As Time Goes By: Kurt Elling, Lynne Arriale, and Philip Levine and The Poetry of Jazz, Vol. 2

I have been fortunate to know, interview, and write about three extraordinary artists: jazz singer/songwriter Kurt Elling, jazz pianist Lynne Arriale, and poet Philip Levine—the voice of the latter, who died in 2015 at age 87, celebrated by saxophonist Benjamin Boone on two CDs: The Poetry Of Jazz, Volumes One and Two. For this Bill’s Blog post, I’d like to express—with “examples”–the admiration and respect I feel for their work.

First: Kurt Elling. I have been corresponding with his publicist, Trudy Johnson-Lenz. Back in September, 2018, she let me know about a livestreamed broadcast from Dizzy’s Club in Lincoln Center of “Kurt Elling and Friends Celebrate Jon Hendricks,” featuring special guests Aria and Michele Hendricks (Jon’s daughters), Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, and vocalist Sheila Jordan.

The program was special because of Kurt’s solid friendship with Hendricks. He wrote about that friendship in a JazzTimes piece: “The first thing—always—was the smile. Immediate-upon-recognition, and wholly spontaneous. Bona fide. Beatific. And big? I’m talking little-kid-on-Christmas joyful, light-up-the-world big. Generous, in a way that would always be entirely beyond your deserving … Then the gesture would come: the arms thrown wide open to welcome you home. It was an indication that revealed an invitation—to embrace, and to admire … Here, my friends, was a self-made man. Here was a man who started out just another kid among 15 in one family. Except he wasn’t ‘just’ anything. He was the seventh son. As such, he would choose his own fate, standing out for the rest of his life … As a boy he sang for nickels and dimes in the bars: ‘Hey, mister, don’t waste that nickel on the jukebox! Give me that nickel and I’ll sing you any song that’s there. I know ’em all!’ As an adult he sang, by invitation, for the crowned heads of Europe. What’s more, he would write his own songs and lyrics—lyrics like none that had ever been heard before. This was a man whose ingenuity and artistry propelled him to combine Shakespearean-level lyrics with mother wit and acrobatic, atomic, urbane 20th-century swing and bop.”

The September 8 live-streamed show was great—a handsome tribute to Jon Hendricks in every way. On February 28 of this year, I heard from Trudy Johnson-Lenz again, letting me know of the world premiere of “Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind,” his “noir radio-style drama with live Foley sound effects and a 23-piece orchestra, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.” Again, two performance (March 1 and March 2) would be livestreamed. The theme of this show was “What happens to a person who’s been given an artistic gift and has the temperament, but the avenue of expression is obliterated?”

Trudy Johnson-Lenz gave me a complete run-down on the performance: “Kurt co-wrote the book, eight new songs, and the lyrics to four more with Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer Phil Galdston. The Big Blind’s stellar cast: Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ben Vereen, Allison Semmes, and Ian Shaw. Guy Barker conducts the ‘Jack Lewis Orchestra,’ which is actually drummer Ulysses Owens’ New Century Big Band. Ulysses is the musical director.  Terry Kinney is directing. The Foley artist is Jeff Ward.”

Here are photos of D.D. Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, and Allison Semmes (Photo credits: http://english.cri.cn; http://www.tdf.org; http://www.broadway.com/buzz):

D.D. Brigewater 5    Kurt Elling for Blog

Allison Semmes 4

I had to miss the first offering because of a gig of my own (playing piano for an event in Cannery Row), but I saw the second complete performance, and it was grand—again, a special consideration adding to my appreciation. Back in 2009, I had written an article for Jazz West on “Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation,” and Kurt had told me then of his plans to write and produce the work I’d just seen. Here’s what he said, then: “I’ve had an idea that for a few years has been gestating. It will be somewhat autobiographical, but it will also be based on Joe E. Lewis and The Jokers Wild: just using that as a very basic skeleton, but doing it in a very contemporary context and in that way sort of embracing history, because I have all these deep parallel experiences to Joe E. Lewis. The Green Mill was the club he was working in when they [mobsters] cut his throat. I know the tunnels. I know the ghosts of that place, and that it’s still a functioning club and it still has all this energy and it’s living. I’m not that interested in the old-time gangster thing. That seems real corny to me, and I want to present contemporary music as a heavy part of this, so we’re talking about a contemporary setting of an artistic tragedy—one that features a live and semi-spontaneous score.”

Me: “Will it work that way: as a legit ‘Greek’ tragedy, hubris, denouement and all?”

Kurt: “I’m working on the form. I’m not sure how its going to end, whether he pulls himself out or what the thing is, but I’m sure you can well imagine what an intensely mental game … well, I don’t know if ‘mental game’ is the right way to put it, but it’s something for me to contemplate: his life and the lives of people who have an artistic gift in a very special frequency and for whatever reason have that gift taken away from them. And then, what do you do with the rest of your time? If you can’t have your work in the Smithsonian and play music … if you don’t have a diversity where you’ve got back up things—then what?”

Me: “When people ask me if I ever get ‘writer’s block,’ I say, ’No, I just go someplace else,’ [to play and compose music] which is a fortunate option I think.”

Kurt: “Yeah! I think this kind of idea goes to not only the questions that would specifically haunt us, but questions of regeneration, questions of self. The choice of one’s identity, and the creation of identity. I want to say that’s an American thing. It’s not just that of an individual artist. This is not just a genre-wide phenomenon. Here are all these musicians who are creating themselves by creating music. They’ve done discipline, they’ve learned history; they’ve learned about music and now they are declaring themselves. And that’s an American thing.”

The March 2 performance of Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind jumped off to a very “cool” start. We’re back in Chicago, 1957, with Kurt as band leader/vocalist Jack Lewis (who loves to shout out to his audience, in appreciation for their applause, “Without you, I’m nothin!”). He is in conference with Ian Shaw as Tony Mongoose,” a “wanna-be” manager. Jack already has one: D.D. Bridgewater as Veronica, who “owns” him in ways and means beyond their contract, but Mongoose (who says of Veronica: “She’s a colored woman, at that.”) asserts, “You been stuck in neutral, goin’ nowhere fast! You got to be ready to jump, to jazz, to jive the world, get yourself in the groove; what’s that sound? That sound, my son, is opportunity knocking!”–and he then claims, “I’ll dig you up as a real singer … Star billing, get you your own room, you open in one week … in Vegas! Everybody wins!”

The classic 50’s Show Biz jargon and fake (Mongoose) or self-conscious (Jack Lewis) “hep talk” (jive talk) is a kick, and reminded me of something else Kurt Elling talked about in our 2008 interview. I had mentioned young MFA in creative writing candidates I met at a writers conference who, when I talked about living in San Francisco in 1958, said, “You were a Beatnik! To us that was the Golden Age!”—and I told them I was not fully aware, at the time, that I was a “Beatnik,” and that my wife and I and one-year old child were dirt poor to boot and it was no “Golden Age.”

Kurt: “Yeah, it’s all the Golden Age, and none of it’s the Golden Age. You know, frankly, musicians on the jazz scene in Chicago, certainly the people I was hanging out with, well, I gravitated toward the older musicians because I wanted jazz father figures, and I wanted to have their blessing and their encouragement and their love and their acceptance. I wanted to touch the past through them, and that’s how they talk! [laughs] So I wanted to be like them. It’s a little bit like what Gary Grant said: he became Cary Grant by pretending to be him long enough so that he did! He became him! So, now it’s just part of the thing, and I think it’s cool. It’s become an organic part of me, and even here at the [Monterey Jazz] Festival, I’m not the only one, man. Talk to Joe Lovano for a couple of minutes. Some of us just want to be a part of that. We want to continue to manifest that energy, because it’s good to be a slick, you know? It’s chic! It’s not ordinary.”

I quoted another portion of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, previously mentioned, for which Mezzrow even provides a glossary, and a translation, at the back of his book: “All I got left is a roach no longer than a pretty chick’s memory. I’m gonna breeze to my personal snatchpad and switch my dry goods while they’re [his lady friend is plural!] out on the turf,” etc. I told Kurt that, as I kid, these words became embedded in my head (and are still there, indelible), even before I learned the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.

 Kurt: [laughing] “There you go!”

In the The Big Blind performance, Ben Vereen–as tenor saxophonist Eddie Freeman–functions as narrator (setting the frame for Jack’s life), and D.D. Bridgewater is spectacular as manager Veronica—coming on like “gangbusters,” calling Mongoose a “oil street pimp, tryin’ to impress all the boys … he learned whatever songs he knows in a prison shower,” whereas she, who loves to spend time (on an expense account) in Paris, is “building a continental  identity” for Jack, hobnobbing with French stars like Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf—which leads her into a song about Paris, the “city of eternal love”—a song which includes some catchy lyrics (“What if forever is never … Never enough time is there—for forever.”) and a message: “Don’t matter who you love, or the color of your skin.”

Jack has reservations regarding his role as “lover,” and when Eddie enters, saying “What’s that all about?”, Jack says, “Play along will you Eddie”—the latter saying, as an aside, “Lady V found him when he was a singing waiter.”

Here are photos of the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago (outside and in); Joe E. Brown; and two photos of Kurt Elling singing at the Green Mill (Photo credits: www.choosechicago.com;  http://uplup.com/music/green-mill-chicago; www.doctormacro.com/; Wikepedia;  www.facebook.com/kurtelling/)

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge 3

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge 2  Joe E. Brown 2 Kurt Elling at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge  Kurt Elling at the Green Mill 2

All of the acting in Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind was solid, the story line unfolding as somewhat familiar (solid 1950s “stuff”), enticing, accurate—and good fun. And the unity of it all (the big band backing very effective—in terms of mood and forward motion) reminded me of one more set of statements Kurt Elling made back in 2008:

Kurt: “Well, again, if as an individual artist you could do anything from ranting to soliloquy to vocalese to straight up extemporaneous communication, I think that one already probably has a natural consciousness that is syncretic, one that wants to pull things together and see how they  combine. The most interesting thing is not to try to combine everything with everything; it’s to combine this interesting thing with this very disparate interesting thing, and to have a new viewpoint on everything else because you never would have thought of those two things together. So when the commissions started, who am I to say no? I gave it my best shot. They were always on a shoestring budget and they were only meant to run one or two nights at a time, but I’d give it my best shot because it was just a great creative challenge to try to figure out how these things would work together. I’m really proud of the results. I feel like I have a good organic sense of the way that dance and music and spoken word would go together, especially if I’m familiar enough with the choreographer’s work. Because a lot of times, if I’m seeing someone who has a great choreographic gift, and insight, that often inspires stories in me, so I’m adapting my thing to something that goes with this. It’s that kind of call and response, if you will.”

He held to these principles in the work I was watching. The scenes that followed were somewhat predictable, but handled with originally within each context. Jack meets a “young chick,” Jill (Allison Semmes, who took over as Diana Ross in Motown and led the 1st and 2nd Broadway national tours of that musical—and she’s adorable!)—taking photos for “a negro paper.” At the club he’s working, she asks Jack, “You a waiter?” “No, I’m a musician.” She’s impressed by, and takes photos of his performance, while he’s thinking (in Show Biz terms): “Hmmm, Jack and Jill … we may have to work on that.” She sings: “The faces I find … if I can stop the wheels of time and freeze the frame … the picture that never lies … In old age, every wrinkle’s a page …I can see so deep in you.”

The lyrics, the dialogue—everything was so cool in the overall performance, I’m tempted to try to quote each line (I took copious notes I hope are accurate!), but I haven’t space in this Blog, unfortunately, to do that, so … I’ll lightly touch on some lines that carried the performance to a very dramatic first-act conclusion: the scene having shifted to Chicago’s legendary cocktail lounge, The Green Mill, “The Pearl of Uptown … islands of love awaiting.” Jill is there, and saxophonist Eddie is “diggin’ on the light-skinned sister in the room,” saying, ironically, to the Shutter Bug (when she asks to take his picture), “They say it’ a free country,” telling her when she claims his saxophone “preaches” that he “plays the sounds that’s me,” and, when she asks, “Is it always like that for Jack—the autographs and attention?”: “Jack’s the front man, and front men are stars … stars get the honies,” adding, in a song, that other players on the stand are  “professional unsung heroes … you’re married to the music, for the music understands.”

After the show, Jack, promising “no complications,” cries, “Let’s go dancing!” Jill claims she’ll stick with “doing what she knows is right,” he claims “I’ll show you that I’m worth the risk”; and they do dance, both feel “sudden sensation,” and, in the midst of what Eddie labels “Jack’s Golden Hour” … the phone rings. It’s Veronica, of course, an “overseas call” in which she, again, promises him a gig in Paris, in “that little club over by Sacré-Cœur, Piaf’s favorite café”—then breaks off: “Jack, who’s that?” She screams accusations (D. D. Bridgewater is perfect, powerful in this role), “And in our bed!” Shouts, “I know what’s best for us,” and when Jack asks, “What’s that?”, responds, “ME!” Her jealousy drives her to song: “Be mine. Be careful! You are mine. Hear me, and you should fear me!”

But Jack has been anything but careful. At the close of his show, having asked (to her dismay) Jillie (not Mongoose) to be his new manager in Vegas, he cries out, “Special night here, Green Mill. Love!”—singing (a la Frank Sinatra), “All the Way,” and adding, “Without you, Baby, I’m nothing!” And that’s when we learn that Veronica did not call from Paris, “overseas,” but she’s there, in the Green Mill, and she’s heard everything. The radio announcer proclaims, “Take five, ladies and gentlemen.” Intermission.

Part Two of the noir radio-style drama resumes with a brazen Big Band burst, totally fit for the reentry, which is restless. Kurt (as Jack) appears in a while shirt and loose tie, phone in hand. Eddie also appears, with Mongoose. Eddie reminds Jack that Veronica “has an eight-inch blade in her boot,” and Mongoose tells Jack (who feels he’s “gotta find Jillie”), he’s “better off” (“ridding ourselves of all complications”). The next scene discloses Jack alone at the Green Mill, after hours, and Veronica shows up—on the warpath. “And now Las Vegas,” she says with a hiss; and when Jack protests, saying “Vegas is good business for me,” she snarls, “Mama’s talking! You don’t tell me, I tell you!” She slaps him, hard—saying, “You singing waiter!” She calls Jillie “a little whore.” A traumatic experience from their past slips out (“Our baby was born dead”) and when she attacks, slaps him again, it’s with a swipe of the blade she carries in her boot. Jack falls, choking. We hear a door slam, and the next scene takes place …

In hospital. Jillie is there. Jack’s throat has been cut and he can’t breathe. Jillie sings: “Let me sit beside you for a minute … Why can’t we just break free?” Nearly voiceless, Jack mutters, “Get Tony [Mongoose]!”—who appears as if on command, but turns cynical, saying, “Nothing left to manage … a lame horse … when the going gets tough … I’ve seen ‘em come and go …if he wants to stay in Show Biz, he can get a job as a drummer’s ventriloquist”—arrogantly adding “I’m the real star of the show!”

Eddie assumes a more prominent role as narrator from this point on. “Tony split town, leaving Jillie and me. And what’s left of Jack’s … voice.” Eddie tells us that the doctors say they don’t know if Jack will ever sing again. Jack “won’t rat on Veronica.” The two women, the rivalsfor what’s left of Jack, literally bump into each other on a visit to the hospital. Veronica asks Jillie if she’s there to see her “father”—then, “What is he … your sugar daddy?”

Jack’s voice gone, he takes to drink—and turns on Jillie: “You and your bloody street pictures.” He claims that Tony (Mongoose) was his “ticket to everything.” Jillie says, “I believed in you, not just your singing.” Jack strikes her, breaking a bottle of booze. Mournful music follows. Eddie shows up at Jillie’s place, saying he hasn’t heard a word from Jack, but has heard that he’s become “a running bum at the end of the bar”—and we shift to that scene, Jack singing (surprisingly well!) a song about “memories like old movies … moaning, slurring over words unspoken.” And then attempts the classic “Angel Eyes” (“I Try to think that loves not around / But it’s uncomfortably near / My old heart ain’t gaining no ground /Because my angel eyes ain’t here … So drink up all you people / Order anything you see / Have fun you happy people /The laughs and the jokes on me.”).

Eddie’s narration continues as Jack’s deterioration does: “Jack went on a real bender … library stairs, staring at strangers.” The wicked witch Veronica appears “somewhere in the fog, in the shadows,” in a “blur,” and sings: “I know your desperate wish, I know your darkest fear. Why am I still here? Survival!” And thinking of rival Jillie: “I’ll show her how a woman fights back when she’s black and blue … This is not the end … he’ll come back to me again, and we’ll laugh … I’ll laugh … Love: it’s never fair!” But it’s her “survival.”

Here are two photos of Kurt Elling in his role as Jack in The Big Blind (Photo credits www.pastemagazine.com/;  /www.southbankcentre.co.uk ):

Kurt Elling in Radio Drama The Big Blind  Kurt Elling in The Big Blind (2)

Eddie finally gets caught up with Jack, “passed out in a park.” Eddie attempts to lure him “back,” saying, “I believe the boys are gonna raise the roof tonight.” And not just “three chords” stuff (“ain’t gonna find me playing that shit”). He reminds Jack of Jillie, “The one gal who would have loved you”—and when Jack responds “It’s all gone … How am I supposed to live, Eddie?”, the latter sings a plaintive refrain on “love”: “You just have to feel it … when the world seems suddenly still … that soft-spoken melody will find its way to you … when hope is lost, give your words up to the great unknown … the sounds of the street and the voice of your soul.” And Eddie offers Jack a gentle sermon on rehabilitation: “Practice till you find something worth playing … Show up! Show up! When love is lost, or only exists in a dream … the melody remains in your heart, when pain fills you up again.”

The immediate result is good. Eddie tells us that “Jack came to stay with me for a while,” and Eddie “kept tabs on Miss Jillie,” who, returning to art school, has found success in NYC, a show of her photographs “opening Sunday afternoon at the Two Deuces.” Jack returns, momentarily, to “the joy box,” asking to sit in (“Could you loan me the piano for a minute?”) and tells his audience, “I haven’t been doing much singing, folks … This is new.” He sings, “They say dreams never die; I think that’s a lie … How can a dream live on, after the night is gone? … What becomes of the soul when the story is said and done … the music we hear will all disappear … on swallow wings.”

When he finishes the song, he sees Jillie—but walks out, just giving her a “little wave.” He tells Eddie: “See ya back at the crib,” but Eddie knows he’s just witnessed Jack’s “swan song … He just walked out into the night and disappeared.” Years go by. Eddie receives postcards depicting mountains and pine trees and the only words are: “It’s a good life up here.” Word comes he’s worked as a deck hand … he still listens to the radio—broadcasts from New York and Chicago. He signs off all contact: “Take care of yourself, Jack.”

At the close of the radio-drama, Eddie reflects: “We were two swinging cats at the opposite ends of our prime … Jack Lewis was my friend … he was the voice of Chicago: the sound!”

The voice of the announcer introduces the full cast, to rousing Big Band music and raucous applause from the audience. Kurt Elling is alive and well! He has added another “chapter” to his own story, his exceptional multi-faceted career. Congratulations, Kurt and friends on an excellent production: brilliant music, meaningful lyrics, a perfect balance between music and words, accessible story line, fully engaging drama, exceptional acting—the works! And thanks, again, Trudy Johnson-Lenz, for letting me know in advance about this important event.

 

Pianist Lynne Arriale recently sent me her latest CD, Give Us These Days, featuring her trio with Jasper Somsen on bass, and Jasper Van Hulten on drums. Going through previous recordings I have of hers, I realized we “go back” a long long way. I have: The Eyes Have It (1994), When You Listen (1995), With Words Unspoken (1996), A Long Road Home (1997), The Pleasure Of Your Company (with Richard “Cookie” Thomas: 1998), Melody (1999), Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1999), Inspiration (2000), Arise (2002), Come Together (2004). Other recordings by this prolific artist I do not have are: Lynne Arriale Trio: Live In Burghausen (2006), Lynne Arriale Trio Live (2011), Convergence (2011), Live at B’ Jazz (2014), Nuance:The Bennett Studio Sessions (2017), Solo (2017).

If I remember correctly, I first met Lynne Arriale, and heard her play, at the Jazz Bakery in Santa Monica—perhaps as far back as the mid-1990s. Fellow jazz writer Scott Yanow took me there, and introduced me to Lynne (whom he’d written about). In 2002, an article I wrote about her (based on an interview I had with her after she performed at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel) appeared in the March/ April issue of Coda. When Marian McPartland played at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2004, she did so, in piano duets, with Jason Moran, Bill Charlop, and Lynne Arriale—and I contributed an article, “Piano Abundance: Marian McPartland, the matriarch of jazz piano, highlights a constellation of keyboard stars,” to that year’s Festival program. Lynne was one of the “keyboard stars” I wrote about. I also recall a concert she gave at a walkdown venue I don’t remember the name of in Pacific Grove, CA, where I live—Lynne performing solo on a white grand piano.

I wrote the following in the Coda piece: “[Lynne Arriale] opened her second set at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel, California with “Bemsha Swing”–Monk with a vengeance, amply demonstrating that she’s at home with all forms of jazz and can richly interpret anybody’s tunes. No easy task in the case of Monk, given the individuation that giant himself possessed, and the host of genres (from stride to blues to bop) he too had absorbed and transformed … Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge prized the sort of individual artistry that could ‘dissolve, diffuse, dissipate in order to re-create.’ Coleridge, and Monk, would have been pleased with what Arriale did with “Bemsha Swing.” With unabated force and skill, she broke up the rhythms in a manner that might have surprised Monk, adding some cutting-edge cragginess of her own–wild clusters, sudden glisses, insinuating phrases and pauses that might have made Cecil Taylor smile, had he been in the house! The audience was kept alert, alive, and appreciative by it all until, the tune–the avalanche–resolved, Lynne Arriale sat back and smiled herself, saying, “It’s great to feel the presence of listening.” … She then exchanged the appropriate power (and joy) of Monkish “attitude” for the deceptive ease and serenity of William Walton’s “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part,” a tune that contained classical elegance.”

The first tune on the Give Us These Days CD is Joni Mitchell’s classic “Woodstock.” A somewhat solemn vamp leads into the theme, and the solely instrumental respectful rendering more than suggests the words (getting the soul “free,” and “back to the garden”); deft, direct, clean, carefully selected notes capturing the mood (along with Jasper Van Hulten’s accents and cymbal washes); a keyboard sweep followed by a percussive mode reassessing the event (bombers turned into butterflies—or “camping out” turned muddy?); a measure of frenzy in the celebration—chordal variation on the theme, and then back to it, mixed with an anthem (a touch of Jimi Hendrix?) “feel” and out, sweeping the keys again.

The next tune, “Appassionata,” features Van Hulten with a host of drum effects (all over the kit percussion), side by side with Lynne Arriale’s passionate but spare (subtle!) Flamingo melodic touch, handsome interplay, a lively yet over all lightsome conversation, dialogue, exchange … piano and drums back off for an subtle, agile bass solo by Jasper Somsen. Lynne’s ingenious rhythmic comping transforms itself into alert, alive melodicism for the close—followed by the lyric refrain of “welcome” in her composition (all but three tunes on the CD are her own), “Finding Home”; handsome lower register  chords beneath a lovely “no place like home” melody, offered as if cherished, caressed (her masterful touch!).

In his liner notes to Give Us These Days, Lawrence Abrams writes: “Above all, Lynne remains unfailingly a melodist. Her improvised musical sentences, or lines, are strong, lean, and lyrical. But whether they are rhythmic or motivic, as in Over and Out, or as in Finding Home, luxuriously long and complex, they fairly glow with her passion for melody.”

Here’s a photo of Lynne Arriale and the cover of the “Give Us These Days” CD (Photo credit: https://twitter.com):

Lynne Arriale 3  Lynne Arriale Give Us These Days

When, in the 2002 interview, I talked with her about her penchant for unadorned melody, Lynne Arriale offered a fitting analogy to speech. “‘Just because you know more words [substitute “notes”?], does that mean your speech is going to be more profound, or your writing? And the answer is ‘No,’ of course not. We all know that, yet it’s funny that, in music sometimes, doing more to something is considered hip, or whatever. But if we dress it up, we won’t be able to see the forest from the trees’ … Elsewhere, in the liner notes to Lynne Arriale Trio Live at Montreux, she’d said she wants an audience ‘to experience the widest range of human emotions,’ absorbing ‘many different colors, many different moods, many different directions.’ It works. Such generosity of spirit endeared her to the audience in Switzerland, and they loved her for it in Carmel too.”

Lynne Arriale generally works in a trio format. On that night in Carmel, I interviewed her with miracle-working drummer Steve Davis, who had provided percussive support for the past eight years and seemed to anticipate the pianist’s every musical move (for example, in their rapport on “Seven Steps to Heaven” with its stuttered Satie-like close). On the night I saw, heard, and interviewed her, Lynne Arriale’s plane had been delayed in Chicago, and she arrived at The Jazz & Blues Company just ten minutes before the trio’s gig began. Nevertheless, a slender, beautiful woman with auburn hair (which, tossing it in time to “Steven Steps to Heaven,” flared red) and stunning blue eyes, she carried a black “pillow” or cushion to the white piano bench (a cushion that looked as if it might be used for displaying jewels at Tiffany’s), and she performed without a trace of haste–or hunger (after her sets, when she, Steve Davis, and I retired to the Rio Grill, I would learn that she hadn’t had time to eat–an activity she undertook with zeal). I wrote, “Lynne Arriale’s appearance matches the range of her music, for it also suggests a completely winning, slightly waif-like quality that quickly converts to a tough, no-nonsense and fully articulate manner. All of these aspects turn up in her music.”

The title tune on the Give Us These Days CD (introduced by mallets on cymbal, establishing at the start a very comfortable “setting’) is again a piece that delivers sublime melody, again featuring Lynne’s brilliant bright touch, this time the mood arising from gratitude. The piece was inspired by Jim Schley’s poem, “Devotional,” which pays homage to every human cycle from marriage and inception (“confiding as never before /with body-sundering confidence;/ the sealed secrecy of youth”) to aging and treasured simple senses: “Hear one plea / when I say, let each of us three / live to be old … the sense of smell is ravenous / as you know, for these / blessed scents of kin: / the cotton jersey you work in, / or stockings for nights of singing / translucent as fragrance, / jade dress and cream-colored blouse, / mine to hold as I fold them … If I might be /so bold … if I may —Give us these days.”

Lynne Arriale “translates,” embodies such feelings into an instrumental prayer, reference for “the things of this world,” faith: the dialogue this time taking place between her left (chordal) and right (melody line) hands, totally at peace, at ease with one another, delicate at times to the point of appropriate silence (“stillness”), heartfelt devotion enhanced, again, by her melodic poise.

Here’s another photo of Lynne Arriale, surrounded by a few of her other recordings (Photo credit: http://www.wuwm.com):

Lynne Arriale Inspiration Lynne Arriale Milwaukee

Lynne Arriale Convergence 2

The tune “Slightly Off Center” is just that! It’s “Free up!” time, and the trio does, with ease—prancing, proud, uncompromised expression, extension—and another fetching melody: sprightly, playful, leaning to the left, leaning to the right, but keeping, always, its difficult balance—truly swinging! Dexterous, mellow hard bop—with a sudden stop! “Another Sky” offers a beautiful panorama established by the first few notes: soft spacious reflection, restraint, taste, and a grand “view” of the world. As is the “acceptance” (in the Zen sense of “mindfulness”) of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (“There will be an answer … Let it be.”): not a trace of competition or cynicism (with or about the original) in Lynne’s improvisation, but her own “space” taken possession of; her lyricism, laced with her gracious “touch” always, present without strain … Let it be.

“Over and Out” is a perfect instrumental close out piece, which displays each artist in the trio at “the best” (just as the bass and drum solos have been throughout the recording), “Gospel funky” here (as the liner notes say); a joyful noise served with gladness; Jasper Somsen soloing handsomely, subtly; Jasper Van Hulten quick and clean (Lynne churning it up in the background, frisky, free play) and all three back into a unison funky close out.

“Take It With Me” is my favorite Tom Waits song—and it was a delight to hear Kate McGarry sing it so beautifully here, with Lynne providing perfect (exquisite, tasteful, imaginative) backing. “It’s got to be more than flesh and bone / All that you’ve loved is all you own … I’m gonna take it with me when I go.” Human promise, hope, experience—transmuted, transcended … Congratulations, and thanks, Lynne Arriale and friends!

 

The third artist I would like to celebrate is Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award (twice!) winner and Poet Laureate of the United States  (2011-1012) Philip Levine—and by “extension,” saxophonist Benjamin Boone. I was fortunate to become friends with Phil, under unusual  circumstance. We discovered we had attended the same Art Tatum/Erroll Garner concert in Detroit the mid-1950s, and we discovered we shared the same disease (vestibular: vertigo)—but the collaboration between Philip Levine and Benjamin Boone came about in a more “natural” manner. Both teaching at Fresno State University (Phil Creative Writing, Benjamin Music), they paired off for a recording, The Poetry of Jazz, which featured Levine reading his own poems (many related to music), Boone providing musical backing (as composer, arranger, performer). The first CD includes further musical assistance on the part of “super star” instrumentalists Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, Branford Marsalis, and Greg Osby—whereas for a second CD, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (recorded between August 2012 and October 2018), Boone assembled a first-rate ensemble of local talent. Philip Levine reads poems that are favorites of mine, because they focus on the lives (the sort of existence Levine shared) of working-class Detroiters–and the readings resonate with my own experience of that city.

The first piece, “Let Me Begin Again,” opens (musically) with a cymbal wash, piano flourish, subtle alto saxophone, and Philip Levine steps in: “ … begin again as a speck / of dust caught in the night winds … Let /me go back to land after a lifetime of going nowhere.”; and it ends “Tonight I shall enter my life / after being at sea for ages, quietly, / in a hospital named for an automobile [Henry Ford Hospital, where Levine was born, and at which my own grandmother was once Head of Nurses!] … A tiny wise child who this time will love / his life because it is like no other.” Benjamin Boone matches or complements each shift in mood, tone, and time passing handsomely.

The second piece, “An Ordinary Morning,” is introduced by a soft acoustic bass pattern, then Philip Levine: “A man is singing on the bus / coming in from Toledo,” his “hoarse, quiet voice” … “tells / of love that is true, of love /that endures a whole weekend.” [Music: melodic sax in background]: The entire bus joins in song, even the driver: “One by one my new neighbors … accept / this bright sung conversation … We are / the living newly arrived / in Detroit, city of dreams … each on his own black throne.” Once again, Benjamin Boone “comps” each shift in mood or to another character adroitly (an apt sax fade at the end)—and assists in establishing the irony as well (“Detroit, city of dreams”).

Here are photos of the covers of the two The Poetry of Jazz CDs:

Phil Levine The Poetry of Jazz Vol 2  Phil Levine The Poetry of Jazz

I met Philip Levine when a teaching colleague of mine at Monterey Peninsula College, George Lober (who had Levine as a teacher at Fresno State University), invited him to give a reading at MPC. George told me that Phil was having vertigo “issues,” and would like to talk with me about the condition, which we did—at some length at a party after the reading, and thereafter in letters. We would correspond from April 2003 through August 2005, and not only discussed our mutual vestibular “affliction,” but jazz, the poetry scene in general, and living in New York City (where Phil was also teaching at the time).

I’ve had a vertigo condition for twenty-seven years now (brought on by a viral infection that did permanent damage to my inner ear), and when I met Phil in 2003, I had collected a stack of articles on the condition as thick as the Bible (both Testaments), much of which I passed on to him. Here’s a portion of a letter I would receive not long after his reading in Monterey: “Thanks for all the advice re the vertigo. I went off to Nashville last week prepared for trouble & got almost none … I’ll try most anything. I have had several episodes of loss of balance but no vertigo since I saw you. During my last reading I caught myself about to make a rather large gesture which would have evolved looking up–which is what I did in Monterey–, & I did not make said gesture. I’ll see how things go, & and if NYC is OK I’ll stick with what I have. If not I’ll try to locate someone as good as your Dr. Schindler [a San Francisco otolaryngologist who realized I had an inner ear problem, not Meniere’s Disease, with which I had been mistakenly diagnosed elsewhere for three years!]. I’ve been going to a gym most days; I use an exercise bike.”

I’m pleased to report that by the time of our final correspondence in 2005, Phil had done something I’ve never been able to do: he beat the vertigo “rap,” telling me, “We made a trip to Pragu, & I managed to get a low-salt menu anywhere I went … It’s now more than a year since I’ve had any loss of balance & almost two years since I had vertigo. I stick to the diet & try to avoid stress, which isn’t always possible.”

Phil Levine was the same candid, upfront, open, forthright presence in person (or in his letters) that he is in his poems (and that, unfortunately, has not always been the case with poets I’ve known). I treasure each of the letters he wrote to me, and what he had to say about poetry has proven invaluable. “I can’t stand people who think they are owed an audience of thousands & untold wealth because they write poetry. I went into this shit with my eyes open; I knew the chances of any success, commercial or otherwise, were about zero; I did it because I loved writing, I simply wanted to do this & nothing else. Well, life has given me the opportunity to write. And on top of that I lucked in & got a good publisher, a great editor, & some prizes, all more than I expected. If I’d never won a prize would I still be writing? Yes, If I’d never published would I still be writing? I don’t know. Thank God my character never had to face that test … The poetry thing is so intense here [NYC] you have to get away. Too many people on the make … It reminds me of Nathanial West on Hollywood. He’s got a character who can only think of everything in terms of: Will it film? Here it’s, would this make an anthology & who would publish it? Horseshit.”

I was thrilled when I sent him a book of my own poems, he responded favorably: “Thanks also for Some Grand Dust [We had talked about this book the night I met him]. Several of the Moker poems are special. He’s not Kees’ Robinson or Berryman’s Henry. He’s really your own Moker with a fuller inner life from either of those two. He’s also much more accepting of life as it is than they are. It’s a collection that deserves much more attention than it’s probably had, but the poetry world is like the rest of the American worlds: a mess … Good luck, & thanks again for your help & your gifts … ps. I’m still astonished that we were both at that Tatum night. I saw him two days later talking baseball & got a poem out of it about 30 years later.”

His Tatum poem is a gem (I was surprised it was not on either of the The Poetry of Jazz CDs. It’s called “On the Corner,” and the great blind pianist is presented as passing by “blind as the sea, /heavy, tottering /on the arm of the young / bass player, and they /both talking / Jackie Robinson.” The bass player say, “Wait’ll / you see Mays,” how fast he is too first, like Jackie Robinson—and the last line has Tatum speaking, “I can’t hardly wait.” In another letter, I mentioned Tatum and blind vocalist Al Hibbler having “driving” [an automobile!] contests, and Phil replied, “Art Tatum & Hibbler driving! My mother was almost as bad. When she was in her eighties her sight began to go–macular degeneration–but she didn’t let that stop her from driving, though she did stay off the freeways–by this time she lived in LA. Finally she couldn’t get a renewal on her license, couldn’t pass the vision test, couldn’t get insurance, & sold her car. She never seemed to take into account the fact she might kill a dozen kids–she lived only two blocks from a big high school.”

Here are photos of Philip Levine, with Benjamin Boone, and solo (Photo credits: www.nytimes.com; jazzdagama.com; The Fresno Bee; artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com):

Phillip Levine 3

ben-and-phil

Phillip Levine with Benjamin Boone 2  Phil Levine NY Times

We talked lots of jazz in our correspondence, and I’ll give one more sample here—and then provide a couple more examples of tracks from the The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two CD. I’d mentioned serving on a panel at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Charles Mingus’s wife, Sue—and Phil wrote: “Have you read the book by Sue Mingus about Charles the maniac? It has a name like ‘Today at Midnight’? [Tonight at Noon: A Love Story].The parts that are good are so good that everyone who cares about jazz or human behavior ought to read it. How she stuck with Mingus is beyond me, except he was fascinating as well as monstrous … You mentioned combining music & poetry. I did several concerts with a great percussionist named Steve Schick; I once rehearsed with two of the cats from the Paul Winter consort, the cellist & the pianist, but their playing was far too soft for what I was reading–Garcia Lorca’s toughest stuff from POET IN NEW YORK, “Offices & Denunciations.” And the cellist said flat out, You need a percussionist, & within a day we had this guy Schick, & he was superb. This was for a Christmas thing in a cathedral, & working with these guys was fun. They were real pros.”

And now we have recordings of Phillip Levine reading his poems within a totally compatible musical setting created by Benjamin Boone. Two more of my favorite tracks on The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two are “Belle Isle, 1949” and “The Conductor of Nothing.” The first, after a synthesized “spring” atmosphere is established musically, describes a adolescent “swim” in the Detroit River (the “voice” of the poem and “a Polish highschool girl / I’d never seen before” run down, “in this first warm spring night” to “baptize ourselves in the brine / of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow.” The ending is classic: “ Back panting / to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare / fall on, the damp piles of clothes, / and dressing side by side in silence / to go back where we came from.”  Alternating piano notes and soft melodic alto sax refrain close out the piece, and I couldn’t help but think (or feel), O Yes, memories of those Michigan “first warm spring nights”!

The second poem, “The Conductor of Nothing,” opens with delicate wire brush drum work and soft saxophone trills, a wavering mood; then Phil with a complaint in the voice of the narrator himself: “If you were to stop and ask me / how long I have been as I am, / a man who hates nothing / and rides old trains for the sake / of riding. I could only answer / with that soft moan I’ve come / to love. It seems a lifetime I’ve / been silently crossing and recrossing / this huge land of broken rivers / and fouled lakes, and no one has cared enough even to ask for a ticket / or question this dingy parody of a uniform.” We get a considerable portion of the conductor’s existence, and the poem ends: “Thus / I come back to life each day /miraculously among the dead, / a sort of moving monument / to what a man can never be– / someone who can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ / kindly and with a real meaning, and bending to hear you out, place / a hand upon your shoulder, open / my eyes fully to your eyes, lift / your burden down, and point the way.” The musical close out consists of gentle piano accents, and a wavering saxophone, to point that way.

If you feel the need (and in our present era, that’s a very legitimate need, I feel) for poetry with real meaning–poetry filled with genuine care, insight, and compassion–accompanied by a musical setting that contains the same, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (and the first volume!) awaits you.

And what a joy for me: to have known this truly great poet and human being, Philip Levine—just as it’s been genuine joy to have known and written about Kurt Elling and Lynne Arriale. I hope you have taken pleasure in this blog devoted to their latest accomplishments.

 

 

Poetry and Disinterestedness, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Bianca Stone, and Gothic Grief

I’m back (from blogs on jazz) to thinking lots about poetry lately (and writing some): thinking focused on what makes poetry worth writing (and reading): what makes the act of writing poetry truly meaningful, truly necessary (required to be achieved, needed; essential, imperative, indispensable, incumbent). In 1955, sixty-four years ago, I began to read contemporary poetry with the serious attention it deserves. I attended “live” readings in New York City, and I spent a considerable amount of time listening to the then available Caedmon recordings: Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Robert Graves, Stephen Spender, et cetera.

I spent considerable time attempting to determine just what made poetry “truly meaningful,” essential, true–rather than a gratuitous (“not called for by the circumstances not necessary, appropriate, or justified UNWARRANTED”) act—and over the past sixty-four  years, I have read, heard and more than likely written work that might be regarded as spurious “creativity”: just showing off, displaying well-schooled (too often workshop well-schooled?) verbal finesse (or what one has been taught as finesse—playing “the game,” clever, “cute”); mistaking therapy (getting “stuff” off one’s mind, or chest–unloading) for The Real Thing; a martyrdom that sacrifices original thought and feeling for overt political purpose or persuasion (adopting a stance or “position”—a specific party platform the language of which is not one’s own); self-aggrandizement (overestimating one’s own importance or power—an attitude that might be present, and detrimental, no matter what activity one is engaged in); or the worst offense against genuine poetry perhaps: outright fakery—deceit, dissimulation, dissembling, enjoying being thought of as a “Poet” (capital “P”), pretending one is a Poet, but not necessarily producing much that resembles the art form itself.

I’ve never had the courage of conviction of the totally committed, uncompromising Osip Mandelstam, who, when an aspiring young poet read his poems to him (“everything that I could”), listened attentively (“his face showing neither approval nor disapproval”), and finally said, “It doesn’t matter how gutta-percha [rigid natural latex produced from the sap of a Malaysian tree] a voice you read those poems in—they are still bad.”—and on another occasion, when the wannabe poet V. Kaverin read his work to Mandelstam, the poet spoke to him “sternly, with passion and conviction”: “There was no room for irony. It was important to him that I stop writing verses, and what he was saying was a defense of poetry against me and against those tens and hundreds of young men and women who were amusing themselves with the game of words.” (from Mandelstam, by Clarence Brown). Kaverin gained his first “intimation of the fact that poetry does not exist for itself alone, and that if it does not strive to express life, to give it lasting form, no one has any use for even the cleverest gathering of rhymed lines.”

I’ve read and heard some open to doubt, debatable “poetry” over the years, but I’ve never had the nerve to respond as Mandelstam did, although … on occasion, I’ve wished I had.

So … What IS The Real Thing? Whenever, now, I feel a bit uncertain, I go back to what I recognized, experienced as “The Real Thing” when I first read it—this a few years before I got serious about the art form in NYC: when I discovered the work of John Keats. As Andrew Motion writes in his excellent Keats: A Biography: “Keats confirms his ambition (his appeal to posterity became increasingly emphatic as he failed to find short-term success), and asserts his necessary independence. If he is to make his name as a poet, he says, it will be because he develops his individual gifts, rather than adapting them to suit the expectations of a ‘fierce miscreed.’ He pledges his loyalty to an aesthetic which is highly personal, rather than one which is determined by conventional readers or specific social forces … It is only by resisting the temptation to tease ‘the world for grace’ that poets can achieve their ambitions. Identity depends on calm self-possession.”

Here are four portraits of John Keats—the first a painting by William Hilton; second a sketch by Benjamin Haydon; a life mask by Haydon, and a piece by Joseph Severn (the artist who accompanied Keats to Rome, where the poet died at age twenty-five). (Photo credits: Wikipedia; The Thanatos Archive; keatslettersproject.com; amazon.com)

john_keats_by_william_hilton  john-keats-sketch

john keats life mask by benjamin haydon  john keats sketch sleeping by joseph severen

And here are words from the man himself, from The Selected Letters of John Keats: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 Feb. 1818: “Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself … We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing that enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject—How beautiful are the retired flowers! How would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, “Admire me I am a violet!—dote upon me I am a primrose! … I don’t mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teased with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.”

Here are a few more insights from Keats: A Biography, by Andrew Motion: “Inevitably, some aspects of the age influenced him more than others, and some hardly affected him at all. This means that distinctions have to be made, as well as associations emphasized, in placing his story within its context. But even when his poems struggled to overrule time, they reflected his particular circumstances. He was born with the City at his back, among clamorous commercial interests, Volunteers training, radicals protesting, hospitals expanding, and suburbs spilling into open country. He spent his adult life paying very deliberate attention to these things, and to other national and international issues as well. In some respects they persuaded him that he was an outsider. In others they gave him confidence. He could insist on independence because he knew that he belonged nowhere precisely. He looked beyond everyday events because he understood how they might confine and disappoint him. And he realized that in striving to achieve various sorts of cohesion in his work, he could never ignore the stubborn facts of paradox and contradiction.”

Reading Shakespeare “religiously” provided John Keats a sense that “the most powerful poetry does not make its effects by hectoring, or even candidly expressing the author’s personal opinion, but by creating a self-sufficient imaginative universe—a universe in which readers are invited to make independent critical decisions and moral judgements.” Poet/critic Matthew Arnold understood that Keats’ work was ‘not imitative, indeed, of Shakespeare, but Shakespearean because its expression has that rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness of which Shakespeare is the great master’ … Keats’ affinity with Shakespeare depends on thoughts about poetic identity; about the overriding need for it to remain fluid, to have no trace of the egotistical sublime, to have in its extreme suppleness and empathy ‘no character at all.’”

This paragraph anticipates Keats’ theory of impersonality or Negative Capability. Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, writing to his brothers in 1817, Keats proposed that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A poet, then, has the power to bury self-consciousness, dwell in a state of openness to all experience, and identify with the object contemplated. The inspirational power of beauty, according to Keats, is more important than the quest for objective fact; as he writes in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:”‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Writing to his friend Benjamin Bailey in the same year, Keats said: “Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect – but they have not any individuality, any determined Character … I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty … The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth.”

The approach, or philosophy, is one John Keats shared with (and was perhaps inspired by) another friend: the older, more “well-established” (highly respected lecturer, critic) William Hazlitt, whose core or major principle was disinterestedness in all its modes: detachment, equity, evenhandedness, fairness, impartiality, justice, neutrality, nonpartianship, objectivity (the autonyms for which are: bias, favoritism, nonobjectivity, onesidedness, partisanship, and prejudice).

Here’s a self-portrait by William Hazlitt, and the cover of his Selected Writings: (Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org)

william hazlitt self-portrait wikipedia    william hazlett selected works

[The] ability to respond to imaginative and rhetorical power, “even in those cases where one might disagree with the ideas so movingly expressed,” was evidence of the disinterestedness which Hazlitt prized.—or as David Bromwich [in Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic] emphasizes: “Hazlitt’s concept of disinterestedness did not mean lack of interest or strict judicial impartiality, but rather, the capacity to enter sympathetically into interests or positions other than one’s own. Disinterestedness did not preclude partisanship, or Hazlitt would not have been able to achieve it!” … In his early foray into philosophy, ‘’An Essay on the Principles of Human Action’”(1805), Hazlitt argued that “the imagination was essentially disinterested – as capable of responding to the predicament of a friend, neighbor, or stranger as to one’s own predicament. Habit, of course, would in time render us more self-centered, but innately, our imaginative capacities were boundless … The imagination required to appreciate the plight of this yet-nonexistent self, he argued, was akin to the imagination that appreciated the plight of all other selves – mine, thine, his, and hers. Hazlitt’s theory directly challenged the prevailing Hobbesian idea of man’s innate selfishness, a belief which was often used to justify social repression (society must limit individual selfishness), or, in more Malthusian fashion, to justify a laissez faire attitude in which the selfishness of each person was presumed to be balanced by the selfishness of everyone else.”

Here’s William Hazlitt in his own early-19th century words (from “An Essay on the Principles of Human Action”): “Would it not be strange if this constant fellowship [of a child, in school] of joys and sorrows did not produce in him some sensibility to the good or ill fortune of his companions, and some real good-will towards them? The greatest part of our pleasures depend upon habit: and those which arise from acts of kindness and disinterested [italics mine] attachment to others are the most common, the most lasting, the least mixed with evil of all others, as a man devoid of all attachment to others, whose heart was thoroughly hard and insensible to every thing but his own interest would scarcely be able to support his existence, (for in him the spring and active principle of life would be gone), it follows that we ought to cultivate sentiments of generosity and kindness for others … The advantages of virtue are however to be derived, like those of any liberal art, from the immediate gratification attending it, from it’s necessary effect on the mind, and not from a gross calculation of self-interest. This effect must be the greatest, where there is the most love of virtue for its own sake, as we become truly disinterested, and generous.”

On Keats’ “authenticity,” David Bromwich writes: “The sumptuous details, Classical references and painterly gestures would all become trademarks. And there is something else too—something that again anticipates his mature work. The ‘beauties’ of the ‘Imitation’ are not merely a lovely escape from the world; they enact a form of engagement with it. By setting his ‘emerald’ island ‘in the silver sheen / Of the bright waters’, Keats describes a miniature England that belongs in a specific historical context. Its seclusion is an emblem of peacefulness in general, and the result of a particular Peace—the Peace between England and France, which was signed in Paris at the time it was written.”

I’ve carried The Real Thing, the poetry of John Keats with me throughout eighty-three years of existence now, and a single poem of his, “Bright Star,” came in quite handy, stood me in good stead, with a few old girl friends and even with my wife of sixty-two years, Betty (whom I’ve known for seventy-two years!). I still love this (to my ears, eyes, heart, and soul) perfect poem, and here it is:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I return, frequently, to the work of poets I have relished in my lifetime, and regard as The Real Thing: the Russian poets Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Ahkmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak; the Greek poets Georgos Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, and Odysseus Elytis; Americans Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Jack Spicer, Elizabeth Bishop, James Scheville, Richard Wilbur, Carolyn Kizer, John Logan, Philip Levine, Paul Zimmer, Li-Young Lee, Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Robert Sward, Sandra McPherson—and a recent “discovery,” the multi-talented Bianca Stone.

Since “finding” her, I have acquired four books by Bianca Stone (an accomplished visual artist as well as poet): Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, The Mobius Strip Club of Grief, Antigonick (a collaboration with translator Anne Carson), and Poetry Comics from The Book of Hours. She is also the chair of the Ruth Stone Foundation, an organization that honors the work of her grandmother, poet Ruth Stone–whose 1999 book Ordinary Words won the National Book Critics Circle Award, soon followed by other award-winning collections, including In the Next Galaxy (2002), winner of the National Book Award; In the Dark (2004); and What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (2008), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The first book by Bianca Stone I read was Someone Else’s Wedding Vows—and a single poem there, “Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK,” nearly stopped my heart (and brought empathic tears) because my sister Emily, six years younger than I (active, joyous, loving, a soul-mate at whose bedside I would sit, when she was a teenager, to play “quiet chords from my guitar,” and sing her favorite folk-songs), had just died of pancreatic cancer. Here’s a portion of Bianca Stone’s poem:

“… You have experienced profound grief—

how do you react to this?

Down on the ground your family

writhes. Down on the ground

you are surrounded at Starbucks

with a terrible glow.

And you have seen someone you love,

with a colossal

complex vehemence, die.

And it is pinned under glass

in perfect condition.

It is wrapped around you

like old fur. You’ve looked at the sky

until your eyes touched

zodiacal fantasies—right there in the void.

You know this. That the body lays down

while the mind bloats

on intellectual chaos …”

Here’s a portion of a review of The Mobius Strip Club of Grief  (the second book by Bianca Stone I read, and admired, extravagantly) by Jaime Zuckerman (It appeared in The Kenyon Review): “The Möbius Strip Club of Grief builds on the intellectual work of its feminist forebears and offers a vision of womanhood that is raw, raging, sad, and beautiful. The women in Stone’s poems don’t fit any of the definitions of woman that society has neatly provided; her poems blur, challenge, and outright erase those definitions completely. In their place, Stone offers a womanhood in which we can find some sort of personal freedom from all the grief of simply living. A womanhood that will last long after the current trends have lost their shine and we still need to be heard … Stone’s first collection of poems, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows—as well as her collection of poetry, comics, and several chapbooks—are full of falling in love, being lost and found, sometimes desperate, sometimes joyful abandon … The Möbius Strip Club of Grief begins as an elegy for Bianca Stone’s grandmother, the poet Ruth Stone, and becomes an elegy for America … [Bianca Stone] asks herself about the collection, ‘Why am I writing this psychosexual opus to the mind of my women?’ Because, Bianca, we need to hear it. We need all the inspiration we can get right now … It is through the ‘genius’ or the creativity of women—grandmas, mothers, daughters—that we can find some salvation or solace. It’s poetry itself that gives us our agency and helps us overcome our multitude of grief.”

Here’s a photo of Bianca Stone, of Ruth Stone, a sample of Bianca Stone’s art work, and the cover of her book Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours: (Photo credits: Facebook; poetryfoundation.org/poets/ruth-stonewww.essaydaily.org: Visual Essayists: Bianca Stone)

bianca stone 11  ruth-stone poetry foundation

bianca stone art work bed and upside down lovers      bianca stone poetry comics cover

I let John Keats and William Hazlett speak for themselves, and their work; here’s Bianca Stone on being a poet/artist (interview by Ariel Kahn in The Ilanot Review): “There’s so much that can be expressed with visual images that just can’t be in words. And what’s powerful about words alone is that the reader can create the visual in their mind. This of course is a well-known fact about the power of poetry. And why so many people get it wrong trying to ‘understand’ it. But in any case, I try in my poetry comics to not take away that negative capability [John Keats!]that mystery in the words, and instead think of the images as I would a line of a poem … I’m more apt to allow for irony in the juxtaposition between playful and dramatic. I like to counteract the tones; they come from the same place, but translate differently once out in the open. Writing poetry requires a certain amount of something–not necessarily work, but something– in the head; even two words coming together, that power when they are beside one another–it’s a very specific mode of the brain that’s turning on. Whereas with images I feel I can let my mind wander while I do it. There’s a totally different area sparking when I’m doing this. Different demands of mindfulness …  like the forms of poetry that make it poetry, it’s a necessary confine … that white space (gutter) between panels. The blank space creates meaning. That space where we don’t see what’s happening is where the magic is. It’s just like Keats’ negative capability. It’s just like a line break. Like the poetic form, or just the form the poem makes on the page: stanzas, etc. So I know that space, and the confined space, is important … Letting imagination cross the border of what you want to convey to the reader—what is perhaps appropriate or literal—and the unknown, the enigmatic. That is what I am most interested in.. I encourage readers to smile in curiosity! But also to surrender themselves to The Not Knowing. There’s a power in not asking what something means, the irony being that the question becomes relevant only once you stop asking it. And also perhaps, in some ways, answered … Giving something a term, however undefined, can be life-altering … And there’s so much imperfection in labels, but that too is what’s so fun about it … So after I heard this term [“poetry comics”] I began to combine poetry and art with great intention. And calling it something gave me permission to bring my art into my (let’s call it) ‘professional’ life as a writer. I mean, here were these two arts I’d loved doing ever since I could hold a pen, and now I could experiment with what it really meant to combine them; how to do both justice; how to complicate and further the power of each medium.”

When I think of Bianca Stone’s work, I find the rightful “grief” that Jaime Zuckerman recognized and commented on, but I also find an appropriate, unique, original, witty, a bit ghoulish, disturbing “stance” that I think of as “Gothic”—thus the phrase “Gothic Grief” in my title for this Bill’s Blog post. I’ll take a little time, here, to establish a definition of what I see as a tradition I feel she “carries on,” and represents well. The phrase “Gothic art” arrived on the cultural scene in the 12th century AD, a style of medieval art developed in Northern France, inspired by the development of Gothic architecture. The Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscripts. Here are some examples:

gothic sculpture 1    gothic sculpture 2

From Wikipedia: “The earliest Gothic art was monumental sculpture, on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys–illustrating stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament side by side. Saints’ lives were often depicted. Images of the Virgin Mary changed from the Byzantine iconic form to a more human and affectionate mother, cuddling her infant, swaying from her hip, and showing the refined manners of a well-born aristocratic courtly lady.”

From Wikipedia again: “In literature, Gothic fiction (largely known by the subgenre Gothic horror) would come about in 1764 (at the hands of English author Horace Walpole, with his novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled in its second edition ‘A Gothic Story’)–a genre that combines fiction, horror, death, and at times romance. The genre had much success in the 19th century, as witnessed in prose by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron.” Another novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

From architecture to literature—quite a journey! As is: from the 12th century to Bianca Stone. Here are some more lines from one of her poems, “Emily Dickinson”—lines I feel express “Gothic Grief”:

“She applied her passion like a hot iron sword.

And no one can take off her clothes, ever—she comes

and her language takes them off of us,

not piece by piece, not fumbling buttons,

but all at once in a single shot,

her tiny poems like grenades that fit in the hand.

And we here bask in the debris,

stripped down to our private parts,

the snow white of the bone, the authentic corpse in heat.

The absolute original.”

To my mind (and heart, and soul), Bianca Stone is an “absolute original,” The Real Thing. I rarely, if ever, attempt to contact poets I admire or have just “discovered,” but I was so impressed with Bianca’s brilliant mix of poetry and visual art that I sent her the following (and received a gracious “Thank you, William!” on Facebook): “I am relatively ancient and relished an exciting era (mid-50s: abstract expressionism) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (and playing jazz piano there). Because I loved both art forms, I attempted to combine (and do justice to both) poetry and graphic art: woodcut prints of Classical and Modern Greek and Russian poems—but I did not possess the imagination, originality, and “great intention” you offer in your poetry comics, Book of Hours, Antigonick—and all you do with visual art and words. Thanks for advancing, so handsomely, a tradition that began for me with appreciation of the work of William Blake, Kenneth Patchen, and Shiko Munakata.”

Gratitude for disinterestedness, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Bianca Stone, Gothic grief, and poets who enrich and sustain our lives with The Real Thing seems a reasonable way to close out this blog post. Yes, Thanks!

 

 

 

Kurt Elling and The Beat Generation

Jazz vocalist/lyricist Kurt Elling is gifted–along with a great voice–with an inclusive mind (and heart) that can look forward, in terms of “making progress,” to perpetual development (“The point is to keep making progress, to outdo yourself, and to keep, as much as you can, scoring a personal best.”) at the same time he remains fully “informed” by the past, by previous attainment—both his own and that of those who made (in Kurt’s words) “the greatest music that came before us.” He states: “It’s not just respect; it’s a desire to appreciate the greatest ideas. Because how else are you gonna play them? The wealth that’s come before us is such a treasure.”

Two articles on Kurt Elling have appeared recently: one in JazzTimes by Lee Mergner, another in DownBeat by Allen Morrison. Both writers focus on Elling’s latest album, The Questions. Morrison calls it “a thoughtfully curated and wide-ranging collection of songs”; Mergner directs attention to the vocalist/lyricist’s finding “in poetry, the challenge of being compassionate in a troubled world and the importance of asking unanswerable questions.” Morrison addresses the latter situation by saying, “In the current age of anxiety, Elling might not have all the answers, but his baritone voice has a reassuring quality that makes the listener feel less alone in the quest.”

Both writers cite Elling’s collaboration with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who co-produced The Questions; the “tuneful and melodic” nature of the album; the fact that it opens with Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; and the fortunate assistance, on piano, of Stu Minditon as a “secret weapon,” who says, “Kurt and I have a mutual interest in the connection between poetry and music, and he takes a poet’s approach to setting his lyrics to music.” And each writer conducts an interview that’s loaded with Elling’s customary fully articulate and insightful responses.

Here is the cover of  The Questions, and Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling side  by side—co-producers of the new CD. (Photo credit: The Mercury News)

Kurt Elling The Questions CD  Kurt Elling and Branford Marsalis

Asked by Morrison about struggling “a bit” with “stage presence” earlier in his career, and how he “came out of that phase,” Kurt Elling replied: “Keep living. That’s why I keep thinking about [age] 70. There were so many things I wanted to be. I was in love with [jazz] history, the recordings, and I wanted to be that. At a certain point you realize you’re not going to be that, you’re going to be you. But informed by all that.” And on working with Branford Marsalis: “We’re here to play great melodies and express authentic emotions—to be the real deal as much as we can … [which] means continually investigating the greatest music that came before us.” Marsalis introduced Kurt Elling to another source of inspiration: “Der Rosenkavalier,” by Richard Strauss (which happens to be just about my favorite opera) and at first, the vocalist found the music “tough listening,” but decided “If you want to understand the sound of something, then you’ve got to listen to it until you understand it.”

Kurt Elling’s passion for such discoveries, or influences, has not subsided, but increased incrementally, whereas many of his basic attitudes toward the music in general (and early influences) remain the same, rewardingly persistent, continuous (especially in an era such as ours, when so many people seem willing to try just about any old thing “on for size,” then toss it aside). The continuity, the fidelity, of his approach couldn’t help but remind me of an extensive interview I had with him back in 2009, when we focused, at the start, on his interest in the Beat Generation—a cultural phenomenon of which I was fortunate (arriving in San Francisco from Hawaii in 1958) to be a small part.

I would like, in this blog post, to reproduce the article that resulted from a five part blog I offered from 2009 to 2010 on JazzWest.com—the complete article composed over time and consisting of the following parts: Posted on July 28, 2010:Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation, Part 5: The Ballads”; March 24, 2010:Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation, Part 4: The Interview, Concluded”; Posted on November 17, 2009:Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation, Part 3: The Interview”; Posted on September 16, 2009:Kurt Elling, the Beat Generation & the Monterey Jazz Festival, Part 2”; Posted on September 8, 2009:Kurt Elling, the Beat Generation & the Monterey Jazz Festival.”

And so, without further ado, here’s the complete essay:

When I first heard jazz vocalist Kurt Elling on two early CDs–Close Your Eyes (1995) and The Messenger (1997)–several tracks prompted an immediate “shock of recognition,” as if they were unique re-enactments of themes and preoccupations I was familiar with. I then came across articles that mentioned Elling’s fondness for and indebtedness to the Beat Generation, but I couldn’t find an article that fully explored this interesting “collaboration.” (Elling is age forty-four; the Beats considerably older.) Having arrived in San Francisco in 1958 and–thanks to the “accident” of having landed in the right place at the right time–being a part of that era, I decided to explore Elling’s connection. I don’t think you need to have once been a “Beatnik” to appreciate the full effect of Kurt Elling’s vocal style and its content, but it doesn’t hurt.

Here are the covers of Close Your Eyes and The Messenger.

Kurt Elling Close Your Eyes      Kurt Elling The Messenger

On “Dolores Dream” (on Close Your Eyes), he provided lyrics to a Wayne Shorter solo intro that reminded me–albeit this Chicago-based, not San Francisco–of poetry I had once absorbed: “The white electric skillet of a day threatened to sear us all away—fat frying. Spluttering, rank Chicago smeltering along. Smothered in heavy wooly sweat, the city knew a sad regret.” Unaccompanied, Elling said/sang these lines, then introduced a set groove on the words “jump in my car, Uptown to scram. Popped in a great Von Freeman jam—and the coffee hit. Bam!”—the music replete with pulsing Laurence Hobgood piano and fast on his feet (or tongue) Elling scat. The piece ended, “If there’s one girl I’ve got to remember, it’s … it’s … it’s [aspirated] … her.”  Wow, I thought: very bright, hip (“Beat”) storytelling in song—which is something, a legacy, I happen to love.

Fran Landesman’s 1950s collaboration with composer Tommy Wolf, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” could, as sung by Kurt Elling, be a Beat Generation early anthem: “All the news is bad again … kiss your dreams goodbye … drinking up the night, trying not to drown … choking on their youth.” “Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?” combines the Brubeck/Desmond take on “Balcony Rock” with words based on the work of another familiar figure (albeit Czech-German, not “Beat”), Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a fable turned hip by Kurt, a “little cloud” searching for God (parents are only interested in “possessing things,” and offer useless advice, “You’ll grow out of it soon and start singing a grownup tune”); whereas “Now It Is Time That Gods Came Walking Out,” a poem by Rilke, is recited by Kurt, reflecting his concerns as a former divinity student: “Once again let it be your morning, gods …You alone are source.”

When I first listened to The Messenger, I recognized the inspiration of Thomas Merton, another mid-50s–The Seven Storey Mountain and The Sign of Jonas–influence on my life. At the time, I seriously considered becoming a Trappist monk, until a young woman named Mary Jane McLaughlin saved me from that fate. “The Beauty of All Things” is serenely, handsomely rendered with a loving piano backdrop: “There is something within you … don’t be shocked or surprised if I lift your disguise.” Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” (I remember seeing a photo spread on this first “Beatnik” in Life magazine!) is enlivened, after its Nat “King” Cole tempered start, by wild scat on Kurt’s part—overt risk-taking and innovation an early hallmark of his approach.

I enjoyed all ten minutes and seventeen seconds of “Tanya Jean,” a swinging vamp piece of epic extension, a track that moved from “Dig with me this chick lording every clique” (a “royal queen” who stops every clock and keeps a “flock” of men) to familiar lingo–“Dig what I’m saying”—and syntax: “unnameable surgings of lust into what must always be,” “inner vision crying into the vortex of night,” “everything always is,” “screaming across the open plains of nothingness”—Herman Hesse, another cultural icon of that time, getting in the act along with  Tanya Jean, the music itself based on an extended Dexter Gordon solo.

And finally: the great good fun of “It’s Just a Thing,” with its homage to Lord Buckley of  “The Naz” notoriety (“Look at all you Cats and Kittens out there!”), Kurt Elling telling a Hammett/Chandler–with perhaps a sniff of the wild raw humor of Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues?–tale, in the vernacular again: “hip to the scene,” “solid gone,” “indelibly groovevatude.”

I’d like, if I may, to extend our common cause by offering my own Beat Generation credentials, in the hope of providing that link to Elling’s accomplishments. My wife Betty and I arrived in San Francisco in 1958. We’d been married, “Bohemian” style, in Hawaii, and spent a honeymoon summer living on the only open spot on the Wailua River in Kauai, pre-statehood (the island having retained its 19th century plantation life ambiance). Just twenty-one years of age, we lived in a shack (wooden, not grass), surrounded by mangoes, papaya, bananas, and an abundance of crawfish in the river. City kids by way of background, we really didn’t have a clue as to what to do with it all. I’d known a touch of  “Zen” in Brooklyn (where I’d attended Pratt Institute) by way of J.D. Salinger and the appropriately small Peter Pauper Press book Japanese Haiku, with its delicate “icons” set beside each poem by Issa, Basho and Buson. On Kauai, my interest in the culture of Japan grew by way of a movie theater that showed Japanese samurai films– without subtitles.

Here’s a photo of my wife Betty and our host that summer in Kauai, Mr. Isenberg—both eating pineapple in front of our “shack” (Betty calls it a “cabin”) on the Wailua River—and a photo of my beautiful smiling 21-year-old bride at that time.

Betty and Mr. Eisenberg Eating Pineapple

Betty in Hawaii

Arriving back on the Mainland (as it was then called), we took a third floor apartment on Hayes Street in San Francisco, for $60 a month rent (jobless, I told the landlord I was a clerk in a law office, and ended up working as an elevator operator at the White House Department Store). Poet and Beat Generation pater familias (although somewhat ambivalent about his role as “guru and ringleader”) Kenneth Rexroth lived just around the corner, on Scott Street. In the liner notes to Flirting with Twilight, speaking of the lyrics he wrote to Fred Simon’s “While You Are Mine,” Kurt Elling told writer Zan Stewart, “At the time I wrote the lyric, I was reading a lot of Kenneth Rexroth, so it’s          kind of a Rexroth homage. He was always aware of the passing of time, how much is irreplaceable when it’s gone, how much of life you have to get now. Now, today, baby, make it real now, especially with romance. That makes everything so sweet and bittersweet, even at the moment of the most profound togetherness.” On his first CD, Close Your Eyes, Kurt recited, surrounded by wild improvisation provided by Laurence Hobgood, Rexroth’s poem “Married Blues” (“I didn’t want it, you wanted it. Now you’ve got it you don’t like it. You can’t get out of it now … too poor for the movies, too tired to love.”)

Kurt Elling “says” this poem in a deliberately squeaky, nasal, hectored, nearly hen-pecked, all too “married” voice. The liner notes to Close Your Eyes cite Rexroth as “one of the great American intellects of the 20th Century,” playing “a pivotal role in the San Francisco literary revival”—which is true. When I first tried my hand at poetry, I was strongly influenced by the spare, straightforward strength and brittle beauty of his book The Signature of All Things and his splendid One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. Yet, ironically, Rexroth’s own voice does not come across as all that impressive. I recall being enthralled by the content (and daring) of his performance at the Cellar, reading (to jazz) “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (in memory of Dylan Thomas: “You killed him/In your God damned Brooks Brothers Suit”), but I will confess that, in spite of the sublime nature of much of his poetry, his own pre-“Howl” rant against 1950s unhip  bourgeois America—Timor mortis conturbat me (“the fear of death disturbs me”) indeed!—strikes me, today, as comical, pretentious. Rexroth sounds a bit squeaky, nasal, hectored himself, although his was one of the early, experimental efforts to merge, or marry, spoken word and jazz.

Here is a photo of Kenneth Rexroth reading, or “jammin,’” with musicians—and Kurt doing his thing with a mic before an audience. (Photo credit: http://www.foundsf.org and http://www.minnpost.com)

Kenneth Rexroth Reading  KurtElling at Mic 2

Kurt Elling is one of the more expansive, inclusive, flexible jazz artists I’ve ever run across, and I would like to pay homage to what’s been said, and written–and what he’s said himself–about that versatility, his wide range of musical activity (“A man of enough parts to be a faculty unto himself”), activity made up of consummate showmanship (“continually taking chances and coming up with fresh approaches”), a solid work ethic (“nonstop weekend for him at the Monterey Jazz Festival”—when he was Artist-in-Residence there in 2006); creativity (from himself: “The daily discipline it takes to see the world with fresh eyes and to try to approach everything that’s coming to you as a potential gift, there’s poetry in that.”); experimenting with vocalese (“a chance-taking improviser who often makes up lyrics as he goes along”), his having been a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands … and come before his presence with a song;” well, he didn’t write that: that’s Psalm 100, but he has said, “Jazz had the Spirit from its birth. Gospel music is in its genes”); the importance to him of the birth of his daughter, Luiza (“The baby is the big thing … a new outlook; everything that came before was valuable training for what will come next”); having faith in himself (“It just doesn’t hurt like it did before … I used to be revved up, having something to prove … Now, it’s more like I believe in what I do”); and the ability to think “big”–being involved in projects such as the splendid Fred Hersch settings for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a concert with Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, and his 2010 Grammy Award winning Coltrane/Johnny Hartman tribute Dedicated to You CD.

I first heard Kurt Elling “live” at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2003. I was present, backstage, when he finished a set in Dizzy’s Den. He was nattily dressed (very hip threads or dry goods!), and carting “a ton of attitude” (as someone else has written). He even seemed pissed off when he came off stage (over something that had gone wrong during the set? The sort of thing perfectionist performers are aware of, not the audience?), or else he was just pumped, like a boxer who’s won a unanimous decision after fifteen rounds of work. I thought, “Hmmm, another Sinatra? Right down to temperament?” Kurt himself has commented on this influence: “People think of me as outre, bizarre. Yet Frank is one of the guys that I spent a lot of time checking out and learning from.”

Elling can be intense, but the next time I got near him was at an IAJE conference in Long Beach, and my Jazz Journalists Association buddies Dan Ouellette and Stu Brinin and I ended up drinking with not just Kurt, but Kitty Margolis (and her husband Monty), Karrin Allyson, Jenna Maminna and Nancy King. I thought, “Wow, I’m sitting here drinking with five of the finest jazz vocalists in the universe at large, at least as we know it!” In this setting, Kurt was decidedly relaxed.

The next time I saw him was when he served as Artist-in-Residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. He gave a performance at an intimate downtown venue called Monterey Live, and my wife Betty and I sat just a few feet away from him as he sang: the setting reminding me of small clubs I used to play piano in myself in New York in the mid-Fifties: cozy and compatible. After the show, I had a short conversation with him. He was open, cordial, witty—a “good guy,” accessible  (a thing sometimes rare in top performers). In 2008, Kurt showed up at our MJF Sunday Jazz Journalists Association brunch, walked right up, jauntily, and said, “I’m hobnobbing with the fourth estate.”

One more note on Kurt Elling’s range before I turn attention back to Beat Generation “roots” or influence. The “Beats” were not often noted for this (Rexroth’s unintentional comic severely serious “Thou Shalt Not Kill”; in another poem, he writes, “I take/myself too seriously”), but Elling has a sense of humor. One of the finest (funest) moments of the 2008 Monterey Jazz Festival, I felt, came when singer Jamie Cullum joined Kurt on stage in Dizzy’s Den, for one of the Festival’s last (Sunday night) sets. I was sitting stageside, in the dark, back against the wall, enjoying Kurt, Ernie Watts, and the Laurence Hobgood Trio, when a very small person (who would turn out to have a large voice and huge heart) sat down next to me. When Elling sang “Say It (Over and Over Again),” this person began to sing to himself, softly but slightly off pitch, so I wasn’t sure it was Cullum, even though I’d heard a rumor that he might appear. It was Jamie Cullum, however, and next thing I knew he was up on stage, very much on pitch, and the two vocalists exchanged classic playful banter—much of it related to “size.” When Cullum spoke of a woman claiming someone was “tall, dark, and handsome,” Kurt said, “I don’t believe she was talking of you.”

Jamie Cullum: “I have a very high opinion of myself.”

Kurt Elling: “That’s not something visible to the naked eye.”

Cullum: “Small things come with big packages.”

It was a joyous, earthy exchange, filled with respect, with camaraderie. When I left, Cullum was standing alone backstage and I said, “You two guys were great!” He smiled and said, “Thanks.”

Here are Jamie Cullum (leisurely sitting on top of a piano!) and Kurt Elling at work alone—a great “team” when they got together at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. (Photo credits: http://www.fanpop.com and http://www.criticsatlarge.ca)

Jamie Cullum sitting on piano Kurt Elling at Hollywood Bowl

Up until the time my wife Betty and I arrived in “The City” in 1958, the only “literature” I’d read regarding jazz was either liner notes on LPs or largely academic works such as Barry Ulanov’s A History of Jazz in America. I dug Mezz Mezzrow’s loose Really the Blues (with its glossary so you could translate the hip talk: “Well tell a green man somethin’, Jack. I know they’re briny ‘cause they dug me with a brace of browns the other fish-black, coppin’ a squat in my boy’s rubber, and we sold out. They been raisin’ sand ever since.”), but it was difficult to rely upon Really the Blues  as “history.” What Mezzrow provided was legend or myth. Robert Graves defined mythology as “the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true,” and it was hard to believe Mezz Mezzrow.

Not long after we’d settled in San Francisco, on my first visit to City Lights (the universal navel of North Beach, along with Vesuvio bar, next door), I saw Allen Ginsburg, Peter Orlovsky, and I believe it was Gary Snyder emerge and hop in their O-honest-to-God Volkswagon bus and take off for—where? The Sierras, I like to think. In the bookstore that day, in the basement, I discovered the Evergreen Review “San Francisco Scene” issue—and bought it for $1.00. It featured an open letter (and a poem) by Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Dog” (which Bob Dorough would make fine music of: the first piece combining jazz and poetry that, to my mind, really worked well—too often, otherwise, the practitioners of these two separate “genres” just didn’t seem to be truly listening to one another!), Henry Miller’s “Big Sur and the Good Life,” Jack Kerouac’s “October in the Railroad Earth,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and poems by Brother Antoninus, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, and Jack Spicer.

What really threw me for a loop was reading Ralph J. Gleason describing the San Francisco jazz scene. Here, at last, was writing that matched the music—was truly worthy of it, was as vital and engaging as jazz itself! The piece began: “San Francisco has always been a good-time town. For periods it has been a wide-open town. And no matter how tight they close the lid and no matter the 2 A.M. closing mandatory in California, it is still a pretty wide-open town …A high-price call girl, flush from the Republican conven­tion and an automobile dealers conclave and happily looking forward to the influx of 20,000 doctors, 8,000 furniture deal­ers and divers other convention delegates, put it simply. ‘San Francisco is the town where everyone comes to ball, baby,’ she said … This spirit of abandon goes hand in hand with a liking for jazz, because jazz is, no matter how serious you get about it, romantic music by and for romantics. What could be a better place for it to flourish than a town where everybody comes to ball, baby?”

Wow! You could DO that?! You could write that freely, that openly, that wildly, that intimately, personally, that much like jazz itself when writing about this serious art form—what some writers would later call (not all that accurately perhaps; Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and William Grant Still, yes, but jazz in and of itself?) “America’s Classical Music”? I was thrilled by what Gleason was doing—his overall approach. I’m not sure enthusiasts, ardent “fans” but non-musicians such as Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac understood the full nature of jazz, its complexity and demands beyond “freedom,” but they liked the stuff well enough and formed aesthetic theories regarding “spontaneous bop prosody” which they applied to their own work. In his Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey, William Least Heat Moon (a fine writer himself), says, “I was eighteen when On the Road came out,” and he goes on to mention Beat literature as work “my teachers considered worthless it not trash.” Remember Truman Capote saying, “That’s not writing, that’s typing”? Moon wrote, “To the teenage brain, of course, there is no higher commendation,” but goes on to say that his “sense of language was then too innocent and uninformed … to see the undigested ideas and hurried assemblage in so much Beat writing,” and if he did see “an occasional solecism (rife in Kerouac’s novels), I defended it as proof of spontaneous creation—a howling artistic challenge to the rigidities and conformities dulling the ‘50s.”

Here is a photo of jazz columnist Ralph J. Gleason–and a copy of the special San Francisco scene issue of Evergreen Review ($1!), which I still have (Photo credit: http://www.retrovideo.com)

Ralph Gleason  Evergreen Review

Which Beat writing was. I recall what now seems a somewhat ridiculous Civil War going on between “closed form” and “open form,” “cooked” and “uncooked,” “clothed” and “naked,” “traditional” and “post-modern,” “establishment” and “underground,” “academic” and “free,” “formalistic” and “organic,” “inherited” and “forward-looking” poetry. Moon adds, “I would argue half-heartedly that the Beats were important for what they said rather than how they said it”—but he divests readers of the illusion that Kerouac spent a mere nineteen days painting words, a la Jackson Pollack, on his endless roll of “Teletype”: “If only we’d known the truth: Kerouac worked at the book for more than a decade and executed several drafts of On the Road, both short ones and long, including a version in French. The more notorious Kerouac’s four manuscript scrolls became, the more fables about them increased.”

In this manner, perhaps, the legends of “angel headed hipsters” are born.

At the time of the 2009 Monterey Jazz Festival, I finally had an opportunity to sit down with Kurt Elling and discuss his Beat “roots.” We first chatted about Beat Generation writers over breakfast at the Hyatt hotel, and then went outside for a forty-five minute interview. Inside, we had been talking about Kenneth Rexroth, the Beat Generation “paterfamilias” whose poetry had such an influence on both Kurt and myself—so we started in again there:

Kurt Elling: “You mentioned the breadth of his interests and his abilities, such as teaching himself to be able to translate Japanese. We talked a bit about his awareness of the destruction that human beings at that time were waging on the earth, and his reverence and his humility before nature comes through in so many of his poems. It’s striking to me how successfully and organically he was able–in the same poem–to refer to the splendors of the earth and refer to the quick passage of time, and how small we are in comparison to the earth, and a sense of reverence and romance: real romance, the romance of sentient beings and not just people walking around who are brain dead, but real sentient beings. That’s what makes his poems diamonds. It’s because there’s so much refraction of light and intelligence and desire all compacted.”

Me: “It’s amazing, and not an easy thing to do.”

Kurt: “Yeah! I have real respect for his abilities. It’s the kind of thing that I strive for, to even be aware of walking around, let alone to have the kind of poetic gifts to be able to articulate them to other people in such a way that would be meaningful.”

I mentioned a 2002 Cadence magazine interview in which, referring to Beat Generation writers, Kurt had spoken of their “dark side,” and the paradox that they were “some pretty self-satisfied, self-righteous cats, who were trying to tell everybody what to do, in their attempt to have everybody stop telling them what to do.” “I loved that,” I said, and he laughed. I then asked how, born in 1967 as he was, he’d ever got into what the Cadence interviewer called “Beat texts.”

Kurt: “You know it’s tough to trace an exact lineage. I know that hearing Mark Murphy’s records, when he did the ‘Bop for Kerouac’ and he did the readings, those were very special records and I know that that pointed me to actually picking up the books if I hadn’t yet. Maybe a better way of saying it is: it gave me access to the books. And once you start down the path, then if you find something captivating, you want to encompass as much of it as you can. So that intent grew pretty naturally, and not only from an intellectual concern or curiosity, but also because some of the things that Kerouac and Ginsberg were going after, I have a strong … well, Kerouac opens my heart a little bit because he’s so … he’s just so sincere.”

Me: “In the Cadence interview, you said that the part that interested you the most was ‘the transcendental aspect … the yearning for the eternal’ and ‘the love that he had for people.’”

Kurt: “Yeah, he’s so vulnerable, he’s so sincere, he’s trying so hard and he’s such a goof. He’s so fragile, yet at the same time he’s really reaching out to what it means to be alive while he’s alive, and to glorify through his work as a writer just his life, his experiences and his friends’: the trials and tribulations and the victories of just being alive in that moment, in that era. And it’s his sincerity and his earnestness that was his greatest strength, but it was also his greatest vulnerability. I’m sure it’s what put him in the ground. Ideally what you have is an ego that has a flexible protective armor and when you write and when you consider and when you love, there is no armor and you are completely open and your consciousness receives and speaks with perfect unguarded honesty, but the world is an unforgiving place, and for somebody who can’t get their armor up when you need armor, you’re going to get crushed beneath the wheel, and it certainly came to him in a way–you know, fame–everything that went down. It seems to me he was never the kind of character that had any desire whatsoever to thrive in that public environment. He had desire, but it was the desire of a child who didn’t know he was playing with fire, so …”

Here is Jack Kerouac, alongside Kurt Elling—each providing the world a similar look; each with his own “flexible protective amor.” (Photo credits: www.gq.com and http://www.bluenote.com)

Jack Kerouac GQ  Kurt Elling Blue Note

I mentioned that my wife Betty and I had lived in Greece for a year and I was astounded when I heard university students coming home from the discos at night, singing “pop” songs composed by the great composer Mikis Theodarakis, with lyrics by Nobel Prize in Literature recipients Georgos Seferis and Odysseus Elitis, and I thought, This could never happen in America: this blend of outstanding music and first-rate poetry, not just standard song lyrics. “But you’re making that happen,” I said to Kurt, and asked about the risk involved.

Kurt: “It didn’t seem risky to me. It just seemed … What’s the right entrance for this? The possibility inherent in communicating as a singer, as a speaker in the jazz milieu is very broad at the outset: the number of avenues that you have just because you’re a singer and you speak in language and you sing with language. You can sing a standard, you can swing a standard, you can rearrange a standard, you can juxtapose a standard with another standard, you can scat—that’s just the baseline; but if one has studied the history of jazz singers: there’s Mark Murphy and his spoken word stuff; Sheila Jordan, the way she’s gone about things; Jon Hendricks and the way he makes a presentation and is so erudite and tells all these marvelous stories; Betty Carter and the intense and far-reaching scope of her just straight up musicianship and improvisational ability—and then like me, if you’re not just interested in the music, if you’re interested in an entire root system of the jazz culture we have, much of which grows out of the 1950s and 60s and the time that you are obviously more hugely familiar with … it’s impossible for me to have lived in that era, but because part of my job is to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the history of the sound, and because the influence of the poets and the painters and the sculptors and the politicians and the arguments of the times were so much of a piece with the way the musicians were playing and gave them a spur to keep exploring, to find new ways—‘Oh, we’re going to the moon,’ or ‘Oh, we’re in danger; Cuba’s got missiles,’ whatever it was—the fears and the energies and the aspirations of the urban life of America at that time was so tumultuous and trembling and expanding and obliterating the past and re-creating it, and that’s all in the best parts of the music that jazz was responding to and jazz was commanding, leading the way, hearing before the people heard how tumultuous it was going to be and playing it and shocking them with the news … I’ve been given a peculiar set of gifts. I’ve been given a voice that resonates and can move people. And I’ve got an intellect that’s interested in things beyond just the music. And I’ve been given opportunities to learn from some intensely intellectually very gifted people and to cop what I can cop, to understand what I can understand, and to know that there is a glorious possibility in every moment. If I was just quiet enough and writer enough every breath is a poem and every situation you are in–painful, beautiful, ugly–it’s just all poetry, all the time. You just have to be available to it.”

Me: “Somewhere else you talked about ‘the daily discipline that it takes to see the world with fresh eyes and to try to apprehend everything that’s coming to you as a potential gift: there’s poetry in that.’”

Kurt: “Yeah, so the [Beat Generation] books moved me, the books informed me, yet it was not just out of a kind of intellectual curiosity. It’s because I really want to know. My questions are the ultimate questions. There’s a reason I was in graduate school for three years, reading Haberman and Schleiermacher.”

Of the latter, theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Mark Schorer (in William Blake: The Politics of Vision) has written that poet Blake “argued like Schleiermacher that religious intuition lifted the believer into a higher sphere, provided him with an enriched perception of the wholeness of experience,” and provided “an aesthetic experience of harmony that is potential in the world … a truly imaginative moral act, in which selfish isolation of human needs is transcended in the sense of a larger unity and a nobler universe”—all of which fits into Kurt Elling’s own aesthetics and sense of purpose very well.

Me: “I was going to ask you about the possible influence of your church background. The psalms. The love of language. The love of those sounds.”

Kurt: “A love of language, a love of sounds—an understanding of the emotional impact that a ritual environment can bring, and the importance that music plays in that ritual environment. That ritual environment has definitely informed the way that I approach a given concert. I want to take people right out of their seats right from jump if I can and alert them that something is going to happen to them beyond ‘Take the “A” Train.’ Then I try to take them there, or go with them, whatever the right way to say it is. And I think this is part of the task, the calling that I’ve been given. This is who I am. These are the roots I come from. I guess my first experience of music at all was in a theological environment: music in the service of  the emotional and spiritual growth of a group of people—and that’s not something that I have any desire to leave behind, just because I’m in a different genre now. But I’m not the only one. There’s a whole history of jazz musicians: Brubeck has written sacred concerts, Ellington has written sacred concerts, Mingus was no stranger to spiritual aspiration; Trane obviously, Art Blakey—Why did he call his band the Jazz Messengers? Right? I’m OK with fitting into that tradition as well. I try not to speak this explicitly about it, or I don’t speak this explicitly when I’m on the stage. And I usually don’t even speak about it this explicitly when I’m specifically being asked about it. I don’t want to lead with that. I want to lead with the music, lead with the joy, lead with the swinging experience, lead with the kick, and then when everybody’s relaxed and happy and they’re grooving, then you’ve already done 90% of your work; and then any specific message … only it isn’t a specific message other than something I think Kerouac would have identified with: we’re here, and it’s not about money or winning … it’s just about souls having a good time.”

Me: “The Japanese call it ‘kono-mama,’ or suchness—living the moment, the here and now.”

Kurt: “Yeah!”

Two more album covers: Flirting with Twilight and Nightmoves.

Kurt Elling Flirting with Twilight   Kurt Elling Nightmoves AllMusic

Me: “In the liner notes to your The Messenger CD, you said, ‘I am not “The Messenger,”’ but writer Neil Tesser added that your union of words and music ‘creates something provocative and yet serene; it leaves no doubt that the singer has quite a bit on his mind.’ He said your message ‘grows from the intersection of jazz and poetry, the place where the beat meets the Beats.’ You’ve also said, with regard to Kenneth Rexroth’s poems about impermanence: ‘love-time is brief.’ Is that the message, if there is one?”

Kurt: “You know it’s tough for me, because I do feel like I have a mission or a calling. I feel like I’m doing the thing that I’m here to do. But I don’t feel comfortable and never really have … I don’t have a specific theological agenda, other than peacefulness and joy. There’s a reason I’m not an actual priest. I don’t want to prescribe how it’s supposed to go for people. I just want to help them remember what it feels like sometimes.”

Me: “’I learn by going where I have to go’” [a line from Theodore Roethke’s poem ‘The Waking,’ which Kurt Elling recites/sings to Rob Amster’s bass accompaniment on his Nightmoves CD]

Kurt: “Yeah, I just want to help them remember what it feels like to be at peace and to be happy. One of the psychological definitions of happiness is self-forgetting, where you are no longer aware of yourself, because every time you are aware of yourself, then you have desire. Every time you are aware of yourself you have ‘Oh, my back hurts’ or ‘I’ve got to do this job.’ Or ‘What’s on TV?’ or ‘I want to buy that.’ Or ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘Look at that girl’—or whatever.  And the times when we are actually at peace and are happy, we’re not thinking about any of those things. We’ve been able to let all of those thoughts go and to simply be. Which is a Zen moment. It’s satori. [enlightenment]  Music is one of the primary ways that regular people experience this, without even knowing it. The music starts and they listen, and if the music connects with them, and if the performance is emotionally resonant, then for ninety minutes, they forget themselves and they are totally in the moment. They are experiencing a period of time in which they have no concerns, no doubts, no worries, no fears, no desires other than to continue having this experience. So that’s why I say there isn’t really a message. A message? It’s the experience that you are providing for people and then, if in the course of that I can take them to a place where they’re like, ‘Wow, what’s he singing? Huh!’ But I don’t want to take them any further than that, because then they start to follow their thoughts again. If I structure my set the right way, they’d follow my thoughts. And I’ll divert them through any experience that, at the end, they have joy and they have light and they’re happy that we were there—and then they want to come back for more. And then, from a French sense, if I’m really doing my job, then the surest proof that I’m a real artist is that, when the show is over, they all go out and have drinks together and have conversations that last into the night. That would be great!”

We left off talking about “the Message” in his music (or the music as message enough in itself) and continued talking about the difference between what Kurt had at one time called his “rants” and his “monologs” or pieces consciously composed or prepared, “worked out in advance.” I’d found a quote in the liner notes to his The Messenger CD in which he said he found the former, the “rants,” more “rewarding.” Still true?

Kurt Elling: “Well, I’m married now. [laughs, openly] Ranting is something a monk can do. Again, you really have to have enough solitude for these things to gestate, and to have enough of a solid kernel of something so that when you begin it explodes and you don’t know where it’s going to go. So the carefully constructed things tend to be something that I do more often now. But I’m still, with Mark Murphy or Sheila Jordan or getting with Von Freeman, any of these teacher figures of mine … they can kick me back into that space pretty quickly, if they just give me a look, and hook, and then I’ve got to be like, ‘OK, gantlet’s down, let’s go.’”

 Me: “The challenge is on. I found a review of a concert you gave in Michigan, and a reviewer for the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote that you were ‘thoroughly hip and groovy, this reincarnated poet from the Beat Generation—he said “man” and “cat” a lot and spoke with a great many flowery witticisms.’ The reviewer also said you ‘charmed the audience, which included several people celebrating Mother’s Day.’ But the slang term ‘Beat’ goes all the way back to 1860 and the Civil War, and the notion of hipness (I was “raised” on Slim Gaillard’s “voutie oroony” and Mezz Mezzrow’s book Really the Blues) had been around for some time before the Beat Generation. How do you feel about being type cast as ‘thoroughly hip and groovy’”?

Kurt: “It’s par for the course. They’re going to write about what they’ve going to write about. Spice that people don’t think exists anymore, or that it’s just in books or people’s memories—or even the guys that lived it don’t talk like that anymore.”

I mentioned young MFA in creative writing candidates I met at a writers conference in Gettysburg who, when I talked about living in San Francisco in 1958, said, “You were a Beatnik! To us that was the Golden Age!”—even when I said I was not fully aware, at the time, that I was a “Beatnik,” and that we were dirt poor to boot and it was no “Golden Age.”

Kurt: “Yeah, it’s all the Golden Age, and none of it’s the Golden Age. You know, frankly, musicians on the jazz scene in Chicago, certainly the people I was hanging out with, well, I gravitated toward the older musicians because I wanted jazz father figures, and I wanted to have their blessing and their encouragement and their love and their acceptance. I wanted to touch the past through them, and that’s how they talk! [laughs] So I wanted to be like them. It’s a little bit like what Gary Grant said: he became Cary Grant by pretending to be him long enough so that he did! He became him! So, now it’s just part of the thing, and I think it’s cool. It’s become an organic part of me, and even here at the Festival, I’m not the only one, man. Talk to Joe Lovano for a couple of minutes. Some of us just want to be a part of that. We want to continue to manifest that energy, because it’s good to be a slick, you know? It’s chic! It’s not ordinary.”

I quoted another portion of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, previously mentioned, for which Mezzrow even provides a glossary, and a translation, at the back of his book: “All I got left is a roach no longer than a pretty chick’s memory. I’m gonna breeze to my personal snatchpad and switch my dry goods while they’re [his lady friend is plural!] out on the turf,” etc. I told Kurt that, as I kid, these words became embedded in my head (and are still there, indelible), even before I learned the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.

Kurt: [laughing] “There you go!”

Here is the cover of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, a book that became my jazz “Bible” at age fourteen (a book, often consulted, well-worn) I still possess–and Kurt Elling paying homage to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman in Dedicated to You.

Mezz Mezzrow Really the Blues     Kurt Elling Dedicated to You

Me: “Let’s talk about diversified experience or what you’ve described as ‘multi-disciplinary art events,’ full-blown performance pieces that encompass poetry, spoken word, dance and theater. I’ve been fascinated by the possibility of that sort of thing for a long time, and you’ve done so handsomely with it. An Italian reviewer praised you as ‘immensely versatile,’ commenting on the fact that you ‘keep changing from one moment to the next’—charming audiences with a traditional ballad, then scat-singing, ‘commanding [your] voice as an instrument, acting while singing,’ etc. Yet I grew up in an era of ‘specialization,’ when, if you tried to do many things, people thought you probably did not do any one of them very well. I had a year when I ended up in an anthology of best American short stories (with Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates), was exhibiting woodcut prints in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Smithsonian Institution, and was playing keyboards with a folk-rock group called the Salty Dogs. But I had to fight to convince people that all of this ‘stuff’ was coming from one source: my own soul! I was also teaching at a state university in Wisconsin and when the question of tenure came up, my chairperson called me into his office and, looking straight into my eyes, asked, ‘Bill, what is it you really do?’ That was the thinking of the time, the era, but today, things have changed, and ‘multi-tasking’ seems to be in.”

Kurt: “Well, again, if as an individual artist you could do anything from ranting to soliloquy to vocalese to straight up extemporaneous communication, I think that one already probably has a natural consciousness that is syncretic, one that wants to pull things together and see how they  combine. The most interesting thing is not to try to combine everything with everything; it’s to combine this interesting thing with this very disparate interesting thing, and to have a new viewpoint on everything else because you never would have thought of those two things together. So when the commissions started, who am I to say no? I gave it my best shot. They were always on a shoestring budget and they were only meant to run one or two nights at a time, but I’d give it my best shot because it was just a great creative challenge to try to figure out how these things would work together. I’m really proud of the results. I feel like I have a good organic sense of the way that dance and music and spoken word would go together, especially if I’m familiar enough with the choreographer’s work. Because a lot of times, if I’m seeing someone who has a great choreographic gift, and insight, that often inspires stories in me, so I’m adapting my thing to something that goes with this. It’s that kind of call and response, if you will.”

Me: “Is the ‘Encounter Without Prejudice: An Open Tribute to Allen Ginsberg’ project on film?”

Kurt: “No, it’s not really on film. There are audio recordings of it, and I’m actually having to have friends of mine back in Chicago dig through the Steppenwolf Theatre archives and the radio archives because it was pre-digital and just never had the budget  … well, it’s not like ‘let’s set up two digital cameras and have done with it.’ The reason I’m having to go through and get that stuff happening now anyway is that I’m applying for a grant for a new piece and they all want proof that you’ve actually done the things that you’ve said you are capable of doing.”

Me: “Can you talk about the new piece, or does discussing it beforehand jinx it?”

Kurt: “I’ve had an idea that for a few years has been gestating. It will be somewhat autobiographical, but it will also be based on Joe E. Lewis and The Jokers Wild: just using that as a very basic skeleton, but doing it in a very contemporary context and in that way sort of embracing history, because I have all these deep parallel experiences to Joe E. Lewis. The Green Mill was the club he was working in when they [mobsters] cut his throat. I know the tunnels. I know the ghosts of that place, and that it’s still a functioning club and it still has all this energy and it’s living. I’m not that interested in the old-time gangster thing. That seems real corny to me, and I want to present contemporary music as a heavy part of this, so we’re talking about a contemporary setting of an artistic tragedy—one that features a live and semi-spontaneous score.”

Me: “Will it work that way: as a legit ‘Greek’ tragedy, hubris, denouement and all?”

Kurt: “I’m working on the form. I’m not sure how its going to end, whether he pulls himself out or what the thing is, but I’m sure you can well imagine what an intensely mental game … well, I don’t know if ‘mental game’ is the right way to put it, but it’s something for me to contemplate: his life and the lives of people who have an artistic gift in a very special frequency and for whatever reason have that gift taken away from them. And then, what do you do with the rest of your time? If you can’t have your work in the Smithsonian and play music … if you don’t have a diversity where you’ve got back up things—then what?”

Me: “When people ask me if I ever get ‘writer’s block,’ I say,’No, I just go someplace else,’ which is a fortunate option I think.”

Kurt: “Yeah! I think this kind of idea goes to not only the questions that would specifically haunt us, but questions of regeneration, questions of self. The choice of one’s identity, and the creation of identity. I want to say that’s an American thing. It’s not just that of an individual artist. This is not just a genre-wide phenomenon. Here are all these musicians who are creating themselves by creating music. They’ve done discipline, they’ve learned history; they’ve learned about music and now they are declaring themselves. And that’s an American thing.”

Me: “Any last thoughts? Twenty-five words or less?”

Kurt: “Power to the people!”

Me: “Thanks for your time.”

Kurt: “Oh man, it’s nice. It’s nice to have a conversation about this stuff. And I appreciate your welcoming my efforts from my generation to connect.”

Here’s Kurt Elling making another essential connection–with an audience as he lodges lyrics in their minds and hearts forever. (Photo credit: http://www.the guardian.com)

Kurt Elling The Guardian

In a recent JazzTimes column, writer Nate Chinen states that, because of Kurt Elling, “the state of jazz singing will be different in the coming decade than it was when he arrived, and I dare say it will be better.” As evidence, he quotes David Thorne Scott, an associate professor in the voice department at Berklee College of Music, who claims, “Among my jazz students, [Elling] is the contemporary singer that I have cited the most as an influence. I always expect it from my guys, but it’s the women too.” And Dominique Eide, “an accomplished jazz singer and revered faculty member at the New England Conservatory,” adds, “Technically he’s so impressive, and I think students feel the weight of musicianship behind what he does, in his transcription and his writing of lyrics to other people’s solos.”

I’ll mention two impressive “techniques” that Elling employs when singing ballads—approaches that, I feel, owe something to the Beat Generation legacy of risk-taking and “artistic challenge.” The first is a relatively “straight” or straightforward, respectful (in terms of tradition or what has gone before) approach, but one to which he brings or lends his own unique—personal, original–sense of tempo and phrasing. He not only enhances, but transforms and transcends what we have become accustomed to hear, or are familiar with, within the standard ballad repertoire. A Russian literary theory called ostranenie, or “defamiliarization”–a theory much in line with the Beat Generation’s own aesthetics–was based on an incident in which Leo Tolstoy once spent twenty minutes dusting his room without having a single thought in his head. For Tolstoy, that was a crime. He was embarrassed: caught with the trousers of his consciousness down, so to speak, and equated the state to not existing, being dead. Critic Viktor Shklovsky picked up on this incident and described ostranenie as destroying the habitual logic of associations, a deliberate cultivation of the unexpected—the world of everyday reality becoming more perceptible in the process, objects restored from mere “recognition” to actual “seeing.” Or hearing. Of all the contemporary musical artists I know, Kurt Elling may come closest to putting “defamiliarization” into practice.

On his fourth CD, Flirting with Twilight (2001), and again on Dedicated to You, Kurt severely alters the customary tempo of “Say It (Over and Over Again).” He slows it down to a near halt (talk about “risk”!). There’s ritardando in music of course (holding back, gradually diminishing the speed), but when I tried to sing “Say It” at Kurt’s tempo, I just sounded mentally retarded, or aphasic. Kurt handles the tempo beautifully—as if he were swimming and singing, underwater. His slow motion phrasing gives you the eerie impression that time may well have swung to a halt, but the effect matches the special pleading (“never stop saying you’re mine”) perfectly—and not just pleading but praying this might be so. The slow motion approach, taking the tempo down to a near standstill, also occurs in “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (on his 1998 This Time It’s Love CD), and–as with “Say It”–it fits the song’s content just right. The existential dilemma—“Why the gods above me, who must be in the know, think so little of me … they’d allow you to go”—gets lodged in the mind and heart forever.

A second approach is strict vocalese, or what Dominique Eide described as Kurt’s “transcription and his writing of lyrics to other people’s solos.” On “A New Body and Soul” (Nightmoves, 2007), the content embodied in Dexter Gordon’s improvisation, the original  melody with its emphasis on a heart that’s “sad and lonely” and stuck fast in a  supplicating state is there at the start, but the emphasis is shifted to a head that’s “inept,” not a heart. Kurt’s own lyrics are loaded with “free” Beat Generation talk, or his “rant” phase (generous, expansive, meandering, here, to the point, perhaps, of overkill). The talk includes everything from allusions to “fear,” Orpheus, “the itsy-bitsy spider,” and a “cosmic freak show” that consumes mind, body, soul, and heart.

My favorite “vacalese” piece is “Freddie’s Yen for Jen” (on This Time It’s Love), which starts out with succinct lyrics worthy of Kenneth Rexroth:

“Love is wild in her; / I confuse her love with the sea. / She is a rare fantasy told to me …”

The single syllable word “rare” somehow ends up sounding like “mir-a-cle”—but the subtle effects erupt, the slow tempo changing to one that’s decidedly “up.”

“”But her kisses. / I dig her kisses / while washing the dishes / or feeding the fishes …

The loud Bob Dylanesque rhymes produce the effect of mockery or doggerel, and from that point on, it’s anything goes—and it does. The “poetry“ gets kinky, playing heavily on the “k” sound: “Kick-it, kig-it, kig-it kisses/kisses that will make you holler love/and that you’re glad enough to be a man!” In a wild middle “talk” section, his “chick” is flying all around him, with “a wiggle that will make a clock stop.” They “tether together,” the word play wide open, now, like the love, but not quite as indulgent as in “A New Body and Soul” (aside perhaps from those “chewy kisses”). It all converts to a grueling instrumental scat and ends on the word—guess what?—“kiss,” of course.

With regard to a fully successful “marriage” or union of words and jazz in Kurt Elling’s work, it might seem fair to ask the same question I did the first time I heard Kenneth Rexroth read to music, “But is it poetry?” I do feel we’ve come some distance since Rexroth’s “groundbreaking” efforts or what William Least Heat Moon recognized as “undigested ideas and hurried assemblage,” and I feel that Kurt Elling has found a more intigrated means to combine  highly original use of language with jazz in a way that is so thorough, so complete it’s not possible to appraise the words alone as “good poetry” or the music alone as “good music.” The two become one, as they should, and that is the basis on which we might say the work itself is “good” or “bad.” By this standard, what Kurt Elling does is very “good” indeed. For much of his audience, when Kurt sings, the words of a song–even those of the most familiar “standard”–finally come fully alive and mean something, and that would appear to be in the nature of poetry, if not the essence of poetry itself.

My favorite poet associated with the Beat Generation (although he did not like being “fixed” in that way) was Jack Spicer. I first found his brilliant Billy the Kid, the original Stinson Beach Enkidu Surrougate edition, in City Lights Bookstore, but at the time I could not afford whatever it cost (probably no more than a couple of dollars), and I still kick myself for having been a part of that Beatnik “Golden Era.” Spicer described poetry as both a “dance” and a “game”—but the game is a ball game in which you “play for more than your life.” The poet does not become a “master of words,” but is mastered by them; and the relation between reader and writer is “an amorous play for keeps. No tourists allowed.” The committed stance and high standards remind me of much that Kurt Elling said in our interview. A friend of Spicer’s, during a lecture that Jack gave, came up with a host of musical analogies he felt fit Spicer’s poetry. One compared the writer to a jazz musician improvising on a single tune so often that “he has patterns in his fingers and these patterns are so firmly in his fingers that he can allow them to take their own head and do what they want to.” Spicer responded, “I agree with that. But at the same time, you get the kind of thing which you’ve had in jazz since Parker died, with the exception of Monk, where at least I am not moved any more, where you are just showing what you can do with the things which are in your fingers or in your mouth or where the thing is … cool jazz becomes cold jazz.”

Here are Jack Spicer and Kurt Elling—each “mastered by words”—an “amorous play for keeps. No tourists allowed.” (Photo credits: mypoeticside.com and Wikipedia)

Jack Spicer    Kurt_Elling North Sea Wikepedia

While I certainly do not agree at all with Spicer’s appraisal of the state of jazz in general since Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the point is well taken–and has been repeated often–that in any art form, there’s got to be more than technique for the sake of technique. And I would never accuse Kurt Elling of ever going “cold,” of mere finger (or “lip”) exercises. The “weight of his musicianship” may now seem nearly effortless, compatible, truly “cool,” but it has deep roots—not just in his fondness for and indebtedness to the Beat Generation, but in all the hard work and study he’s put in. He’s “learned history”; he’s “done discipline.”

Kurt Elling, in writer Nate Chinen’s estimate (“Let’s come right out and say it”) “is the most influential jazz vocalist of our time.” Kurt’s legacy may well prove to be the extraordinary manner in which he has combined the art form of jazz with his own strong sense of language, its imaginative power and its wealth of meaning. He is certainly one of the most original, most unique vocalists to explore that relationship.

When, back in 2010, I assembled the five pieces I wrote for my JazzWest blog, I immodestly felt I must have written THE definitive “study” of Kurt Elling’s music. I don’t know that he ever saw those pieces, so I don’t know what his opinion of that opinion might have been. Over the years, I did work to refine my original efforts until I had completed the essay–“Kurt Elling and The Beat Generation”–to satisfaction. And it’s been a pleasure to read the recent JazzTimes and Down Beat articles on him, and realize that Kurt is still going strong, still offering “great melodies” and “express[ing] authentic emotions”—still “the real deal.” I heard Kurt Elling and Branford Marsalis together at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival, and they were definitely “the real deal.”

Thank you, Kurt, for all the pleasure you’ve provided by way of your inclusive, and continuous, talent and dedication to jazz—for your everlasting faith in what you do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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: theculturetrip.com). You can find the YouTube video of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wRYjtvIYK0&feature=youtu.be

kazantzakis-grave-inscription-2

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: http://decembermag.org/) 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: http://www.thefamouspeople.com; http://www.biography.com):

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: en.wikipedia.org; poets.org):

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!

 

 

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: www.biography.com 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: evolution.rutgers.edu):

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: hms.harvard.edu; medical express.com; http://www.iflscience.com):

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: twitter.com)

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: www.ted.com; www.ilfscience.com; daniellachace,com; wired.com; www.nature.com–E. Virginia Armbrust)

ed-jong   51wjytbxpel-_sx336_bo1204203200_1

microbes-1  microbes-2

ImageJ=1.33uunit=pixel

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: featurecreature.com: Carly Brook; splash.sussex.ac.uk)

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA    Bill and Joe Gallo

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLqjmDeiz2s.

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: http://www.historicsandusky.org/shop.htm ).

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: missedinhistory.com)

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: kimberlyevemusings.blogspot.com; painting by Jean Vignaud (1819): scanalouswoman.blogspot.com; historia.ro)

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: historyandwomen.com; wikepedia.org; Cineplex.com)

Heolise and Abelard Farewell Getty Images  Abelard_and_Heloise

MBDSTHE EC005
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: wikepedia.org; en.wikepedia.org; sonusantigra.org; historymedren.about.com)

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: fsu.digital.flrc.org; historicaldilettante.blogpost.com)

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: robertplantconundrum.blogspot.com; quirkality.com; abilardandheloise.com)

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NY75SqBrDo –and excerpts from two films: Abelard’s hymn, “Quanta Qualia” as part of the first, Stealing Heaven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jueyUN5H4hc ; and a second film, Cesare/Lucrezia: Abelard & Heloise, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nAETpRO0cM