The Worlds of Poetry–Part Two

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

cover-december      cover-poetry-northwest

cover-hanging-loose     cover-quilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

george-santaya         w-b-yeats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

anthony-hecht      maryrufle

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

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

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



Imagination and Hard Science

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

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

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

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

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

pratt-drawing-9        pratt-drawing-10

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

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

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

william-blake   blake-auguries-of-innocence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neuron cells
High quality 3d macro render of Neuron cells

neuronal-chatter-1   neuronal-chatter-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ed-jong   51wjytbxpel-_sx336_bo1204203200_1

microbes-1  microbes-2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hawaiian_bobtail_squid041  beewolf

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

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

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

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

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





Poetry & Music: A Preface

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

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

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

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

Art Tatum  Erroll Garner  Hank Jones

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

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

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

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

Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh   Bill at Piano with Kotaro

Akira Tana    Flugelhornist Tiger Okoshi                                    Bill with Tiger Okoshi Quartet 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill with tenor guitar age 15  Drum Set1

Bill on Drums Sigma Chi Float 2

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

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

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

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

Parasaurolophus_skull_NHM   Bill, Bkae and Rick2

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

Something Cool with Brice and Julie2  PG Something Cool DVD Cover

Something Cool Trio Alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bill with Yoko Singing    Nancy, Bill, and Karl Dobrettz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill with Jackie Coon and Eddie Erickson

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

Heath, Bill, Richard

It's a Wonderful World 3

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

Cover Bill Minor and Friends CD   Love Letters Cover

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

Heloise & Abelard

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

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

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

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

Heloise and Abelard WaddellHeloise and Abelard Lost Love Letters

Heloise and Abelard Gilson Book          Heloise and Abelard 3

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

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

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

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

Paris Heloise and Abelard        Paris Heloise and Abelard 2

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

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

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

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

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

Heloise-Abelard 2     Heloise and Abelard 5 Scandalist

Heloise and Abelard 6 encreviolette

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

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

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

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

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

Heolise and Abelard Farewell Getty Images  Abelard_and_Heloise

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

Heloise and Abelard at their lessons         Heolise and Abelard Dianna Rigg

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

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

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

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

Jonathan_Lovingly_Taketh_His_Leave_of_David_Wikepedia   Davids lament over Saul and Jonathan Wikipedia

Abelard as bard 2   Abelard statue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abelard on Hildegard album            Abelards Quanta Qualia chart

Abelard sculpture   Abelard home at Le Pallet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heloise and Abelard 4 Robert Plant        Abelard and Heloise at Paraclete

Heolise statue 2        Abelard philosophy

Abelard If I am to be remembered

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

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

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

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

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







Poet Osip Mandelstam on Music, and Beyond

I thoroughly enjoyed preparing the last two blog posts on Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient and Modern (Parts One and Two), and I’ve had some positive responses to that work. Thanks! I’d like, now, to stay with the general subject—the “marriage” of poetry and music—for one more post: this time with an emphasis on the thoughts of my favorite 20th century poet, Osip Mandelstam, on the topic–and attempts on the part of composers to set his poems to music.

In the best book I’ve read on Mandelstam, An Essay on the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: God’s Grateful Guest, author Ryszard Przybylski writes, “Opinions of professional musicians about a poet’s attitude towards music should be considered authoritative,” and he goes on to cite composer Artur Sergeevich Luriye saying that Mandelstam “loved music passionately, but he never talked about this love. He kept it deeply concealed.” Przybylski concludes that Mandelstam “listened to music and said nothing about it. He said nothing and he wrote. And thanks to that writing he entered the history of Russian music.”

Here’s the cover of Przybylski’s excellent book—and two photos of Mandelstam as a young poet: (photo credits: Gregory Freidin, from his fine book, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation, which I’ll also show here; and

Book on Mandelstam    Mandelstam

Mandelstam 6     osip-mandelstam5

We’ll take a look at what Mandelstam wrote in the way of poetry in just a moment, but first: an observation of his in prose that I found interesting: “Musical notation caresses the eye no less than music itself soothes the ear … Each measure is a little boat loaded with raisins and grapes.” Mandelstam appears to have loved everything about music—including the sight of it and even the suggested taste!

In a poem written in 1931, “Self-Portrait,” in which he makes fun of his own peculiar (verified by nearly everyone who knew him, including his wife) appearance, he says (translation by James Greene):

Here is a creature that can fly and sing, / The word malleable and flaming, /And congenital awkwardness is overcome / by inborn rhythm!

Przybylski writes, “He treated everything he did as flight and song … a poet who heard existence … who felt he was filled with rhythm, the fundamental form-creating element. He was incapable of separating poetry from music because he was incapable of separating form from content. For him art was music, which, as Boethius explained, “sometimes makes use of instruments and sometimes creates poetry.”

Here’s a series of drawings and woodcut prints I did myself—in homage to the various stages of Mandelstam’s   life (and more about the last “stage” later):

Mandelstam 1 Mandelstam 2Mandelstam4

Osip 10Mandelstam5  Mandelstam 3

In a poem written in 1908, the first poem in his first collection Kamen (or Stone), Mandelstam hears (Przybylski’s own translation) “The cautious and deaf sound / Of the first fruit, torn from the tree! / Amidst the resounding sound / Of the deep forest silence”; and Przybylski responds: “In the beginning there was silence. Nothingness is silence … All things arose through sound, and without sound nothing which exists would have come into being … Thus, sound is born from silence’s singing. Silence is music. This seeming paradox haunted Mandelstam throughout his life [in 1910, he wrote about a “soundless chorus of birds” that flies through “silence at midnight”] … Music, then, incorporates both silence and sound. Singing man is a form of God. The interruption of silence means the appearance of form.”

Przybylski spends considerable time on alternate theories regarding this “birth”– theories Mandelstam eventually rejected—such as Theophile Gautier’s concept of the birth of Aphrodite from ocean foam as “the birth of love,” Russian Symbolist Sergey Solovyov’s notion that she initiated a “paradise of love,” and neo-Parnassian Alexander Kondratev’ s view that Aphrodite became an emblem for “the joys of life.” Mandelstam broke with these Neo-Platonic traditions, for his Aphrodite is Anadyomede, or the one who simply “swims out of water,” and Aphrogeneia, the one “born of the ocean foam.” The Greeks believed that all births required motion and moisture (as they do )–two things “that the sea has in excess.” In another poem, “Silentium,” one of my favorites, Mandelstam sees Aphrodite as both the soul and original foundation of life, simultaneously. Here’s my own translation of “Silentium”:

It is the unborn, still— / She and the music and the word / Sustaining, unbroken /The living coherence.

Here are two classic interpretations of this moment, one the famous painting by Botticelli (“The Birth of Venus”); the other a 2nd century Roman sculpted piece: (Photo credits:;

Aphrodite 1  Aphrodite 2

Przybylski quotes musicologist Paolo Carapezza: “In ancient times music and the living logos [phonic organization of words as language] were an inseparable unit, and what is more, the former was considered to be the conscious and deliberate perfecting and refining of the latter, the revelation of it internal essence; the living logos was music in raw form, like gold in the form of ore.” Carapezza also cites a time of “esthetic transformation” when music stopped being “an extract of logos” and became “that in which the logos swims and by which it is surrounded.” Music was no longer structured on a plane equal with the word, “not according to the word,” but “appropriately according to its own patterns.” Music began to be constituted “independently of the word.”

Mandelstam, according to Przybylski, understood the meaning of this process well. In his essay “Pushkin and Scriabin,” the poet wrote: “The Hellenes did not allow music any independence: the word served them as the requisite antidote, the faithful sentinel, and the constant companion of music. Pure music was unknown to the Hellenes; it belongs completely to Christianity. The mountain lake of Christian music grew calm only after the profound transformation which turned Hellas into Europe.” And Przybylski adds, “The symbol of this unity of music and logos was, for Mandelstam, Aphrodite, but … before she swam out of the ocean foam, when she was still living in the foam or, better yet, when she was foam. For among the Greeks love was an initial movement and very quickly it became a unifying force. Thus, it fused meaning with song, intellect with rhythm, communication with expression. Thanks to love, music was born of the natural prosodic melody of the word. Each thought arose out of music, all music gave birth to thought.”

Mandelstam rejected Vladimir Solovyov’s Goethean “Eternal Feminine.” For him Aphrodite was the “primal Aphrodite, mythical, cosmogonical.”

Let my lips discover / What they cannot say: / Some crystal note / In pure birth!

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

Again, by way of contrast, Przybylski separates Mandelstam’s beliefs regarding the marriage of music and word from those of his contemporaries and predecessors. Andrey Bely had accepted German musicologist Hanclick’s thesis that “music is a more elevated language than speech,” and Bely approved of Schopenhauer’s concept that “the esthetic priority of symphonic music, which is a ‘product of reflection,’ is completely separated from the world of phenomena, and cleansed of all contact with the word.” The Russian Symbolists praised the emancipation of “pure music,” but, according to Przybylski, a paradox existed at the foundation of their “linguistic Utopia”: the despised word had to take on the function of pure, instrumental music, which became “the highest value only because it had separated itself from the word.” Mandelstam resolved this paradox. For him, the conscious sense of the word, the Logos, was “just as magnificent a form as music is for the Symbolists.” He endorsed the wisdom of “origins.” He did not seek the essence of musicality “in an instrument, but in the word.”

Mandelstam rejected the era’s “beloved paradox” (“Yearning for wordlessness is in essence yearning for music”). He turned away from Tyutchev’s “silence as the music of the soul, deprived of the possibility of authentic communication” and even Homer (“the soul itself is a form of music, a harmonious chord”), and, unconcerned with the music of the soul, he saw “silence” existing “only in order to change formless possibility into sounding form.” Again, silence was the “expectation of sound,” “the collection of possibilities.”

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

Although Stravinsky never set Mandelstam to music (that I know of), Przybylski  couples the two, citing the former’s “Le Sacred du Printemps,” in which he interpreted the myth  “as it suited his music,” and sought primal musical material in the ancient world–a “vision of a ritual rite of the rebirth of life” in the ballet, “thanks to which man, steeped in the primitive sound of primal musical material, makes contact with the biocosmic unity.” The piece, “thanks to its ‘barbaric’ rhythms,” is transformed into “an apotheosis of sacred eroticism.” Both Stravinsky and Mandelstam sought the “same value” in primordial chaos: “Freudian Eros, the instinct of love, which supports the current of life, continually renewing the cosmos and building culture.”

Here’s a collage with Stravinsky imposed upon Henri Matisse’s painting “The Dance” (I didn’t realize how large, how monumental, this painting was, and when I first saw it, “live,” in the Hermitage, I told my wife Betty she should come back in a month or so and “rescue” me from viewing it!); scenes from “Le Sacred du Printemps,” the original production and a contemporary performance  (Joffrey Ballet performance at Los Angeles Music Center); and a portion of Stravinsky’s score (Notice all those small dancing “raisins and grapes”!): (Photo credits: NPR Today;;; YouTube).


Rite of Spring  Rite of Spring 2

score for Rite of SpringIn his poem “Silentium,” Mandelstam’s “silence” has a “musical character.” In his invocation to Aphrodite, if she will remain foam, the word will return to music, because “every renewal takes place only after the return to beginnings.” Mandelstam’ s “silence” was not a “criticism of language as a means of communication … primal silence was a phenomena in which form, Aprodite, is concealed.” Like Mozart, Mandelstam saw silence optimistically. Mozart “insisted” that silence was more essential than sound in music, because only in silence, “filled by mental effort, is a decisive grasping of form possible.” The “Prince of Silence,” Miles Davis, is known to have said “In music, silence is more important than sound.”

Przybylski concludes this portion of his book by asserting that Mandelstam’s “silence” is not a “modernistic Nirvana, but the source of creation. Creation, in turn, is affirmation of life, the acceptance of the material world, the joyous sensing of things.” Mandelstam “linked his art with life, with the earth.”

Przybylski then turns his attention to a “primal abyss” that some people feel as a threat. He says “we should not be surprised that Mandelstam expressed the thought that music is unable to save us from the primal abyss. Music itself, after all, belongs to a certain extent to the abyss, because it was born out of silence … but a sound can interrupt the terror silence, it can charm the abyss. That is why the soul signifies a bursting into song. One must summon rhythm, even though it appears only rarely, like grace. Only a singing soul can create form. The poet, then, is a man in whom molino vivo, the creaking mill of life … has not destroyed his ability to sing. Creativity is a kind of song. That is why Mandelstam did not just recite his poems and did not try to force the meaning of the lines into meter. If a sentence in a poem does not fit the melody, it has no meaning. The meaning of a poem is in the music. So that Mandelstam sang his poems.”

Przybylski reminds us of a single phonograph recording of the poet “singing” a poem of his [and more about this poem at the end of this blog post], and the testimony of his contemporaries bear this out. “The wandering aoidos probably sang Homer’s epics like Mandelstam”–which reminds me of what I’ve said elsewhere about Homer as the first “anchor person,” but singing the evening news: “There was a fierce battle in Troy today,” et cetera.

“The musician is depicted in Mandelstam’s poetry as a priest entreating the abyss,” Prybylski writes, and once again, he asserts: “To create, then, means above all to create music. For the wave comes out of the sea to a measured beat … rhythm is the source of shape. A poet is a creator only when he creates musical shape. The musician is the archetype of the creator.”

Przybylski offers Mandelstam’s thoughts on Bach and Beethoven, for the poet has written a poem about each. For the poet, Przybylski claims, Bach was an artist who understood music as “the organized resistance of the spirit against the elements … Above the dust of time, above the disharmony of sounds swirling in taverns and churches, [Bach] triumphs like a new Isaiah, because Isaiah is continually proving the obvious: that God exists, that A = A.” Mandelstam himself has written, “Logic is the kingdom of the unexpected. To think logically is to be perpetually astonished. We have come to love the music of proof.” And he found such music in Bach.

The introduction of the words “logic” and “proof” after “Isaiah” and “God” made me think of an interesting book I am reading just now: physicist/saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and The Structure of the Universe. In the Introduction, the author writes: “Contrary to the logical structure innate in physical law, in our attempts to reveal new vistas in our understanding, we often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking … The intricate way that the fundamental laws of physics work together to create and sustain the overarching structure of the universe, responsible for our very existence, seems like magic—not unlike the bare bones of music theory have given rise to everything from ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ [the “bare bones” or underpinings of the song “It’s a Wonderful World”] to Coltrane’s Intersteller Space. By using an interdisciplinary focus, inspired by three great minds (John Coltrane, Albert Einstein, and Pythagoras), we can begin to see that the ‘magical’ behavior of the blossoming cosmos is based in music.”

Here are: cover of The Jazz of Physics; Stephon Alexander at work; the cycle of fifths, and cosmic conclusions John Coltrane (literally) drew based on the cycle of fifths (a diagram he entrusted to saxophonist Yusef Latif): (photo credits:; Miles Okazaki).

The Jazz of Physics   The Jazz of Physics 2

circle-of-fifths-3     John Coltrane drawing

Throw in a little Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Richard Feynman for good measure. And within Osip Mandelstam’s inclusiveness (the “sum of opposites”: his unique blend of religion, mythology, and pagan ritual), he maintained a healthy respect for empiricism. He once wrote: “O poetry, envy crystallography, bite your nails in anger and impotence! For it is recognized that the mathematical formulas necessary for describing crystal formation are not derivable from three-dimensional space. You are denied even that element of respect which any piece of mineral crystal enjoys.” And he included the following two lines in a poem: “… here on earth, not in heaven, / as in a house filled with music.”

Mandelstam also believed the “abyss” could be controlled by an artist who was the opposite of the reasonable logical Bach: a mad, Dionysian artist like Beethoven, whose music was “a modern orgy, a holy intoxication, a momentary deification of man”–madness which allowed Beethoven, for a time, “to achieve the fullness of existence.” Przybylski adds, “On this is based Beethoven’s joy … Like an epic poet, an artist in the full sense of that word, [Beethoven] transformed his ‘I,’ that Dionysian arch-pain, into the subject of art, and sang it in Apollonian measure.” Przybylski believes that “to prove or to drive mad” is the function of art: “to lift man above his terror.” He mentions the word “panmusicality,” for he feels the world itself “has a musical character.”

So much of what Przybylski says is said in the name of Mandelstam: thoughts that derive from him or which would have met his approval. For Mandelstam, music was “divine fullness, the sum of opposites, silence and sound, primal formlessness and form, barbariousness and culture, fear and joy, terror and liberation … Mandelstam loved the logic of forms in music, but he was also fascinated by screams of pain … as a sum of antinomies, music has a divine nature. Musical form is the product of wonder, and its function is proof.”

Robert Tracy, who has translated Mandelstam’s first book, Stone, points out that the poet “only rarely” had a room of his own in which to work and write–that he usually composed his poems in his mind “while walking the streets and wrote or dictated them only at the end of the poetic process.” He cites a question Mandelstam asked regarding Dante: “How many sandals did Alighieri wear out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy?” Mandelstam imagined his “admired Dante sharing his own work habits”–that The Inferno and especially The Purgatorio “glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking.” And Przybylski reminds us that “that is why Beethoven also fascinated him as a walker measuring the fields and woods in the environs of Vienna.”

Here are: Dante’s first encounter with Beatrice on one of his walks (painting by Henry Holiday); and, coming up next, Terpander with his lyre (looks as if he’s playing a game of tennis!): (Photos credits:;

Henry_Holiday_-_Dante_meets_Beatrice     Terpander

Przybylski’s book on “God’s Grateful Guest,” contains some final thoughts on, a summary of, Mandelstam’s love of music in a chapter called “Terpander’s Lyre,” focused on a stanza from a poem, “Cherepakha” (“Turtle”), dedicated to that poet’s “Turtle lyre,” the stanza itself dedicated to musicality, that is, to “that element of poetry which Parnassus had completely forgotten” (Przybylski’s own translation):

Unhurried is the turtle-lyre / Fingerless, she just barely crawls out./ Lies about in the sunshine of Epirus / Silently warming her golden stomach. / Well, who will fondle such a one, /  Who will turn over the sleeper? / She is awaiting Terpander in her sleep. / Anticipating descent of the dry fingers.

What a set of wild, sexy images; what graceful lust for an instrument made from a turtle’s shell in order to make music come alive–with the assistance of a poet’s “dry fingers” of course! Once again, Przybylski hammers home the “exceptionally high value” [highest?] that Mandelstam placed on musicality in poetry. “He was pleased that Verlaine placed “De la musique avant toute chose” [“You must have music first of all,” Verlaine adding, in the seventh and eighth lines: “Nothing more dear than the tipsy song/Where the undefined and Exact combine.”] at the beginning of his Poetic Art. Convinced that poetry’s origins are in song and that the phonetic element is more essential than the pictorial in poetry, the author of Tristia [the book in which “Turtle” appears] could not follow the path of the Parnassians, “who did not understand that admirers of Hellas cannot ignore and reject musicality … Despite the set opinions of several scholars who were fascinated by the plastic arts, it was music that occupied the central position in Greek esthetics. Among the Greeks a true creator was a poet or a musician: a sculptor was only a craftsman … according to legend, the lyre fell from heaven. It was a gift of the gods. The seven planets were compared to its seven strings. The canon of beauty was based on the numbers which the harmony of tones dictated.”

Przybylski claims that Mandelstam rose above any “artificial division” or distinction between the “Classical” and “Romantic,” that he had reached back to a tradition that was earlier than the “French error,” and arrived on his own at the genuine tradition of Classical poetry: molpe–song and dance. “The ancient Greeks’ bard was at one and the same time a leader of the dance and a director of the chorus. His poetry was not performed in isolation. Words were always tied to music and the rhythm of the dance. ‘Dance’ and ‘music’ also had a different meaning in those days, and were certainly not specialized. The ancient Greeks’ poetry was created, then, by the musically inspiration of the bard.”

Przybylski concludes: “Mandelstam linked musicality with inspiration. In his conception, music liberates in the poet thought which has been prepared by intellect … he placed a high value on … incantation, without which he could not imagine intensity of experience. The element of incantation, remaining forever in a poem, could evoke in the reader a movement of his soul, or ecstasy, which allows him to understand the poet’s thought: to recreate the creative process.”

The greatest gift that Google has ever given me is the actual voice of Osip Mandelstam. I made this discovery inadvertently, by accident, searching for something else: any and all musical settings of his poems by composers–a number of which I did find. The surprise that came up was a 1924 recording of Mandelstam himself reading his poem “No, I was never anyone’s contemporary,” this and “Tsyganka” (“Gypsy Girl”) on a Northwestern University site called “From the End to the Beginning: A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse,” a site that also contains several of his poems in print.

I was only partially prepared for what I heard. Here was Mandelstam himself–actually standing, reciting, no, singing, in my studio! I had previously run across various accounts of, testimonials regarding what it was like to hear him read when he was alive: his body “slightly rocking to the rhythm of the verse,” his entire face “so transformed by inspiration and self-abandonment” that, ordinarily “unassuming,” it had become “the face of a visionary and prophet.” Those attending such performances claimed they could feel “the presence of the spirit possessing the poet”; they could hear the poet’s “oracle” and experience “that which is sacred but remained concealed in ordinary life.” At one reading, Mandelstam presided as “a shaman for two and a half hours,” as if in trance. Boris Pasternak was present and was overcome by “the terrifying exorcism.”

What I heard–in spite of the heavy pops and blips and crackling that accompanied this nearly prehistoric recording–more than verified what witnesses had described: that Mandelstam did not just recite but sang his poems. He did not do so in the somewhat “singsong,” wistful, studied, somewhat theatrical style of Yeats reading “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” but in the highly urgent, instantly affecting manner of that Russian tradition that Vladimir Mayakovsky made familiar, “at the top of his voice,” and Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko perpetuated throughout the era–the 1960s–in which they made their public readings available to listeners like me. The closest American equivalent may be our own tradition of public oratory, but Mandelstam’s purpose was never overt or all-too-obviously political or religious persuasion (the two so often combined in our culture), but the art of poetry itself. Mandelstam enunciates each syllable as if it were as round and real as his beloved stone, a phenomena sacred in and of itself–and the total result is an aria as memorable as any you might know from opera by heart (but free of the schmaltz occasionally associated with opera). Mandelstam sings the pure joy of language that embodies all that human music can contain.

After being stunned by this experience, and having played the recording over and over and over again (I didn’t want him to leave the room!), I turned my attention to composers who had attempted to set his poems within their own music: Elena Firsova (who has provided chamber cantata for solo voice and ensemble settings from the poems in Tristia through the Voronezh Notebooks–“the most tragic poems,” in her estimate by her “favorite poet,” as he is mine). Firsova comments, “From his poetry I learnt that we can speak very quietly about the most important things, and that we can see the most tragic occurrences in the light of beauty.”

Here are Mandelstam and Elena Firsova: (Photo credit: YouTube)

Mandelstam by Firsova

I also listened to Yelena Frolova’s “Russian Silver Age” settings (which includes poets Blok, Bely, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, and Yesenin as well as Mandelstam); Gordon Beeferman’s Now no one will listen to songs, which features “With vaguely-breathing leaves,” the last stanza of Mandelstam’s “Why is there so little music/And such silence?”; Vladimir Dukelsky’s (otherwise known as Vernon Duke) Ode Epitaphe 1931; a song cycle by Michael Zev Gordon; Giya Kanchel’s  Don’t Grieve (presented by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky as vocalist soloist); Valentin Silvestoir’s Silent Song (six poems by Mandelstam); and a Dances for Petersburg program presented by the University of Michigan Dance Company, which offered Jessica Fogel’s “We Will Meet Again in Petersburg” (a cycle that includes that poem, “The Admiralty” and “At a terrible height”).

Some of what I’ve heard seems to carry too much self-conscious “weight” for what would be appropriate for or equal to Mandelstam’s work–an attempt on the part of the singers to out-Chaliapin Chaliapin perhaps, bypassing nuance for the sake of overlarge boulders that do not, to my mind, possess the fine resilience of the poet’s beloved stone.

A well-meaning effort that, unfortunately, suffers from this fault is Steve Lacy’s (and he’s one of my favorite jazz soprano saxophonists) Rushes, 10 Songs from Russia, which pays homage to Marina Tsvetayeva and Anna Akhmatova, as well as Mandelstam.

Here are poets Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva: (Photo credits:;

altman-akhmatova         TsvetaevaM

One of Mandelstam’s poems represented is “I say this as a sketch and in a whisper,” other favorite of mine (here in David McDuff’s excellent translation):

I say this as a sketch and in a whisper / For it is not yet time: / The game of unaccountable heaven / Is achieved with experience and sweat … / And under purgatory’s temporary sky / We often forget / That the happy repository of heaven / Is a lifelong house that you can carry everywhere.

Stacy’s stated purpose was to make the poet’s words “better known,” to set the poems “without betraying their spirit, into jazz art-songs,” but my disappointment was immense when I heard what he and vocalist Irene Aebi had done with this poem–its “spirit” betrayed from the very start, to my ears: Aebi shouting, nearly screaming “I say it … in a whisper.” The conception struck me as totally contrary, at odds with the intention and tone of Mandelstam’s fine, subtle poem.

A poem previously cited (“The cautious and deaf sound / Of the first fruit, torn from the tree / Amidst the resounding sound / Of the deep forest silence”) provokes, after a handsome subtle Tracy instrumental introduction, the same sense of over-kill–of being at odds with Mandelstam’s concept of music “emerging from silence.” Another of my favorite poems  (“I have the present of a body–what shall I do with it / so unique it is and so much mine.”) is rendered in French (this after Lacy, in the liner notes, has stated as a disclaimer of sorts: “The Russian language is already music”); and a very moving poem about the  Terror–“Into the distance –go the mounds of people’s heads / I am growing smaller here–no one notices me anymore”–is rendered redundant through over-dramatization.

As composer, Lacy may have been too preoccupied with Mandelstam’s ultimate fate (those who know of it can’t help but feel considerable compassion), for he states, “Real jazz is dissident music. In Russia, poetry can be fatal” (which is true enough), but he goes on to say that Mandelstam was “crushed like an insect, after having brought forth a carefully preserved, full life’s work, of timeless literature.” Mandelstam’s fate was cruel (more about that in a moment), but this was a man who stood up to the regime in his poetry, who refused to succumb to “official” jargon, the trite slogans of the era (publicly pressed at a reading as to what he “believed in,” he bravely replied that he believed in “world culture,” not Soviet)—a man who believed there was nothing tougher than a human being. Osip Mandelstam was decidedly not someone “crushed like an insect.”

I’ve spent some time on what I feel is a misrepresentation of his poetry in music because it’s something one does encounter, on occasion, on the part of well-meaning composers and singers not fully “in tune” with the work itself. When that happens, I almost wish they’d just left the poem alone, and stuck with a strictly Schopenhauer “’product of pure reflection’ … cleansed of all contact with the word.”

That was not at all the case with another discovery I made, again, by way of a most fortunate  “accident”– another gift that made Mandelstam truly come alive for me through a marriage of poetry and music. In the summer of 1990, my wife Betty and I traveled 9,000 kilometers throughout the former Soviet Union, gathering information on and interviewing musicians for a book subsequently published: Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union. We met and spent time with a host of fascinating folks–both musicians and jazz fans–but two of the most interesting and engaging musical artists were composer Igor Egikov and his wife, singer Irina Vorontsova.

Here are: the cover of my book; a poster for a “Dvoe i Pecnia” (“Two in Song”) concert by Igor and Irina, and the Novospasky Monastery (to which they took Betty and me): (Photo credit:

Unzipped Souls    Vorontsova and Egikov

Novospassky-Monastery 2

I fell in love with the delightful Vorontsova the instant I laid eyes on her. Her face is round above Tatar cheekbones (an ancestry of which she is proud), a face framed by long hair, unzipped dark eyes beneath handsomely arched eyebrows, a small pug nose, and a generous mouth. Meeting her and Igor came about by chance. I had shown a Professor of American Literature at the University of Moscow, Irene Norikova (who was helping me translate), a booklet of photographs our son Stephen took of my own woodblock prints and paintings of Russian poems, the text included in each work. Irene was interested in my having chosen poems by Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, for she had a friend who’d set their work to music she said, adding, “He is an excellent composer, and his wife is a famous singer.” Irene arranged for us to meet them.

Neither Irina Vorontsova nor her husband, Igor Egikov, spoke English, so we relied mostly on Irina’s cheerful disposition and devastating smile to convey the meaning of her brilliant chatter as we set out, packed into their small car; on a grand excursion to a Moscow we would otherwise never have known, ending at the Novospasky Monastery (New Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior) on Krutitsy Hill just above the curl of the Moscow River leading out of town (the first monastery to be founded in Moscow in the early 14th century). In spite of a slight drizzle, we strolled the grounds, Irina singing Bulat Okudzhava (my favorite Russian “troubadour” of the 1960s) songs at my request. Igor Egikov was cheerfully reticent. A pupil of Aram Khachaturian, he specializes in writing music for his wife. According to a review in the Boston Globe, when the couple performed in this country, Igor was interested “in finding a new direction for music, a third stream, that would reconcile serious classical music with popular idioms.” The Globe referred to “the vibrant Vorontsova, a world class cabaret singer,” as a woman who “talks with her eyes.” She does, so I listened.

Outside the monastery we sat in their car and drank fine Georgian wine they had given us as a gift along with a large poster announcing a concert “Dvoe i Pecnia” (“Two in Song”—the name of an album they also gave me), an evening of songs, romances, ballads and poems by Akhmatova, Okudzhava, and Marina Tsvetaeva set to music. We had insisted on sharing the wine there and then, Igor acquiring a glass, our loving cup, from one of those vile gazirovannaia voda vending machines (mineral water dispensed in cups that everyone shares, a highly suspicious rinsing device also provided). We chatted and joked, exchanging pictures of respective families, discussed art and music and life and all things under the sun as best we could with what we had by way of mutual language.

It was time for Betty and I to return to the Variety Theater for the final concert at the jazz festival we were attending. Here’s a flyer I saw posted on a wooden wall in Moscow—the event the “First International Moscow Jazz Festival”:

First Moscow Jazz Festival

As another parting gift, Igor and Irina gave me a cassette tape with a single poem by OsipMandelstam on it, a poem entitled “Where Are They Taking Me?”, written in 1911, but a poem too prophetic, for Mandelstam would die, as a political prisoner, in a transit camp in Vladivostok in 1938 at the age of 47, initially arrested in 1934 after reciting, at a party, within earshot of a few close friends, a sixteen line poem highly unfavorable to Stalin (calling him a murderer in fact). Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, in her miraculous book Hope Against Hope. suggests, in a chapter called “Who is to Blame?”, that no one person was responsible (even though they knew who turned him in), that everybody was culpable: mutual complicity, the outrageous compromise of, at that time, an entire society.

Here are: a photo of Mandelstam as a political prisoner, and another quote from his wife, Nadezhda: (Photo credit: poetrysociety,org; The translation following is mine:

Mandelstam 4  Mandelstam 7

How slowly the horses step, / How dimly the lanterns glow. /  These strangers surely know /Just where they are taking me.

And I entrust myself to them, / For I am cold. I wish only to sleep. / Suddenly, at the turning, sharp / I am thrown out among stars.

Jolted, my head swims feverously, / But icy fingers sooth me. / The dark shape of a fir tree / Lingers, out of focus.

The Russian, the language alone—as Steve Lacy recognized—is  beautiful:  Kak malo v fonaryakh ognya / Chuzhie lyudi, verno, znayut, / kuda vezut oni menya / A ya vreryayus ikh zabote … / Goryachey golovy kachane / nezhnyy led ruki chuzoi–and Igor and Irina transform and transmit that language with full respect. The piece opens with Igor’s solo piano vamp (in F minor), one that matches or imitates the pace of the horses perfectly–and softly, slowly, like a “dimly” lit lantern herself, Irina’s voice enters, rich with troublesome irony (“These strangers surely know / Just where they are taking me.”), fitting in light of Mandelstam’s subsequent experience, but not exploiting it. The only “content” not in the poem is her subtle and moving “ejaculations” at the end of each stanza: a single syllable, “ah,” repeated, and, before the last stanza, “oi yoi yoi yoi yo oi,” which perhaps I could have done without, but which again are fitting (“earned”) and not overly dramatic (in excess of tone and circumstance)–offered so “delicately” and inobtrusively that I feel Mandelstam himself would approve, would not object.

The couple’s interpretation of this poem is so handsomely self-contained (just like the poem itself), consistent in tone (like the poem again), the dynamics so fitting, subtle, everything so “well placed,” the economy so in keeping with Mandelstam’s intent and style (Irina’s voice disclosing maximum effect with regard to the words without impeding them in anyway), I cannot imagine their version being improved in any way. Bravo! Thank you (spasibo bolshoi), Igor Egikov and Irina Vorontsova, for showing just what can happen to a poem, emotionally, when the word, logos, is truly married to music—that balancing act Mandelstam managed so well in his work: a blend of romanticism and equilibrium, logic and a touch of madness: poetry all the more powerful for its depth expressed through economy and restraint.

I wish I could close this blog post with an example of my own attempt to set a poem by Osip Mandelstam to music, but, whereas I have set a few of my own poems that way, I have yet to find music for one of his. I do have a reading I did (on YouTube) of “No, I was never anyone’s contemporary,” which I translated. My friend, the amazing Bob Danziger, a gifted musician, composer, sound sculptor, inventor, author, entrepreneur, and a key player in the alternative energy industry for over thirty years, undertook the video project, and he asked me to participate directly. First he had me select a piece from his exceptional music project, Brandenburg 300; then, in his studio, he asked that I read Mandelstam’s poem over (and “within”) this music–to which he would add visual material (I gave him the names of Russian artists from Mandelstam’s era: Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall, Nathan Altman’s “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,” Levitan, Vrubel; and also, at his request, some of my own art work, a series of drawings and woodcut prints I’d done of Mandelstam and other pieces, and some photos from my own life).

Bob located excellent photos of Mandelstam (and the art work from his era)–his intent to make this video a genuine “Mandelstam and Minor” (the title of the piece) collaboration: to honor the poet and also, as he put it, the fact that I have “survived.” Bob submitted “Mandelstam and Minor: I Am No One’s Contemporary” to the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival: films to be shown at an award ceremony at the Lighthouse Cinema in Pacific Grove, California, and the film was accepted. Our homage to Mandelstam can be found at:

Here’s a “still” from the video of me reading “No, never was I anyone’s contemporary”:(Photo credit: Bob Danziger and the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival).

Mandelstam and Minor photo

I’ll close with a poem of Mandelstam’s I did a painting of (“Insomnia”), the painting I stood in front of for the film–a poem I’ve also translated (and appeared in the literary journal  Hanging Loose 49).

Mandelstam Helen2

Mandelstam's InsomniaI love the line “The sea, Homer–everything is moved by love”; and that seems a perfect “note” on which to close.





Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern, Part Two

I concluded Part One of this blog post on Greek Music & Poetry with what, I hope, was a satisfactory look at the experience my wife Betty and I had with such “song” when we lived in Greece in 1979-80, and with a solid glance at my favorite Ancient Greek poet, Archilochus–plus reflection or theories (speculation or hypotheses) on early Greek music. The question yet to be addressed (and it will be now) is: How did that music–and the contemporary poetry set to music which Betty and I heard–actually sound?

The oldest musical fragments available date back to the 3rd century BCE, but complete examples that inspire actual musical interpretation were composed in the Greco-Roman period, and one of my favorites (on the basis of level of interest and “listening pleasure”) is a “Hymn to the Muse” by Mesomedes of Crete, a court musician at the time of Hadrain (117-138 CE), written in the Lydian mode (the most popular mode of his time). I have a recording called Musique de la Grece Antique, by the Atreum Musicae de Madrid, but there are other interpretations of this valuable surviving work.

Here are: the cover of the recording I have; a woman holding a kithara (more about this instrument in a moment); a man playing a kithara; and an original manuscript by Mesomedes (Photo credits: YouTube;;

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover        Kithara in Hymn to the Muse

Man playing kithara   Mesomedes manuscript

On the recording I have, a female voice offers (

Άειδε Μούσά μοι φίλη, μολπής δ’ εμής κατάρχου, αύρη δε σων απ’ άλσεων εμάς φρένας δονείτω. Καλλιόπεια σοφά, Μουσών προκαθαγέτι τερπνών, και σοφέ Μυστοδότα, Λατούς γόνε, Δήλιε, Παιάν, ευμενείς πάρεστέ μοι.

Sing, Muse, dear to me— / As prelude to my own song. /  Inspire my heart with breezes / from your own groves; make / my soul tremble. / O wise Calliope,  / who leads the gracious muses, / and you, son of Latona, Delian Paean, / who guides the mysteries– / assist me with your favor.

The voice is light, nearly delicate; pleasant, nearly “pretty”–as much chant as song. Heartfelt enough, it is not really “emotive” in the way we think of emotion (there’s no vibrato, thank goodness, on the words “make/my soul tremble”); it is not noticeably “dramatic,” for the overall tone is one of truly classical restraint and proportion. The pitch is exact, distinct. Both Calliope and Apollo (“son of Latona, Delian Paean”) are supplicated in the sense I mentioned in the Preface (“prayer, praise, petition”), but with humility, with considerable modesty. Author Alan Shaw (whom I quoted in the last blog: his “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music”; online, 1997) mentions melodies “based as they were on an elaborate system of scales and modes, some of which engendered our own, some containing ‘microtonal’ intervals that would have sounded very exotic to us,” and how they “might have added many subtle inflections to the vocal delivery of lines,” but I don’t hear any microtones here, and while the inflection is “subtle” enough,” it is also very simple, straightforward, unpretentious.

The instrumental accompaniment–totally in unison with the voice, replicating the vocal line, the melody, pitch for pitch, note for note (with some subtle delays or hesitations in time, some “displacement,” but within the same range as the voice, not an octave higher as advocated by Archilochus)–is that of the kithara, which, according to notes that accompany my recording, is “a more perfect and elaborate stringed instrument than the lyra,” different in its sound-box, size, and sonority (larger, wooden, producing a fuller, more “sonorous” tone; possessing seven strings and employed largely by professionals–not restricted to amateurs, as the lyra was). A second instrument employed is the monochordan, which was used to determine the “instrumental relativity of musical sounds.”

Here’s Pythagoras of Samos playing a monochordan. Regarded as the first pure mathematician, his Musica Universalis or Music of the Spheres disclosed numerical ratios of pure musical intervals, creating harmony, or celestial bodies as musica – the medieval Latin name for music. Next to Pythagoras is a white-ground lekythos (a vase used for storing olive oil) showing a young woman playing a kithara: (Photo credits: and

Pythagoras_and_his_Monochord      Woman playing Kithara

It is not at all a large jump from this second century CE piece to one I first heard in Crete in 1979: Mikis Theodarakis’ setting for a poem from Georgos Seferis’ “Mythistorima,” sung by the exquisite Maria Farantouri: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

“O hipnos se tilixa, O hipnos se tilixa, me prasina pheella anasaines; / san ena thentro, san ena thentro, me prasina pheela anasaines; / mesa sto iseecho phos, mesa sti thiaphani pigi, koitaxa ti morphi sou. / Kleismena blephara, kleismena blephara, kai ta matokltha, charazan to nero.”

Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree; / you breathed like a tree in the quiet light, / in the limpid spring I watched your face: / eyelids closed, eyelashes brushing the water.

Here are: Theodarakis conducting; Theodarakis with Maria Farantouri: (Photo credits: YouTube and

Mikis Theodarakis

Thorarakis with Farantouri

The piece begins with a two guitar chorus, laced with bouzouki trills, of the melody (which, as in the case of Hymn to the Muse, is quite handsome, though simple): a distinct, even, four beat rhythm beneath a liquid, floating effect, fully appropriate to the setting (“in the limpid spring”). Farantouri’s voice is quite “classical” (full of restraint and proportion), not overly “emotive,” understated, yet all the more meaningful because of that (a paradox that fits the poem!). The chordal pattern is “folk”: tonic/ dominant/sub dominant chords with aptly added minor extensions. In both pieces–the “ancient” and the “modem” (even with the richer orchestration of the latter)–the music does not attempt to interpret or “enhance” (add extra dramatic emphasis to) the poetry in the manner that pieces we will encounter later (Robert Schumann and Richard Srauss settings for the poetry of Heinrich Heine; Hector Berlioz settings for Theordore Gautier); it remains in the background, or alongside in a manner that does not call all that much attention to itself–a suitable “sidekick,” as it were: simple, elemental accompaniment.

Author Alan Shaw concluded the article “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music” (online, 1997): “The main evidence for the compositional power of Greek music, so far as we can still see it, is in its rhythm. And for all but purely instrumental music, that was given–schematically of course, but with far greater precision than in any English song–by the scansion of the verse … In terms of rhythms, Greek verse had indeed a heritage almost comparable to the heritage of melodic and harmonic motifs in Western classical music. And in a large composition like the first chorus of the Agamemnon, this heritage is played on with the same kind of allusiveness, subtle modulations and unexpected transitions that we find in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony … and it was the poet’s creation, not a creation of ‘pure’ musicians or an automatic result of the Greek language’s musical qualities … If modem poets are intrigued by the results, they have only to look to the neglected music of their own languages, and see what might be done.”

By contrast, the earlier Homeric bard, or aodoi, according to Stefan Hagel (“Homeric Singing—An Approach to the Original Performance”), sang his songs accompanied by a four-string instrument, the phorominx, “improvising his four-note melody at the same time as he improvised his text, which was unique in every performance.” Jazz?! Perhaps not, for Hagel adds, “His monotonous melody, far from interpreting the text, served only as a medium to transport the words and to catch the listeners’ attention by their intrinsic rhythms.” Sounds more like the evening news on TV–which in a very real sense it was, or at least a forerunner. Homer as the first “anchor person”?

Here are: a phorominx, and three early figures of Homeric Bards: (Photo credits: Wikipedia;;

Phorominx     Homeric bard 2

Homeric bard 3-cycladic            Homeric bard

I have commented on two “lyric” pieces of poetry set to music, but I have also listened to contemporary dramatic constructs similar to the sort Shaw compares to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Two are from Georgos Seferis’ “Mythistorima,” set to music by Theodorakis and sung, again, by Maria Farantouri–this time with her large voice (and she has one!). The first is “In my breast this wound opens again,” a piece filled with an “epic” or anthem quality: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

 Sto stithos mou i pligi anoigei pali / Otan kamilonoun t’astra kai seeggeneuoun me to chormi mou /Otan pephetei sigi kato apo ta peimata ton anthropon

In my breast the wound opens again / when the stars descend and become kin to my body, /when silence falls under the footsteps of men …

Shortly after this opening segment comes powerful emphasis on the line ti thalassa, ti thalassa, polos tha boresei geera kai sto geraki (“The sea, the sea, who will be able to drain it dry.” One line Seferis borrowed, appropriately enough for our purpose, from the Agammenon; Clytemnestra justifying Agammenon’s treading on the purple carpet leading into the palace). Farantouri’s voice seems to contain all the wild majesty of the classic Greek tragic heroines–prophet and priestess and poet herself. The piece starts with guitars that complement each other, interact handsomely–one melodic, the other offering arpeggios–and the rhythmic pulse is hypnotic, heroic, offset by tympanis, an instrument Theodarakis obviously favored for a piece such as this, evoking as it does, the human heartbeat.

The second piece I love, sung again by Farantouri, begins: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Ligo akomaltha ithoume tis ameegdalies n ‘anthizoun / ta marmara na lampoon ston ilio / ti thalassa na keematizei Ligo akoma / nasikothoume / ligo psilotera, ligo psilotera, ligo psilotera.

A little farther / we will see the almond trees blossoming / the marble gleaming in the sun / the sea breaking into waves /… a little farther, let us rise a little higher.”

Pure anthem! Pure assertion! Pure praise! This will happen, no doubt about it–no matter what! Farantouri’s voice is filled with total conviction, as is the music that surrounds it. Another single poem by Seferis set to music by Theodarakis is called “Denial.” I came to know this poem/song so well in Greek, and sang it so often while we were there, that I stopped thinking of its “meaning” or “being” in English, but I will include, here, a translation I did when I got home—along with the poem in Greek and “vocabulary” I jotted down in my notebook. I’ll also include the first page of that notebook (which I would fill with poems and songs throughout our journey): a page that starts with a quote from Karagozis (Καραγκιόζης in Modern Greek), a shadow-puppet theatre and fictional character from Greek folklore: “Long live freedom!”; the word “translation,” notes by Georgos Seferis for “Mythistorima,” a quote from Axion Esti” (“THIS WORLD / this small world the great!”) and a popular Greek saying (or maxim), “Long live madness!” (Photo credit: Suitcase & World: Traveler’s Diary, by Julee):

My book of translation in Greece 6 My book of translation in Greece 3  Karagiozis Poster


On a secret seashore / White as a dove, at noon / We felt thirst, but found / The water was brine. / There on golden sand / We wrote your name together /–How splendidly the sea breeze / Blew, but erased your name. / With such heart, with such spirit, / Such passion and such pain / We lived a life together—a mistake! / So turning away, we changed.

Here’s a photo of Georgos Seferis; a plaque in London which honors the time he served as an ambassador there; and an album I brought home (songs by Theodarakis, in which I found his absolutely perfect, beautiful setting for “Denial.”): (Photo credits: Wikipedia;

Giorgos_Seferis_1963        Seferis plaque in London

Theodarakis Best Of

Here are: The town of Parokia, and the Byzantine Road between Lefkis and Prodromos in Paros. Because I had heavy boots in case of an encounter with unfriendly critters, such as snakes (of which Betty is not all that fond), I walked ahead of her on our across-the-island hikes, but I did see the most beautiful green and golden “serpent” (Milton’s “subtlest beast of all the field”: this one about six feet in length) curled up in a rock wall just like the one depicted here: (Photo credits:; Norbert Hohn)

parikia-town           Byzantine Road Paros

Not long after we arrived in Paros, we were sitting in a restaurant in downtown Paroikia, and I saw an advertisement, tacked to the wall, announcing a performance of Axion Esti, the epic “spiritual autobiography” of Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis (with portions of the poem set to music by Mikis Theodarakis, as I’ve mentioned). The piece would be performed in the small town of Marissa, on the far side of the island. On the day of the production, Betty and I took a bus there, and we were the only non-Greeks on it. The same was true in the one-room schoolhouse–site for the show–we entered when we arrived: the place packed with Greeks ranging from age seven up to late seventies, some of the former hanging out of the windows. Up front, a high school teacher we recognized from Paroikia had outlined Elytis’ not-at-all easy poem (accessible in terms of its complex forms, and even imagery) on a blackboard, and three musicians (bouzoukia, and two guitars) were tuning up.

After the mayor of Marissa, and three others from adjoining towns (Marmara, Prodhromos, and Piso Livadhi), gave speeches, we were, for the next three hours, treated to not only the music, but a detailed exegesis of the poem itself (including its intricate rime scheme and elaborate structure) and its origin in Greek experience; recitations of its individual, component parts by high school students; and then–most amazing of all–after the musicians introduced a song (and a repeat performance of that night on which I couldn’t believe my ears in Crete, when the university students came up our street singing a poem from Axion Esti after a full evening of disco dancing), every single Greek person in that one-room schoolhouse, from age seven up to late seventies, joined in to sing it! I was stunned and thrilled by what I heard.

Here are: Odysseus Elitis; the Athens State Opera performing To Axion Esti; the cover of the recording I brought home, and a performance poster: (Photo credits:;


AxionEsti  Performance poster Axion Esti

The only American equivalent I could think of, dream of, might be to attend a performance in some small Kansas farm community of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” (not an easy poem at all itself!) set to music by Charles Ives, and have each person present, knowing both words and music by heart, join in the singing, as if they were in church singing hymns long familiar—an occasion which, in many ways, I couldn’t begin to imagine taking place.

In Marpissa, I couldn’t hold back tears when I heard those voices sing, in unison, from the Thoxastikon (“Gloria”) section of Axion Esti: “Axion esti to phos kai i proti charagmeni stin petra euchi tou anthropou” (“Praise be: the light and man’s first rock-carved prayer”), the piece ending with “Kai Aien 0 chosmos 0 mikos, 0 Megas!” (“And Forever this small world the Great!”). Later, when we were back in Athens just before returning to the States, I told our friend Evangelos Pappas about what we had witnessed on Paros, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “We learn those songs when we are in kindergarten. They teach poetry and music quite early in our schools; those songs define us as a people.”

I thought those words would serve well as the last for this two part account of Greek poetry set to music: past and present, but I remembered a post card Betty and I brought home after visiting the Byzantine Church of the Virgin, at Lindos in Rhodes: the interior a perfect “metaphor” for the inclusive nature (everything from secular “sensual strife” and Χαρά—joy–to sacred ascent) of Greek poetry married to music, for every square inch of the Εκκλησία (church) was covered with another extraordinary art form: εικονίδια (icons).

I also just finished reading Ali Smith’s amazing book, Artful, in which she brilliantly combines fiction (the return of a deceased husband) with fact (four very insightful lectures on art and literature). At one point in the book, the husband describes a Greek actress, Aliki Vougiouklaki, who played Antigone, Evita, Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music), Sally Bowles—as well as “Shirley Valentine and Shaw’s Pygmalion and Aristophane’s Lysistrata and the leads in My Fair Lady and in Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth … she was the Greek Monroe, Bardot, Loren, Hepburn (both Katherine and Audrey) … all of them rolled into one … she had an eager spirit. One mentioned a possibility and she met it, like the next line of a song.”

Reading this, I wasn’t certain whether Aliki Vougiouklaki was a fictional character (just “made up”) or real, so I checked her out on Google, and up she came, singing a song I myself first heard and learned in Greece, a song I sang often: “Ypomoni.” I realized I had discovered another perfect ending to this blog piece. And you can find a delightful YouTube video of Aliki Vougiouklaki singing “ὑπομονή” (which means “Patience”) at:

Here are: the interior of the Byzantine Church of the Virgin in Lindos; Aliki Vougiouklaki; the song “Ypomoni” as I jotted the words in Greek in my notebook; and, as a last entry for this blog on Greek Poetry and Music: Ancient and Modern, I will include the lyrics (somewhat similar to Georgos Seferis’ “A little farther / we will see the almond tree blossoming …”) as translated by Ali Smith in Artful: (Photo credit: Illyria Forums)

Greece Church interior on Lindos

Aliki V 2    Ipomoni


“Neighborhood, your streets are narrow / Frost and gray skies / Life is dark, day and night / For company, cloudy skies /… Patience … / Have patience and the sky will become more blue / Have patience: a lemon tree will bloom in the neighborhood.”



Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern

I have been working for some time (more than a few years now!) on a book-length manuscript: a study of the history of poetry “married” to music, or “song,” from the Singing Neanderthals (see Steven Mithen’s excellent book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body) to the present day. Mine is a “book” grown so copious (I’m only at English Renaissance poet/composers such as Thomas Campion now), I may not be able to finish it within my lifetime. And I know there are other fine books on the subject (James Anderson Winn’s Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music; Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History); yet I have a friend who is interested in ancient Greek poetry set to music, and he asked if I knew anything about it—which I do. Both Ancient and Modern Greek poetry set to music in fact (there’s a definite continuum there)—so I’d like to “share” what I know by posting it on Bill’s Blog.

In Chapter Four of what I ‘ve written so far, I had the audacity to call the Greeks (both Ancient and Modern!) “my friends,” and that’s because they were, or became so, when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece (on Crete and Paros, with many side trips to other islands) for nearly a year in 1979/1980–and also because I have enjoyed reading both classical and Modern Greek poetry (in the original) and hearing it combined with music, since 1959, when I began to make a serious effort to be able to do so. In this post, I’d like to start with the near present (1979) and work my way back to “antiquity,” because this marriage of poetry and music displays amazing continuity, and longevity, and–to my mind and ears–has provided one of the most fortunate “blends” of the two forms.

When Betty and I left Greece in 1980, we gave all of the warm clothing we’d brought (wool sweaters and lumberjack shirts) to our landlord and landlady on the island of Paros, where we were living at the time, and I filled the suitcase with phonograph records: LPs that ranged from Vitzenzos Comaros’ epic poem from Crete, Erotokritos; Tragouthia tou Gamos (wedding songs from Crete, as well as Greece at large); instrumental music from Crete (tambouras [small bouzouki], laouto [lute], lyra [three-string bowed instrument]); vocal music from Crete (mostly mantinades: two fifteen syllable lines which rhyme, set to music); and Mikis Theodorakis’ handsome settings for the poetry of Giorgos Seferis (Mithistorima), Yannis Ritsos (Epitaphios), and Odysseus Elytis (Axion Esti).

Here are: the cover of a recording of Ancient Greek music (Musique de la Grece Antique: Atrium Musicae de Madrid) and a poster for a performance of To Axion Esti:

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover     Performance poster Axion Esti

When we first arrived in Greece, we took–after a short stay in Athens–a boat from Pereus, landing in the town of Chania in Crete. We thought we might find a house or apartment there; but Chania–in spite of its interesting history (the town built on the site of Cydonia, which dates back to just after the Minoan period) and an appealing waterfront–seemed too large (38,467 inhabitants at the time) and intractable. Also, we couldn’t find any music! So we got on a bus and headed east along the north coast, to the town of Rethymnon, which we fell in love with immediately–and which, throughout our four month stay there, would provide us with “live” music nearly every night. There is a saying in Crete: “Chanians for arms [at the time we were there, Souda Bay was not only the largest most secure bay in Crete, but in the entire Mediterranean]; Rethymnians for arts”–and that proved to be true. Here’s the harbor in Rethymnon, with its Fortetsa on the headland in the distance: (Photo credit:

rethimno harbor from air

While the Turkish occupation may have compromised the town’s famed artistic “flowering” (which took place during Venetian times), Rethymmon is still decidedly picturesque, with its two snowcapped mountains (Psiloritis or Mt. Ida, one of several birthplaces of baby Zeus in Greece, and Lefka Ori), red tiled roofs, narrow Venetian streets, old Venetian mansions, its Fortetsa on the headland (which harbors an abandoned mosque); three minarets (one the high point of the town, at its center), and a small, intimate, compatible harbor–even though I discovered the words “Exos Americanos” inscribed in large letters on one of its walls (“Americans, leave!”), and did not tell Betty, nor our son Steve (who was traveling with us after having just graduated from high school) this until much later. Here are: Mount Psiloritis and the Fortetsa in Rethymon (Photo credits: and

Greece Mt. Ida         Fortetsa in Rethymnon 2

A spanking new tourist office was run, proudly, by a short, balding man named Kostos Palierakis, for whom I would soon be doing clerical work, helping to translate letters he received and responding to them. Kostos immediately found us a small house just a block from the beach, one with a heater that had to predate the Minoan civilization, a heater we would share (a blanket cast over our six knees beneath a table, to retain the heat) and a shower with a timer–hot water lasting all of about three minutes; the drain set on the high side of the floor not low, so the flood of water would rise above your ankles.

Here are: the view outside the window of the house Kostos found for us, and Kostos Palierakis himself with Betty:

Greece Crete WindowGreece Kostos and Betty

The small yard contained citron and olive trees, a grape arbor, trumpet vines, roses, Bird of Paradise, geraniums, and mandrake. We also fell in love with the town’s market area: its shops and periptera (kiosks), gypsy visitors leading a baboon through town, along with a huge bear with a ring in his nose. We found fresh fish daily (barbouni [red mullet], maritha [smelt], lithrini [sea bream], mourouna [cod], and fresh hot psomi [bread] we tucked beneath our arms for warmth (the Biblical name for “shop,” Astorieon, appropriate: “Give us this day our daily bread”). We found elies (olives) galore; giaourti (yogourt); meli (honey); turi (cheese: kasseri, kafaloteri, Cretan graviera)and britzoles from the butcher just beneath our house (when I asked for this, a lamb chop, he simply reached behind him and grabbed any piece of meat available, chopped it, and handed it to me!). We were provided with wine from the woman who ran the pool hall beneath the post office: wondrous Cretan kokkino krasi–red wine–for fifty drachmas (about $1.35) for a 1 ½ kilos jug. When I first went there I purchased the same amount of ouzo for 60 drachmas, but deciding I did not wish to die within a week, I never bought ouzo there again. Here are some streets scenes from Rethymnon: (Photo credits:;; Jasmin Spiridaki)

Street scene in Rethymnon 2   Street scene in Retymnon 3Street scene in Rethymnon 3

So what does any of this have to do with the marriage of poetry and music in Greece? Well, everything! To my mind, the Greeks–in antiquity and down to the present day–were/are the first people to realize that such a union could never come about without acknowledging the full range of human experience: a complete social context in which song might evolve, even from seemingly trivial “daily round” or “day in the life” stuff, or subject matter, all of the commonplace richness of the human condition: food and drink and shelter (complete with imperfect toilet facilities) and sleep and a full palette of human aspiration that included every form of sensory activity, including sex–and then being willing and able to celebrate it all, both joyously and sadly on occasion, in song.

This came home to me, vividly, one night, lying in bed after midnight, fully content before falling asleep, having returned “home” after helping Kostos write some letters. No matter how elaborate the demands of potential American or European visitors (frequently professors, on sabbatical, like myself, but these seemed to require a plethora of rooms, toilet facilities, maid service, etc.), Kostos would command, “Vasilis [my Greek name], please, take letters; write, ‘Come to Crete!’” And that was it. He’d rewarded my efforts that evening with a couple shots of what he called “good Cretan water”: soul-bracing, throat-scouring raki. At home, attempting to fall asleep, I heard a group of university students (from a university located on the outskirts of town) coming up the hill by our house after a night at the local disco. Saturday Night Fever had come out in 1977, and John Travolta’s charismatic oscillations were still very much in vogue (not yet pronounced dead by Staying Alive), but these young men, having danced to such music all night, were not singing disco tunes. They were singing a poem from Odysseus Elitis’ epic work Axion Esti, set to music by Mikis Theodarakis:

“Tis agapis aimata me porphirosan/ Kai chares aneithotes me okiasane/ Ocheithothika mes sti votia/ ton anthropon/ Makrini Mitera, Rotho mou Amaranto.”  

“The blood of love has robed me in purple / And joys never seen before have coveredin shade. / I’ve become corroded in the south wind of humankind / Mother far away, my Everlasting Rose.” (Translation: Edmund Keely and George Savdis: The Axion Esti, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974)

I couldn’t believe my ears! These kids were singing, in fine chorus if a tad inebriate, the words of a Nobel prize laureate set to music by one of the finest composers in Greece–and doing so by choice, after an evening of ordinary fun, not coercion. It was the first time I’d heard this amazing cultural phenomenon in Greece, but it would not be the last.

Betty, our son Steve, and I began to explore the harbor area and found a small, casual, cozy restaurant (“Taverna Adelphia”) owned by a family named Koumiotis. Together, the youngest son, Tony (Andonios, who was the same age as Steve) and the oldest son, Thomas, proved to be a force when it came to attracting people of diverse national backgrounds to the place. I’d brought my guitar along on the trip (it proved to be an invaluable “passport”) and even on nights when we’d taken a stroll, sans guitar, and stopped off at the restaurant, Papa Koumiotis would reeve up his motor scooter, stash me on the back, and off we’d go to our house to fetch the instrument. Thus commenced a series of full-fledged hootenannies in which the common denominator of the French, Australians, Germans, Welsh, and Scandinavians present would be the tune “Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” or, after Thomas sang a Greek song that included animals, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” with each nationality providing its own linguistic equivalent for the “critters” called off. Another popular tune at the Koumiotis was the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

Here are photos of: the entire Kumiotis family with Betty (Mama, Tony, Papa, Thomas); Tony holding the sign I painted for the restaurant (not all that pleased, because “First born” brother, Thomas, insisted I put his own name alone on the bottom):

Greece Kumiotis Family

Greece My Sign for Kumiotis

Even better than these sessions at the restaurant were nights at the Agrelia, a tavern run by a man named Nikko, located in a whitewashed former Venetian stable with vaulted walls (the troughs lodged in the walls now held candles), the place buried amidst the narrow, winding Venetian streets. The Agrelia featured the owner on bouzoukia and an excellent guitarist named Paskalis, assisted by another guitarist named Dotheros. I began to take my guitar there, and on one occasion, that trio playing a Cretan tune with heavy Middle-Eastern overtones, I was told, “You can’t hear our rhythms,” but later, when they tried to play jazz, I got revenge—just short of saying, “You can’t hear our rhythms.” And we all got along beautifully from that point on.

I never heard Nikko speak a word of English, until, much later, on a day in March, the winter chill not having abated but he walking with a Danish girl who’d returned to Crete, I said, “Kanee kreeo” (“It’s cold out.”). Nikko replied, in perfect English, “No longer; I am quite warm now.” Up to that point, the talk and the music had been strictly Greek, which was good enough for me. Especially with regard to the music, although Paskalis refused to write down any lyrics of the songs he’d sung.

Here are: Nikko (bazoukia-player and owner of Agrelia) with Betty; Paskalis; and  Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night. The harbor wall behind him is the one that bore the words “Exos Americanos” (“Americans: Leave!”) when we arrived:

Greece Taverna owner and Betty in Crete            Greece Ponos Guitarist in Crete             Greece Plate Smasher in Crete

“You know that song you sang about ponos (pain) last night?” I would ask; “Would you write down the words for me, parakalo (please)?”

All of our songs are about pain,” he replied, a bit short. “And I’ve heard you speak Greek, good, so all you should need to do is listen. ”

None of the Greeks ever used “charts,” or written words and music, no matter what they played (I had “cheat sheets,” lyrics with the chords, for Leonard Cohen songs, which they seemed to love, Cohen having once lived in Greece). They felt, working strictly from oral tradition as they were, that I should be able to do the same. I began to excuse myself from the taverna, as soon as I heard a song I liked–such as “To Pallikari echei kai ‘mo,” a Theodorakis setting for a poem by Manou Eleutheriou, translated as “the Young Man Is Sad,” but the context of which is really “tonight, the brave young bachelor shall find more grief, because of women”–“kai’mo” being one of those wondrous Greek words which implies a grief so terrible, so unbearable, so full of unamendable sadness, it cannot even be named. I would walk up and down the beach until I had both words and tune down by heart, at which time I would return, proudly, to the taverna. The process required lots of (mental, and emotional) effort on my part, but I filled two notebooks with songs I’d learned by the time we left Greece.

After he had collected names and addresses from foreign tourists his age whom he met at the Koumiotis restaurant, our son Steve left Crete to travel to thirteen different countries on his own (from Egypt to Sweden), and I became a regular at Nikko’s (Betty’s journal began to include entries such as, “Bill took guitar to taverna again last night, and retuned at 3:30 am”). There was music at all hours, night and day. When Betty went to the greengrocer just below our house for eggs, the owner played the lira for her. At the time of Epiphania (Epiphany), children came to the house to sing “Kalanda.” One of these kids, who sported the remarkable name Robogianomis Phragmismos, repeated the words of a song to me in Greek so I might copy them down to translate:

” … I am given/ the pearl, the key/ to open Paradise, to drink cool water,/ to pass into sleep/ beneath an apple tree–/ apples falling at my feet,/ roses upon my head.”

Mama Koumiotis, who had worn black from head to toe following the death of her father, years ago, never left the kitchen of the restaurant (except to shop, I suppose), but she would–from within her “station” there–sing mantinades (popular Cretan couplets, even inscribed on calendars), and I would frantically jot down the words, for she, too, thought I should just listen, and she wouldn’t repeat them:

“Departed, far away,/ the rose that I love,/ yet the fragrance is strong/and still burns me.” Or: “To Psiloritis peak/ the birds cannot go,/ but my love flies there/ and returns, freely.” To which Papa Koumiotis would respond: “Four crosses hang/ upon the neck of the priest;/ the faithful kiss them, but I would rather kiss your cheek.”

Itinerant musicians–bouzoukia, lira players–would arrive in Rethymnon, and word got around quickly (grigora) that they’d be playing at one of the taverns or restaurants. After one of these spontaneous performances at a place called Yannis, I remember watching “Charlie’s Angels” with Thomas and Tony (a very popular program with the pallikaris: “brave young bachelors”), the sentence “You’all can go ta hell in a breadbasket!” translated as “Fige parakalo” (“Please leave”) in the subtitles. While Steve had been in Crete, he and I heard vocalist Viky Moskoliou live at a local theater on which a billboard for an American film, Super Vixens, was translated into Greek as Girls Who Are Dynamite in Bed.

I had once, in my teens, worked as a real estate sign painter, so the Koumiotis asked me to paint a new sign for their restaurant, which I did. It attracted so much attention that fishermen, who were repairing and repainting their boats for spring launching, asked me to re-paint the names on the sides of their boats. I received so many requests that we decided it was time to leave Rethymnon (on sabbatical, the last thing I wanted to do there was work!), and we did, heading north to Paros, in the Cyclades Islands. We would miss the music–and other small stuff, like a guy named Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night: a privilege he took full advantage of. I also had the privilege of meeting a legendary local poet, Andreas Spanouthakis, who recited his poems for university students while he prepared souvlakia (shish-kabob) for them at the grill of the stand he owned.

He also recited–or sang!–his poems for me, and played tapes of rizitika (folk songs from the eastern mountains of Crete). Here he is—and while I’m at it, I might as well toss in a photo of a man playing a goatskin bagpipe (τσαμπούνα: tsambouna). Lots of interesting music in Crete!

Greece Souvlaki Singing Poet            Greece Man playing goatskin bagpipe

The presence of the university (the young people I met spoke pretty good English) had preventing me from using and adding to my mostly (aside from reading) “functional” Greek in Crete as often as I’d wished, so on Paros we deliberately found a place to live about two miles from the town of Pariokia, in a valley, and I had to use the language on a daily basis because our landlord, Tasos, and landlady, Helena, did not speak any English. The taverns in town had all gone strictly “disco,” so there was little cause to go to town at night anyway (no more Agrelia, and Nikko and Paskalis!)–so I settled into a pleasant routine of sitting on our comfortable small porch, which faced a field of barley and other fields being cultivated by our landlord, plus the Aegean Sea, and played and sang the songs I’d learned on Crete.

Here is the house we found on Paros (in the Valley of the “Petaloudes”: Butterflies), as seen from the fields of barley in front of it (with a small chapel just across the path that led to the house); Betty on our front porch—my guitar (a tenor guitar: four strings, tuned like a mandolin) to her left; me with our landlady Helena (right) and her daughter and her child; and our son Steve (who returned eventually from his travels and joined us on Paros), our landlords (Tasos and Helena), a neighbor and her mother.

Greece Our house on Paros

Greece Betty our porch on Paros with guitar     Greece Me with landlady and her daughter on Paros

Greece Steve and Betty with family on Paros


Paros–and it was not by accident that we had chosen to go there–was the birthplace of my favorite Greek poet of antiquity: Archilochus, born in the first half of the 7th century BCE: inventor of the iambus and a professional soldier. A mercenary with a mind of his own, he was driven out of Sparta because he wrote a poem about abandoning his shield, “beside a bush,” in favor of saving his own life; a poem mocking, in Guy Davenport’s words, “uncritical bravery” (the shield would bring “joy to some Saian,” a soldier from Thrace), and Archilochus felt he could find another just as good elsewhere. The poet was a satirist with a “nettle tongue” so effective that, when a man named Lycambes retracted his daughter’s hand after having promised it to the poet in marriage, the latter’s abusive verses were said to have driven Lycambes to suicide. The influence of Archilochus was so persuasive that both poets Sappho and Alcaeus were said to base their “measures” on his. Plutarch credited Archilochus with the invention of trimester: unique combinations of “unlike measures.” He was also the first poet to employ stanzas of long and short lines, or “epodes,” recitative or rhythmical recitation of poetry to music (and the style of music to which recitative was set); and he has been credited with reciting iambic lines to music and singing the others, a technique afterwards employed by the tragic poets (and opera: recitative!). Archilochus was thought to be the first poet to set the music of an accompanying instrument an octave higher than the voices, instead of in the same register as had been the custom of his day.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian thought Archilochus had acquired “the highest degree of facility” as a poet, possessing the “greatest force of expression,” with phrasing “not only telling but terse and vigorous,” the “abundance of blood and muscle.” Contemporary scholar/poet Guy Davenport names him “the second poet of the West. Before him the arch-poet Homer had written the two poems of Europe,” but Archilochus, both poet and mercenary, was the first poet flexible enough to combine a host of original ingredients that range from satire (his tomb was said to read “Hasten on, Wayfarer, lest you stir up the hornets”) to pure lyricism (The Greek poet Meleager called him “a thistle with graceful leaves”—like 20th century Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who described himself as “a cloud in trousers”?).  And Archilochus could be bawdy! A long poem said to be by him (not just a fragment as too many available are) turned up in 1974. Raucous, comic, British poet Peter Green called it “The Last Tango in Paros.” The tone is that of Francois Villon (another favorite poet of mine!) and the concluding lines, as translated by Davenport, read: “I caressed the beauty of all her body/And came in a sudden white spurt/While I was stroking her hair.” On a more delicate note, he defined “music” as “My song/And a flute/Together.” Another fragment states: “Myself the choir-master/ On the chant to Apollo/ Sung to the flute in Lesbos.” Here are two sculpted homages to Archilochus: (Photo credits:

archilochus statue 2    Archilochus statue

Unfortunately, there are no extant phonograph recordings (ho ho) of Archilochus set to  or accompanied by music, but one of my favorite poems of his is so inherently musical that it’s difficult for me to recite it without singing it (I can hear the music!).

Echousa thallon mursines eterpeto/ rodes te kalon anthos, e de oi kome/ omous katestiadze kai metaphrena.

Here’s my own translation (not half as musical, I know!): “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back.”

Archilochus is said to have been killed by a man named “Crow,” who claimed it was “a fair fight” but was banished from temples for having slain a man “sacred to the muses.” Indeed, when the poet’s father inquired about his son’s birth, Apollo himself foretold that he would beget a son who should be immortal. And Archilochus is, through his poetry. I just wish I’d been there to have heard it sung! I did manage to get as close to him, the poet ranked “second only to Homer,” as I could. Betty and I hiked to the cave, located behind Cape Aghios Fokas on a sheer rock cliff, where he was supposed to have sought inspiration. I’m not sure how he ever got down there, unless he invented rappelling by rope as well as the iamb, although the terrain may have changed (considerably) since the seventh century BCE.

Here’s the view from inside the cave where Archilochus wrote his poems–and here I am (that’s not another sculpted homage to Archilochus, ho ho) at the cove (across from a beach in Paros) where Betty and I went each day–and where I wrote my own poems and translated both Classical and Modern Greek poetry: (Photo credit:

Archilochus cave

Greece Bill at our cove in Paros

An interesting article by poet/composer Alan Shaw, “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music” (online, 1997), is set up as a sort of debate, the author responding both “pro” and “con” to questions related to specific issues, such as, “Was ancient Greek a musical language?” Shaw states, right off the bat, that arguments for the “intrinsic musicality of a language are apt to be rather circular” (he provides the example that people may talk of Italian as being musical simply because a number of operas have been written in it–and vice versa!). The prevalence of “open vowels” is cited in favor of Italian as a musical language, but Shaw points out that one could “just as well say that English is more musical than Italian because it has a much greater variety of vowel sounds.”

In favor of the musicality of ancient Greek, he provides evidence of the “intimate relation–indeed the theoretical identity–between Greek music and poetry,” and the fact that the two most basic elements of music–“the duration of sounds and their pitch”–form two “clear and distinct systems” in Greek (whereas they tend to get “confused” in English). In Greek, poetic meter was based on “the relative duration of syllables, which permitted a fairly direct translation into musical terms.” Word accent was based solely on pitch, and “hence has often been called a ‘musical’ accent.”

Here’s a copy of the “original” of a poem by Archilochus–alongside a woodcut print I made of another poem previously cited as I translated it: “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back”:

Text of a poem by Archilochusarchilochus myrtle shoot

On the “con” side, Alan Shaw finds the notion that “ordinary spoken Greek was naturally closer to music than other languages” misleading (doing actual damage to understanding ancient poetry and its relation to music). “It may be true that certain qualities of the language made it easier for the Greek poet-musician to set words to music,” but the fact that something is done easily “does not necessarily guarantee a superior artistic result.” He refers to English, saying the language falls easily into verse measures of four beats, “which is the ‘common time’ of most Western music,” but this has rarely been used as an argument for the inherent musicality of English, and can actually serve as a “hindrance” as much as an aid for some composers (the four beat pattern is too obvious and has to be evaded–or “transcended”–somehow, I suppose).

Shaw asks if the melodies of ancient Greek music actually followed the accent of a text, and once again, he finds the evidence “confusing,” and the answer is at first “no,” then “yes.” The few available fragments (and there are just a few) from the classical era would suggest that “they did not necessarily do so” (most lyrics were in “strophic form, and a melody designed for one strophe would rarely fit the accentuation of the other”), yet Shaw cites jazz singing as an example of a form, or nomos (a “tune-making formula or family of tunes”) that allows “great freedom in this regard, mostly for purely musical reasons, but often to better express the words of different verses as well.” If there were no requirements at all that different strophes have the same melody, it “may be that the metrical identity–the identical pattern of long and short–between strophes was enough for the Greek ear to recognize them as the same” (“a particularly subtle form of strophic song, of which modem examples could be found as well”).

Here are some samples of Ancient Greek musicians playing instruments that might have accompanied such poetry: (Photo credit:; Wikepedia;

Ancient Greek double flute and lyre

Delphi: Apoll     Ancient Greek double flute

Ancient Greek Music

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggested that the similar accent may sometimes have been indicated by a downward rather than an upward “jump in pitch,” and if this happened in ordinary speech, it would make a “correct” observance of accents much easier in singing, especially if “different verses were really required to follow the same melody.” Shaw states that pitch in a musical context is quite different from pitch in ordinary speech (“strange things, akin to optical illusions in painting, can happen”) and that, as song composers know, “the same sequence of pitches can accentuate a syllable in one context, and leave it unaccented in another.”

Did ancient Greek poetry have a beat? “Beat” is quite different in English poetry (the word used as a synonym for “stress” or “accent”) than it is in Greek. “Stress” has no part in classical Greek prosody. The ancient term for “beat” is ictus, which “the testimony of the ancients said clearly existed, at least in poetry associated with the dance,” but its nature was controversial. Again, Shaw finds the issue “relative.” In one sense all music, or at least any music that involves more than one performer, has a “beat” (“otherwise the players or singers couldn’t stay in time”), but we do distinguish music that has a definite beat (such as rock n’ roll) and that which does not (such as Gregorian Chant). “The ethereal rhythms of chant have attracted many as a model for what Greek choral music must have been like.” Like Greek music, chant was monodic, and “drew its rhythms directly from the text”–yet chant was “not danced to, as Greek choral music was.”

Shaw considers other aspects of Greek poetry and music: such as tempo (What happens when you slow it down? Poems recited at a “plodding taste”–T.S. Eliot reading “Prufrock” anyone?–lose the “beat”); duple and triple meter (“Greek verse, scanning by the rule that one long syllable equals two short ones, is often neither clearly in one nor the other”); and Greek musical notation, which consisted “only of marks to indicate pitch; time values, being given by the verse itself, were not needed.” Shaw uses the jazz analogy again: music that “swings” in the sense that “adjacent notes notated with identical time values are made unequal” (my old friend “rubato” again!).

Here’s a range or “collection” of Ancient Greek instruments (Credit: Nikolaos Ioannidis):

Greek musical instruments

In conclusion, Shaw says Greek poetry, when sung, “probably did have a beat,and when it was danced as well,” in which case, “The beat could have been fairly kinetic.” Greek dance figures were identified with certain rhythms, and many steps were performed in time with the music–just as they are today. Shaw does mention another old friend, Archilochus, saying this unique, inventive poet grew weary of the “melodic mythologizing” of his colleagues and wanted “something more down to earth,” for which he devised a meter that, “apart from being regular, had little in it that was suggestive of song,” but was more akin to the dialogue in plays, which was written in iambic trimester–a type of verse “closest to ordinary speech.”

Archilochus preferred “quick iambs, for which slower spondees are unpredictably substituted,” providing a more subtle beat that would find “a successful equivalent in English” as one of the models for the blank verse of Elizabethan dramatists. Archilochus (as he was for so much else) a forerunner of both Shakespeare and William Carlos Williams? It’s quite possible; he was that flexible. I think the good doctor, if not Shakespeare, would be pleased.

One final point within our context of poetry set to music is important: describing the “amateur” or “professional” status of Greek music, Shaw claims that the Greeks made a distinction between musicians exclusively devoted to “the art of sound” (instrumentalists) and “the poet-composer who put noble words to music,” and that in their culture, “the latter had far greater prestige.” “Mere pipers and such might be virtuosos [professionals] but knew nothing of rational music, which always began with words.” Were these poet/composors the sole creators, and the rest [performers] mere interpreters, as in the recent classical tradition? Were the poets simply songwriters, like those of the thirties in America, surrounded by a crowd of creative performers who knew how to flesh out their tunes? Shaw adds, “Certainly by the classical era the poet’s words … were sacrosanct; no one would have thought of changing those. But were the poet’s tunes treated with the same reverence?” His answer is: “The invention of musical notation at about this time would seem to argue that they were, while its relative crudity, and the rarity with which it has been preserved, might lead us to think that the reverence was no greater than, say, a jazzman’s reverence for a Cole Porter tune.” Which, I might add, can by considerable on occasion: witness the highly imaginative pianist Bill Charlap’s respect for, “reverence” of, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein tunes–and the American Songbook tradition in general.

This seems a good spot to close out on this, the first, of a two “post” look at Greek music and Poetry (both Ancient and Modern). I’ll end with another pilgrimage we made while living in Crete: to Heracleion (capitol and largest city in Crete) to see the grave site of Nikos Kazanzakis (author of Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Report to Greco, and many other fine works). The text on a stone placed next to the wooden cross on his grave reads: “I hope for nothing; I fear nothing; I am free.”

Grave of Kazantzakis2   kazantzakis grave inscription 3

Next Post: Part Two of “Greek Music and Poetry: Ancient and Modern.”