San Francisco State College: Leonard Wolf and Graduation in 1963

My most recent post on Bill’s Blog–“San Francisco State College in 1962–Wright Morris”–was the first in a series of two pieces on my experience as a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at the College–“one of the most rewarding periods of my life.” I said the second post would focus on poet Leonard Wolf–another major influence at the time–and see us through the acquisition of my Master of Arts degree in May of 1963. I’d like to offer that second post now.

In the first post, I claimed that, in 1962, the Creative Writing faculty consisted of some of the finest writers of the era, one of whom, Wright Morris, I focused on exclusively.  Here’s a photo, taken in 1964,  of a portion of the staff in the office of Wright Morris, who is standing (far right) talking to Kay Boyle (Death of a Man, Three Short Novels: The Crazy Hunter, The Bridegroom’s BodyDecision, and several short story collections); Leo Litwak seated far right (whom I would come to know well years later, when we were guest writers at the Foothill Writers Conference; Leo was then at work on his memoir, The Medic: Life and Death in the Last Days of World War II), Bill Weigent in the center; Mark Harris far left in the back (Bang the Drum Slowly, The Self-Made Brain Surgeon and Other Stories, Mark the Glove Boy, or The Last Days of Richard Nixon, Diamond – The Baseball Writings of Mark Harris), and Judith Shatnoff down front: (Photo credit: Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris)

SF State College Creative Writing Staff (2)While I’m dropping names (and the names of books), I might as well mention other faculty members of note when I arrived in 1962. Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat) was Division Chairman, and would serve as my primary faculty adviser. Poets James Schevill, Bill Dickey, and Leonard Wolf (much more about him coming up) would make up my Masters of Arts thesis committee—and other writers on the staff were Ray B. West (Rocky Mountain StoriesThe Art of Modern FictionKingdom of the Saints); poet/critic Mark Linenthal (who liked to tell students “Everything I learned about poetry, I learned from jazz.”), James Leigh (The Rasmussen Disasters, No Man’s Land, and What Can You Do? Also a jazz trombonist who in 2000 published his memoirs, Heaven on the Side: A Jazz Life); and Herbert Wilner (All the Little Heroes, Dovisch In the Wilderness and Other Stories, Quarterback Speaks To His God).

Leonard Wolf, who became my thesis project adviser (my thesis a manuscript book I would call Poems: The Weekend—“A creative work submitted to the faculty of San Francisco State College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts”), was–at the time I worked with him–not one of the “well known” writers on the Creative Writing staff, although he had published his work in The New Yorker and other respected journals, along with a book of Poems, Hamadryad Hunted (1948, Bern Porter Press). In 1962, the year I met him, his daughter Naomi was born—and she would become, in the words of Wikipedia, “an American liberal progressive feminist author, journalist, and former political adviser to Al Gore and Bill Clinton,” Naomi Wolf  would come to prominence in 1991 as the author of The Beauty Myth. She also wrote The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See: a “lovely personal memoir about an unconventional, openhearted man … a wild old visionary poet … passionate eccentric and a radically romantic humanist” who believed the creative force resides “inside all of us.”

Here is the cover of The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See—with father and daughter together in Leonard’s later years; and here is a photo of father and daughter taken in 1966—three years after I graduated from San Francisco State College: (Photo credits: The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See)

Leonard Wolf Naomi Book about Leonard  Leonard Wolf and Naomi 1966

In 1962, I found Leonard Wolf to be a lean, handsome, dark-bearded (he reminded me of photos I’d seen of D.H. Lawrence) purposeful, intense at times, but modest, mild-mannered, accessible, empathic adviser I felt comfortable with the first time I sat down with him in his office. I did not yet know his “history” (which turned out to be nearly as colorful as that of Wright Morris). Leonard Wolf was born in Vulcan, Romania (Transylvania), his name originally ‘Ludovic’, which was changed upon his arrival in the United States in 1930 with his mother, Roseita, older brother, Maxim (Mel) and younger sister, Shirly. After I left San Francisco State College in 1963, Leonard Wolf would, in 1967, start “Happening House, one of many organizations that originated with the hippies of the Haight Ashbury district … conceived as an alternate university, an arts center and a place of learning.” In 1968, he would publish Voices from the Love Generation with Little, Brown—a book I purchased and read while teaching in Wisconsin.

Here’s the cover of that book, and the cover of Leonard Wolf’s book of collected poems, The Stone Cicada, published by Medusa Press in 2001.

Leonard Wolf Voices from the Love Generation    Leonard Wolf The Stone Cicada

I’ve already mentioned (last post) that I had to submit my own work to be accepted in his poetry writing course, and that once he had selected the students he felt qualified, he asked us to meet at his home, rather than in a classroom on campus. I don’t recall exactly, but I think just about ten students would gather there on a weeknight–and all of them talented, interesting people. I was twenty-six, and a definite dowager was in her seventies. She had an elegant home in the Marina section of San Francisco, and we met there on one occasion. I wish, now, I’d kept a list of the students’ names (for future reference—what may have “become of them”), but unfortunately, I didn’t. The sessions held at Leonard’s home were lively, informal, and informative in a multitude of ways (regarding the craft of poetry, and otherwise)—each student respectful of the others, and Leonard open to the needs of each of us.

Aside from the friendship I formed with my sculpture teacher, Cal Albert, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the mid-50s, I’d never been in the “home” of an artist or writer with whom I took a class before, to see what “domestic” life was like for them—so these journeys up the hill above Kezar Stadium to Leonard Wolf’s home were inspiring. His daughter Naomi was not born until 1962, so Leonard’s wife was “carrying” her at this time, and his wife, Deborah, was an interesting, attractive, personable woman. The house was, as Naomi would describe it in her book, The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See, as follows (I’ll quote at some length, to give the full effect):

“Our house in San Francisco had been built in 1890, in the style of a hunting lodge. Its foundation, we were always being reassured, was on bedrock. It had survived the 1906 earthquake. Nevertheless, maybe because of the quake, it leaned visibly out of level … I did not live in a room with level floors in it until I was old enough to vote. It was easy, in a house like this, to believe that the imagination was a world that was as normal to inhabit as any other …The house was built so that the entire back end was pitched straight over a cliff. That half perched on two big timbers, with a sheer drop fifty feet down. The cliff-side balconies sagged markedly. Every time you went out on one, you were taking your life in your hands. The front half of the house was buried in wild growth: tangles of nasturtium and ivy covering a steep forest floor, overshadowed by eucalyptus and Monterey pines. When you stood on the roof of the house—which my parents insanely allowed me to do—you could see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge in one direction, and all the way to the Bay Bridge in the other: a silver necklace and a golden chain binding the city at both harbors … As I curled up with a book in a niche by the ash-laden fireplace, looking out at the evergreens that surrounded the house, continually painted and erased by the fog, like the trees in a Chinese wall hanging—I experienced the house day-to-day as a crucible of magic.”

Here’s a photo, a family setting, of Leonard, his wife Deborah, and daughter Naomi (Photo credit: Michael A. Smith)

Leonard Wolf Chatting with Naomi and Wife

I had far less acquaintance with the house than she would, obviously, but I too found it magical. Yet, just as I found with Wright Morris, it was the one-on-one sessions in Leonard Wolf’s office–where we concentrated, together, on making my thesis project the best, most interesting “entity” we could—I felt were most valuable. Leonard Wolf was studying Russian at the time, and he suggested I include my own translations in my project, which I did: three poems by Alexander Blok (“Catkins,” “The Stranger” and “The Artist”), although we’d gone over a number of poems I had translated while taking lessons from our babysitter, Mrs. Pein. She’d given me language lessons in exchange for guitar lessons for her granddaughter—my reward if I did хорошо (good) after each lesson was not just one but two shots of vodka. At the time I felt I was being a fool (дурачить; durachit’), because, although I was able to read the poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Pasternak in the original language, we focused mainly on grammar (I even wrote compositions for her which she “corrected.”). I did not learn to speak the language all that well—but a very constructive, positive result of the three years I spent working at the Lawrence Radiation Lab was, on my multiple bus journeys to and from work each day, I studied Russian, and by the time I met Leonard Wolf, I knew the language fairly well.

Here are two translations of Alexander Blok I made (with Leonard’s support and assistance–he was a stickler for finding just the “right” word–one word and one only—to “fit” the Russian)—two poems we would include in my final thesis manuscript:

[I am sorry to say this WordPress format will not reproduce the poems that follow as they appeared on the page, their exact form (lines indented, etc), so I will simply indicate the line breaks where they occur. We lose the visual counterpart, but at least we have the words–in correct order!]

THE ARTIST

In summer heat and snow-driven winters, / On the day of your wedding, feast, or funeral / I wish to rouse my deadly boredom with / The soft forgotten sound of bells.

Here! It is rising. With cold regard / I want to know, and fix, and strangle it. / Before my keen review the peal of bells / Extends to a barely perceptible thread.

Is the whirlwind rising from the sea? The bird / Of paradise singing in the leaves? Time swung / To a halt? The apples of May strewn with snow / Of blossoms? An angel passing in flight?

The hours pass, prolonged, bearing the world’s weight. / Sound, motion, and light expand; / The past passionately gazes at itself in the future. / No present. Nothing pathetic any more.

Finally, on its threshold of birth, the soul / –The new soul, the unknown force– / Is stricken by a curse, struck like thunder, / Conquered by creative reason, only to be killed.

He is locked within the frozen cage— / The gentle, kind, unbroken bird, / The bird that wished only to bear away death, / The bird that flew only to save the soul.

Here! This is my cage, of tempered steel / That glistens in the evening fire. / Here is my bird, formerly bright in plume, / Swinging on a hoop, singing in the window.

Its wings are clipped. It knows the song by rote. / Do you like to stand beneath the window? / The songs please you. But I, jaded and forlorn, / Long for more—and again, am bored.

THE STRANGER

On evenings above the restaurants / Densely lies the troubled air; / It holds the rancid breath of spring, / Conveying drunken calls—

Over the dust of by-lanes falls, / Toward the bored suburban flats, / The baker’s golden crest / And the shrill cries of children.

At night, beyond the city pikes /The dandies by the ditches stroll / With their ladies, tipping their derbies, /And exercise their wits.

Out on the lake the oarlocks creak, / A woman screams, /While in the city, bored with it all, / Indifferent, curls the moon.

On nights like this my only friend /Is the curved reflection in the glass, /Like I, befuddled / By the bitter sacramental wine.

In rows by tables close to mine / The drowsy waiters stand, / While drunks with rabbits’ eyes cry out, / “In vino veritas!’

Each night, at one suggested hour / –Do I dream, or do I see?– / The figure of a girl in silk / Passes by the window pane.

Then slowly, slight, she makes her way / Among the drunken men–alone– / As frail as smoke within the room, / And sits beside the window frame.

A vestal dressed for solemn rites: / Her skirts, like wine, excite, / Her hat with plumes among the smoke / And rings on every finger.

Strange: to watch her weave that spell / I see beneath a darkened veil; / Stranger still the promise held / Of veiled and distant shores.

The secret spell is mine to keep / –Deliverance in the sun– / Into the center of my soul / The wine and she have found their way.

I am turned on a spire of feathers– / My brain, like plumes, begins to sway— /  Drawn by the blue, the glass of her eyes, / Its light on distant shores.

Now in my soul a treasure lies, / And I am keeper of the key! / In truth, O drunken prodigy, / I know in wine is truth!

Here is a photo of Alexander Blok; a scroll painting I did of “The Stranger” (with Russian text); and a painting of another poem by Blok which I also translated: “This lamp, street, evening, shop, / This dim and senseless light of night– / If you should live another twenty years, / It will remain so. No end to it … You will die and begin again, go / Through it all again, as of old: / Evening, the icy fragments in the canal, / This lamp, this street, this shop.” (Photo credit: https://beautifulrus.com)

Alexander-Blok (1)  Alexander Blok The Stranger My Painting

Alexander Blok This Lamp Street Evening my painting

When it came to my own poems, Leonard Wolf was the perfect adviser, or “partner,” to have, for we thought along totally compatible lines when it came to the relationship of form to content. My training at Pratt Institute (anatomy classes coupled with life-drawing labs; rendering sessions, trompe l’oeil; design projects such as creating a living room based on color juxtapositions found in a favorite painting) had left me with much respect for formal properties in the visual arts (and the same in music: learning to play over set chord progressions long before I attempted “free jazz”). I had carried this respect for formal properties over when I started to write poetry—respect for the fundamentals.

I was thrilled by the “freedom” of Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill” (Line 1, 14 syllables; Line 2, 14 syllables; Line 3, 9 syllables; Line 4, 6 syllables; Line 5, 9 syllables; Line 6, 14 syllables; Line 7, 14 syllables; Line 8, 7 syllables; Line 9, 9 syllables. The lines are not arbitrary, for Thomas sticks to the set pattern in each stanza of the poem. Each stanza has the exact same number of lines with the exact same number of syllables in each line. I was thrilled by this mastery of craft (in spite of the poet’s drunken social habits), thrilled to find a host of words in the margins of his drafts, awaiting the selection, or choice, of just that “right” word–the inevitable word–for the poem.

I carried my respect for formal properties over into my own poems, and I would pay a price for it with certain factions at SF State, for “free verse,” or totally open, or “uncooked,” poetry, such as that practiced by the Beats, was still in vogue (a sort of Civil War, in fact, going on between open and closed form poets. More about that Civil War in a moment)—but Leonard Wolf was on my side. Again, In Naomi Wolf’s book, I found a very thorough, accurate, account of his ideas on the subject:

“Be disciplined. Do you want to know how to become a writer? It is not romantic. There is no revising a blank page. Keep going … [Naomi’s words]: “I remembered how, when I was a child, after I had told him I wanted to learn about them, he taught the standard forms of traditional poetry. Like a carpenter showing a child how to build a birdhouse, he taught me the basic shapes one could work with.” [quatrain, sonnet, ballad … and “the beats of the words”: iamb, trochee, spondee, anapest, dactyl, blank verse.] … “I would show him my latest poems—often written in the dreaded free verse, which was of course fashionable at the time … ‘Naomi, don’t paint abstractly until you can draw the figure. You can beak the form successfully once you have mastered it. Structure has to be the foundation—then you can play with it or depart from it altogether. But you have to know your craft … Emotions can be more powerful when they are closely confined by a strict form …The postwar poets I admired said that emotion, too, was a legitimate mode of thought. But the Beats made it a law that emotion would be the only mode of thought. They put feeling first and thought second. That led to disaster. I thought that was a pity, and I still do … The liberation of feeling and the discipline of form need each other. They need to be in balance.’”

Here is a poem of mine called “The Barmaid” we included in my thesis manuscript (I followed the syllable count of “Fern Hill” exactly—and even had the audacity to include rhyme!).

THE BARMAID

How could I ignore you, thinking of Renoir? / Like him, I’d trace your breast abed this frozen night. / I’m stirred with ginned regard. I know / Your skin would take the light. / But do I dare? Comme ci, comme ce,  / I walk toward the phonograph – a crystal flue / Of winter sounds -and drop a dime. The trumpets snow / All floors with sleight; but you / Refuse my offer of a pas  

 De deux:  ” For Sir, our management does not allow!” / So, let me tell you of your shoulders, how the sun / That frank, that unremembered glow / — “But Sir, I’m on the run?”– / Of light, would, be remembered now: / I’d put you in a field of wine and shade, and look /  At you–just look at you–with the eyes of art, you know. / And what if eyes forsook / Their handwork for the nude below?

We’d sing hip, bone and breast while nestled in the grain / And drink the reddest wine and swim the dappled sun. / And stop to press our place of love / And sign it, just for fun. / But here? Blue-violet bodies strain / To cold and crowded sound, and no one sings. “Now Sir, / I’ve work to do, you’ll have to take a seat!” I shove / And shoulder from the girl, / Thinking Renoir would complain.

Here are three more poems we decided to include in the manuscript. The third,  “Weekend,” would provide the title for the collection itself. A year after I graduated from San Francisco State College, and was teaching at the University of Hawaii, Carolyn Kizer, Editor of Poetry Northwest would accept “Weekend” for publication in the Autumn-Winter 1964-1965 issue of that journal—saying it “could be a major work”; and then, when she took the final version: “Congratulations on a noble effort.”

ANNIVERSARY: NUMBER SIX

I

We stomped, six years ago, the grass / Of churchyards with our love. / We shared our favorite trees, and felt /  Our white within the greenfields move.

II

The flesh that broke you tore our youth / in two. Our white time fled / and left two howling naked lives, / twin secrets of a medieval bed.

III

You Jill, I learned to love; began / to love your kitchen: / the flowers you picked, the roses,  pale, / and splintered glass you placed them in.

IV

Jack Thumb, a boy in corner, I / became. Vodka and caviar / my life; and kids who licked their lips / while I stained the frets of a small guitar.

V

If I were a sculptor I’d hoist your skirt; / a husband hold your hand. / I become either, a lover of sorts, / but seldom make the gesture bland.

VI

Guests in the doorway! Greet them well— / and if we have a fight /–open, flared when the moon comes up— / tell them, by God, we’ve earned the right!

Here’s a photo of the (somewhat puzzled–“What have I done?”–maybe reluctant)  young father depicted with his kids “who lick their lips” in the poem—and a full family photo, with Betty, taken at the same time:

Bill as Dad with Tim and Baby Steve  Bill, Betty and Boy Feeding Time on Hayes St

PERSIAN MINIATURES

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

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

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

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

WEEKEND

I

The faces of the street are your best friends: / The worried, blind, and weak; they come and go / And you are fond of them. You love the light / In laundromats, where many things are done: / You stop and see–who knows ?–what rough delight / In frayed machines, on working hands, in men. / –I’ve said a thousand times that we should move, / But nothing’s cheap, your mother knows– / Come home; your mother waits. We are involved / In time, and time derides your dalliance, /But cannot cast it out, as it did mine.

II

Perhaps the rank thorn is the separate will: / Today our eldest son plays Cain and strikes /
His two week brother at the breast. Good Cain, / My self, my child, why must we live like men? / We sulk and try to share a public park: / Its monody of color on the green, /
Its carrousel of lives. We eat above / And bide our time with talk and sandwiches. /
Yet when the boy returns from dirt to show / His wounded cheek, you send us off to join /
The children, fathers, lovers down below.

III

You call the ducks and give them crusts of bread; / I sit among the bland in hell. You stop / And listen, what to hear? My child, you know / But cannot say, and that is just as well. /
Deprived of lunch, I pass the row of blondes / Called mothers by their neighbors; hoist my son / Upon his small and honest seat, and watch / Him spin on iron gadgets in the sun. / One day we walked out early and he threw / Himself on dewy grass, who hadn’t been / Outside the house for days.

IV

It’s three o’clock. I’ve come for milk but sit / Beside the soft electric purr of our / New frigidaire, and drink the wine. It drums / –In vino veritas–a fever in my skin. / You stand beneath a single light and say,  / “What reason brings you here?” The night, my dear,  /
Is my best friend; and night and I shall have / A time, be ridiculed and ridicule– / Together purge our pity and our fear. / Sometimes I make you sick, you say. My dear,  /
Sometimes my sickness makes me envy you.

V

“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” I sing– / And who are they? My boy, I cannot say, / But don’t they have fine names? I turn; you smile / And hug the boys, who tug upon your apron string. / Together by the sink, our forms imply / Four names in one, yet live alone. If I / Could often join the three of you, and keep / The truth that wine and night and I must bear, / I know we’d have a pretty thing; but dear, / Saturday night and Sunday too, / One does the work that one was born to do.

Here is the cover of Transfer 20, an anthology “representative of the best of the first nineteen years … intended as a celebration” published in 1965—an anthology which contained two of my own poems, “Persian Miniatures” and “The Barmaid”; and the cover of the issue of Poetry Northwest, 1964-1965 in which editor Carolyn Kizer would publish “Weekend.”

SF State College Transfer      Cover Poetry Northwest

I took one more “literature” course in my last semester at San Francisco State College: a course in poet John Milton. Oddly, I do not recall who taught it. It may even have been Leonard Wolf—or Mark Linenthal? I will include, here, the last paragraph in a paper I wrote for the course, because it shows whatever progress I may (or may not) have made in my critical prose—and does illustrate what a “true believer” I’d become when it came to poetry. “An epic is the sum of the experience of all of its separate ‘books,’ or parts; of all of its metaphors, expostulations, and expulsions—correspondences, contrasts, and complexes. It may be a frieze or an ocean, but it has the unity of its adventure, and, in the case of Paradise Lost, the meaning is each grain of sand contained in the hourglass to which Milton committed it. And he would be the first person to remind us that those grains, like the parables of angels, are just a portion of the complete knowledge which we and poetry, as citizens of the City of God, are in a position to receive.”

I recently found another paper I wrote for that course: “Thought, Poetry and Theology,” in which I quote from Eric Heller’s The Disinherited Mind,” Meister Eckhart’s The Aristocrat, Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life, and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—and a draft of the final poem we would include in my thesis manuscript: a poem in ten parts called “A Letter to Friends in Alaska.” The “friends” were John and Margo Mitchell, whom I’d known in Hawaii when I first went there in 1956 (John was teaching English at the University, but quit to become a full time salmon fisherman in Alaska). The paper shows the extent of my reading at this time—even more extensive for I was also preparing, daily (and nightly) for my “orals” (which would accompany my thesis book of poems), orals to be administered by three professors: Leonard Wolf, James Schevill, and Bill Dickey. The orals would cover all of English literature from Beowulf to the present—so I had a fairly substantial list of books I was reading!

I was also taking a course called “Seminar in the Teaching of Writing”—in preparation for a job teaching I hoped to acquire upon graduation. And I was a teaching assistant for an undergrad composition course–one night a week–which meant I was “correcting” the first comp class papers I’d ever had to correct. I was very slow at it (“learning on the job,” so to speak). I called my “final” paper for the teaching seminar “Miss Lonelyhearts Among the Illiterates: a response to the remedial situation.” The last paragraph of this paper was not quite so positive as what I’d written John Milton’s poetry: “What is the mission of Miss Lonelyhearts, the ambivalent and diffident, the curious and affectionate teacher? First, perhaps, to tell his students not to be too easily sure of themselves, not to have too much poise.” [This strikes me now as an odd way to encourage the acquisition of ‘character;’ but also, it strikes me as vague. Was I encouraging “humility”?] “As for the English language, he would teach them to choose their words carefully, and remind them that the words they use—truth, death, desire—had not been easily won throughout history, and that, in an age of easy fulfillment such as our own, it was the teacher’s duty to keep them–in Philip Larkin’s phrase–from ‘fulfillment’s desolate attic.”

Before I turned in my poetry manuscript and suffered through my “orals,” something wonderful–a complete surprise–happened. I had three poems in the college literary journal, Transfer in 1963, and won the prize for BEST POEM, $25! The poem was “Persian Miniatures.” I was asked to accept the prize and give a “reading” at the Poetry Center. I’d never given a full-public reading of my work before. Here’s an account I would write years later of what took place.

“In 1962-63, I was a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at what was then San Francisco State College. I was also a fairly recently ordained father (I had two kids under five years of age), a husband of sorts, and had been a full-time employee–a Scientific Data Analyst no less–at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley. I rode the bus to and from work every day, studying Russian (a portion of my M.A. thesis consisted of translations from Alexander Blok), and took classes at night. Needless to say, this was a hopping, hectic, nervous, but exciting time.

“I had some poems printed in Transfer 15, S.F. State’s literary magazine, and two of the editors were fellow students I never met: Ed Devlin and Paul Oehler. I won the twenty-five dollar annual poetry prize in ‘63, for a poem called “The Barmaid,” modeled on the intricate syllabic stanza patterns (and adding a rime scheme) of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill.’ I was twenty-seven years of age, left work, attended classes, returned home, and was decidedly not a part of the campus literary scene. I was also so shy at the time that, accepting the prize and giving my very first poetry reading, I never even bothered to look up–thus missing my own boycott. ‘Beat’ students objected to a closed form or ‘cooked’ poem (as opposed to open and ‘raw’) having won the prize, and protested by raising a banner at the back of the hall–a gesture of dissent that, my then reticent and bashful consciousness buried in the task of reading my poem, I never witnessed.”

It’s all “true,” but something that surprises me now is that, according to this account, I was still working “full time” at the Rad Lab throughout the time I was at SF State, which strikes me as a nearly “impossible” thing to have brought off  (given the course load I carried), although it is true that I was not “a part of the campus literary scene”—a situation that may have prompted the boycott. Years later (1971), I would have Ed Devlin as my office mate while teaching at Monterey Peninsula College, and I would finally meet, and become friends (we would do a book of poems together: Natural Counterpoint) with Paul Oehler, a superb poet.

“Poems: The Weekend” was accepted as “A creative work submitted to the faculty of San Francisco State College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts.” My “orals” turned out to be another unanticipated “adventure.” I had assumed they would take place on campus, in a cheerless classroom or office, but on a sunny afternoon, I found myself walking alongside Leonard Wolf, Jim Schevill, and Bill Dickey down to Stonestown Shopping Mall.

Here are photos of the three poets who would “grill me mercilessly” on the art form at a bar in Stonestown—when I thought I would “breeze through” the oral exam required for my Masters Degree: Leonard Wolf, Bill Dickey, and James Schevill: (Photo credits: www.sciencesource.com; Poetry Foundation; Goodreads)

Leonard Wolf 3 Bill Dickey (2)

James Schevll and dog (2)

I had applied to several colleges and universities for a job as an instructor (I’d heard, tentatively from the University of Hawaii, and I had even applied at SF State!). And I do recall feeling so confident about my prospects alongside my soon to be interrogators (or grand inquisitors) that I said, about a school I’d not heard from, “Well, if they’re not interested in me, I’m not interested in them!”–which must have prompted a response on the part of my three professors such as, “Good luck, you stupid cocky kid!”

They led me to a bar in Stonestown, and I thought, “Wow! This is going to be a piece of cake! A few drinks, a few laughs …”; but once we sat down and they asked what I might like to drink, they ordering nothing themselves. I declined their offer, thinking, “I’ll have a Cutty Sark on the Rocks–in honor of Hart Crane–when the celebration starts.” However, no celebration occurred for some time—about an hour and a half if I remember correctly. For that period of time, all three grilled me, mercilessly, on what seemed every aspect of English poetry. I don’t feel I did all that well on the academic and historically specific questions (“What is the difference in the way Wyatt and Surry first employed rhyme in their poems?”), and the thing that saved me was the poems I’d been memorizing each day—poems by everyone from Chaucer to John Keats to Dylan Thomas (and some poems in Russian and Classical and Modern Greek!).

The three professors left me sweating and devoid of a drink at the table while they excused themselves to determine my fate. When they returned, Jim Schevill told me I’d “passed,” and congratulated me–whereas Leonard Wolf whispered in my ear that the impressive recitations had saved my ass—if not exactly in those word, to that effect. Then all thee excused themselves to go home after another “hard day at the office,” I was left at the table–to order and sip my Cutty Sark on the Rocks, alone, lost, lonely–but  greatly relieved.

Here’s a signed copy of my thesis project, “Poems: The Weekend,” and my M.A. degree:

SF State College Thesis Acceptance  SF State College degree 1963

Ar last! I now had my Masters Degree in Language Arts (Creative Writing) from San Francisco State College, and I did receive an offer to teach at the University of Hawaii, for $5,500 a year. I’d been so impressed with the company I’d kept at SF State (heroes, idols such as Wright Morris and Leonard Wolf–the entire staff!) that I couldn’t sleep the night before I was to go in and tell them my decision regarding the future. I had actually decided (in spite of  only “part-time” possibilities) to stay with San Francisco State College, if they let me—but when I told the hiring committee that I’d received an offer from the University of Hawaii, they all jumped up from their shares and grasped my hands in congratulations—and that was that.

Leonard Wolf would leave San Francisco State College and go to New York in 1980. He would go on to publish several more books: A Dream of Dracula, Blood Thirst, 100 Years of Vampire Fiction (editor), Bluebeard : The Life and Crimes of Gilles De Rais, Dracula : the Connoisseur’s Guide, Horror – A Connoisseur’s Guide To Literature And Film, Monsters: Twenty Terrible and Wonderful Beasts From The Classic Dragon And Colossal Minotaur To King Kong And The Great Godzilla, The False Messiah, The Glass Mountain: A Novel (Overlook Press, 1993), The Passion of Israel, Vini-Der-Pu: A Yiddish version of Winnie the Pooh (Dutton 2000)—and others.

Leonard Wolf was ninety-six years of age when he passed away on March 20, 2019. I am very grateful to have known and worked so closely with this extraordinary man. Here are some of the books he published: (Photo credit: amazon.com)

Leonard Wolf Dracula The Connoisseur's Guide JPG  Leonard Wolf The False Messiah  Leonard Wolf Bluebeard The Life and Crimes

It seemed that, next thing I knew, my wife Betty and I had packed up our MacAllister Street home and she, Tim, Steve and I were literally sailing (on the President Wilson line) back to where marriage and family life had first started: the island of Hawaii, now an actual state in the USA since 1959.

I will close this post with three more photos: filming a lei-adorned Betty on board the President Wilson (about to sail to Oahu); my Betty looking very much at home in our new setting (the small backyard of an even smaller house we found on University Avenue), and the boys, Steve and Tim, with me in my dress code “uniform” (suit coat and tie in 1963—even in humid Hawaii!). But that–The Teaching at the University of Hawaii Years–is another tale I have to tell in the book length manuscript memoir I am at work on: “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments.”

Hawaii 63-66 3

Hawaii 63-66 2    Hawaii 63-66

San Francisco State College in 1962–Wright Morris

“Medical issues” have required a break from Bill’s Blog, sorry (and I will save an account of that “adventure” for another time), yet a treatment program I have undertaken has not prevented me from completing other work I was engaged in. I would like, now–making a sort of “come back,” if I am able–to post, a chapter from a book in progress, a memoir: “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments”—a chapter focused on the year and a half I spent in graduate school at San Francisco State College. That adventure started in the summer of 1962, when I was twenty-six years of age, and it would turn out to be one of the most rewarding periods of my life.

In this blog, I will not attempt to reproduce all of the chapter I have completed on my San Francisco State College days (and nights, for that’s when I attended most of my classes), but focus on my initial experience at the school and one of my favorite teachers: novelist Wright Morris. I will save, for a blog to follow, another favorite teacher—poet Leonard Wolf—and completing requirements for an M.A. degree.

Here, by way of introduction, are photos of Wright Morris and Leonard Wolf (Photo credits: Wikipedia; http://www.sciencesource.com):

Wright_Morris    Leonard Wolf 3

By the summer of 1962, I had spent three years working at the “Rad Lab” (Lawrence Radiation Laboratory) in Berkeley, the last year of which was not a fortunate experience (depicted in a previous chapter of the “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments” manuscript) and I felt as if I had been released from a prison sentence, a term of incarceration, confinement, and would enter what, by comparison, I felt as monastic bliss. I was “back in school” again—and the very best, most inspirational educational institution, San Francisco State College (now University) I could have found for that time of my life.

In 1962, the Language Arts (or Creative Writing, the section of it I was enrolled in) division and its program were ideal—and the Creative Writing faculty consisted of some of the finest writers of the era, one of whom, Wright Morris (although a reviewer for the Washington Post once wrote, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.”) was regarded by many sources I found as closely equal to, or “right up there” with, authors such as Willa Cather, William Faulkner (“a voice as distinctive as William Faulkner’s”: Michael Upchurch, The Chicago Tribune), John Steinbeck, John O’Hara, and Norman Mailer. A blurb (by critic John Aldridge) on the back of the first book by Morris I would read (just before I took a directed writing course with him: “one on one,” in his office), his winner of the 1956 National Book Award, The Field of Vision, said: “Wright Morris seems to me the most important novelist of the American middle generation.”

Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat) was Division Chairman, and would serve as my primary faculty advisor. Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles; her husband Stan was a faculty member) would receive her MA in Creative Writing in 1972. She has provided one of the best accounts I’ve found on what made the school’s program so unique: “What I loved about San Francisco State was the passion. It was a commuter college and most of the kids were working, and it was very hard to go to school. They weren’t being handed an education, they were working for it just as we were working and I respected that passion very much. I loved it … I thought I had some of the best teachers I’ve ever had at San Francisco State. People that were passionate … and showed me a whole new way of looking at literature … I guess what I loved about it was the freedom and the egalitarian quality and the proletarian quality of it all — that we were all working people together … we had all that passion; we had all that warmth. We had people just hungry, hungry to learn and to write, to create and to make something of their lives. I found that incredibly exhilarating.”

Here are photos of Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Anne Rice (Wikipedia; http://www.thewomenseye.com):

Walter Van Tillburg Clark    Anne Rice

I agree, completely with her assessment. I would still be classified as a “working” person (or Proletarian”), closing out my time at the Rad Lab when I first “tested the waters” at SF State in the summer of 1962. I took a single course, and whereas I don’t remember the instructor’s name (He was not one of the faculty members of some “fame”), he was enthusiastic about the art of writing, and re-introduced me to it on an academic level in a manner that felt good, not at all threatening.

A typical assignment was to come up with single sentences that would disclose or reveal an “Instant” of existence (I came up with: “Small rain sacks walk electric wires”; “Two beer caps fell to the floor of Patty’s Place”; “The searchlights crossed, wintergreen, diamond cold.”). We were also asked to provide a “Lyric” moment (“The night we stood on sand and waiting long, beneath the single moon and open sky”; “My father and his rake, his loving arms and leaves”; “Filled with passion by your perfect commonplace”); “Kinesthetic” (“Her body was smooth and white, like the enamel on a refrigerator.”; “Fish, seaweed, leather, a horse blanket”; “The thick wet leather slammed into the socket of his eye.” [I’d done some boxing as a kid]; and “Grandeur” (“Together, they lit the silence of the night.”; “The Assyrian rage of the sky”; “I am my father’s brother, not alone his son.”; “We began, tense with genesis.”).

These exercises taught me an important lesson: every word must count, had to count; should have meaning and purpose, be the work poetry or prose! Yet I also recognized that the short lyric (of the moment) impulse or inclination came most naturally to me, given my temperament and whatever talent I might have.

Another exercise we were asked to complete was a list of “Themes” (from published work we liked) with one-sentence of examples or summaries. I chose” “The Ledge,” by Lawrence Sargent Hall: “A small light life … the Fisherman meant to hold it there, if need be, through a thousand tides.”; “The Maid’s Shoes,” by Bernard Malamud: “These people had endless troubles, and if you let yourself, you could become endlessly involved”; “The Fate of Man,” by Mikhail Sholokhov: “The fate of man, ‘a grain of sand, an orphan,; is to suffer, endure, and prevail” [the last two words lifted from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech!]; “The Circus Wrestlers,” by Alexander Kuprin: “The wrestler’s perfect body becomes a temple of illness; full circle, boo-me-rang, бумеранг!” (Here, I must have been trying to show off my recently acquired knowledge of Russian!—my instructor didn’t bother to comment on the inclusion).

I’m not sure just what, regarding my creative capabilities, I took away from all this at the time (aside from the “Show, don’t tell” mantra, which I’d heard before) and a sense that I was OK when it came to creating “a poetic effect,” but the course was, overall, an excellent way to ease back into an academic setting (and put the Rad Lab far behind me)–although looking back now, I am puzzled by samples of my writing I chose to submit, once I had completed this “Fundamentals of Creative Writing” course, and began the formal procedure of being admitted to the graduate school program.

The only sense I can make, now, of what I must have had in mind is that, when I learned that Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat and  Division Chairman, would serve as my primary faculty adviser (the person who would determine the direction my thesis project would take), I must have decided to submit work that resembled his own: literary realism, or what might qualify as “American Literary Regionalism” or “Local Color”—not the “familiar materials of Western Saga” he employed “to explore the human psyche and to raise deep philosophical issues” (Wikipedia) but material grounded in the Midwest I’d grown up in. I was probably more impressed that Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels—The Ox-Box Incident and The Track of the Cat—had been made into movies than with their content—for I was still too “immature” as a writer to have anything truly meaningful to say about “the human psyche,” and in spite of my fascination with philosophy while a student at the University of Hawaii (and my “A” in that subject), I had not yet formed a philosophy of my own which could be incorporated in my prose fiction.

Here are the covers of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels The Ox-Box Incident, The Track of the Cat, and his story collection The Watchful Gods:

Walter Van Tillburg Clark Ox-Bow Incident  Walter Van Tilburg Clark Track of the Cat  Walter Van Tilburg Clak The Watchful Gods

The fiction I’d written while a student at the University of Hawaii from 1956 to 1958 (and I was surprised to discover just how much of it there was!) was sadly lacking in inspiration, was very “pedestrian,” or flat, somewhat boring. The best work I’d done up to 1962  was a Radiation Laboratory-inspired surreal science fiction novel I was still working on (“The Chuckleheads”), and some of the poetry I’d produced, and while I did include a portion of that work in the “portfolio” I submitted, the bulk of what was there was of the pedestrian, flat, “realistic,” boring variety—and Walter Van Tillburg Clark was quick to recognize that. He suggested that I set such prose aside for a while, and concentrate on my poetry, and, perhaps also, prose more stimulating to the imagination. He recommended taking a directed writing course with Wright Morris, as a means of finding a suitable direction for fiction, if I should continue to persist in my desire to write stories.

Which is what I did (take a directed writing course with Morris, simply because he was such a respected figure on campus), but my schedule was focused primarily on poetry: Mark Linenthal’s English 218 (critical papers); The Craft of Poetry with Leonard Wolf, who had us submit poems on the basis of which we would (or would not) be admitted to a class limited to a small very interesting selection of students—and I became one! Not only were we “hand-picked” or approved, but on the first day of class, he suggested we “ditch” the room we’d been assigned on campus and meet at his own home (where we might even drink wine while we discussed our work!), located on a hillside above Kezar Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers played their home games at the time—just a short walk from the apartment Betty and I and the boys had on McAllister Street. But I will save an account of that experience, and the poetry I would write, for Part Two of my account of graduate study at San Francisco State College.

I would come to love the work I did with Leonard Wolf, who would supervise my thesis project: a manuscript of my own poems and translations of poems by the Russian poet Alexander Blok–but I would come to idolize Wright Morris, telling people now that once I had discovered and read his books, I just wanted to kneel down, kiss his ring, and say, “Teach me everything you know!” I was more than ready to learn from these masters, who were not just academics, scholars, but actual living respected writers!

Here are the covers of three of my favorite books by Wright Morris: The Field of Vision, Love Among the Cannibals, and Will’s Boy:

Wright Morris The Field of Vision (2)  Wright Morris Love Among the Cannibals  Wright Morris Will's Boy (2)

The “facts” of the life of Wright Morris, known as a “writer’s writer,” are intriguing. He came from a humble background, a self-taught man of inclusive talents–gifts he made full use of. According to Wikipedia: “Wright Marion Morris (January 6, 1910 – April 25, 19098) was an American novelist, photographer, and essayist. He is known for his portrayals of the people and artifacts of the Great Plains in words and pictures, as well as for experimenting with narrative forms …Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska … his mother, Grace Osborn Morris, died six days after he was born. His father, William Henry Morris, worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. After Grace’s death, Wright was cared for by a nanny, until his father made a trip to Omaha and returned with a young wife, Gertrude.”

In another favorite work of mine, Will’s Boy, Wright Morris states, “Gertrude was closer to my age than to my father’s.” Gertrude hated small-town life, but got along famously with Wright, as they shared many of the same childish tastes (both loved games, movies, and ice cream). In 1919, the family moved to Omaha, where they resided until 1924. when Morris moved to Chicago—but in 1933, Wright Morris would graduate from Pomona College in California. Following college, he traveled through Europe on a “wanderjahr,” an adventure he later fictionalized in a novel, Cause for Wonder. From 1944 to 1954, Morris lived in Philadelphia. From 1954-1962, he divided his time between California and Mexico. In 1963, he accepted a teaching position at San Francisco State College.

Which takes us to the time of my acquaintance with him—but before I get to my own experience of this exceptional man (whom I feel I was not just fortunate but blessed to know and study under in 1962-1963), I’ll provide an example of a perceptive critic’s response to and appraisal of a book by Wright Morris, for the review cites aspects of his writing that attracted me to his work, and to Wright Morris as a man–a sort of “father figure” to me at the time. In a 2015 Chicago Tribune article, “An appreciation of novelist Wright Morris,” novelist/critic Michael Upchurch wrote: “Nebraska-born novelist Wright Morris was on fire in the early 1950s … In the space of five years, he published four novels that were rich in their ambition and maverick in their sensibility. They were also, in their variety of setting, reflective of his sharp-eyed travels back and forth across the country. One of them, ‘The Field of Vision,’ won him the National Book Award in 1957. But the book that most Morris fans see as his touchstone work (Morris himself described it as “the linchpin in my novels concerned with the plains”) is ‘The Works of Love.’ … Here, in a voice as distinctive as William Faulkner’s or Henry Green’s, Morris describes the desultory eastward drift of a Nebraska railroad man never sharing a marital bed for long and has oddly unconsummated affairs on the side. His one true object of devotion is a boy who isn’t his, but whom he gives his name and raises as his son … Will is as generous in nature as he is befuddled in spirit. He is, as Morris puts it, ‘a father, one who didn’t know what being a father is like, and a lover, one who didn’t know much about love.’ … His travails are at the heart of the book — yet calling them ‘travails’ feels like exaggeration. Will is an unsettling mix of the nondescript and the eccentric, and he slips elusively through even the biggest events in his own life. He acquires houses, spouses and businesses, yet it’s only in hotel lobbies — furnished, inevitably, with potted palms and cigar counters — that he truly feels at home … One peculiar effect of the novel is that the reader winds up feeling far more deeply for Will than he could possibly feel for himself. That’s due largely to the rolling, forlorn cadences of the novel’s prose, starting with its opening: ‘In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow.’ … Throughout the novel, Morris keeps that steady, chanting beat going, even as he spices it with wry picaresque elements … ‘The Works of Love’ — achingly, quizzically, obliquely — means something.”

Again, I hadn’t seen this high praise of Wright Morris’ work before I took my first directed writing course with him, but, as I mentioned, I made sure to read his National Book Award-winning novel The Field of Vision, and—thinking, “This man is going to be my teacher, my mentor!”—I was first impressed by the blurbs on the back cover alone: “Wright Morris is one of the most gifted and significant novelists at work in America today.” (Chicago Tribune); “Writing that is beautiful, sad, funny, quietly humorous—and as significant as anything you will find in contemporary literature.” (Cleveland Press); “The image of American life that emerges from his whole work is unequalled by any author of his generation.” (The Reporter). And the novel didn’t let me down.

In it, a group of Midwestern tourists witness the “spectacle” of a bullfight in Mexico, and each of them is flooded with memories (a middle-aged wife for whom a stolen kiss from long ago still imposes on her marriage; a flamboyant failure reliving a childhood act that kindled his desire to “touch bottom”: an eighty-seven year old pioneer who is blind to everything but the past and what he hears; a pseudo-psychiatrist accompanied by his only remaining patient, who refuses to speak). The thought, longing, isolation, hidden passions, dreams of each character is depicted by Morris’ mastery of rotated point of view—the prose original and precise at every turn. In the author’s own words: “This bizarre assembly of oddballs, dreamers, and failures might naturally come together in one place only—the bull ring of Mexico City. This least likely of all likelihoods was appropriate to this unlikely gathering.”

As for my actual sessions with him, Walter Van Tillburg Clark had been right. Contact with and being “critiqued” by a writer such as Wright Morris was exactly what I needed to grant new life to my prose fiction. I haven’t preserved the first piece I submitted to him, but I recall that it was one of the stories I’d started for my summer session class—more than likely “The Rope,” a piece overly dramatic, too predictable, “a pleasure ride becomes a nightmare” story about a “young man” on a San Francisco Bay sailing adventure with a married woman named Mrs. Alonzo B. Sturgess III. Wright Morris returned it to me with witty, pithy, no-nonsense, uncompromised commentary I wish I had on hand now (not having the manuscript itself), but he said something to the effect that I could take my place in a very long line of wannabe fiction writers hoping to have their work published in one of the then popular magazines for women, such as Cosmopolitan, McCall’s, Woman’s Home Companion, or Redbook.

He went after my clichés with a vengeance. He seemed to find them everywhere in my work (language that seemed to come quite naturally, too easily to me—but expressions so overused they’d grown boring, unoriginal without my awareness), yet we seemed to get along beautifully, as if not involved in a teacher/student situation, but more the sort of thing you were likely to find in his work: a genuine friendship, but one never acknowledged as such, a “just is” thing, an acquaintance that came about without self-conscious effort—as if, rather than meeting in his office (which we did), we were meeting in one of the many comfortable, companionable hotel lobbies found in his novels: “All the lobbies are more alike than they are different, in that the purpose of every lobby is the same. To be both in, that is, and out of this world … The lobby draws a chalk mark around this unreal world … It prepares you for a short flight from one world to a better one. From the real world, where nothing much ever happens, to the unreal world where anything might happen—and sometimes does.” (From The Works of Love).

His hotel lobby office turned out to be a splendid setting for discussing the art of fiction. This may be just another cliché, but, yes, Wright Morris did become something of a “father” figure to me (I was writing, and talking to him often, about the father with whom I did not get along so well). Whatever his faults on the domestic front, my own father was a first-rate raconteur, and Wright Morris encouraged me to “talk” or tell, to work my stories over well in my head before I set them down on paper, and that seemed to help their presence on the page. He also went after my “sentimentality”–on the page, and elsewhere (in my life). In his excellent book, Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris, Jackson J. Benson writes: “Wright may have been caught up in nostalgia, but at the same time he hated the idea of it. He followed the lead of most modern writers in despising any expression of sentimentality. At heart he was attached to the past and to the process of documentary but was determined, intellectually, not to be captured by a soft view of it.” Wright Morris joked about my attachment to what he called “the good olde daze.”

Here is the cover of Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris by Jackson J. Benson (an engaging biography)—and the cover for Morris’ own The Works of Love, which became another of my “favorites” (Photo credits: amazon.com; http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu):

Haunted The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris    Wright Morris The Works of Love

Wright Morris openly advocated writing that, as far as “material” went, maintained an “everyday quality”—concentrating on (again in the words of Jackson J. Benson): “not the action or external circumstances so much as the inner life, the struggles—the guilt, the dismay, and even the pain in the consciousness of his characters … there would be almost as much comedy as darkness. At times reading his work, one doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or relax with a smile and be depressed … Morris was a writer who specialized in bringing forth the reality behind and hovering beyond what we commonly take as real and making it tangible, not to our fingertips but to our minds.”

The more specific (‘technical”) lessons—on avoiding sentiment and clichés—were accompanied by the large picture, the “umbrella” view, such as what he would write in his essay on Katherine Anne Porter in Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments: “To be fully conscious, to be one of those on whom nothing is lost, is to be aware of the ceaseless overlapping of the past and the present …  However vibrant and intense, however lyrically persuasive, however appealing the sound, look and feel of the present, if the dead were not part of the quick [Porter] knew the larger part of conscious life was lacking.”

He liked Henry James’ statement: “Objects and places disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out.” With me, he suggested finding that essential “figure in the carpet” (“The carpet wears out, but in the life of the carpet the Figure wears in.”), and then get out of its way writing about it (“You don’t count; only the material does.”)—transforming, transmuting, transcending experience. He liked to mention the ambivalent “Green light” at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby—the promise of excitement and beauty, but also the end of aspirations and dreams: the valley of ashes at the book’s end. Unavoidable ambivalence. Henry James, Wright Morris would write, “contributes the consciousness of image-making itself. The restless analyst will never have done with this impressions, the overlapping and ceaseless reappraisal, and the newly liberated should read him with caution lest they find themselves again in chains. Freedom was one illusion he always treated with the greatest respect.” At the time of our acquaintance, I was definitely “newly liberated” and in need of “caution” as a writer.

Wright Morris emphasized “finding the right voice.” The voice that would fit my intention as a writer, saying, “From the voice like a seed the rest of it would grow.” He didn’t introduce me to, but he showed me how to make best use of providing several points of view, each chapter in a novel given the person telling the story (as he’d done in The Field of Vision) alternating points of view throughout the novel. It was the technique I’d employed on my own in “The Chuckleheads.”

The best way I can illustrate the nature of our “exchange” is to quote some of the comments he posted on a paper I did save from another course I took from him (aside from directed writing sessions), a course called The Craft of Fiction, with a lecture format,  and for which we read work by D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), E. M. Forster (Howards End), Louis-Ferdinand Celine (Journey to the End of the Night), Albert Camus (The Fall) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby). Our “final” was an extended paper on one of these authors, and I chose Fitzgerald. The title of my paper was “The Chinese Wall of F. Scott Fitzgerald”—based on something the character Nicole says about the main character Dick Diver in Tender is the Night: “Let him look at it—his beach, perverted now to the tastes of the tasteless; he could search it for a day and find no stone of the Chinese Wall he had once created around it, no footprint of an old friend.”

I began my paper with some personal reminiscence—something my father once told me about Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife. “’Zelda?’ my father said. ‘Of course I knew Zelda. I danced with her up at Sewanee—although it was your Uncle Alcorn knew her best.’” Wright Morris had underlined the word “Alcorn,” and wrote in the margin: “A gem. Who else but Uncle Alcorn?” And he gave me an “A” on the paper as a whole (work that, when I read it now, often displays my efforts—successful to a degree, I think, to adopt my professor’s own style of writing!). Of the piece as a whole, he wrote: “Very good. AND readable. How about the Chinese Wall of W.C. Fields? Do the Irish always have 3 initials? JFK, FSF, WCF? Soberly speaking-(Where’s your Mother?)-What part of this wall do you scale next? Should be a good climb.” “Where’s your Mother?” referred to a passage in the opening section of my paper, where I tried to match his own playful nature yet set the overall tone, alluding to my paternal grandfather, who, as a seventeen year old cannoneer in the Confederate Army, had—at Cumberland Church, two days before Appomatax—been shot through the lungs with a Minnie Ball, and woke believing he was “associated with the Heavenly Host” (a “Miss Hobson” was spooning chicken broth into his mouth); and I followed that with: “Where’s your Mother?”, for my father, telling this tale I’d heard so often before, was reaching beneath the drapes for his glass of Early Times, and praising my mother as a “race horse,” saying “You can always tell the difference between a race horse and a mule,” insinuating that he, by comparison, was a mule.

I loved the fun Wright Morris seemed to have telling me that I had, within my paper, provided a “good climb” of Fitzgerald’s Chinese Wall—and I was thrilled by the large “OLE!” he inscribed, in the margin of my paper, beside my words “We don’t really care how Gatsby made his money, but we do wonder just what Dick Diver is doing in medicine.”; and the three even larger “GOOD[s]” he’d written in the margin beside the following: “In Fitzgerald, the Organization Man had no hardened sense of life; he simply swapped the terms of poetry for the terms of commerce.“; “The most striking fault of Tender Is the Night is that it shares in its hero’s dissolution.”; “The novel does have a strong steady tone that tempts one to overlook the fragments of incident and character—in an attempt to lace together many fates, to resolve them with a single theme: beauty that must die.”

Here are the three books by F. Scott Fitzgerald I’d used for my extended paper:

Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby  Scott Fitzgerald Tender Is the Night  Scott Fitzgerald The Crack Up

Wright Morris only granted me a B+ (no “A” this time) on a second follow-up paper I wrote on F. Scott Fitzgerald, this one called “Helen and Priam on Fitzgerald’s Wall.” Morris himself wrote: “The tone of this is good and well sustained, but able Carraway Minor might have scratched a bit harder.” Reading the work now, I agree—although I did find seven large “Good[s]” inscribed in the margins, attached to the following observations: (the first referring to Fitzgerald’s “exploitation of himself and Zelda as material”): “What is amazing is that Fitzgerald was so fully on display for the writer who stood constantly at his side.” I also received a “Good” in the margin for (on Fitagerald’s letters to his daughter): “To his daughter he was Polonious and Pope and … Priam, the tired king, who had earned the right to his opinions, and was proud to reveal them to his last and most prized possession.” And on The Crack Up: “There is something in it of grandstand play, and for an unworthy audience, an audience that loves sudden failure as well as it loves success … For him, the redemption of a basically senseless battle lay in a well-conceived and well-constructed book.”

I compared Fitzgerald’s statement that he had been “only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in [his] hands, even of [his] talent”—to W.C. Fields: “Much of the humor of [Fields] depends on the ‘dissolute’ pride to which this statement comes dangerously close: ‘rivers of highballs, lakes of cocktails, oceans of distilled damnation … I think I’ll put on my bathing suit’ … Like Fields, Fitzgerald hadn’t lost his touch, but he’d drunk up his material, and, as The Last Tycoon shows, needed to shop around for more.”

I ended the paper with a bit of fantasy: the hope that Fitzgerald’s “heaven” might turn out to be an Elysium washed with gin-filled waters, a place where he and Zelda, and W.C. Fields perhaps, having performed due service to Helen and reclaimed by Priam (“Fitzgerald, I said, having written The Great Gatsby, was the truest son of Troy.”), are permitted to do more of both [not just write such a book, but also go “into Show Biz, having gone along with Rogers and Hart and ‘that gang,’ to cap the sublime off with a bad commercial.”] In response to this last bit, Wright Morris wrote, “That’s some heaven, man!” But he wasn’t buying this paper as a whole, and in his initial commentary, he employed a favorite phrase of his: “Ahhhhh, the good olde daze!”—adding: “Having browsed in these pastures of heaven, it’s not for me to deprecate the real estate. Nevertheless, it is true (and sad) that the Chinese Wall of Fitzgerald still marks the Continental Divide—on the one flank those who make it, on the other, in the potshards, those who count.”

I enjoyed hearing him “lecture” in the Craft of Fiction course as much as I did spending time with him in our one-on-one directed writing sessions, although some of my fellow graduate students felt he was just a so-so teacher in the former, for he spent nearly as much time relating anecdotes from personal experiences (which I loved!) as he did on the authors we were to have read. Again, in Jackson J. Benson’s words: “He was a great storyteller, and often the stories he told, while entertaining, had little to do directly with the purpose of the class.” True, but I found Wright Morris fascinating in any capacity. What Benson adds to his appraisal is also true: “But one-on-one he was as encouraging as he could be, depending on the quality of the work that was submitted to him.”

At the time, I treasured every word he wrote to me on the papers I submitted, or granted me in person—and still do. We made, I think, an interesting match-up or “pair” in our own hotel lobby, sharing mutual opinions and feelings. He did not treat me as if I were just another “student,” but a fellow writer, and that, at the time, was immensely satisfying. I’m just sorry that, unlike what I wrote for the Craft of Fiction course, I haven’t retained specific pieces he commented on from the directed writing sessions, but I do remember his being intrigued by the character, Honey Foots Cadwell, I came up with for the Chuckleheads novel. What I wrote about Honey Foots has the stamp, the rhythm and tone of Wright Morris all over it, so I know we worked on that piece together: “For as long as he could remember, Foots had waited. Waited, for his father to come home, his mother to go away. For John James Alcorn, his black sheep uncle, to sober up, get drunk, just about anything. He had waited in bars, in pharmacies, in filling stations. On playgrounds, in parking lots. Outside of church, on waterfronts. All night truck stops. In beds … Now, standing on the roof of his friend’s San Francisco apartment building, he waited for Perry, his friend, and the girl … Once, in a bar in Tiburon, he had waited six days for Perry to finish a game of chess. Well, not just a game of chess. The game lasted for a day, morning, and afternoon. But Perry, finished, went to the men’s room, and from the men’s room to Hawaii. Foots, uninformed, waited.”

I would not read Wright Morris’s other National Book Award winner, Love Among the Cannibals, until after I had my graduate degree from San Francisco State, but when I did I wished I was back in his hotel lobby office again, for the book begins “This chick, with her sun-tan oil, her beach towel, her rubber volleyball, and her radio, came along the beach at the edge of the water where the sand was firm”; and that reminded me of the way I began my summer session story, “Hand of Chance,” I wrote just before I met Wright Morris: “Two girls came up the beach to sit in the sun. An entire baseball game stopped to watch them. The ball dribbling into the sea. The girls set up an orange umbrella that looked almost white beneath the open sky. They stripped and sat on the hot sand in their too-small bathing suits. The better looking of the two lit a cigarette and the blue smoke went up her nose and came out again.” The ”chick” character “The Greek” in Love Among the Cannibals lives with “two other chicks” and “they all worked as waitresses at the same Wilshire drive-in.” I don’t know how many drive-ins resided on Wilshire Blvd. in 1956, when I hitch-hiked from New York City to Santa Monica that year, and I ended up washing dishes with an interesting assortment of wineos, I would have loved to have had an opportunity to tell Wright Morris about that coincidence, and hear his reaction, which would have been priceless, I’m sure.

Here’s a sample of the photography of Wright Morris, and the cover of his collection of the same, Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris (Photo credits: Sheldonartmuseum.org; www.leegallery.com; amazon.com):

Wright Morris Photo Through the Lace Curtain (The Home Place)    Wright Morris Photo Train Depot The Home Place

Wright Morris Photo Uncle Harry    Wright Morris Photo book Distinctly American

He would not retire from teaching at San Francisco State until 1975—but even though we returned to The City in 1966 after I taught at the University of Hawaii for two years, I never saw him again—which was a mistake on my part, for he had been, and remained, a major influence on my life, and one of the most interesting, intriguing, engaging human beings I would ever meet.

Because of the long-lasting influence of Wright Morris, I would like (before I turn to a second most important person during my time at the College, Leonard Wolf) to honor him by citing an article I would discover in Poets & Writers magazine in 1997 (Morris would die of esophageal cancer in Mill Valley, California in 1998). The article, or homage, was called “Wright Morris and the American Century,” and it was written by James Hamilton, who happened to be living in a “small town across the bay from San Francisco,” and one day saw “a distinguished-looking elderly man in a floppy white hat walking along the sidewalk in [his] direction.” Hamilton “recognized him as the novelist Wright Morris, whose face [he] had seen on numerous book jackets over the years, but whom [he] had never met.” From that point on, Morris “steadily worked his way into [Hamilton’s] daily thought, because “It saddened me that a man who had graced his profession as he had was living in what I assumed to be fairly total obscurity.”

James Hamilton had actually read very little of [Morris’s] work, but he began to devour it, and “spent long hours in Morris’s small, darkened apartment” within a rest home “just down the street.” Hamilton learned that, at age 87, Morris had stopped writing—explaining: “I have been a workaholic all my life … but what words will not do is what now impresses me. Music is what sustains my life now, Mahler in particular … I had reached the point where, as a work-oriented man, the work was simply not good enough. My imagination seemed to be out of reach of the problem. It was a great injury to discover that my critical judgement had begun to fail. It was very painful.”

Hamilton’s article is rich with reflection, forward and back in time, on the part of Wright Morris, and the younger writer pays loving tribute to the latter’s portrayal of mid-20th century American values (literary historian John Aldrich wrote that Morris “took America as his province. He wrote with a sense of the whole of America in his blood and bones.”). Hamilton included the author’s feelings regarding “our own uncivil age”: “It is the incoherence that bothers me, the wastage. I cannot imagine how this nation is ever going to correct itself, it is so profoundly screwed up … What we’re going through is the real McCoy, not something we can sweep away on down the line. We can’t just ask Mother to come over and clean the table off, just get rid of the spots.”

I will conclude my own tribute to (my fortunate acquaintance with, unique friendship with) this great man, with a “parade” of his still available (Thank God!) work. Wright Morris’s final novel, Plains Song, would win the American Book Award in 1981. Just a partial list of his works is impressive: My Uncle Dudley (1942), The Man Who Was There (1945), The Inhabitants (photo-text) (1946), The Home Place (photo-text) (1948), The World in the Attic (1949), Man and Boy (1951), The Works of Love (1952), The Deep Sleep (1953), The Huge Season (1954: finalist for the National Book Award), The Field of Vision (1956: National Book Award for Fiction), Love Among the Cannibals (1957: finalist for the National Book Award), Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960: finalist for National Book Award), Cause for Wonder (1963), One Day (1965), In Orbit (1967), A Bill of Rites, a Bill of Wrongs, a Bill of Goods (essays) (1968), God’s Country and My People (photo-text) (1968), Fire Sermon (1971), The Fork River Space Project (1977), Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980: National Book Award for Fiction), Will’s Boy (1981, Solo (1983), A Cloak of Light (1985), Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (1989).

A lifetime of work by Wright Morris remains accessible, available, obtainable—throughout an era (ours) in which nearly everything is expendable. Considering his good fortune, I thought of all the worthy authors for whom “survival” (the ongoing recognition and respect they deserve) has not proved true—and then, three of my favorite 19th century authors for whom it has: Charles Lamb ( English essayist, poet, and antiquarian, best known for his Essays of Elia and the children’s book Tales from Shakespeare), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England), and  William Hazlitt (English essayist, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher–now considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language). Here are some of their thoughts on literary perpetuity (the quality or state of being perpetual) and the significance of books.

Charles Lamb: “There is more reason to say grace before beginning a book than there is to say it before beginning to dine … What is reading, but silent conversation … I love to lose myself in other men’s minds … Books think for me … A presentation copy is a copy of a book which does not sell, sent you by the author, with his foolish autograph at the beginning of it; for which, if a stranger, he only demands your friendship; if a brother author, he expects from you a book of yours, which does not sell, in return … When my sonnet was rejected, I exclaimed, ‘Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!’”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward; it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me … Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.”

William Hazlitt: “The world loves to be amused by hollow professions, to be deceived by flattering appearances, to live in a state of hallucination; and can forgive everything but the plain, downright, simple, honest truth … Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own … No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history … Those only deserve a monument who do not need one; that is, who have raised themselves a monument in the minds and memories of men … Fame is the inheritance not of the dead, but of the living. It is we who look back with lofty pride to the great names of antiquity, who drink of that flood of glory as of a river.”

I’ll close out the photo gallery with Wright Morris in the company of Charles Lamb (a portrait by William Hazlitt) and Hazlitt himself (a self-portrait)—excellent company Wright Morris has every right to keep (Photo credits: www.fantasticfiction.com; www.poemhunter.com; http://www.datadeluge.com):

Wright Morris hands folded photo  Charles Lamb color portrait  William Hazlett portrait

I look back on my acquaintance, my friendship with him with “lofty pride” (or immense gratitude) and to re-reading his work throughout what remains of my life—work that will remain a monument in the mind and memory forever.

Next blog: Leonard Wolf and more reflection on the time I spent at San Francisco State College.

 

 

The 61st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival–and Some Preludes

I inhabited three exceptional nights and two exceptional days of music at the 61st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival: September 21-23. Before I get into the depth of that music, and (given my “inclusive” nature in this blog) one unanticipated event that preceded it, I would like–as a lead for the entire blog piece–to describe a single incident that took place at the Festival, for I feel that it will heighten the joy of, and in a condensed way, summarize all that I was fortunate to experience.

One of the most engaging sets at the Festival unfolded at 3:40 on Saturday afternoon on the main (Jimmy Lyons) stage: a commissioned piece called “Premiere Monterey Encounter (A Latin Jazz Suite for Flute),” composed and presented by Oscar Hernandez and his Spanish Harlem Orchestra—with “Special Guest” Hubert Laws (on flute). The piece itself was preceded by an ample display of Latin tunes that disclosed the orchestra’s full power and finesse, and the commissioned work itself commenced with a smooth piano intro (Hernandez). Followed by swirls of sound from three vocalists, one of them–Jeremy Bosch—aptly doubling on flute. A handsome melody, as theme, emerged (offset by sudden orchestral flares, accents), then a barrage of brilliant percussion (congas, timbales, bongos, maracas, guiro), showing all that this large aggregate was capable of (deep baritone sax beneath the theme). Hernandez offered a brief piano interlude, and then Hubert Laws was introduced (wearing a snappy Fedora hat with erect feather), the crowd well aware (from previous MJF appearances) of his renown). Laws and Jeremy Bosch engaged in a rich exchange of adroitly overlapping melodic lines, while the percussion quarter went wild—anthem orchestration giving way to the sweet theme again, enhanced by the bright melodicism of the two flutes, each with its own signature tone: Bosch holding his own with the iconic Laws, who closed the piece with a coda, a chromatic delight (up, down, sideways!), the end.

The performance was amazing, indelible, and the audience emerged from the arena vocalizing fragments of what they’d just heard. I found it necessary to make use of a porta-potty that stood nearby. As I stood inside, attending to my business, I heard someone singing, beautifully, perfectly in pitch, a woman with a voice as soft and engaging as that of Norah Jones. But it was not Norah Jones. At first I thought that lovely voice must be a recording, coming from a sound system just outside or overhead—but no, I realized that it came from next door—that the sublime voice was manifesting itself in the porta-potty right next to mine! Some divine female creature with the gift of an outrageously beautiful voice was singing, while attending to her “business” just next door.

I had an urge to knock on her door and offer her a contract, on the spot—or perhaps my services as a professional accompanist (which I am, although I did not have a piano on hand). Later, when I emerged having done neither and told friends about this extraordinary encounter, we took turns coming up with better, more unique, ways in which I might have made the acquaintance of her unique talent—but alas, by then, it was too late to implement them. However, in its rare way, this experience did heighten the joy of, and in its condensed way, summarize all that I was fortunate to experience that weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Here are photos of Oscar Hernandez and his Spanish Harlem Orchestra—and flutists Jeremy Bosch and Hubert Laws (Photo credits: news.stlpublicradio.org; www.spanishharlemorchestra.com/jeremy; http://www.knkx.org)

Spanish Harlem Orchestra

Spanish Harlem Orchestra Jeremy Bosch 2    Monterey Jazz Hubert Laws KNKX Port Townsend

The second unanticipated event–another fortuitous complete surprise—was an e-mail letter I received three days before the Monterey Jazz Festival began. It read:“Dear Bill … My name is Sedef and I am the interview producer of an English language broadcasting TV channel in Istanbul, Turkey–TRT World’s flagship arts and culture programme Showcase. It is my pleasure to invite you for a remote 5-7 minutes interview on Monterey Jazz Festival (we want to take it as a start point, to have a look at this year’s program, why it is such a legendary festival, and come to the question of why is jazz still cool) on September 20th Thursday 13:30 GMT via Skype … Please see below brief information on TRT World and Showcase and do not hesitate to contact me on any further questions … TRT World is Turkey’s first international English-language news network, offering in-depth reporting with a focus on global responsibility. It reaches more than 120 million households around the world, and that number is growing … I look forward to hearing from you upon your earliest convenience, Sedef ILGIC, Interview Producer.”

This “news” was pretty exciting. I responded immediately with a resounding “Yes!”—and when I heard from Sedef Ilgic, saying she was “very happy that you accept to be our guest, I am sure it will be a lovely interview,” and she wanted “to make sure that we are on the same page with timing, it will be 6:30 am in California on September 20th Thursday (I am sorry to ask you to be up that early and wish I could send you a cup of Turkish coffee – however that is the time we shoot as live that I cannot change it)”;  also saying “I will send you the exact questions we plan to ask you a couple of hours prior to the interview”; and lastly, “It would be very nice if you could tell me what is the most interesting for you to talk about briefly.” I wrote back saying that I had written the text and captions for a book that came out in 1997: Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years. “It was a fully engaging project that allowed me to interview, and get to know as friends, some extraordinary jazz artists: drummer Max Roach, pianist Dave Brubeck, bassist Ray Brown (to whom tribute is being paid this year), and pianist John Lewis and bassist Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet. I would love to be able to talk briefly about that project—and, should there be time, some work (writing) I’ve done for the Festival since then—and most importantly, this year’s Festival lineup.”

After I checked to make sure a Skype call would work on my laptop computer (fortunately, it was already fully installed), I awaited the questions I would be asked—which did arrive at 5:00 am. I felt fully prepared to respond to them. I connected with Istanbul (I even received instruction as to just how I should position myself before the camera on my computer: “A little more to the left, Bill?”) ten minutes before we went “live”—and the first question, asked by the host, a beautiful woman wearing a headscarf or hijab worn by Muslim women (I never learned her name) was: “You wrote Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years and interviewed an extraordinary lineup of jazz artists for the project. what is the most amazing moment you experienced during these interviews?”

This had been the first of six (!) questions sent me at 5:00 am, and given the limited time assigned for the interview, I wanted to do it justice, but saw no way I could do so and do justice to the others (just a little more than a minute for the rest?), but I talked about interviewing pianist Dave Brubeck for the book (forty-three years after I’d first heard him play in Ann Arbor, Michigan back in 1954), and his memorable performance of his commissioned piece, The Real Ambassadors, at MJF in 1962. Unfortunately, some glitch had occurred in the broadcast (the voice of the man who’d instructed me in positioning myself came on, asking if I heard a “buzzing” sound at my end, which I did not, so he said, “must be Skype.”)

We proceeded, and the next question was one I was well ready for: “With the abundance of musical hybrids out today, why is jazz still cool?” “Because that’s its nature,” I replied. “Jazz is cool in and of itself”—no matter what “history” may attempt to claim (“Jazz is dead”; “The audience for it is getting too old, or dead”; et cetera). “Those who are faithful to the art form don’t just like it, they love it, with a passion.” And I mentioned my own feelings when I first began to play jazz at age 14; and members of my generation in the former Soviet Union who hid beneath blankets to listen to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk on illegal VOA broadcasts, and vowed that they would become “jazzmen” or “die.”

The next and last question (“I’m sorry, Bill, we’ve run out of time.”) was: “What’s the next step in the evolution of jazz?” That, too, was easy to respond to. “Global,” I said, “world music. It already is.” And I mentioned that the host city for International Jazz Day was Istanbul, five years ago (I said “I think three,” a mistake), and mentioned seeing an “old friend” (whom I had interviewed in 1990 at Berkeley College of Music, when he was 21), Igor Butman, who was in charge of International Jazz Day in Saint Petersburg recently—and the progress Jazz has made as a global art form over the last few years: its extent now as “world music.” I said, “It’s wonderful,” and the Showcase host said, “Wonderful”, and that was it for my own ten or so minutes of world fame—which was a delight for me.

The program was “streamed,” and I watched a re-run twice, thinking I’d never have a “permanent” copy, but later in the afternoon, I found two versions, on the TRT site (https://www.trtworld.com/video/showcase/contemporary-istanbul-chamber-of-immortality-monterey-jazz-festival-full-episode-showcase/5ba4d33b58cd863d6876f3f2) and on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch time_continue=1130&v=88UV1A8GTwc. So the program has been “preserved,” and is available. Showcase added a number of fine historic photos from the Monterey Jazz Festival archives, which fleshed out the overview of the event handsomely. Thank you again, Sedef Ilgic and TRT World’s Showcase for the chance to add my “offering.”

Here’s a photo of Sedef Ilgic, and a photo of the Showcase host (Photo credits: https://twitter.com/sedefilgic; https://trtworld.com/video/showcase).

Sedef Ilgic of TRT in TurkeyTurkish Showcase Host

Given my customary blog indulgence (Sorry, sort of!), I’ve spent considerable time (and space) on my Monterey Jazz Festival “prelude” (and the porta-potty songstress experience) here—so I would like to focus on one of the major Festival treats for me this year: the appearance of Norah Jones in the main (Jimmy Lyons) arena on the last night, and then two of the first sets that began it all, out on the grounds—and save the rest (There was so much admirable music this year!) for another blog, to be posted (I hope) fairly soon.

I’d never seen Norah Jones (“live”) before, but I love her music, the quality of her voice, and I looked forward to her Sunday night set, eagerly. She did not disappoint me at all. I find her voice infectious, intoxicating: the consistency of mood (subtle, generally low key, sustaining, emotionally engaging, intimate), rich with “down-to-earth”–daily round—meaning, yet at the same time transcendent, other-worldly. Listening to her sing, I share the responses (as described) by other writers: “Romantic,” “dreamy,” “a  signature sound,” “a unique blend.” In a New Yorker article, “Slow Burn,” Sasha Frere-Jones writes: “She is selling the all-time No. 1 hit song—sex …  Jones’s music, too, is a recombinant blend that could be racked in various parts of a store. The twang in Jones’s voice establishes a cosmetic link to country, while the upright bass and piano suggest jazz … Most important, Jones never ruffles feathers or breaks the skin.”

Frere-Jones continues: “That doesn’t mean skin is irrelevant—it is the whole point. Consider this line from guitarist Jesse Harris’s “I’ve Got to See You Again,” recorded on Jones’s first album: “To not touch your skin is not why I sing.” Sex is in the music, the look, and everywhere in between. Jones is beautiful in a way that reassures those threatened by Beyoncé’s American thighs or Britney’s global bodysuits. For such an alleged milquetoast, Jones’s breakout song, “Don’t Know Why” [which she did sing that Sunday night] is certainly suggestive: “I don’t know why I didn’t come / I left you by the house of fun.” The album’s lyrics continue in this vein, sounding like a transcription of phone calls during the first week of a romance: She’s got to see you again, she’s feeling the same way all over again, she can’t hide beneath her sheets, she’s waiting for you to come on home and turn her on. It may smell like sandalwood and your dad may give it to you for Christmas, but Jones’s music is one big booty call.”

I’ll confess that the subtle but sultry “voice’ is one that invites a bedroom setting and intimacy encouraged there (a quality I’ve also admired in vocalists from Chris Conner to Karrin Allyson), but I’m also familiar with responses far less “inviting,” or favorable. In an article, “The Humility of Norah Jones,” Daniel Schorn reports, “Quiet, slow songs are what first made her so successful, but some said they could put you to sleep—dubbing her ‘Snorah Jones.’” He adds, “One critic wrote, after her first two albums, ‘Jones’ success is due to not being all that special. You can go to your local jazz club any night and maybe see somebody just as good. All the songs sound the same. There’s nothing remotely experimental about them. The songs are, for the most part, fairly pedestrian.'”

When Katie Couric, interviewing Jones, cited this criticism, the latter said, “Uh-huh. That’s mean … What I was going for in the first two albums I didn’t necessarily achieve. Because I was young and because it was my first time out. And the second album was such a ‘quickie’ sort of ‘Let’s just get it over with!’ But the kind of music I make, there’s a lot of subtlety in it. And I think it takes a couple of listens to actually really get it. ‘Pedestrian’ is a mean way of saying simple.” “Or accessible,” Couric points out. “Or, they’re very accessible,” Jones says. But that accessibility provides the attainable (“able to be reached or entered”) fundamental meaning I value—something not always present in the pyrotechnics (as in “a spectacular display or performance of artistic or technical skill”: “spectacle”) of much contemporary jazz.

On Sunday morning of the Festival, a bunch of journalists meet for brunch, and one of my favorite people, a local Monterey writer, Beth Peerless, was critical of Norah Jones, and would, after her performance post in the local paper, The Herald,  praise for the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival overall (the truly exquisite programming), a more subdued (charitable) version of what she told me (comparing two different sets: a “The Legacy of Michael Brecker” (a Coversation featuring Randy Brecker, Gil Goldstein, Donny McCaslin, and John Patitucci) to what Norah Jones had to offer. Beth wrote: “The uniqueness of each act and how expertly programmed they were [amplified] the differences that exist in the jazz canon. As an example, following the Brecker tribute to close out the festival on the main stage was Norah Jones’ set with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christopher Thomas … Her music is restrained and beautiful, her songs sometimes melancholy but nonetheless she’s amassed a huge following that gave her the top billing at this legendary jazz festival … Now some people may feel that she does not represent jazz, but being generous one can say that her music melds jazz, country and pop together with a sensitivity and with a sweet delivery that harkens nostalgia for simpler times. She played many of her hits from the breakthrough debut album, 2002’s Come Away With Me on Blue Note Records, interspersed with some new tunes that had a little more edge. That was nice to hear from her because there are many who would say she can get boring in performance because of the sensual low key vocal delivery and the wistful imagery of her lyrics, song after song. That view has its proponents, but overall her performance was a success and enjoyable for her inimitable style.”

Beth is a fine writer and characterizes Norah Jones’ style well (accurately), although I don’t agree with the ”boring in performance” phrase, nor “she does not represent jazz”—and I’d like to complete my feelings regarding Nora Jones with some thoughts on her as a jazz artist—who does, to my satisfaction, do a handsome job of “melding” that genre with country, and pop, and not just for the sake of “nostalgia for simpler times.”

Here are some photos of Norah Jones (Photo credits: google.com (Amy Sussman/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock; https://liveforlivemusic.com; https://the chronicle /blog)

Norah Jones Portrait Session, New York, USA   Nora Jones piano image (2)   Norah Jones The Chronicle image

As someone who writes poetry and is, at present, engaged in setting my poems to original music (an art form: genuine love song—first introduced to the world in 1300 B.C., in Egypt), I like her way with words, however low key or wistful they may be. At her best, she reminds me of my favorite “country” group: the Avette Bros., with their unique blend of sophistication and “down home” storytelling (“Call the Smithsonian, I made a discovery / Life ain’t forever and lunch isn’t free / Loved ones will break your heart with or without you / Turns out we don’t get to know everything.”). Of the songs Jones played and sang that last Sunday night, if you listen carefully, the very familiar “Come Away With Me” offers some apt individual lines (and images): “Come away where they can’t tempt us / With their lies”; “I want to wake up with the rain / Falling on a tin roof /While I’m safe there in your arms.” And from “Sunrise”: “Sunrise, sunrise / Couldn’t tempt us if it tried / ‘Cause the afternoon’s already come and gone … Surprise, surprise / Couldn’t find it in your eyes But I’m sure it’s written all over my face … Never something I could hide / When I see we made it through another day.” From “My Heart Is Full”: “My hands are tied (tied, tied) / I can see (see, see) / People hurting (hurting, hurting) … Are we broken? (broken, broken) / … I will rise (rise, rise) / I am tired / I am strong / I am human / I will listen / My heart is full / My eyes are open / I can see.” And the stark simplicity of these words from “After the Fall”: “Everyday was changing / Only photographs / But life goes on … Out on my own now / And I like the way it feels / You couldn’t come through / And I’m too far gone … After the fall / Do you still want it all?”).

As for her range of musical “effects,” or genres, I feel it goes well beyond melding just jazz, country and pop—it embraces the world (after all, she is the daughter of Ravi Shankar and American concert producer Sue Jones)—and does so in the most subtle manner (a host of global licks and tricks tucked away among the surface “simplicity” or accessibility). In his book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, author Nate Chinen traces the full extent of Norah Jones’ background, or training—and the extent of accomplishment and awards it’s led to. She began with jazz piano at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, and continued musical studies at the University of North Texas: this “before finding a niche in the roots-minded but non-purist singer-songwriter hub on Manhatten’s Lower East Side,” Chinen adding, “But it took a few years before her identity was fully in place.” When he first heard her, in 2001, she was “a soul-styled guest on a Charlie Hunter [“widely considered the authority on the seven and eight – string guitar”] gig.” Her debut album (Come Away With Me) was released on Blue Note “to the consternation of some jazz partisans who augured the early stirrings of a more crossover-minded direction for the label. This wasn’t an unreasonable takeaway. To some degree it was even true.”

However, at the 45th Grammys, at the tender age of twenty-three, Norah Jones “swept five categories, including Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Record of the Year.” (A wire photograph depicted an “iconic image”: “newcomer Norah Jones with an armload of awards.”). When Blue Note offered a collaboration concert to celebrate its 75th anniversary, she was found among such grand jazz company as host Jason Moran, Wayne Shorter, and Anthony Braxton. In his book, Nate Chinen sites Esperanza Spaulding as “a spiritual successor to Norah Jones … Jones was another singer-songwriter who’d parlayed her sterling jazz education into a mainstream musical career”—but I’ll take Jones over Spaulding (who I do admire immensely as an instrumentalist, as a bassist) any day as a songwriter, for in the latter area, I find Spaulding pretentious—a bit presumptuous in her ambition.

My journalist friend Dan Ourllette (who conducts the popular DownBeat Blindfold Test at the Monterey Jazz Festival) has written a book about Bruce Lundvall (Playing by Ear: Bruce Lundvall), the legendary music executive who “discovered” Norah Jones (along with Herbie Hancock, Willie Nelson, Bobby Mcferrin, Cassandra Wilson, Kurt Elling, and Wynton Marsalis—to name just a few “top-tier musicians of our time”), and, with regard to Jones, Lyndvall has this to say about signing her in 2001 (when she was “just an aspiring 21-year-old who was waiting tables in New York and gigging in the East Village with jazz and pop bands”): “That was a lucky day,” adding, “You’d have to be tone deaf not to hear that voice … Norah is such a great talent. She has a signature voice that’s not like anyone else. People ask me where to find another Norah Jones. And I say, I want to find another original. That’s the answer. Real artists have careers; some aren’t artists, but more marketing confections or acts. Some may have hits, but they tend to have shorter careers. Real artists have a long-term career and a long-term vision.”

When Lundvall heard her sing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” on a demo, he “went nuts.” He asked how long she’d known the song, telling her, “I love it. I can tell you love it too.” He asked her who was playing piano.” “Me,” she answered. And Lundvall said, “ Get yourself an attorney.” “I intended to sign her right then,” he recalls, in retrospect.” Dan Ouellette ends his chapter, “Testifying: Finding Norah Jones”: “Truly an original … [She] cast a luminous spell that Bruce recognized upon first hearing her sing. With top-hit radio at that time dominated by pomposity and frenetic electronic beats, Norah offered an elegant alternative that was an alluring melding of country, blues, folk and jazz. And underlying her ‘moody little record’ [Come Away With Me] as she told one writer, was an overriding sensibility of integrity. There was nothing presumptuous or pretentious about Norah’s goals: create strong, honest songs without a game plan ro become a star manufacturing sure-fire hit-bound material. That pretty much sums up Bruce’s philosophy to follow his intuition … Norah’s commercial appeal has backed this up. All told, all of her solo albums have sold close to 50 million copies worldwide.”

But that’s not what drew me to her, and kept me there throughout her set that Sunday night. Given the extent of manipulation—emotional (fake feeling, like “fake news,” calculation of and compromise on what’s truly felt, and experienced); and otherwise: smoke screen and light-assisted glitter, dance-saturated overproduction–in the music world today, I’m hesitant to even mention the word “sincerity”; but in Norah Jones, I hear a voice to which that word applies, along with another favorite word of mine just now (given the state of affairs in the world in general): “stillness,” in the sense of Buddhist “mindfulness,” awareness of what is still genuinely meaningful, the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing [and music] because only that is worth writing [and singing] about, worth the agony and the sweat.” (William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech). She still sings herself, what she truly IS as a human being—and the effect is “beyond category” (of genre).

As Marcus J. Moore wrote about her latest album, Day Breaks: “Armed with that voice—a wry, simmering inflection—the Texas native has proven she can sing anything, and sound natural doing so, no matter where the road has taken her … Day Breaks is especially sparse, a no-frills record that fades into the background without much fuss. It seems to reflect the singer’s personal and professional comfort, that—after 15 years as a signed artist with more than 50 million records sold—Jones doesn’t need to adhere to industry pressures to remain relevant. Whereas some artists revert to their best-received work as a way to reignite past glory, Day Breaks feels like the logical next step for a singer who’s done just about everything there is to do musically. This one isn’t a barn-burner, but it’s not supposed to be.”

Thank you, Norah Jones, for remaining true to yourself—and for bringing so much genuine pleasure and appreciation to those who heard and saw you Sunday night at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

To return to Nate Chinen, and his book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, which he concludes with some thought s on where jazz “is going”: “As long as people have been talking about jazz, they’ve been talking about where it’s going. The conversation rests on presumptions of forward progress and collective striving. But while some musicians have embraced the premise, others refused to play along. A well-meaning interviewer once asked Thelonious Monk where he thought jazz was going, and the pianist replied, “I don’t know where it’s doing. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.”

I agree with Nate Chinen (looking back on my claim in The Istanbul Turkey Showcase interview, when asked “Why is jazz still cool?” “Because that’s its nature. Jazz is cool in and of itself”—no matter what “history” may attempt to claim (“Jazz is dead”; “The audience for it is getting too old, or dead”; et cetera). “Those who are faithful to the art form don’t just like it, they love it, with a passion.”)—I agree with Chenin that “There is no way of prognosticating jazz’s future. Or even its precise trajectory, because the art form doesn’t adhere to a linear axis.” It just IS. Given the “spirit of multiplicity that now prevails,” I agree with Chenin when he says of “the present moment and its endless possibilities … Progress is almost beside the point. The music will flow and fluctuate, keep going. And where to? Anywhere. It just happens.”

I’m not going to apologize for enjoying what I wrote about Norah Jones (the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival’s last act) as much as I have, or at some length; but I do plan, in my next blog post, to do justice to much of the excellent music I heard over the weekend. I would like, here and now, to introduce you to two other performances I much admired on the first (Friday, September 21) night: the Hristo Vitchev Quartet (Hristo Vitchev, guitar; Jasnam Daya Singh, piano; Dan Robbins, Bass; Mike Shannon) and the Jan Ira Bloom Quartet (the leader on soprano sax; Dawn Clement, piano; Mark Hellas, bass; Bobby Previte, drums).

Here are photos of Hristo Vitchev, Jasnam Daya Singh, and Jane Ira Bloom (Photo credits: Broadbandguitar.com; Linkedin; http://www.nypl.org)

Hristo Vitchev   Jasnan Daya Singh 2   Jane Ira Bloom

I was not all that familiar with 37-year-old Bulgaria-born (but now based in San Francisco) Hristo Vitchev (“one of the newest and most innovative voices in modern jazz guitar,” an artist who “combines elements of classical, modern jazz, folk, and avant-garde sonic hues in his music”), but I have known Brazilian-born Jasnam Daya Singh for some time, for he performed for years in Monterey as Weber Iago—and we had a chance at this year’s Festival to renew our friendship. And I have written about Dan Robbins and Mike Shannon in the past, and previewed the group’s excellent recent CD Of Light and Shadows—so I was eager to hear them “live.” Their set met all of my expectations—and I’ll describe it as best I can in the next blog.

I will also write about Jane Ira Bloom, whose work I was familiar with (I have her recordings), and she emerged as one of the weekend’s “super stars,” I feel: Her Friday night set with her quartet—and her superb set on Saturday night with pianist Fred Hersch (their duo on “Time After Time” sent writer Andy Gilbert into an ecstatic trance, and me too! Followed by a exquisite “There’s a Place for Us.”). And I have many other excellent performances I witnessed at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival to write about … in my next Bill’s Blog.

Be with you then.

A Ten-Day Hospital Stay (as Disclaimer); Jazz Pianist Kei Akagi; and the Premiere of John Clayton’s “Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration” at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival

I should, perhaps, rename this blog “Bill’s Collective Apologies for Not Posting a New Blog When He Says He Will,” but that’s not an appellation likely to attract and hold readers–although given the nature of our topsy-turvy times, it just might work. Once again, I find myself in the position of apologizing for not providing what I said would be my next blog post, which was: “I’d like to continue the theme of ‘More About Music,’ and write about this recording [a CD, Contrast & Form, I’d received from jazz pianist Kei Akagi, whom I’d written about in my book, Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within; University of Michigan Press, 2004]… Until then: if I do not see you at the 60th anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival celebration, I’m sure I’ll want to tell you about what I heard and saw there, as best I can—and more than likely in a still-excited state of recent exposure. Long live the Monterey Jazz Festival!”

I do intend, in this blog, to make good on all that I suggested there: Kei Akagi’s new CD Contrast & Form, his impressive body of work in general and his thoughts on improvisation–and two outstanding sets I heard at the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival: The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra premiere of a commissioned piece: Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration (with special guests: pianist Gerald Clayton, John’s son, and his trio); and John Beasley’s MONK’estra, featuring John’s imaginative, solid arrangements of the music of Thelonious Monk.

Here’s a photo of the poster for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and a photo of yours truly standing beside some copy I wrote for a retrospective exhibit of posters called “Monterey at 60: A Visual Feast” (Photo credit: Stuart Brinin):

MJF-17-Poster_small4   MJF Poster Exhibit Stu Photo

But first … the inevitable disclaimer as to why it’s taken so long to get around to this blog. My last post was on September 8, just a few days before the Monterey Jazz Festival. At that time, knowing I would spend three nights and two days hiking the Fairgrounds in quest of all the fine music afforded at several venues, I was concerned about trouble I was having with my right knee (trouble that would occasion a trip to ER at Community Hospital–and X-rays that disclosed a sprain and torn meniscus), but there was no way I was going to miss attending the Festival, nor compromise an eight day trip to Kauai my wife Betty and I were looking forward to in October—nor two music gigs I had coming up in November (in connection with a book of mine that came out, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.)

I made it through all these events—occasions that proved so delightful, rewarding in themselves that I failed to acknowledge the pain I felt in my knee. In late November, I made an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Peter Gerbino, who recommended an MRI, which disclosed a right knee sprain, three torn meniscus, and “severe bone marrow lesions.” Dr. Gerbino recommended a new minimally-invasive fluoroscopically-assisted procedure called Subchondroplasty that “targets and fills subchondral bone defects through the delivery of AccuFill® Bone Substitute Material (BSM), a nanocrystalline, highly porous injectable calcium phosphate (CaP).” We set up a date for surgery: December 5.

What began and was anticipated as a half-day stay (at most) at the Surgical Center on Cass Street in Monterey turned out to be a 10 day stay at Community Hospital up on Holman Highway. The 7:30 AM surgery itself took less than an hour, and by 10:00 I was on the verge of being discharged to go home, but when I stood up to do so, I fell over (fortunately on the gurney that bought me from surgery). I discovered I had no feeling whatsoever in my LEFT Leg–as if my left leg had somehow been amputated by mistake!

Over the next few hours, I attempted to stand three more times, but–in spite of some feeling returning to my toes (I could wiggle them just a bit) and calf—it was impossible to stand (my left leg was dead for the most part: it no longer existed). Doctor and staff decided it was too great a risk to attempt to move me to our car and have my wife Betty drive me home and somehow get me (even in a wheelchair) to our front door—so I was placed in an ambulance, where two paramedics would deliver me (an IV–a “drip”–was set up in route) to Community Hospital for “observation” (in attempt to find out just what the hell was going on–or rather not going on–with my left leg).

I was taken to the Emergency unit, and then assigned the “last room” in an overspill outpost area. I remember thinking, “I will never walk again,” and I’d even begun to imagine my future life confined to a wheelchair. A breakthrough came when, my left foot flat on the floor, a physical therapist had me shuffle my toes as far forward as possible, then back, sideways, and then try to lift them atop the lower frame of a tray (just off the floor). The next day she placed a handkerchief-sized cloth on the floor, and asked me to stand on it (with the assistance of a “walker,” of course). She then again had me “walk,” moving my foot as far forward as possible, back, sideways, slowly in increasing distances.

I was not officially “registered” at the hospital until Friday, December 8, when I was moved to the Main Pavilion, and another physical therapist escorted me (again, on a walker) down the length of a corridor and back, where I was cheered by a group of well-wishers: my family (Betty, sons Tim and Steve, who had arrived) and a host of nurses—a VERY moving experience; a major Minor victory indeed!

A neurologist (someone I knew of: a highly respected man) had been called in (everyone–doctors, nurses, staff, my family, and me!–remained totally puzzled by the “loss” of my leg), and I underwent a CT and five (!) MRIs in two days—on my head (brain), lumbar spine, head again (for “acute bleeding”), cervical spine, thoracic spine–a carotid Doppler, and Echocardiogram. The neurologist “suspected” (this did not show up on an MRI, but apparently that can happen about 6% of the time) “a small right hemispheric stroke, probably ischemic, related to small vessel disease”—and that (after considerable debate on everyone’s part) would go down as the final diagnoses.

Here are some photos of yours truly: shortly after being admitted for “observation” at Community Hospital; dressed, and with Betty, after I found out I would be discharged; sitting in a real chair when I arrived home; and standing with my new constant companion, my “walker,” after I’d been home for a while.

Bill in Hospital (2)   Bill in Hospital with Betts

Bill in Hospital Fincally at Home 5   Crab Christmas Braveheart 3

I was “discharged on aspirin and statin” (and the pain killer Norco) from the Main Pavilion, and given a room overlooking the hospital putting green (and a feast of trees that came up in the light each morning) in the IRU section of the hospital—for rehabilitation. Each day I was given a set schedule of sessions (three hours of intense workouts) with an extraordinary (beautifully competent and empathic) team of physical and occupational therapists, and after three days of strolling the hospital grounds (always with a walker), sessions in the gym: climbing stairs, standing alone (without a walker), even practicing rhythmic “dance” moves (extension and flexion), toe taps, standing balance progression (eyes closed—scary!); learning to bathe myself while seated in a chair in a shower; isometric finger exercises and even “putty” curls—I graduated, after spending an evening declared “Independent” (no more assistance to the bathroom, obtaining objects in my room on my own, etc. I was, now, truly “going solo”–like the title of my book). When Betty arrived on the morning of December 13, we were provided instruction on getting me in and out of our car—so I could depart and arrive, the next day (December 14), safely at home. Home! Which we did (arrive safely, with the assistance of our son Steve.

And that’s how I spent ten totally unanticipated days in the loving care of Community Hospital. I did make some fine friends, one of whom was Maria, a nurse from the Philippines, one of the most incessantly cheerful, buoyant persons I’ve ever met. She would come bouncing into my room singing, without words, beautifully, but claimed she couldn’t carry a tune at all. When my good friend Bob Danziger came to visit, he told Maria he’d traveled throughout the Philippines, and asked if she knew a particular song for children he’d heard. Maria did, and proceeded to sing that song (with words) beautifully—a performance she repeated, delightfully, when Betty and sons Tim and Steve arrived that afternoon.

I am pleased to report that, after completing my 7th physical therapy session on January 26 (with Chris Tinker, an exceptional therapist—and an avid jazz fan!), I took my first “walk” across the room with just a cane, rather than the sometimes cumbersome “walker” that’s been my constant companion since that ten-day hospital stay.

Which (Maria’s song) brings us, tangentially, to the subject I originally intended for this blog, back in September (!) “More About Music.” I had heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within: Kei Akagi. He contacted me, after thirteen years, to let me know about his new CD, Kei Akagi Trio: Contrast & Form, his 14th album release as a leader, recorded with a “permanent trio based in Tokyo.” What I heard on the CD intrigued, and pleased me—so I decided to write about the direction his music had taken.

A fortunate “extra,” or favor an artist can offer an audience (and herself or himself, and the music itself) is being an articulate human being willing to take time to provide an interesting (and enhancing) description of intentions, or aims, and the means by which they were fulfilled. Kei Akagi is such an artist (and human being): an educator as well as a consummate musician, for alongside his musical contributions (14 CDs as a solo artist and leader; over 60 CDs as a sideman and accompanist—including Miles Davis’ last recorded works) and 70 published compositions), he is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.

He offered engaging, philosophically-inclined liner notes for Contrast & Form, writing: “We can’t have one without the other. Faced with the rich tapestry of greys that comprise life, we rely on contrast and form to make sense of it all. In the absence of perceptive contrast and form, we must somehow provide it. That is one of the things art can do. It is my hope that the music you hear on this recording will contribute in that way.”

He elaborates: “The world now is filled with wonderful jazz musicians, maybe more than at any other time. We dialogue with tradition, we negotiate with modernism, etc., but we ultimately confront music as a totality of past and present, all of which pushes us into the future as we speak. Within the kaleidoscope of musical possibilities we see ever-changing contrasts and forms, all within a continuum of perpetual sonic transformation, some lasting a moment of time and others lasting decades. We are free to embrace it all; I do so with gratitude.”

That “embrace” is what Kei Akagi’s Tokyo-based trio, (drummer Tamaya Honda and bassist Shunya Wakai) now in its fifteenth year of collaboration, attempts to do, and succeeds at doing, in this recording. The pianist states that the pieces themselves were composed over a three-year period, but “the performance methods of the Trio evolved over a much longer time.” Formed in 2000 as “an experimental performance collective,” Akagi finds their “point of departure in the rich history of jazz,” but feels the group also engages in “constant spontaneous deconstructions of the rhythmic and harmonic elements that define the music.” Eschewing the traditional roles “of the instruments associate with a piano trio format,” the Trio has chosen to emphasize “the equal role of each member within the ensemble.”

Here are photos of Kei Akagi; Kei at the piano; the cover of the CD Contrast & Form; and the Trio: bassist Shunya Wakai, Kei Akagi, and drummer Tamaya Honda (Photo credits: UCI Music Department; youtube.com; Masashi Kageyama):

Kei Agaki 3  Kei Agaki

Kei Agaki Trio Contrast & Form  Kei Agaki Trio Contrast & Form 2

That emphasis is apparent on the CD’s first track: “In the Fold,” on which the members of the trio “fold” into one another as tightly, and spontaneously, as origami; a minimalist framework–which Akagi often adopts–focused on internal process, stasis with gradual transformation, the reiteration of musical phrases, and persistent motif embodied in a simple six-note melodic line characteristic of Japanese songs for children (Gene Krupa’s very popular in Japan trio, with Charlie Ventura on tenor sax, recorded a children’s song, “Sho, Sho, Shojoji,” “Badger’s Party,” in 1952—and the piece can be heard and seen, performed live by them to this day, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ro6CWhcYbs).

“In the Fold” displays the Bach-like precision, and clarity, of Kei Akagi’s trio, variety and surprise within the deceptive minimalism (you truly have to listen, with great care, for the nuance), and a range of mood from lyricism to sudden dramatic excursion, bright accents within the smooth flow—creative juxtaposition which is carried over into the second track, “Playground: The Dog and the Snake,” the minimalist repetition carried here to an extreme: the same theme persisting, over and over again, on piano, albeit abetted by subtle left hand riffs and drummer Tamaya Honda’s (in Akagi’s words) “incredible cross rhythms that occur in the middle of the track, purposely clashing with a regrouping of 21 beats into seven equal divisions of three.”

This is how the “equal role” of each member comes in, and pays off—with the variety and surprise I mentioned. A playful tension is set up between a nearly exasperatingly consistent (repetitious) again “simple” seven note theme (no let up relief on that, although that theme is—do I dare say it?—“charming” in and of itself); and the overall motion is one of ascent, the piece climbing, climbing, ending in a fade, the piano dropping out, with bass and drums carrying the melody, fully in sync, at the close.

Many of the tracks, such as this one, have engaging titles: “Ame to Kaeru (The Rain and the Frog)” and “Where You May Be”—the former, again in Akagi’s words, “a mini-suite of three sections,” although, in keeping with avant-garde minimalist “principles,” the piece remains non-narrative, non-representational—which just makes it all the more intriguing (You seem to be invited to invent a “story” of your own ). The piece provides a quick note (piano in sync with snare drum), stop, quick note, stop rhythm, repetition as prevalent as in “Playgouund.” Shunya Wakai’s bass steps in and takes over—then bass and drums interlaced, the exotic rhythm ongoing as Akagi’s piano work prevails with deft extended runs, three distinct personalities, worlds, functioning as “one,” and comfortable with one another just as they are—melodic or dissonant, the tempo never letting up, solid piano comping, STOP, piano in sync with bass and drums, STOP: a wild, good fun romp until the end, and then another sudden STOP, signifying The End.

The last track on the Contrast & Form CD, “Where You May Be” (another engaging title) is one of my favorites: melodic (a floating supple “undertoe” present with a dreamy liquid top)–reiterated, but with subtle modulations of intent. This gives way to staggered rhythm that ascends, and hesitation that suggests a quest of sorts, a seeking; then a stable reflective mood, lyrical, lovely (with handsome offsetting bass work by Shunya Wakai), an extended piano run, florid finger work matched with stabilizing solid block chords (and fine offsetting cymbal work by Tamaya Honda), this followed by an admirable bass solo (with fine sharp accents): the trio a tight group with active respect for one another—and back to liquid ascending piano, staggered rhythm again, and perfect piano/bass counterpoint that slows to a fade, with two unique harmonic configurations at the close. Beautiful!

The pianist/leader offers some more reflection on making music his way in a short video, “Kei Akagi: Master of Improvisation—UC Irvine,” talking (and providing examples on the piano) about “creation within the moment”; how he feels he must bring everything he feels to the creation of the music, because there is “no distinction between composition and improvisation; I am spontaneously composing … What are the elements, since I’m composing on the spot?  I can choose to play it [he offers a melody] very playfully … or, no, maybe it’s supposed to be interpreted [and here, he provides a somewhat solemn, no nonsense version of what he has just created on the spot] … a different mood … I’m constantly, as an improviser, providing information to myself, and the trick is to interpret that correctly; it’ s a really fun process.”

You can find this video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tES2SGU54N0.

When it comes to teaching at UC Irvine, he was going to set up a standard “program,” but settled for “allowing each student to express their own personality,” because jazz is “very personal … If you have five different musicians, even if they’re playing the same composition, they are all supposed to express five different world views,” adding at the video’s close, “For everything you learn, there’s a different way to do it!”

Here are the covers of three more CDs featuring Kei Akagi: The Asian American Trio (the album I wrote about fourteen years ago, in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within); Mirror Puzzle; Playroom; and another photo of him “in action” at the piano (Photo credit: WMKY).

Kei Agaki Asian American Jazz TrioKei Agaki Mirror Puzzle

Kei Agaki PlayroomKei Agaki 2

Kei Akagi is not the only contemporary musical artist with such an open, risk-taking approach to improvisation. Legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter returned to Blue Note Records (after 43 years, and at age 79) with an album appropriately, accurately called Without a Net: music the New York Times described asspellbinding intuition, with an absolute commitment to the spirit of discovery”; the BBC, referring back to a statement Shorter made when he played with Miles Davis for six years, “We never had a rehearsal. How do you rehearse the unknown?”, praised Without a Net as “full of spontaneity … unhinged abandon”; and Mark F. Turner wrote in All About Jazz: “Wayne Shorter is still one of jazz’s most ardent provocateurs,” citing “the seemingly telepathic and subliminal messages that Shorter, drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and pianist Danilo Perez communicate in these recordings largely captured from the quartet’s European tour in late 2011.”

Alec Wilkinson, in an article on pianist Vijay Iyer (who majored in mathematics and physics at Yale) said, “He doesn’t care to have his music labeled at all, but he sometimes calls it ‘creative music,’ adding that improvisation involves “the ability to perceive, think, decide, and act in real time.” Iyer’s bassist, Stephen Crump claims, “Vijay is interested in the collective dynamic,” and drummer Marcus Gilmore approaches his instrument from “a harmonic and melodic base.” In a blog, Ted Pankin writes, “Three years an independent entity, the trio aggregates information from multiple streams, sculpting Iyer’s arrangements and compositions along equilateral triangle principles that make it unclear where melodic responsibilities lie at any given moment … at a moment’s notice, the flow morphs into [in bassist Crump’s words] “zones of building from pure vibration and resonance, with everyone constantly micro-adjusting the pitch, dealing with textures and colors … the trio instantly became a more organic beast.” Iver himself claims, “If music is the sound of bodies in action, then we’re hearing not just sound, but bodies making those sounds … It’s a source-based perception rather than a pure sound-based perception. It’s not just about making pretty sounds. It’s about those sounds somehow emerging from human activity. The beauty has a story behind it—how did it get there?”

Here are photos of Wayne Shorter’s quartet, and Vijay Iyer’s trio (Photo credits: college.unc.edu and NPR.org):

Wayne Shorter Quartet Barbicon

vijayiyer

As for another topic I suggested I’d include in this blog post, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra 60th Monterey Jazz Festival premiere of the commissioned piece, Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebrationjust about everyone I talked to, after its performance, said it was the best MJF commissioned piece ever. Writer Andy Gilbert felt the work was “the Festival’s centerpiece … [It] surpassed all expectations. The bassist [John Clayton, who composed and conducted the piece] offered a brief emotional roadmap to the eight-movement piece”—and I found this “road map,” the verbal “introduction,” equal to the music itself: eloquent, honest, inclusive. I just wish I could get my hands on a copy of it!

A review in Classical Voice North America announced, “A major work was born on the Lyons stage that evening, a 40-minute MJF-commissioned world premiere by John Clayton You didn’t have to read any specific political details into the piece in order to sense the passion in its marching party grooves or marvel how its complex, diverse structure held together.” Andy Gilbert, also, commented on the “timely” tone (directly addressing our own era) of the piece, citing specific sections: “Responding to the divisive political climate. A sense of anger and dismay came through clearly on ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘Slow Burn Baby Burn,’ but what was most striking about the piece was the way he effectively melded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the Gerald Clayton Trio … With the orchestra’s Tamir Hendelman, on keyboards, playing unison lines with Gerald’s piano, and several drum duets between Jeff Hamilton and Obed Calvaire, the two ensembles worked as one, roaring and whispering into a spiritually charged duet for Gerald and his uncle, alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton.”

Looking back over my own notes, I realize these two writers were alert to much that I found meaningful and unique in the piece: how handsomely it all held together (and the work was epic in its diverse elements); the powerful presence of a Big Band committed to several themes, evolving (seamlessly) from conception to overt celebration, with gifts of well-earned righteous anger, discord, outrage matched with solemn concern along the way–from tidal wave to cleansing prayer, a critique of current conditions, yet a homage to the longevity of jazz itself as an art form, with a wondrous juxtaposition of appropriate riffs and motifs.

The “exchange” between Gerald’s trio and the orchestra–the ingenious call and response–was first-rate; as was the conversation, the dialogue that took place between the two drummers: Jeff Hamilton’s thoughtful, stoic grin ever-present throughout Obed Calvaire’s wild one-upmanship explosions (Hamilton’s simple subtle cymbal “sizzle” winning out after one such display), but no real “cutting contest,” here: just acts of respect and individual (and generational) identity, an encyclopedic array of percussive approaches, all in “good fun” to boot.

Here are photos of the full orchestra at work on Saturday night, a close up of John conducting, and Jeff Hamilton on drums (Photo credits: Jim Stone and hamiltonjazz.com):

John Clayton conducting entire Big Band

John Clayton conducting 2 Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Clayton’s solo was beautiful, within the “spiritually charged” duet with his nephew Gerald (and John Clayton’s bowed bass solo was a work of art in and of itself, as were Gerald’s nuance-filled indwelling solo excursions). These “family” moments were “gifts” I had anticipated, because my very talented good friend Bob Danziger was commissioned to prepare a series of videos on artists featured in the 60th anniversary celebration, and one of the videos was on John Clayton, filmed while he was composing : Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration. In that video, MJF Creative Director Tim Jackson says that John and Gerald are “part of a long tradition of great families that have performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival,” calls Gerald a “musical revelation of a son,” and comments on the stress they place on “musical honesty and vocabulary” with Next Generation artists, adding that father and son “live that advice … jazz is renewed in their hands, infusing influences from all over the globe … family, history … artistry and hard work make John Clayton’s commissioned piece … so special.” Gerald claims that piece is about “celebrating that feeling of freedom after overcoming something really hard to do”; and at the close of the video, John tells us his composition is going to be about “bringing our light to the darkness versus getting sucked into the darkness … We’re going to make it shine!”

And indeed they did! An All About Jazz review states, “One of the most inspiring programming features of the 2017 was a family affair and focus of the sweetest and deserving kind. Pianist Gerald Clayton, one of the festival’s artists-in-residence, appeared multiple times, and with just the right approach in each setting”; and Paul de Barros, in a Downbeat review, called the commissioned work “a majestic big-band epic … which spurred the swing-loving crowd to a standing ovation. As Clayton conducted the piece with brio and his son soloed, it was pleasant to recall how Gerald had blown the crowd away with his trio on the grounds several years before and to remember past performances by the CHJO. It was a treat to see the crowd so delighted by the warmth and relatability of this swinging, bluesy, welcoming piece.”

In another review by him in San Francisco Classical Voice, Andy Gilbert wrote, “Spiritual succor was the theme of bassist John Clayton’s festival commission … His third time getting the MJF assignment, he rose to the occasion and delivered one of the more memorable commissions since Tim Jackson reinstated the program in 1994. Pairing the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which he co-leads with his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and his best friend, drummer Jeff Hamilton, and his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, provided a vast array of tonal colors. And the fact that he was working with intimately familiar ensembles allowed him to write for specific voices. He introduced the eight-movement work by referencing our roiling political divide, and the cathartic piece moved through dismay, despair, and anger to healing and beatific joy with the trio and orchestra melding and separating throughout the set.”

The last words in my own notes were: “John Clayton was his absolutely commanding, charming self throughout the performance, exhibiting intentionality, dignity, grace under pressure, and the absolute joy of knowing (it seemed) what a magnificent work he had composed and his “family” (the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and Gerald’s Trio) had presented—his own presence dancing with delight at the close.

Here is the video I mentioned:

Here are photos of Gerald Clayton, Jeff Clayton, and again: the entire orchestra (Photo credits: Jazz at Lincoln Center; centrum.org; writeopinions.com):

Gerald Clayton  Jeff Clayton

John Clayton band 2

I had intended to include an account of the Sunday afternoon performance of John Beasley’s MONK’estra orchestra (“Celebrating the Thelonious Monk Centennial”) at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and a conversation I was fortunate to have with John Beasley just after that, but this blog has managed to accumulate 13 pages (my “Baroque” tendencies at work again!)—so I feel I should save MONK’estra for another–the next—post; along with some thoughts I have (and which I feel relate, in a somewhat ingenious manner, if I do say so myself) to the current “state” of the art of jazz.

Those thoughts center (and this may seem a BIG JUMP–giant steps–but I hope to show, to prove it’s not) on the ongoing debate (or “civil war”) in the world of science between (1) materialist reductionism (“The idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movement of material particles”) and (2) neuroplasticity (“rewiring” of the brain), volition, free will, bidirectional “causality relating brain and mind”—opposite sides in that “war” that young Isaac Newton set in motion when he got conked on the head beneath an apple tree (although even that “fixed” or too perfect setting has been called into question) and Newton discovered the law of gravity, regarding our world as a windup clock, and empiricism as the only means by which it can be understood, or “measured.”

“Newton in some sense largely eliminated the divine from the ongoing workings of the universe,” states Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his excellent book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which, along with Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s also of interest The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, and Henry P. Stapp’s Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer I am reading just now). I will save the analogy, or congruence I find with jazz for the next post—so please “stay tuned,” for I hope you will find the comparison, and an account of John Beasley’s amazing interpretation and arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s work engaging, and interesting.

As a final photo, here’s one of John Beasley and MONK’estra (Photo credit: Music Works International):

John Beasley and Monkestra

 

More About Music

At the close of my last blog post (“Apology for Sabbatical Leave—and Resumption of Bill’s Blog”), I wrote that “Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.” A better phrase might have been “engage in.”

At the time, and that was in early May (too much time between posts, I know, but once again I will attempt to explain why), I had resumed work on another writing project: what began (over-ambitiously) as a book, but turned into a series of individual articles on Poetry and Song. I contemplated posting a portion of a piece called “Renaissance Song,” which focused on Elizabethan era composers such as Thomas Campion (a first-rate poet who could also provide first-rate musical settings for the words: a rare, and fortunate, combination)—and also included some thoughts on W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s excellent, insightful introductions to their An Elizabethan Song Book.

However—as happened throughout the long delay that occasioned “An Apology for Sabbatical Leave,” I somehow found myself buried in alternate projects (and even actually work, getting hired to do some writing no less!), and that activity would occupy me for three months, building up to a performance I gave (on July 15) with two exceptional musicians at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, California: a “launch” for a book of mine just published, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.

The participants were Richard Rosen (harmonicas), Manuel Macucho Bonilla (cajon: a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru—as is Macucho himself), and I: piano, vocals, and reading short passages from the book we “fleshed out” with songs from the era the book is about–songs such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Nature Boy.”

I’ll present here: the front and back covers of Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958 (and access to the book on amazon.com, if you’d like to have a copy, at: https://www.amazon.com/Going-Solo-1953-1958-William-Minor/dp/1943887500/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503603573&sr=1-1&keywords=going+solo+by+william+minor ; and some photos my wife Betty and a good friend (and former student) David “Catfish” Hall took on the afternoon of July 15—plus access to a video David filmed of the trio doing a song my idol Nat “King” Cole recorded with his trio: “What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry?”: https://www.facebook.com/william.minor.56/videos/pcb.1945171992414191/1945166269081430/?type=3&theater

The photos are: one Betty took amidst the standing room only audience; the band: Macucho, Richard Rosen, and I set for the “show,” focused, ready to go; three shots of the miraculous hands of Macucho at work and play; a close up of Richard going solo; the “author” signing a book for Michael Fields (himself a fine musician) after the reading/musical program; and signing a book and chatting with Cynthia Beach Guthrie (who was there with her husband Dick, both fine writers, and Dick known to sing a song or two himself on occasion).

Going Solo Cover  Going Solo Back Cover

July 15 Book Launch 2   Old Capitol Books Music 9 (2)

Old Capitol Books Music 6  Old Capitol Books Music 2  Old Capitol Books Music 7

Old Capitol Books Music 4 (2)  July 15 Book Launch 3 (2)

July 15 Book Launch 4 (2)

I feel a good time was had by all; entertaining (I hope) stories got told (from Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958); and engaging music was made (songs with which people could connect; our friend Jane Haines wrote on Facebook: “The presentation was wonderful. I was floating after the opening lines. I stayed aloft, lifted by the words, the melodies, the beat. Thank you for a marvelous afternoon.”). And I even sold some books!

The Monterey Jazz Festival will celebrate its 60th anniversary soon (September 15-17) and, since the turn of the year, I have been involved in three projects leading up to that occasion. I was rehired to provide copy for 26 more JAZZBUS shelters–with only a month to complete my portion of the project: 100-word “histories” for each year, 1991-2017; but we got the job done and the new material is now up “around town.” I am pleased to have been a part of this great project (thanks again, Phil Wellman!)—each JAZZBUS and each stop, or shelter (with histories, classic photos, and a provision to listen to the music of a particular year), providing daily reminders to folks throughout the community that such a thing as “jazz” exists as a vital part of our lives.

Next: a good friend of mine (with whom I’ve been playing music and making videos; you can find one at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyGYDv67ToI), Bob Danziger, was asked to create videos that will introduce individual sets on the main stage throughout the weekend of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (The 60th anniversary celebration), and Bob asked me to assist as an “historical” consultant–which I did. Bob’s considerable talent—and his respect for the artists represented–will be displayed by way of six excellent, fully engaging videos. And THEN: Artistic Director Tim Jackson phoned and asked if I would write copy for two exhibits of 60 years of MJF posters and program covers (“Monterey at 60! A Visual Feast”), which I also did. One exhibit, at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, is on display now (Betty and I went to a reception Friday night, and that “show” looks good); the other will be up in what used to be the Coffee House Gallery, but is now the California Jazz Café.

Here are some photos from the JAZZBUS project I’ve posted before: yours truly beside one of the shelters, a shelter (1978) by itself, and one of Pablo Lobato’s brightly colored and handsomely designed buses. After those photos, a sampling of posters: from the Monterey Jazz Festival’s first year, 1958; Earl Newman’s scandalous 1964 poster (a bit of Festival folklore: in the book Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, I wrote: “Newman’s official poster featuring a stylized drawing of a saxophone player drew an X-rating from the mayor of Monterey, who asked shopkeepers to withdraw it from their windows. The three hundred posters that were printed immediately became collector’s items and the mayor was deemed by many to be a prude.”); Earl’s first trumpet on a chair (which would become a Festival icon) poster, 1967 (Earl’s hand-printed posters, of which he would provide a total of ten in the 1958-1979 era, would become synonymous with the Festival itself, defining these placards as works of art); Jerry Takagawa’s poster for the 50th anniversary in 1967; Pablo Lobato’s 2009 poster; a very striking 2013 poster (Phil Wellman/Maria Corte); and this year’s poster, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Jazz Bus Line  Jazz Bus Line 3

Jazz Bus Line 2

MJF Poster 1958  MJF Poster 1964  MJF Posters Newman First Chair

MJF Poster 50thMJF Posters 2009  MJF Poster

MJF-17-Poster_small4

The lineup of artists who will perform at the 60th anniversary event is extraordinary. To cite all of them would take pages, so I’m just going to put together a gallery of portraits (photos) of those I hope to see and hear. On Friday night, September 17: Herbie Hancock—who will open the Festival, and close out the weekend on Sunday night in a “Two Master/Two Pianos” performance with Chick Corea—which should be sensational (I have a copy of their 1978 Columbia acoustic piano double LP, recorded in San Francisco and San Diego, An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea in Concert) and to see and hear them–live!–together, now, should be a rare treat!

On Friday night, the great Kenny Barron (with Roy Hargrove, Sean Jones, and Perdito Martinez) will offer a “Tribute to Dizzy Gillespie at 100″ (I’ve had the blessing of hearing Kenny Barron play piano at MJF with artists such as Stan Getz and Regina Carter)—and, Regina Carter will perform in a “Simply Ella” homage (a tribute to you-know-who). (Photo Credits: NNDB, Radio Serenidad, The Mercury News, NPR)

Herbie Hancock  Chick-Corea

Kenny Barron  Regina Carter

Unfortunately, the weekend’s overall fare is so abundant, I am going to have to make some quick moves (not so easy at this age!) to take it all in—to also “catch,” on Friday evening: vocalist Roberta Gambarini and drummer Matt Wilson with his group Honey & Salt, out on the grounds. Saturday afternoon offers Monsieur Perine (“Global Fusion—South American style”) with Catalino Garcia’s “Sugar-sweet, sunshiny vocals at the center of their signature ‘swing a la Columbia’ style”; and Mr. Sipp (“The Mississippi Blues Child”). Pianist Joanne Brackeen performs out on the grounds—and my journalist buddy Dan Ouellette conducts a DownBeat Blindfold Test with saxophonist Tia Fuller. (Photo Credits: AllMusic, The Seattle Times, NBC News, Nashville Public Library, DR Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola).

Roberta Gambarini

The "7-Piece Sextet" performs on the Mainstage to wrap up the 2011 Centrum Jazz Port Townsend Festival.

Monsieur Perine

Mr. Sipp  Joanne Brackeen

Dan    Tia Fuller

Because of the amount of writing I’ve been doing for the 60th anniversary celebration coming up (just a week away now!), I did not attempt a full account (as I usually post on this blog each year) for the 2016 MJF—although I did post an account of sets by Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter. I had hoped to write about two exceptional vocalists I heard that year: Claudia Villela and Somi, but before I could get around to that, I received another “call” (this in the form of an email letter) asking me to contact Leonard Nelson (a Video Production Manager), who was at work on a “Festival Fun Facts” project that would acknowledge people (such as Bob Danziger) who’d created the previously mentioned videos to be shown (introducing individual artists)—and include, at the suggestion of Managing Director Colleen Bailey: slides related to festival trivia or amusing incidents.

I did call Leonard and we discussed what might be included, and I agreed to provide two sentence anecdotes, or verbal vignettes (incidents that have become part of MJF folklore)—and I had no trouble coming up with twenty-two such items. Leonard Nelson has already responded with three handsome samples of what will be shown at this year’s event. I will not “unveil” his fine work here, but I can post a few of my favorite “fun facts,” as I rendered them in words. They do represent another side of this great event—“behind the scene” stories folks may not be as familiar with as they are the music itself. Here are a few:

1. The MJF had acquired a fleet of Oldsmobiles as transportation for performers. When popular Sarah Vaughan, known as “Sassy,” came out of her hotel and saw one of these cars awaiting her, she said, “We do not ride in Oldsmobiles,” and officials had to search all over town for a stretch limo to take her to the fairgrounds.

2. 1967: The Festival audience was dancing in the aisles to Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin, who finishing her set, blew her nose on the Main Stage curtain, climbed into her blue Hillman Minx stuffed with junk food wrappers, and drove off to ultimate fame. [Thanks again, Rick Carroll, for that story.]

3. 1971: Herbie Hancock made his first solo appearance, but after 45 minutes of what he considered “noodling avant-garde,” Jimmy Lyons told stage manager Paul Vieregge to close the curtain—and when Hancock, well into his solo, opened his eyes, his audience was gone.

4. 1979: “The Night The Lights Went Out”: a major power failure on opening night left Dizzy Gillespie stranded on stage in the dark, until the audience lit matches and lighters, and Stan Getz strolled out to lend his mellow sound to “’Round Midnight.”

5. 1995: Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval was scheduled to play at the MJF, but took the wrong plane, to Monterey, Mexico—not California. He would make it safely in 1997, as part of Dave Grusin’s orchestra for West Side Story.

6. 2008: Jamie Cullum joined Kurt Elling on stage in Dizzy’s Den, and after singing “Say It (Over and Over Again)” together, they engaged in some playful banter, Cullum, who is quite short, alluding to a woman offering the phrase “Tall, dark, and handsome,” Elling responding, “I don’t believe she was talking of you.” Cullum: “I have a very high opinion of myself”: Elling: “That’s not something visible to the naked eye”; Cullum: “Small things come with big packages.”

I love continuity, continuance, unbroken and consistent existence, endurance, longevity—and the Monterey Jazz Festival has certainly provided that over the years. As I wrote in the Introduction to the two exhibits of posters: “Alongside sixty years of some of the greatest jazz the world has ever known, the Monterey Jazz Festival, on its 60th anniversary, intends to honor the posters which embody the spirit of the Festival as a whole: posters which represent all the great music and the complementary ‘scene’ that exists just outside the venues hosting the music.”

Continuity can be found by surprise on occasion. I recently heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (University of Michigan Press, 2004): Kei Akagi. He contacted me, after thirteen years, to let me know about his new CD, Kei Akagi Trio: Contrast & Form, his 14th album release as a leader, recorded with a “permanent trio based in Tokyo.” Akagi himself is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.

Here are: Kei Akagi at the piano, and the cover of the book Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (Photo Credit: UCI Music Department):

Kei Agaki           JJJ Cover

In my next blog post, I’d like to continue the theme of “More About Music,” and write about this recording, and three other CDs I have by Kei Akagi: Sound Circle: The Asian American Trio (with drummer Akira Tana and bassist Rufus Reid), Mirror Puzzle, and Playroom.

Until then: if I do not see you at the 60th anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival celebration, I’m sure I’ll want to tell you about what I heard and saw there, as best I can—and more than likely in a still-excited state of recent exposure. Long live the Monterey Jazz Festival!

The Worlds of Poetry–Part One

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

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

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

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

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

PERSIAN MINIATURES

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

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

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

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

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

persian-miniature      persian-miniatures-3

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

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

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

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

jack-spicer   city-lights-bookstore-1950s

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHOICES

I

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

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

II

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

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

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

carolyn-kizer   john-berryman

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

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

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

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

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

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

x-j-kennedy  stafford-and-me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Mikhail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence

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

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

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

Here are photos of Mikhail Bakhtin and his subject, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Photo credits: Memim.com; nndb.com):

bakhtin  dostoevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

physics-as-metaphor    ernest-becker-2

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

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

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

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

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

mandelstam  aphrodite-1

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

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

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

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

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

bakhtin-the-dialogic-imagination    bakhtin-rabelais

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

caryl-emerson  bakhtin-other-books

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

Such as my next blog!