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Tom Waits’ work started with a moon.

His very first song on his very first album is “Grapefruit Moon.” In the song, the title image, along with “one star,” is “shining, shining down on me.” It’s a lovesick ballad played slow on the piano. A pining song that’s that close to cliché. It teeters on the edge, almost sappy, almost silly, a song built around that lunar fruit that almost drips with saccharine.

It’s the first moon in a career of moons, and like a first crush, it’s clumsy and, in retrospect, maybe a little bit embarrassing. He wasn’t done, though. Waits has a thing for moons, and has been working on lyrical variations of this one metaphor for gong on 40 years.

Waits tops most lists of great living songwriters today. On March 14, he’s being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When critics talk about him, they talk about his voice and his use of odd instruments, his wide range and experimentation, his cult following and how he’s a musicians’ musician. They talk about his junkyard, Salvation Army aesthetic and his originality and theatrically and how his wife is the not-so-secret force behind his artistic originality.

And they talk about his 38-year career of lyrical genius.

In his long career, Waits has returned regularly to this image of the moon. It is, in many ways, central in Waits’ work. There are other common images and tropes across his corpus — Waits likes rain, and names of towns, people’s names and food to eat — but to me it’s the moons that stand out. Everything there is to say about Tom Waits’ work can be said about his metaphors for the moon.

There are 93 moons in Waits’ songs, according to the Tom Waits Library. 93 moons — it’s a lot of commitment to one image. A lot of work on one turn of phrase. Surveying them reveals a lot about his work, and also shows how one man has grown, artistically, writting this one metaphor and hanging in the skies of his songs again and again, but doing it better, as he gets older, and making it more interesting as he improves as an artist.

In his first album, 1973s’ “Closing Time,” the moon is pretty much the hackneyed, romantic rock in the sky it has been for bad poets for forever. Except that Waits really wants to describe the moon with a fruit metaphor. It’s almost like he went shopping with the moon on his mind. There’s the grapefruit moon and a bananna moon, both of which are shining in the sky. Then there’s the third moon, towards the end of the album, which the narrator sees the morning after a long night of pining for a lost love. It hangs there, in “Rosie,” “all up, full and big” along with “Apricot tips in an indigo sky.”

It’s not a bad line, but it does feel more than a little bit belabored.

Waits was in his James Taylor phase. Overly romantic, a sap singing ballads and mooning over girls named Martha or Melanie Jane. He croons lines such as:

And it’s you, and it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
Shoo-be-doo, ba-ba-da

.
And:

Lonely, lonely, lonely,
Lonely eyes, lonely face
Lonely, lonely in your place.

His moons, at first, are really not that sophisticated, not that complicated, not that lyrically interesting. Moons equal mooning, is about the whole of it.

Waits was interested, in those early years, in the work and the lifestyle of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski — down and out and bumming among the tramps, romanticizing winos, saying the city was jazz and the night, music. As is common with over-earnest young men trying to imitate the Beats, though, sometimes he sounded a little too much like John Denver. The Beat idea in these early works is both the limitation, and the inspiration Waits needed to imitate to push himself, artistically.

As he went on, in the next couple of albums, he tried to get away from that balladeer style, and went more into a full-out jazz-bum routine. When Rolling Stone wrote about Waits for the first time in ’75, they described him as he did his Kerouac act: “Looking like an emaciated Skid Row refugee in a rumpled black suit and undone greasy tie, he would do a wino shuffle to the microphone and open each set with the jazzy talker.” He created a musical world, Rolling Stone noted, of “muscatel moons and naugahyde bars, cruising Oldsmobiles and used car salesmen with Purina checkerboard slacks.”

His lyrics could be interesting, in this period. Could be creative. But there was also a lot of it that was too much an act. Too much trying too hard. And that shows in his moons. They’re all just not-quite clichés. Overstrained. Overwrought. Worked at too hard. They’re too close to the expected, and sound a bit like parodies of what a Beat on the street in night of Jazz might say.

“I thought I heard a saxophone / I’m drunk on the moon,” he sang in his second album, “The Heart of Saturday Night.”

The next year, in his next album, he comes to that image again in his song, “Better Off Without a Wife.” It’s an ode to “bachelorhoodism,” Waits said. He preformed the piece in ’75 with cigarette lit and a cloth cap cocked to the side, a growl in a voice that wasn’t there a few years before. He sang:

I like to sleep until the crack of noon
Midnight howlin’ at the moon
Goin’ out when I want to,
And comin’ home when I please.

His moon metaphors, in the early years, are just about atmosphere. There’s not a lot of craft to them, but Waits isn’t done yet, and the idea of this turn of phrase is lodged in his aesthetic craw, and he keeps working at it. Even before he grows out of this phase of romanticized drunks and Beat imitations, Waits starts to show some of the lyrical creativity he’s known for now.

Still working with the edible metaphors for moon, he gets past the fruit connection and creates something interesting in “Nighthawk Postcards,” a jazzy, spoken-word piece. He offers up “a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon / Rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky.” It’s overworked, this metaphor, but it’s also more interesting.

He goes on in the song (an “inebriated stroll”) to expand the metaphor in a deliciously weird ways. He sings: “I know I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m standing underneath a buttery moon / that’s all melted off to one side.”

He’s not done, either. In that one, extended riff, Waits works in two more moons. One is “a moon holdin’ water,” and the other is, “a Dracula moon in a black disguise.” In some preformances, too, Waits switched out his one edible metaphor for another lunar allusion, saying he’s “underneath kind of a stray dog moon in a tenderloin sky.”

He kept on that Beat imitation shtick for a while after that, perfecting it, but never breaking new ground. He was afraid, he later said, to push himself to do something more. Afraid to experiment and grow and change. It had worked in the past, so why not do it some more?

There’s a “bloodshot moon” and “now the moon’s risin’, ain’t no time to lose / Time to get down to drinkin’, tell the band to play the blues.” And that’s about as good as it gets, with those early Waits moons.

Waits is artistically aware enough, though, to know he can’t really just repeat his maudlin songs. He can’t recycle sappy moons that stand in for the emotional state of the narrator-bum. He doesn’t seem to know where else to go, with his moons, but he knows he can’t keep them coming like they have been. So he starts messing with them.

In “Small Change,” in ’76, which is really the pinnacle of this period of Waits’ career, where his work feels like it’s more than an imitation and he’s made the style his own, there are two more moons. Both of these though, show some awareness of what his moons have been doing in his songs. There’s a consciousness that he’s going to need to develop, and to do something more.

In “Tom Truabert’s Blues,” one of his best-known songs, Waits starts out by noting, “it ain’t what the moon did,” dismissing it’s influence, it’s romantic power.

That, he later told a journalist, was the first song he wrote where he felt he was “completely confident in the craft” of songwriting.

The other moon on the album is Waits first attempt to take this image that he keeps coming back to, and turn it upside down. Certainly a lot of artists, a lot of poets, have found themselves repeating lines and reusing images, and, wanting to grow, they make themselves a rule, like “no more moons.”

Waits does something different.

He doesn’t abandon the image, but starts to try to use it in another way. To not just use it and reuse it but, instead, subvert it. He keeps the image, but refutes and refuses the sap, the romantic cliche, committing himself to try something else.

“No, the moon ain’t romantic,” he sings, “it’s intimidating as hell.”

 

Waits frustration with the moon metaphors is maybe starting to show, at this point. There’s a frustration and an unhappiness with these hackneyed moons. Simple sappiness that’s “so maudlin it seems.” In ’77, Waits has a song where a woman drops her drawers and gives “the finger to the moon,” an act of aggression that doesn’t seem far from the artist’s own feelings of frustration at the limitations of his artistic power.

Waits is moonless, after that. The lunar metaphors wane out of his work.

For two albums, three, then four, there’s no moon. For three years, four, then five, the man doesn’t sing a single shining moon in the sky. He just avoids the metaphor altogether.

Then he meets his wife, Kathleen Brennan. They fell in love. She said yes. She had wanted to be a nun but he “saved her from the Lord.” She saved him from himself. And from his artistic stagnation.

She got him sober and got him to listen to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Captain Beefheart, Bertol Brecht and Georg Büchner. It was a revolution for his music. Radicalizing to his art. By ’83, Waits was experimenting, and pushing himself. He had the confidence to bust up his routines and his easy tropes. He had a newfound willingness to make music that was really original, take the risk to do something interesting, which is also the risk of failing horribly.

Waits said of his wife, she “pulverises me so that I don’t just write the same song over and over again.” He said, “A good woman will push you beyond your normal restricted safe area. My wife kind of pushed me out into traffic in a stroller … She’s much more adventurous than I am. She’s always trying to disrupt the whole thing and take it apart and put it back together with its tail in the wrong place.”

This is evident in what happens to Tom Waits’ moons: they’re not just subverted, after he marries Brennan, they’re perverted. They’re twisted, reshaped, made weird, reworked and hung hodge-podge in the sky.

In the first album after his marriage, “Swordfishtrombones,” Waits opens with a moon that isn’t even a moon, but just an empty spot in a scary sky.

“I plugged sixteen shells from a thirty-ought six,” Waits sings, the music a rattle and chug and scream, now, his voice now a distinctive gargling bark. “And a black crow snuck through a hole in the sky.”

 

By his next album, “Rain Dogs,” Waits was able to come back around to his moon metaphors with a deftness and originality only hinted at in his early work. He returns, in ’85 album, to his edible metaphors, but now he does it backwards. Instead of there being a bit of good-looking fruit hanging ripe in the sky, now it’s the moon that does the eating. In “9th and Hennepin,” “the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky.” It’s a startling image and a very different world.

Now, in the sky of Waits’ songs, even normal-appearing moons that might, in the past, have been purely romantic, are quickly shown to be different and downright abnormal.

“Outside another yellow moon,” starts one song on that album, with a line that seems like it connects directly back to the grapefruit allusion of 12 years before. Another one. A yellow one. Kind of like a bit of fruit. Except that now, newly experimental, he takes it apart, and does the moon differently.

“Another yellow moon,” Waits sings. “Has punched a hole in the nighttime.”

In his recent works, Waits has built whole weird worlds in his song. His imagination is gothic and grotesque, cousin to Flannery O’Conner and Cormac McCarthy, nephew to Irving Washington and Charles Brockdon Brown and the original, twisted versions of Brothers Grimm. He stages worlds of weirdness and evil, where

a man with missing fingers
plays a strange guitar
And the German dwarf
dances with the butcher’s son

as he sings in the first song on “Bone Machine” in ’92, giving the critics the character they always talk about when they talk about Tom Waits’ song.

In this world, where men are alienated by the ground on which they stand, he repeatedly comes back to images of abnormal moons, repeating the idea often enough that this image, by itself, seems to express the world Waits wants to express. He taps into the American gothic idea, where it’s not the strange things that frighten us, but the things that seemed normal.

“The moon is a cold chiseled dagger,” in “Black Wings,” in ’92, “And it’s sharp enough to draw blood from a stone.” In “Earth Died Screaming,” the same year,

There was thunder, there was lightning, then the stars went out
And the moon fell from the sky, it rained mackerel, it rained trout
And the great day of wrath has come, and here’s mud in your big red eye
And the poker’s in the fire and the locusts take the sky

In ’93, in the song “November,” there’s “a moon that’s the color of bone.” In ’99, on Mule Variations, “the moon is broken and the sky is cracked.” In ’02, on Blood Money, there’s a “Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood,” and in ’04, “The moon climbed up an empty sky,” in the song, “How’s it Going to End.”

Instead of overworking the orevewrought romantic moon, Waits plays with phrases that evoke terribleness and apocalypse. He’s working, to be sure, on one idea, but each of these is rendered simply. There’s a deftness and originality that’s really remarkable. These are moons one will remember.

This continues in his most recent album, Orphans. Waits puts freakish moons in freakish skies to preside over the world that it us. The moons have twisted faces — there’s something wrong with them — and he crafts moons which, by themselves, contain the contortedness of these songs.

He sings, for example, in “Jayne’s Blue Wish,” which is set to a lullaby tune:

The sky holds all our wishes
The dish ran away with the spoon
Chimney smoke ties the roofs to the sky
There’s a hole over head
but it’s only the moon.

He returns again, too, to the food allusions, but here, now, after years of working at this metaphor, Waits can turn this phrase without appearing to try at all, slipping the moon into the song, into the sky, and in a way that feels fresh and creative, and evocative without being overworked. In “Bottom of the World,” he sings:

Blackjack Ruby and Nimrod Cain
The moon’s the color of a coffee stain
Jesse Frank and Birdy Joe Hoaks
But who is the king of all these folks?
And I’m lost, and I’m lost
I’m lost at the bottom of the world
I’m handcuffed to the bishop and the barbershop liar
I’m lost at the bottom of the world

That might be my favorite of all his moons, since it’s such a simple way to put it, and seems so effortless, yet captures, too, the lunar shape and slightly sickly color, while, at the same time, rendering a mood. The moon is the color of a coffee stain, but one wouldn’t have seen it that way without Waits’ song.

I really like Waits’ horrible moons. Each one is different, twisted a new way, and interesting. What’s more impressive, though, is that, while Waits has worked with this one type of lunar metaphor from ’83s’ Swordfishtrombones to ’06s’ Orphans, he hasn’t he hasn’t simply been satisfied with it. It could have been the case that Waits just inverted the romantic use of the moon, made it horrible, and then did that to death, and nothing more.

But, with all this experimentation and twisting of the moon, Waits finds a freedom to sometimes just let the moon be the moon. That might actually be harder, artistically. To let well enough alone. To be subtle. To know when enough is enough.

Waits’ later work has plenty of moons that aren’t anything but moons. Starting with Mule Variations, he has these moons that are liberated from metaphors. On “The Low Side of the Road,” “The moon is red and you’re dancin’ real slow.” In Real Gone, which came out in ’04, the narrator “stood by the window until the moon came up.” And it just comes up. That’s all it does. In “The World Keeps Turning,” Waits has a totally literal moon that is “gold and silvery” “in the meadow” as “the world keeps turning,” and he has, in Blood Money, in ’02, a song where the “moon is yellow silver / On the things that summer brings,” implying, maybe, that it’s the moon that’s drunk, where, the first time he had the moon this color, it was the singer who, in a belabored metaphor, was “Drunk on the Moon” of this color.

Were this all that Waits did with his moons, he would well deserve his place atop the list of contemporary lyricists. Waits goes further though. He retakes the romantic moons of his youth, and works them back into the music. In “Night on Earth,” in ’92, Waits sings,

“When I was a boy, the moon was pearl
The sun a yellow gold.
When I was a man, the wind blew cold
The hills were upside down.

He reuses the sappy moons but, now, puts them in the context of the experience of characters in the song. Now, instead of just buying wholeheartedly into the idea of the romantic, the moons are used to show an entire experience, and he does it in a way that re-inscribes his developmental arc, from crooner’s moon to apocalyptic ones, back into the image of the moon. In “Big in Japan,” a song of crazed braggadocio, the singer shouts “I got the moon, I got the cheese / I got the whole damn nation on their knees.” The moon acts as this representation of “it all,” the “it all” that everyone wants, and risks everything for, but can’t ever quite get. In “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” from Black Rider, the phrase is used as a promise of everything. A promise against odds. A promise to fulfill every promise. It’s undercut, though, the other promises in the song:

I’ll shoot the moon right out of the sky
For you baby
I’ll be the flowers after you’re dead
For you baby

In “Green Grass,” on ’04s’ Real Gone, the narrator describes the moon as “on the rise,” but, since it’s sung from the point of view of the dead and buried, he goes on to beg, “Don’t say goodbye to me / Describe the sky to me,” making the moon at once just simple, just the moon, and, at the same time, something romantic, something to reach for and long for and pine over, and, wrapped up in that, and the distance between the one thing and the other, horrible too.

Maybe my favorite example of this last twist of the moon, where Waits works the metaphor both ways, romantic and horrible, is in the song “Dead and Lovely”:

She was a middle class girl
She was in over her head
She thought she would
stand up in the deep end

He had a bullet proof smile
He had money to burn
She thought she had the moon
in her pocket

But now she’s dead
She’s so dead
Forever dead and lovely now

I don’t know of a better way to put that: “she thought she had the moon in her pocket.” It’s heartbreaking, and sweet and sad. It’s also immediately memorable, and recognizable, so familiar and yet so new, too. It is a master touch, a perfect use of a metaphor moon, and shows how Waits has, for almost 40 years now, been working on these phrases. He puts so much into the idea of the moon. He says so much, with the moons he hangs in the skies of his songs.

There are 93 moons in his body of songs. Shining and falling and cracking. Aching and breaking and just there. Out of reach. In pockets. Tantalizing and drawing out obsessions, insanities, and expressions of the emotions that make up frail, frail humanity. Tom Waits has many, many moons.

The last one, the 93rd moon in his 38 years of work so far, is borrowed. It’s not his, originally, but one he found and repurposed and made his own. He takes it from Georg Büchner, the 19th century German writer. It comes on the third part of Waits’ latest album, Orphans, a spoken word piece about a small child, called, “Children’s Story.”

Once upon a time there was a poor child,
with no father and no mother
And everything was dead
And no one was left in the whole world
Everything was dead

And the child went on search, day and night
And since nobody was left on the earth,
he wanted to go up into the heavens
And the moon was looking at him so friendly
And when he finally got to the moon,
the moon was a piece of rotten wood

Isn’t this, though – this horrible little story that’s pretty much the worst bedtime story imaginable – also the story of growing up? The question isn’t what the moon is made of, but, as Waits found, I think, what one does with the material of the moon. Of course it’s rotten wood. Or green cheese. Or sappy and overly romantic metaphors. But can you make art with it? Can you make art with the rotten moon?

We have Waits’ answer.

Special thanks to Dorota Majzer for letting us use her wonderful photography! Find her Flickr here.

NOTE: In this new series, THEthe writers share their first experiences with poetry or discuss the first poems they ever loved.

~~~

My first sense of poetry was music, songs my mother told me taught me, as they say. My father loved to scream Milton at me, so my first memory of my father is: Hurled headlong flaming! Or Disemboweled (the word alone).

He also loved to say: Bah Humbug! Or Latin poems: Non amo te nec possum dicere quarere hoc tantum scio.

I do not like thee Doctor Fell–my mother read poetry to me at night and my father had the family recite Shakespeare: Be not afeard the isle is full of strange noises.

My father and my uncle the pianist were best friends in high school and they both loved to write poems. My uncle was often in the NY Times with a sonnet–my father would test us as violinists memorizing many pieces–Who dost defy the Omnipotent to arms–My father also did a good Tyger, Tyger.

Now it comes back to me a lot, my father screaming Lasciate ogni speranza you who enter here. Longer and longer passages I memorized and received money from a neighbor for Paul Revere. And I certainly knew Antony’s oration.

If you had memorized your concerto you could just practise with no music-stand and walk around the room and think. I knew the genius of music listening to my grandfather pray and sing at gigantic Brooklyn synagogues and his records.

Later I loved reciting The Waste Land–at least the part l knew by heart–and I set some of it to music composed (too Coplandy).

I hated school because the poems were terrible or Mrs Popper’s apothegms: Before you spread a rumor Put it through the three sieves–the golden sieve of truthfulness, the silver sieve of kindness, and the pearl sieve of necessity.

I did love speed in counting and multiplying and concentrating. I loved music and words together madrigals, Christmas carols. (We hid from our grandfather in case he saw my Mom singing and carolling delightedly. We felt such guilt I felt God would kill me when I played O Come All Ye Faithful.)

The history of my reading life (and I consider it a life, somewhat independent of my so-called “real” life) has been littered with strange and utterly intuitive encounters with what now seem, in retrospect, the very things I needed. And so, when I had just turned fourteen, and was well-built and morose, and spent long hours staring in moody silence at nothing in particular (perhaps a pimple), I came upon a poem by a dead French man (or maybe he was Polish, or a gypsy, or an alien come down from the stars) named Apollinaire. A cousin had left it on our kitchen table. She was “in college” and planning to be a nurse. She came back for it only at exam time– such was her disdain. By then, I had cached it away in my underwear drawer, and the pain of giving it back to this nurse pending was palpable. The book contained Apollinaire, and George Trakl and Rilke, and I think it was an anthology of 20th century European poetry, but that detail is lost. What caught me first, and last, and has stayed with me for 38 years is a poem by Apollinaire called Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge):

Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
Our loves flow too
Must it recall them so
Joy came to us always after pain

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

Facing each other hand in hand
Thus we will stand
While under our arms’ bridge
Our longing looks pass in a weary band

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

Love leaves us like this flowing stream
Love flows away
How slow life is and mild
And oh how hope can suddenly run wild

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

May the long days and the weeks go by
neither the past
Nor former loves return
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

I must describe the physical sensation this poem had on me. It was a hot and humid day, and the house was full of fans whirring, and flies buzzing, and no one was home. My mother and father were out shopping. My sister was with them. My brother was off somewhere putting hickies on the neck of his girlfriend. I lay on my bed, trying to find the cool spot on the pillow, sun burned, a little feverish, and goose bumps rose on my skin because I knew this poem was true. I did not know what the particular truth was, but there it was–in all its sad and whimsical, and undeniable glory–light, and yet heavy as a stone you have just plucked from the bottom of a river. What grabbed me was the way that, each time the refrain returned, everything had somehow changed, as if the laws of repetition led not to regularity, but had, instead, provided the pulse, the throb of what can never be fixed, made stable, made “whole.” I read it again, and on the second reading, I was even more excited. As is my habit, I just kept reading it until my mother yelled up the stairs for me to come down and help bring in the groceries. It was now as if I had a mistress upstairs, and everything in the universe was interfering with my hidden love. I knew I must behave myself, and the attempt to “behave” myself, triggered my mother’s intuition: “What’s wrong, Joseph? Are you sick?”

I guess I had that startled look, as if I had been caught at something (masturbation, grand theft auto, making moody faces in the mirror), I said: “I feel a little weird.” She said: “Lay down for a few hours. Don’t go in the pool. Rest up, Joseph.”

And so I had more time with the poem, all the time I wanted. I memorized it. I took it with me on my bike. I brought it with me down to the deserted train tracks glutted with chicory weed and Queen Ann’s lace, and old shoes, and used condoms. It seemed at home there. I waited for the Angelus to ring at six o’clock, from all the churches of Elizabeth, and I said the poem aloud. Poetic truth can not be pinned down, and I already knew that. It is a pulse under things– not the things themselves. Years later, when I spoke to my students about the use of refrain, I said it was all about “circular transformatives”– circling back to see how everything has changed, how the repetition gives a pulse to movement– not a stop, but a pulse. This is the power of song, and music. The return, if justified, creates rather than impedes suspense. I used this poem as an example, and I also used a song I first heard done by Johnny Cash called Long Black Veil:

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light.
I wasn’t there, but they all agreed that the slayer who ran
Looked a lot like me.

And she walks these hills in a long dark veil,
She visits my grave when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.

The judge said son, what’s your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life.
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife,

And she…

Every time the refrain returns, it has a new significance. This is the true value of repetition in a poem. So here’s my assignment: Write a poem with a refrain. Don’t just repeat it for the sake of refrain, but use it for its force of suspense. Listen to Long Black Veil, or read this wonderful poem by Apollinaire, and keep reading it until you soak in how the same words can have a slightly different, yet profound effect each time they return. Good luck.

Listen to Joe Weil’s album of original poetry and music, recorded with the help of Vic Ruggiero.

“Content dictates form.” “Less is more.” “God is in the details.”  These three statements sum up Stephen Sondheim’s artistic credo according to Finishing the Hat, whose title seems to establish a quizzical connection between writing lyrics and millinery. The first two criteria are the standard guidelines for modernist architecture of the twentieth century, so maybe the millinery metaphor is encapsulated in the third. Still, reading this book, I have trouble understanding Sondheim as the musical equivalent to either Mies van der Rohe or Elsa Schiaparelli. Perhaps it will all eventually become clear. Of two scheduled volumes dealing with his work in musical theater, this is the first, tracking his career from an early piece titled Saturday Night (1954) up to Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Highlights include Bernstein’s West Side Story, for which Sondheim supplied the lyrics only, as well as his best-known musicals (Gypsy, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd), which feature both his lyrics and his own musical score. We’re not given the complete book for each of the musicals, only their lyrics, prefaced by a summary of the dramatic context, and a brief narrative recounting the circumstances that led to the creation of the work under discussion. Sondheim has written a preface for the volume, plus a brief essay on rhyming as it is used for song-writing; and he makes dozens of insertions in the body of the text, commenting on the success or failure of particular songs.

He also adds a series of reflections on other lyricists of musical theater, restricting himself, however, to those no longer living. It’s a prudent choice, given that Sondheim isn’t a man to cloud the expression of his judgments with considerations like politeness or collegial complicity. Were his rivals still alive, they might want to take out a contract on him. Solely on the basis of the irony and satire characteristic of his musicals, you could have guessed that he wouldn’t fall all over himself to be kind. But the fact is he’s just as hard on himself, knocking single lines or entire songs of his own if they’ve come to seem pretentious or gawky to him.  A reviewer would have to work hard to give a worse account of Sondheim’s lyrics than their author does. By the same token, we wouldn’t expect any scholar of musical theater to make as many unflattering comments about it as you’ll find in Sondheim’s text.  In an era when “going negative” about any person, place, animal, or inanimate object is regarded as a career no-no, Sondheim’s approach strikes me as fresh and honest, a tactic well worth adopting.  It’s the tone of twentieth century New York, witty, sardonic, deflationary, and only seldom cornered into praising anything that actually exists.

The opening sentences of Sondheim’s preface establishes that he doesn’t consider himself a poet in the usual sense:

This book is a contradiction in terms. Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and to be sung as parts of a larger structure: musical comedy, musical play, revue—“musical” will suffice. Furthermore, almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written not just to be sung but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them life, is a dubious proposition. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort. In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music.

Sondheim’s insistence that his lyrics don’t have enormous interest or point separated from the dramatic context for which he wrote them is fair. On the other hand, how useful are the plot summaries and descriptions of the individual scenes provided in this volume?  The problem with this format is that dramatic plot and its sequence of scenes come to effective life only when performed. The summaries offered are tedious to read and don’t do a lot to animate the lyrics they attempt to contextualize.  That part of the audience already familiar with Sondheim’s musicals won’t need the summaries, of course, and it’s safe to say that the most enthusiastic readers of this book will be his existing fans (myself included), who will welcome the chance to linger over lyrics they’ve heard but not memorized. Precisely because of Sondheim’s preference for song-writing that is rooted in character, and a literary practice that prefers flatness and plainness to what is “poetic,” I doubt this collection by itself will win new converts.  To appreciate Sondheim the lyricist, you have to see (and hear) the musicals themselves, and you can begin get your feet wet by searching for him on YouTube.

Sondheim’s mind is more ad hoc and emotional than analytical and scholarly.  He doesn’t discuss the difference between meter in music and meter in poetry.  He doesn’t tell us that English-language poems after Chaucer were traditionally written in accentual-syllabic meter, whereas song lyrics manage with accentual meter alone, not restricting themselves to a regular syllable count.  How so? Well, because the note value in a given bar of music can divide itself into smaller units to accommodate extra syllables while maintaining the governing beat.  To add or subtract syllables in a metrical line of poetry, however, risks derailing the meter. It’s true that many hymns and songs are quite strictly accentual-syllabic, but popular song usually loosens the syllable count; and lyrics for musicals go still further in that direction.

Making his distinction between poems and lyrics, Sondheim oversimplifies the more general question of the relationship between words and music. A full discussion would require, first, some reflections on the fact that all classical Greek lyrics were sung to musical accompaniment (it’s the Greek lyre that gives us the word “lyric”), as well as Anglo-Saxon poems like Deor and Beowulf. If Sappho’s poems were sung, that should be sufficient refutation of the claim that musical lyrics can’t have all the qualities we expect in poems as such. There are also the wonderful sung poems in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Fear no more the heat o’the sun” and “Full fathom five thy father lies,” not to mention a number of subtle lyrics in Dryden’s dramatic works.  Bach’s Passions are interspersed with poetic arias of some verbal complexity; and if the King James Bible qualifies as poetry, then Handel’s arias and choruses in Messiah amount to great poetry set to music.  A few opera librettists composed arias worth reading without musical accompaniment: Lorenzo da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro), Arrigo Boïto (Otello and Falstaff), and Hugo von Hoffmanstal (Der Rosenkavalier).  Even Sondheim acknowledges the high quality of the arias in Auden’s and Kallman’s The Rake’s Progress. He also has unqualified praise for the lyrics Richard Wilbur wrote for Candide, and in fact Wilbur has collected some of those in his books.  (Digression: why have producers of new Broadway musicals mounted since Candide never again asked a professional poet to provide lyrics for them?)

The problem intensifies when we stop to consider that many poets, Auden among them, have used the title “Song” for some of their poems, even though no tune is provided.  What does it mean to call a poem without musical scoring a “song”?  Short answer: a “song” without musical accompaniment is a poem whose sound qualities hold more interest than the poem’s paraphrasable content.  I don’t know of any poem designated as a “song,” that is composed without meter and rhyme. For that matter, about 99% of all pop music rhymes, the rhyming skillful in varying degrees, with country music lyrics generally the best.  Meanwhile, Sondheim insists that lyrics in musical theater must rhyme, and that the rhymes must be perfect rhymes, not near or slant equivalents.  He doesn’t provide a justification of this requirement, and we assume the stricture is based on nothing more or less substantial than audience expectations and the conventions of the musical genre.  Somehow Sondheim’s not bothered by the contradiction between his insistence that, on one hand, lyrics must reflect the linguistic earmarks of the character singing them and, on the other, the fact that no one speaks in rhyme.  If you aren’t bothered by the non-naturalistic aspect of rhymes in solos, dialogue, and choruses, it’s odd to become incensed as Sondheim does when a character’s lyrics use long words and elaborate metaphors, features that he dismisses as falsely “poetic” and unsuitable for the actual dramatis personae of the work.

The truth is, rhyming belongs to the “entertainment” component in musical theater.  Rhymes entertain even when they don’t perform an important semantic or structural function.  They take us back to the childhood world of “Hickory, dickory dock” and “Row, row, row your boat,” of  “Jabberwocky” and Dr. Seuss.  Let’s acknowledge it in so many words: we like musical theater because it’s entertaining, not because it is profound. Sondheim comes close to saying as much when he comments that Othello is a richer play than Verdi’s Otello and that Shaw’s Pygmalion has more real content than My Fair Lady.  If richness and profundity are your primary goal, then you don’t devote your talents to musicals.  They have their moments of sadness and disappointment, but there is no tragic musical.  All right, but do musical comedies at least have some serious content? As with most artistic phenomena, it’s a question of degree.  Sondheim refers to theater historians who single out Showboat and Oklahoma! as first efforts to move the lightweight, unambitious form of musical theater current in the 1920s and 1930s toward an art with more content, one that could present and fill out characters of complexity and depth. He inscribes himself in this movement and insists that it is the source of his own practice, which should be understood as more serious than what the general run of authors of musicals offer. We can acknowledge the favorable comparison, but that doesn’t establish a magisterial degree of seriousness.  Sondheim is the greatest living auteur in musical theater, and his works certainly have more content than the bits of fluff that kept Broadway box offices busy in 1925. But they don’t have the complexity and depth that we discover in the best of his contemporaries who write for legitimate theater. That isn’t to say that his work is valueless.  No one wants to live seven days a week in the mode of the sublime or of tragic grandeur.  Popular art forms give us a break from tedium and spiritual pinnacles both, and why not?  We need them, but we should know what it is we need, and why.

To get some perspective, I’d like to extend this discussion and comment on the extremely high value that British critic Christopher Ricks assigns to Bob Dylan, whom he has named “the greatest living American poet.”  It’s a ranking that probably influenced the decision of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry’s editors to include Dylan’s lyrics (without musical scoring) in the fifth edition. This was a misguided choice. When we hear Dylan sing the lyrics he writes in his own sui generis voice, with the musical accompaniment he has worked out for them, our attention is fully engaged, and we may also feel that he is saying something important above and beyond the sonic appeal of the song.  But in print the lyrics don’t function as actual poems do, in fact, they often verge on a silliness hard to swallow when combined with Dylan’s default mode of condescension.  When we read them, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what the-devil they really mean, and the answer, my friend, isn’t blowin’ in the wind.   A gold chain is a fairly boring object when not adorning someone’s neck, and the same goes for pop lyrics outside their musical context.

The music theater rival that Sondheim dislikes the most is Noël Coward, whose lyrics he describes as too clever and brittle to inspire confidence and empathy. But what’s the point of applying standards belonging to late 20th-century America to works conceived for the British public of the 1920s and ’30s.  To appreciate works of art from earlier eras always requires a little archeological spadework. No one could enjoy a play by Racine or an opera by Wagner without a lot of preliminary study.  It’s precisely Coward’s overplus of wit and verbal acrobatics that makes his lyrics fun to read on the page, even though they might be distracting or hard to follow word by word when sung.  Coward was forthright enough to say he had “only a talent to amuse,” as though that talent were nothing at all.  Like one of his models, W.S. Gilbert, (whom Sondheim also dislikes intensely), Coward had considerable skill with meter and rhyme, and that’s another reason his lyrics are interesting when we encounter them through print alone.  Though I’m happy to be in the audience of Sondheim’s musicals, only a few of his lyrics repay a cold examination on the page: “I’m Still Here” (from Follies), “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music), some of the choruses from The Frogs, and the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from that work.  These engage us partly because Sondheim sometimes overcomes his resistance to being verbally clever and deploys a Cowardesque wit in the development of the lyrics. As for the other lyrics, though rather drab when shorn of musical accompaniment, they are effective in their dramatic setting, and none ever falls completely flat. They don’t succeed as poems, as Sondheim’s preface states; instead, they have a different ambition and use.

I’ve gone farther than the second mile in the negative direction, but I want to conclude by saying that I found this book compulsive reading.  Sondheim’s commentary on musical theater, as practiced by others and himself, is riveting and often has a relevance that extends to legitimate theater as well.  The narratives of the origin of his concepts for particular works are fascinating, along with the anecdotes he tells about developing them with his collaborators, a roster that includes the most celebrated talents in the musical theater of his time. His discussion of rival lyricists, though unforgiving, even so marks out a very clear artistic profile for each figure, altering in small ways or large our sense of their accomplishment.  The strangest omission in the book is a discussion of his role as composer.  We admire Sondheim not only for his theatrical ideas and his lyrics but also for the music, which is anything but routine or inept.  (He studied composition with Milton Babbit, and is familiar with musical classics of the past two centuries, as well as film scores by the likes of Korngold and Steiner. In fact, one of my favorite film scores is the one he wrote for Stavisky.)  Why doesn’t he discuss the compositional process in its relationship to theater?  How did his work as a lyricist change once he began composing scores for his musicals, and not just the words?  Sondheim never goes into these topics, but that means that he has room to do so in the second volume, which I will certainly want to read if it’s as informative as this one.  He may by then have mustered the courage, too, to weigh in on his living contemporaries, a critique that couldn’t fail to be gripping.  The chance to speak freely about, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works or Les Misérables would be well worth the price of hiring a bodyguard from Pinkerton and wearing a bullet-proof vest.  Assassination attempts would soon peter out, and Sondheim would be left center stage under a pink spot singing the now-classic standard from Follies, the wisecracking, subacid “I’m Still Here,” which begins, “Good times and bum times,/ I’ve seen them all, and, my dear,/ I’m still here.”

Musicians, jazz musicians, keep fake books–at least they used to–with all the chord changes as well as written-down alternatives they may want to try. Why don’t poets keep fake books? I know Thomas Lux has his own personal anthology of poems he likes or is interested in. It’s a great idea.

To make a good fake book,
1. Leave plenty of room in the margins to write notes.
2. Leave doodle space.
3. Keep the backs of the paper blank so you can write the poem out in your own hand, or write an answer to it, or a variation on it. When you write someone else’s poem out by hand, you get an entirely different relationship to the language–the line, word choice, etc.

Here’s another strange practice, but one that appeals to me as a sort of loopy scientist: Read a poem once silently. Close the book, take a pen or pencil and jot down the exact lines in your fake book (or what you think are the exact lines you remember). Even if it’s only an image, jot it down. Do this with every poem you encounter. Five months from now, see what it is you remembered: study it by mood, by words, by sound relationships. This is how your neural self stores immediate acts of language. It is a hand print of your own immediate memory. It will also show you how alliteration, repetition, and strong language are all mimetic devices. Look for a pattern to your memory. You will then have some idea what makes language immediately memorable to you, and you can use this knowledge for your work. Keep this in a note book. Don’t revisit the previous memory jottings until the five months are up. Read a poem a day, and do this. See what your mind misremembered or added to the text. I know a girl who remembered a line by Emily Dickinson: “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” She mis-remembered it as: “I like a look of agony because I know its you.” I loved it.

Once, in a kingdom called Catholic grammar school, I was made to memorize “The Raven” and The Song of Hiawatha.” I got up there and lost it. This is what I said (I spell Longfellow’s Indian place name wrongly on purpose):

By the shores of gitchee goomy,
Stood the noble Hiawatha
quoting from the other shore:
Only this and nothing more.

I spliced them, diced them, and mangled them. What I remembered flawlessly was the meter which is trochaic tetrameter. I screwed up. The kids laughed. The nun tried not to laugh, and then did. Later, when we were briefly alone, I said:

“Sister… did Poe steal from Longfellow.? They got the same sound.”
“Joseph, I wish your memory and your work ethic were on par with your perception. Poe did indeed imitate some of the effects of trochaic meter found in Longfellow. Mr. Poe could be somewhat of a thief.”

We remember rhythms and sounds because they are the verbal mold sets for imagery and words. Free verse has irregular molds and so it often relies on the imagery for its effects. Modern, written prose uses mimetic devices sparingly, unless it is trying to sell something. You will know when something is being sold because the sisters of repetition, and alliteration, and rhyme, and short sentences, and chiasmus, and rhetorical oration will come into play:

Buy bonds!
Where’s the beef?
If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.
Play it again, Sam!

The last line was never actually said in the movie. The whole culture misremembered it. We do not remember words or even language. We remember effect, usually rhythmic effects. This is why jingles, sound bytes, slogans, and commercials are so memorable (and so dangerous). By keeping a record of what you remember immediately, or misremember, you are keeping an “effect diary.” I like that. I think I am going to do it myself!

Many poets obsessed with the page turn against a poem the moment they are too aware of its effects. They do not recognize this as snobbery, as a prejudice. They don’t get on Gerard Manley Hopkins for it because they have been trained to think he is a great poet and would not dare to accuse him of overdoing the alliteration.

I always wanted a t shirt that said, “Rose, thou art sick!” I can’t imagine a more jolting, a more provocative start to a poem. It would be nice to advertise Blake.

So in class, I’d like to have a slogan-bot. A little machine that would spit out catch phrases, received ideas, slogans, and cliches, on a fairly constant basis, in the voice of that English lady in cars that have a GPS device–only with no priority of order. I would turn it on for five minutes every day and just let the students listen. It would seem comic. It would train the mind of a student to associate the sounds of sound bytes with incongruity and to be suspicious. Eventually, the student would be conditioned to have a sound byte detector, and to test language that nut shelled things. He or she would be trained to know the effects of slogans–not necessarily the slogans. That would be better. That would be training the ear. This would both teach cliche, and train the student to use effective sounds, but without simplistic thoughts.

PHOTO CREDIT: See some more amazing jazz-themed photos.

A.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share…

-Paul Simon

Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds….
-Vladimir Nabokov

To my wife Anne, without whose silence this book never would have been written.
-Philip K. Dick, dedication page from The Man in the High Castle

B. If you place two or more people in a lobby, they will produce words that string together discussions regarding recent changes in weather.  If you put one person in a lobby, he or she will hum a tune no one–not even he or she–knows, atonally and incessantly.

C. This is a cat named Silence.  He meows at the door as I write this.

Silence on "Silence" by John Cage

In the Brooklyn apartment where Silence lives, a man came to look at a room for rent.  The human tenants explained to the man about daily tasks.  “We all contribute,” one said, “when it comes to Silence.”

D. My grandfather tells the story of himself as a boy, talking in class.  “Schweig?” the teacher purportedly said, “SCHWEIG!”

E. Somebody in the lobby: “Did you know that ‘Silent’ is what your name means?”  Somebody in the lobby: “What are you writing about?”

“You are invisible,” the computer tells me.

John Cage

F.
(I have nothing to say

and I am saying it and that is

poetry as I need it.)

G. And there was the time when Charles Wright walked in, sat down and said, “Instead of workshop today, I am going to read from this,” and he held up a book whose cover said, SILENCE.  Charles opened the book and started speaking.

Before I post my regularly scheduled post, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I give you an excerpt from James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others.  He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase.  A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also.  He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and the salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white.  It was his wife.  She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something.  Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also.  But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.  There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.  He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.  If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude.  Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones.
Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

Today I thought I should add my secret voice to your evaluations.
Your intelligence may be genius, but remember as my mother said also always be nice.
A seventh grade teacher consoled me when I was teased:
You can always tell the genius by the enemies who surround him.
Try, though it’s impossible. See JA. Make no enemies.
Well, you’ll always have aesthetic enemies just by liking something “they don’t.”
But I’ve noticed even one personal enemy is too much in the tiny circle of Prospero’s Kabbalah.
You impress me and you’re so young, so you have I think one task: Go on! Keep working,
and keep your opinions growing widening and changing.
One day love Chatterton. The next day read Villon.
One month give up to Proust, one year give up to Kafka.
Pound’s big canon is correct: Be curious like a physical scientist (Aggazis for Pound).
Keep your work, throw nothing away, it might be the best you’ll do one day.
Don’t be arrogant with the stupid as I was accused and am.
See the dynamics of politics and art but without getting bitter.
Reject none of the great religions—read and memorize all sacred texts without belief.
Or keep them with you if must for certain periods.
Be interested in all the arts. That includes architecture, dance, painting, sculpture.
Read more than philosophers in philosophy.
But don’t make your poems be a vessel just of abstractions.
Exercise in real life, stay healthy, don’t take drugs, don’t drink like kids.
Read all the old magazines. Find a library that has them.
Know 1952 and 1852 as if they were 2010.
Have together in your mind the value of the concrete particular.
Make your work dazzle but not razzledazzle—make your being elegant and defended.
Read all of Shakespeare and the great commentaries—that doesn’t just mean Uncle Harold necessarily.
Learn languages. Each language is worth 500,000 or more.
When you learn a language, keep it up.
Translate a page every day.
I mean mistranslate a page every day and that will be a religious duty.
Don’t be a Rilke—practicing vulnerability.
Make it your business to read Marx AND Finnegans Wake.
Search out no great men—be a great man.
Don’t let emotional problems destroy you.
Don’t commit suicide obviously, and learn to scorn it but not the victim.
Don’t get married too young and if you have to write love poems, do.
Try writing 20 songs a year.
Try writing short stories. Read Kawabata.
Read everything that Meyer Schapiro footnotes.
Learn to travel and be one “on whom nothing is lost.”
Continue reading James even if others tell you they haven’t.
They will and they will have the subtlest teacher. Therefore,
read William and Henry and their father. Good luck,
David Shapiro in a Polonius-like mood.

I recommend playing all the videos at the same time.
[click to continue…]

With the creation of one of the high achievements of mankind, Twin Peaks, David Lynch made a world so ecstatic it demanded its own reality. I’ve been really thinking about Julee Cruise and Twin Peaks SO MUCH lately. What makes it so good? Where did this music come from? Who is Julee Cruise *really*!? Why is this music so appropriate after dark?

Lynch obviously takes a lot of cues from Kenneth Anger, particularly Anger’s bike films Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos. With these, Kenneth Anger added simple bubble gum pop songs over ritual cruelty and raw sexuality, (not only inventing music videos,) but also exposing basic desires as a violent, cold thing.

David Lynch uses Julee Cruise in his work the same way, but also in a new way. Lynch and Badalamenti wrote the songs that she recorded for the soundtrack, which are pretty much 60′s pop songs with a lot of 80′s dream-synth-wash. They use this heavy dream-style kitsch to provide emotional information outside of the acting and dialogue. Isn’t that what every soundtrack does? Ok, yes.

BUT It’s no secret that Twin Peaks is a world that is not our own. Most TV shows succeed by mirroring reality enough that we look for our own lives in them. Twin Peaks is the opposite. From the music, to James Hurley’s face, the black and white zig zag floor, the Twin Peaks feeling is so deep and uncanny, that when something happens in our day-to-day world that resonates with David Lynch’s world, well…I guess you make of it what you have to. Here’s all of this really densely in Blue Velvet:

So what happens in a world, our world, when we’ve gone through the looking glass, and come out and still wanted to say something true to our human concerns, but, like, to actually get up a do something serious as an “artist” is kind of a joke, (this is, after all, 50 years after Scorpio Rising, 30 yearrs since Ian Curtis died, and 20 Nirvana got signed to a major) ?

Maybe the people who are getting it right are the ones who don’t seem timeless at all is what I’ve come to understand. Maybe to deliver the absolute truth (don’t quibble) you have to go around a million galaxies (or so it appears) to get at the “real talk” of it. Ryan Trecartin comes to mind. His work is poetry-times-a-million.

I recently saw on TV that one of the farthest flung objects in outer space is a satellite containing almost a hundred languages detailing the instructions of our world to extraterrestrials. It gave me a good visual image of what I was kind of feeling. I guess sometimes you have to go that incomprehensibly out of this world to get an explanation for what the hell is going on, and how the hell we are actually feeling in 2010:

I really love this book.

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.

Ashbery:

…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?

PROFESSOR: Mary Ann, would you mind reading your poem aloud so that we can hear it in your own voice?

MARY ANN: Absolutely.  Ahem.

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
SHAFT!
Ya damn right!

Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
SHAFT!
Can you dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
SHAFT!
Right On!

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother
SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft.
THEN WE CAN DIG IT!

He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
JOHN SHAFT!

PROFESSOR: Thank you, Mary Ann.  Ok, class, let’s start with the things we like.  Then we’ll move on to the things we think could be improved.

[Long pause.]

AMERICAN STUDIES MAJOR [pensively]: I really appreciate how the poem argues with itself, even contradicts itself—“If I contradict myself,” it seems to echo Whitman, “I contradict myself.”  In fact, I find a lot of parallels between the chief persona in this poem and the Whitman/ Emerson/ Thoreau American Transcendentalist milieu, if you will.  This man, this John Shaft, I think we can all agree, would not exist without Emerson’s tenets so formidably outlined in “Self-Reliance,” am I right?  Am I right?  [Flashes a toothy white smile toward Romanticist.]

ROMANTICIST: [giggles]

[Modernist glares at Romanticist.]

SWAG (Studies in Women and Gender) MAJOR: I disagree.  I think the most provoking contradiction in this piece is when the speaker asserts that Shaft is a ‘bad mother.’  This bends all our preconceptions of male/female roles in a domestic space.  That is the main dialectic at work here, not the juxtaposition of popularity versus existential alienation.

MODERNIST: Really?  So you’re saying that one gender-bending line overshadows the obvious post-modern Prufrockian slant in the entire piece?  I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that when the speaker asserts that no one understands Shaft but his woman, the speaker is being ironic, using indirect discourse to suggest that this is what Shaft has to tell his woman to assuage her concerns regarding her insecurities as a lover.

ROMANTICIST: [gasps, incredulous]

[Modernist glares at her.]

SWAG MAJOR: Um…well, considering where the line comes in the piece…

ROMANTICIST: Well, I for one don’t think [air quotes] His Woman [air quotes] is [air quotes] insecure [air quotes] about her abilities as a [air quotes] lover [air quotes] at all!  I mean, Mary Ann says—

PROFESSOR: The speaker says….

ROMANTICIST: [air quotes] The speaker says [air quotes] that John is a bad mother—can’t we consider what this means in terms of what kind of man John really is?  Mother…mother-love…lover…bad mother/bad lover…bad mother lover…bad mother-fuc…

SWAG MAJOR [continuing]: …the line is clearly the poem’s volta—yes, I would say this is the crux of the entire poem.  And I think it’s unfair to assume that Shaft is the most secure lover just because he’s male.  I mean, if that were the case, why all the verbal overcompensation in the poem?

ROMANTICIST: Exactly.  That’s what I was [air quotes] saying [air quotes].

SYSTEMS ENGINEERING MAJOR [louder than necessary]: See, I read that line, line 13 differently; it seems to be street slang that is then cut off by the secondary voice—or voices—that bring the refrain in each quatrain, those responsible for the majusculated expostulation, “SHAFT!” and the like.  I feel quite strongly, given the way Mary Ann read her piece, that “mother” is part of a longer phrase that undergoes interruption by the voices of the refrain.  This is why it is absolutely imperative that this issue of punctuation be fixed, and the problem can be remedied quite easily by “mother” being followed by an em-dash.

CLASSICS MAJOR: I mean, I think we can all agree that it’s pretty obvious that the secondary voices interacting with the primary lyricist compose the chorus of the piece, yes?  I think Mary Ann need be praised for reinventing this age-old tradition in an entirely fresh way.

MARY ANN: Thank you.

PROFESSOR: Ok, before we move on, any last comments?

ROMANTICIST: Well, I just want to praise the quite visceral interjection we get in the end—[air quotes] “John!” [air quotes] Mary Ann—excuse me—[air quotes] the speaker [air quotes]—cries out.  [air quotes] “John Shaft!” [air quotes], as though, before, we the readers, as well as the populace of the poem, did not know this impervious persona—never really knew him—until this ultimate line, coming after the penultimate, which is also incredibly moving.  Who can possibly understand this [air quotes] “complicated man?” [air quotes]  [air quotes] “No one understands him but his woman.”  [air quotes] [Looks imploringly at Modernist.  Trembles.] No one!  [air quotes] [Weeps.]  [Flees classroom.]

[Long pause]

SLOW IRONIC HIPSTER GUY [to no one in particular]: Hey, ya know what?  I think I’ve—yeah, I’ve definitely heard this somewhere before….

On fourth of July, alone in my kitchen and the sound of distant fireworks. I drink cheap Merlot, watch the dark break and enter through the windows. I am all over the Internet, but would rather be all over someone else: a tangent. A tanager. Today, by the river I saw a scarlet tanager. Had only seen them in bird books before, and for a minute all doom lifted. my mood is so easily healed, and then so easily thrashed back against the shoal of its wounding: rocks, jetties. If there were a sea I would calm it with the palm of my hand, and walk across the waves.

But there is no sea

only its sound inside me.

Part the red Merlot! Open the wounds!

Every Easter we would watch Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the sea was jello I heard. They did that effect with jello. Oh me, Oh my… the sigh of an ancient night breaking and entering through my windows.

There is no sea, though I might wish one into being—a red sea, like the

Scarlett tanager.

We open. We close. A series of bivalves, of binaries. Zeros and ones painting the ceiling!

She once laughed because the sound of the word computer turned her on. Odd co-ordinates of language and sky.

I would kill to be the sound of someone’s thoughts, the color of their dreams. Part one. Part two.

It is the fourth, and the sound of the fireworks makes me think of Beethoven composing as the french approached the city of vienna, and he crossing out the name of Napoleon from the Eroica.

Do you bury your dead, Mr. Weil, or do you set them off as fire works?

The scarlet tanager was in the thickets by the river. I thought it was a cardinal at first, or some other red bird, and my eyes finally admitted it was a tanager. The first of my life, and maybe the last.

I draw the sun reversed: things at dusk. The glow of what has already faded. it’s sweet aftermath.

My Aunt Mary died on a day I was supposed to read at Yale, and I was heading back to Binghamton to hand in the grades: ninety miles an hour and tears. And I was supposed to go with a beautiful Polish woman from my church. All the way to Yale! And I thought how I would give anything to be in the living room late at night watching re-runs of Frazier, my aunt wheezing gently on the sofa, me on the floor, my head cradled in my arms. And Yale did not seem very important.

Oh but this bird? It may save my life, and if not my life, then some small part of me that is gone forever—

the sound. What sound does red make? It is color, and frequency, and it must have a sound.

I think of a young women with browned arms playing a ukulele. It is not very lyrical, or like a Scarlett tanager. I think of her often. Could she be my death? She is often morose just to try something different. No emotion has dropped like a mask to permanently fit her soft angelic face. She is singing: “There is a sea, whether you believe it or not. There is a sea Mr. Weil, Mr. Joe, my Joseph. I can not be the sea. I can be the young girl playing the ukulele! In the sun dress. Light splashes. Her finger nail polish is bright, easter egg blue.

But she is the sea, too, and the scarlet tanager, and the sound of the distant fireworks. She is Beethoven crossing out the name of the liberator turned tyrant.

I must claim my death. it is very likely a while from now—perhaps while I am down by the river. And it is dusk. And it is more than dusk. And I am scratchy, and morose. And I feel no one feeling me.

I’m don’t consider myself a comfortable elegist (is anyone?), but reading of Alexander McQueen’s death this morning forces me to take up the mantle. I’m not a huge fashion-buff, but I made the walk past the McQueen store on 14th Street a highlight of my daily commute when I worked in Chelsea. His clothes seemed to me wild and well-tailored in the English way. His suits would have fit beautifully in this show at the V&A in London a few years back; he’s one of the only contemporary designers who would have fit, I think; and I mean fit while also doing his own, completely contemporary thing. That show, by the way, was a revelation.

So, Mr McQueen, we are sad that you are not with us anymore. Here is a tribute, from the inimitable Stevie Nicks as she gets done up for a Rolling Stone photo shoot.

Godspeed.