So thank you, Neanderthals, for getting us off to such an important, essential start–and thanks to everyone else along the way (on this basic beautiful journey) who contributed to the union of poetry and music.

And as far as “visuals” go, I’ll close out with more of my own musical journey: some shots of groups I’ve been fortunate to “sit in” with (playing and singing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with the great Jackie Coon on flugelhorn and “Fast Eddie” Erickson on guitar; and with the “house’ band at the 60th high school reunion my wife Betty and I—who were classmates—attended in Birmingham, Michigan); playing at East Village Coffee Lounge with Heath Proskin and flutist Richard Mayer; and a  photo with my most recent group: vocalist Jaqui Hope, Heath Proskin on bass, and me on piano. We have, within the “tradition,” one of my own poems–“My Fingers Refuse to Sleep”– set to my own music on YouTube—and you can find it at:

Bill with Jackie Coon and Eddie Erickson

Bill with HS Reunion Band 2  Heath and Me at East Village

Heath, Bill, Richard

It's a Wonderful World 3

And here are two CDs I have recorded: the first–Bill Minor & Friends–of my own poems from a book, For Women Missing or Dead, set to original music; the second–Love Letters of Lynchburg–an original score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia, to accompany a reading of very moving letters exchanged by a married couple throughout the Civil War (this CD is available at: ).

Cover Bill Minor and Friends CD   Love Letters Cover

I hope you have enjoyed this odd combination of ancient history and relatively contemporary photographs of musical activity. Next blog … I probably won’t be so playfully adventurous (or incongruous)—but in the words of Thomas “Fats” Waller: “One never knows, do one?”

Heloise & Abelard

My last three blog posts on the “marriage” of music and poetry have prompted me to go back and take a good hard look at what I was doing, or attempting to do, in a book-length manuscript project (undertaken some time ago) on “song.” I am surprised at, and somewhat amused by, the “ambition” of one of the chapters: “From Plain Song to Polyphony: The Wandering Scholars, Peter Abelard, the Troubadours & Trouveres to Guillaume de Machaut”—a huge extent of time and genres I intended to include and cover (and I can see, now, why I abandoned that chapter before I’d even finished with the “troubadours”!). I did like what I found–by way of a draft–on Peter Abelard and his extraordinary counterpart, Heloise—and (what’s been billed as) “the tragic story of those immortal twelfth-century lovers.”

Working on the original book-length manuscript, which took me from the Middle Pleistocene age (781,000 to 126,000 years ago) through 13th century BC Egyptian love poetry and songs to Ancient Greek (covered in two recent blog posts) and Roman eras of song, and building to the Renaissance of the 12th century, I became intrigued by the tug of war that took place between “sacred” and “secular” song, and just how much they leant to one another (perhaps without knowing it). Even more exciting for me, was to discover actual music—re-created in recordings, now, and available in notation to boot!—and this the music of one of my favorite human beings, Peter Abelard, who, paired with the brilliant Heloise, became my favorite Medieval “couple.”

Helen Waddell introduced me to Abelard and Heloise, by way, first, of The Wandering Scholars; her novel Peter Abelard; and Abelard’s own extant work in Medieval Latin Lyrics. I then read his Historia calamitatum, an account of the calamity that befell him as a result of the romance with Heloise; their letters to one another (including Constant Mews’ The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard), Etienne Gilson’s Heloise and Abelard; and James Burge’s Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography. Then I found the music: two hymns by Abelard with the musical settings.

Here are: Helen Waddell’s novel; Mews’ Lost Love Letters; Gilson’s Heloise and Abelard; and the James Burge biography:

Heloise and Abelard WaddellHeloise and Abelard Lost Love Letters

Heloise and Abelard Gilson Book          Heloise and Abelard 3

The bare bones of the couple’s sad love story are familiar, the “plot”: 1100 northern France as the “intellectual hub of Europe,” and the name of Peter Abelard sounding loudest in the ears, not just as the forceful, dynamic teacher of logic in Paris that he was, a brilliant and attractive philosopher, but a popular (secular) songwriter–something (at age thirty-seven) of a “rock star.” Engaged as a private tutor for a quite young (sixteen or seventeen years-of-age) Heloise by her uncle and ward Fulbert (a canon at Notre Dame), their study sessions led to an inevitable “sating” of passion, which led to their discovery by Fulbert and the castration of Abelard—the lovers eventually (and again, inevitably?) ending up as Abbot and Abbess of respective monastic institutions, one Abelard himself having founded, the Paraclete, granted to Heloise and her nuns.

It is a sad tale, for Heloise never stopped loving him in a way he was no longer equipped to acknowledge or fulfill (they’d had a “secret” marriage and even produced a son, named Petrus Astralabius), but Burge’s book provides as much of a “happy ending” as one may have a right to expect–outside of Hollywood. “Reunited” after ten years of silence without contact, Abelard was asked to write and made good on 133 hymns for use at the Paraclete—although “the music for all but two of them is lost”: the two I found! (more about them in a moment). Burges writes that one reason to believe that Abelard visited the Paraclete in later life is “that he obviously loved the place,” and when Heloise took it over, “he had even more reason to love it.”

They were by now “a mature couple” (she in her mid-forties, he in his late fifties), and “the passion of their early life could be expected (even in their case) to have diminished.” Burge presents a very pleasing picture of the two of them walking the grounds of the Paraclete (I like to see them holding hands beneath or within their robes!), discussing “plans for expansion” or visiting the site of the new church under construction. “They would have had plenty to talk about.” Philosophy, theology, the future of the Paraclete, “while all the time avoiding topics that related to the unresolved aspect of their lives.” Burge reminds us that Heloise had left a loophole in one of her letters, saying, “I will therefore hold my hand from writing words that I can’t hold my tongue from speaking,” and that whatever passed between them “did not prevent [her] from drawing Abelard even closer to the convent they both loved.” The author ends this appetizing portrait with the words: “Perhaps, however, her greatest achievement was to harness the very aspect of Abelard that had made her first love him: his ability as a songwriter.”

The lovers are interred, side by side, in Paris. In May of 2004, when my wife Betty and I made a trip to France, I went to Pere-Lachaise Cemetery to pay homage to Heloise and Abelard. Here are photos I took at the time: a “pathway” that immortalizes their names; the shrine in which they reside; Heloise’s “side” of the shrine; Abelard’s; and a shot I wish I might have taken, but didn’t: (Photo credit:

Paris Heloise and Abelard        Paris Heloise and Abelard 2

Paris Heloise and Abelard 3  Paris Heloise and Abelard 4      Heloise and Abelard side by side 2

In the first letter Heloise wrote to Abelard after contact had been re-established, she recalled her first acquaintance with him, at the time his “manhood was adorned by every grace of mind and body”: “What king or philosopher could match your fame? What district, town or village did not long to see you? When you appeared in public, who did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you or crane his neck and strain his eyes to follow your departure? Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.” At the time of their love affair, those joys had been celebrated in song–songs composed by Abelard, known throughout Paris, and beyond. “You had besides, I admit, two special gifts whereby to win at once the heart of any woman—your gift for composing verse and song, in which we knew other philosophers have rarely been successful … The beauty of the airs ensured that even the unlettered did not forget you; more than anything this made women sigh for love of you. And as most of these songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me.”

In his Historia calamitatum, which is largely an account of the insidious run of ills that came about in consequence of their “forbidden” love, Abelard could not resist pointing out to the monk friend for whom it was intended (as admonition to avoid such ills) that, his “musical offerings have, fifteen years later, stood the test of time and did indeed reach their intended Audience … A lot of these songs as you know are still popular and sung in many places, particularly by those who enjoy the kind of life I led.” Burge adds, “As his pride in the success of his songs shows, Abelard was not displeased with the idea of being a celebrated lover.”

It’s a shame those songs could not stand the test of (a thousand more years of) time, rather than just fifteen … for none of them are extant.

Here are: a painting of Heloise and Abelard at their “lessons”; another (a close up) from a painting of “the whole show” (being discovered by her ward, Fulbert): (Photo credits:; painting by Jean Vignaud (1819):;

Heloise-Abelard 2     Heloise and Abelard 5 Scandalist

Heloise and Abelard 6 encreviolette

Grand as Abelard’s reputation was, historians find Heloise equal to him in about every way. She may well have complemented and completed him where he fell short. In James Burge’s biography, the author mentions the “lost years” or seemingly unaccountable years, 1137 to 1140, and states that “there are substantial reasons to believe that there was a great deal of contact between [Abelard] and Heloise during this period,” that they “met frequently,” or that Abelard even remained for some time at “the convent that he had named the comforter” [The Paraclete]. When Abelard fulfilled her request to “prescribe some rule … suitable for women,” and supplied what seems “a critique of rules in general rather then a request for more of them,” he replied in a manner “consistent with the ethical viewpoint they shared,” one based on a belief that “intentions rather than actions were the criteria for deciding whether something was good or evil”–Heloise asserting the need to be “totally occupied with the inner man [or woman!] rather than outward works.”

A book, Problems of Heloise, framed as a conversation between them, contains forty-two questions Heloise posed (all “intelligent and challenging,” according to Burge), each with an answer from Abelard. Burge concludes, “It seems most likely that this collaboration would have taken place during face-to-face encounters rather than by letter.” Another book on cosmology (an interest they shared throughout their lives: “Their early love letters are filed with references to the stars,” and they named their child, Petrus Astralabius, after “an instrument that models the movements of the heavens”), this book called Hexaemeron, was written at Heloise’s “instigation and persistent urging.” One of the hymns he wrote for the Paraclete nuns (and her!) celebrates human love as “strong as death for those who know the Lord” (“Rising as the morning light she walks on high / Bound to Him.”). This hymn is cited as possessing “a specially personal meaning for the couple while ostensibly celebrating the relationship of nuns to God.”

Constant Mews, the scholar who identified newly discovered letters as those of Abelard and Heloise, and included them, with abundant commentary, in his book. The Lost Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth Century France, believes that a hymn the Paraclete nuns sang on Easter Sunday, the Epithalamica, was actually written by Heloise (“Desire made unbearable by waiting, / Till lover comes to visit the beloved”), along with two short sequences about Mary Magdalene. Mews points out that Heloise’s ideal of love integrated three normally distinct concepts: amor (passion or subjective experience), dilectio (the choice of or decision to love another person), and amicitia (friendship), and that the quality Abelard “so much admired in her was that her words were matched by her behavior,” whereas other people’s words “seemed to him to be empty by comparison.”

Mews also cites other occasions, such as their mutual reform–or revision–of the Lords’ Prayer, in which it is not clear “whether the initiative” came from Abelard or Heloise. Saying that she “seems to have been sympathetic towards simplifying religious observance at an early date,” Mews mentions a poem of “unusual sensitivity” offered by a nun at Argenteril in 1122, “remarkable for its sophistication and interest in human sorrow,” a poem that provides “little reason to doubt that Heloise is its author.” Another long poem written by “an admirer of Aristotle and the discipline of logic,” found in a 12th century anthology, also appears to be the work of Heloise—and Mews concludes that she enjoyed “a reputation of her own as a poet,” at a time when women were not so acknowledged, even if they were poets of merit.

Here are: a highly romanticized painting depicting her departure from Abelard when she  became a nun; meeting again at the Paraclete; and “Hollywood” versions: two scenes of before, at their “lessons,” from the film Stealing Heaven—and after: Diana Rigg as the Paraclete Prioress Heloise: (Photo credits:;;

Heolise and Abelard Farewell Getty Images  Abelard_and_Heloise

STEALING HEAVEN, Derek de Lint, Kim Thomson, (as Abelard & Heloise), 1988.

Heloise and Abelard at their lessons         Heolise and Abelard Dianna Rigg

Peter the Venerable (Abbot of the monastery at Cluny), who consoled Heloise at the time of Abelard’s death, compared her to famous women from the Bible and throughout history, and told her that, “even though he did not meet her,” he had heard of her thirty years before as a young man when, even then, she was already “famous for her scholarship and devotion to serious study.” At the time of Abelard’s death, he wrote her, saying, “You have surpassed all women in carrying out your purpose and have gone further than almost all men.”

I literally “ran across” Abelard’s “Dolorum solatium”—David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan—in a book called With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made by Leo Treitler (a book that was of much value for understanding this music). I found notation for Abelard’s piece in a final chapter of Treitler’s work called “The Marriage of Poetry and Music.” There, he summarizes a contention developed throughout the book regarding this union, stating that it is “mainly through the correspondence of melodic and poetic syntax that medieval musicians conveyed their readings of the poetry they sang. They did not go out of their way to achieve that; it was for them the central compositional process, the natural way of articulating meaning. And when their teachers set out to explain the syntax of melody, it was through its reflection of language syntax that they did so … A poem, like a melody, is a sounding phenomenon and it is as both sounding phenomena and syntactical orders that poetry and melody engage one another.”

Treitler demonstrates this conclusion by way of two manuscripts of transmission of Abelard’s “song,” and I was able to “flesh out” what I found there by not only playing the respective melodies as written (on the piano), but by way of a recording I found: baritone Paul Hillier’s Troubadour Songs and Medieval Lyrics, and then a second version or interpretation by a group called “Ensemble fur fruhe musik Augsburg” on another CD: Hildegard von Bingen and Her Time: Sacred Music of the 12th Century.

Here are: Jonathan taking leave of David; David and Saul; and two sides of Abelard as a bard (a medieval manuscript painting and a statue): (Photo credits:;;;

Jonathan_Lovingly_Taketh_His_Leave_of_David_Wikepedia   Davids lament over Saul and Jonathan Wikipedia

Abelard as bard 2   Abelard statue

The Hillier “reading” begins with two instrumental lute chords that seem to set the key rather than evoke a mood, to function as cue cards rather than sonic support, although Hillier’s voice is solemn and respectful from the start, the clear articulation of plain song or chant employed to tell the tale (without extraneous dramatization), no striking ‘dynamics” or stark emphasis such as one finds in 19th century “song” (a la Berlioz or Richard Strauss), yet the story is emotionally engaging, quite “moving” as the narration unfolds. The opening words set the tone of sorrow (“sadness most fitting”) the music providing simple accents rather than overt emotional enhancement:

Dolorum solatium / Laborum remedium / Mea michi cithara, / Nunc quo maior dolor est / Iustiorque meror est /  Plus est necessaria.

(As a consolation for sorrow, / as a healing for distress, my harp for me—now that sorrow is heaviest / and sadness most fitting—become more than necessary).

We learn of the “great massacre of the people,/the death of the king and his son,/the victory of the enemy,” and the overall vocal tone does reinforce the fact of “the multitude’s despair” that fills “all places with mourning.” The line “The faithless nation hurls insults” is emphasized, but the mood remains surprisingly “even” (stoic?) until the lines “The mockers say–/Behold how their God, about whom they babble,/ has betrayed them.” The effect of the line “the vanquished king is dead” is striking, followed by a reflective pause, respect for Saul forcefully enunciated or declared rather than dramatized; and what follows builds to outright grief: “Ve, ve tibi madida / tellus cede regia” (“Woe, woe unto you, Saul still moist with kindly blood”), a rise in voice, and pitch, then easing into the sincere remorse of “Planctum Sion filie/super Saul sumite” (“Daughters of Sion,/lament over Saul”), the singer’s, David’s, sorrow explicit in “Alas, O why did I agree/to such an evil resolution,” his contrition over having failed to come to Jonathan’s assistance in battle (“Jonathan, more than brother to me”)–the language handsomely translated by Helen Waddell:

Low in thy grave with thee / Happy to lie, / Since there’s no greater thing left Love to do; / And to live after thee / Is but to die, / For with but half a soul what can Life do?

The narrative that follows is straightforward, yet remorseful, an instrumental “break” (which is dramatic) inserted, and we return to the sentiments expressed in the first six lines: “Do quietem fidibus’ vellem ut et planctibus,” which Waddell renders as, “Peace, O my stricken lute!”—the voice so soft at the close it does resemble “sleeping strings,” a nearly whispered melismatic “spiritus” the last word in the song.

The second version of “Dolorum solatium” (David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan), the ensemble interpretation on the Hildergard von Bingen and Her Time recording, is far more elaborate than Paul Hillier’s, and commences with a lavish instrument intro (more about re-creating the strictly musical ambiance of these songs in a moment), and then subsides into a single male voice delivery much as the other, a straight-forward rendering albeit heavily “graced” with instrumental flourishes, one that forced me, I’ll confess, to “tune out” the more the ensemble joined in. The entrance of a contra tenor was accompanied by somewhat jazzy rhythms which, augmented by a host of instruments (it seemed), threatened to turn Abelard’s solemn “Plactus” into the sort of thing you might expect to hear at an Appalachian blue grass festival. The instrumental flourishes tended to obscure the text, the variety of rhythms and stark stress on certain words not always in accord with the overall “sense.” A significant passage, spoken directly to “my Jonathan”—“Alas, O why did I agree / to such an evil resolution, / that thus I was not able to be / a shield in battle for you?”—is so inflated as to seem shouted rather than sung.

The first male voice comes back in on, or for, a stanza that begins with what Waddell translates handsomely as “So share they victory, / Or else thy grave, / Either to rescue thee, or with thee lie; / Ending that life for thee, / That thou didst save, / So death that sundereth might bring more nigh,” but the rhythms that surround it prance as if in a dance, a pretty frisky “Planctus” or lament, nearly “hip hop”–or more like what might accompany a wake rather than a restrained memorial service. The ending does succumb to, or just dies, in another soft “deficit et spiritus.”

Here’s the Hildergard von Bingen and Her Time recording on which I found “Quanta Qualia”; and a “chart” for the piece as written by Abelard—along with a close up of the sculpted portrait previously shown, and a photo of Le Pallet, where he was born and grew up in the Duchy of Brittany, and where the “love child” of the union with Heloise, Petrus Astralabius, was also born. (Photo credits:;

Abelard on Hildegard album            Abelards Quanta Qualia chart

Abelard sculpture   Abelard home at Le Pallet

There’s a disclaimer, or rationale for the approach, in the CD’s liner notes: “The limited tone range of the Gregorian Chants were for Hildegard [but this is a piece by Abelard, not her] no longer sufficient enough to express her exultant love of God.” Hildegard of Bingen (also known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath) insisted on composing “dramatically emotional, jubilant sequences of melody that testify to great musical talent.” She and Abelard were contemporaries, and “Planctus” was found, apparently, in the library of St. Martial in Limoges, a center for Aquitanian polyphony of the 12th century—along with numerous names of instruments, which are cited (recorder, shawn, psaltery, chitara saracenica, harp, vielle, lira, miscellaneous percussion and even “hurdy gurdy”)–the existence of which at one time “enable and justify [the producers of the recording claim] using many instruments of this era.” I can see the “necessity of harp” as “consolation of sorrow / as a healing for distress,” but I’m not at all certain that the fact so many interesting instruments existed justifies attempting to use all of them at once. That seems a typically 19th century grandiose rather than a “medieval” approach.

The “Ensemble fur fruhe musik Augsburg” made amends, for me, with their interpretation of Abelard’s other hymn, “O quanta qualia,” the blending of voices beautiful, and respectful of the occasion, each word fully articulated, enhanced by pitch rather than distorted. The interlacing melodic lines bring out the best in the words: “ubi non praevenit / rem desiderium, / nec desiderio / minus est praemium”—and as rendered in English, again by Helen Waddell, they are the best, paying homage to “Sabbato ad Vesperas,” the peace “the high courts of heaven” bring “the weary” (“When God in Whom are all things/Shall be all things to men.”):

Where finds the dreamer waking / Truth beyond dreaming far, / Nor there the heart’s possessing / Less than the heart’s desire.

The ascent of the female voice is perfect for “Nostrum est interim / mentem erigere / et tois patriam / votes appretere” (“But ours, with minds uplifted / Unto the heights of God / With our whole heart’s desiring, / To take the homeward road”), and this piece does reach and satisfy “The fullness of the heart,” with dignity and restraint.

Listening to this performance, it’s not at all difficult to understand why Abelard was held in such high regard as a “songwriter,” and again, I couldn’t help but wish that his secular songs were available as well. I had the additional fortunate (and by surprise) experience of finding both of these pieces available on YouTube, along with Epithalamica, the piece Constant Mews actually attributes to Heloise, not Abelard.

Commenting on the six laments that Abelard wrote, and calling “Dolorum solatium” (David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan) “the greatest of all,” Helen Waddell wrote that within it, “the passion that never escaped in those strange remote letters to Heloise for once awakes and cries.” Constant Mews claims that “David’s lament that he has lost half his soul echoes those love letters in which Heloise offered [Abelard] ‘half a soul’ and described herself as part of his soul,” Mews adding “While writing about the parting of David and Jonathan, Abelard was mourning a relationship with Heloise which had never been allowed to come to fruition.”

James Burge praises the amazing couple, their extraordinary “collaboration,” when he writes that, composing the Laments, Abelard not only became “a significant champion of the rights of women in religious orders but he has started to apply his intelligence to questions of feelings … he begins to dramatize (and therefore at some significant level to analyze) the feelings of others regarding the universal experiences of love, pain, and separation.” Burge finds it “credible” that the “Laments and their subject matter would have been discussed during Abelard’s visits to the Paraclete,” and that “it is not so farfetched to see Heloise’s influence in Abelard’s new areas of interest.”

Here are: Heloise “crowning” Abelard as a Philosopher King (in “better days”); Abelard greeting Heloise at the Paraclete; a statue of her; the cover of John Marenbon’s excellent book, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard; and a final quote from Abelard: (Photo credits:;;

Heloise and Abelard 4 Robert Plant        Abelard and Heloise at Paraclete

Heolise statue 2        Abelard philosophy

Abelard If I am to be remembered

In The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, John Marenbon shows that, whereas Abelard ‘was controversial in his lifetime and remained so after his death” (seen, then and until recently, by his detractors as “superficial and misguided”), he was in actuality a “constructive” thinker who produced “cogent and often original answers” to the philosophical questions he raised; developed “a sophisticated account of the semantics of universal words”; and “elaborated a coherent, systematic and wide-ranging moral theory.”

Abelard’s life, although productive in this sense, was by no means “easy” once separated from Heloise. His arch-rival, “Saint” Bernard of Clairvaux, succeeded in having him declared a heretic; a ban was placed on his writing and his books condemned. Having abandoned teaching (what Pope Innocent called his “perverse doctrine”), Abelard would end his days at a Cluniac priory, “over sixty years old and possibly suffering from a form of cancer” (in Marenbon’s words). Peter the Venerable was able to have the “sentence of excommunication” lifted, and, his “time spent in prayer, reading and what writing his health allowed,” Peter Abelard would die in April of the year 1142.

At for the love between Heloise and Abelard, at the close of his biography, James Burge concludes that the couple’s collaboration over the Paraclete “must have been, for those who knew about it, an example of the possibility of true friendship between a man and a woman. As one commentator has recently put it, they had given male-female friendship a legitimacy. How far Heloise herself saw the final stage of her relationship with Abelard as the success of her quest for the perfect combination of love and friendship is less easy to know. We can only guess whether or not the lives they shared at this period did indeed begin to provide the comfort of friendship for which she had begged in her letters.”

I don’t need to guess. I am certain that it did.

An interesting documentary on the romance of Heloise and Abelard—Famous Love Stories: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, can be found at: –and excerpts from two films: Abelard’s hymn, “Quanta Qualia” as part of the first, Stealing Heaven: ; and a second film, Cesare/Lucrezia: Abelard & Heloise, at: