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Daniel Brown
Baldwin, NY
Poet/Musicologist/IBM'er. Details at
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Hats off to Tovey, one of the two truly great writers on music (Rosen being the other) of the last century--at least in English, and, as Eliot said in calling Yeats the century's greatest poet, in any language, as far as I can tell.
This post is different from my preceding four. It's an excerpt from a book in progress. (If any publishers or agents would like to know more about the book, they can reach me via the contact page on my website.) The post is also longer than the others, so before you plunge in (if you do), I want to thank a couple of folks up front for the privilege and pleasure of guest-bogging on BAP this week: this blog's Managing Editor, Stacey Harwood-Lehman, for her kind encouragement and her help with the mechanics of posting; and--not to forget him--the person who invited me to post. This latter individual's prolificness, talent, and versatility moves me to an assertion that only sounds hyperbolic: Schubert is almost as unaccountable a phenomenon as David Lehman. ... Before I wanted to write poems, I wanted to write music: a calling for which I had, talent excepted, all the necessary equipment.  In the years since, I’ve asked myself more than once if I wouldn’t rather have composed, had I been able to, than written poetry (or at least what tries to be).  An answer that sometimes comes to mind takes the form of another question: wouldn’t anyone rather compose than write poetry? (Wagner looked forward every morning to sitting down at what he called “the incredible loom.”) But sometimes I’m fine with being a poet rather than a composer. On a good day, I can even feel fortunate that this is how things turned out. If there's a central reason why, it’s because writing poetry gives me the chance to choose a poem’s subject. In what follows, I’m going to assume that a poet who works with subjects carries around, in his head or on paper, a list of possible ones. I say “assume” advisedly. I’m personally acquainted with a subject-oriented poet—a good one—who not only doesn’t have such a list, but says he’s incapable of having one. He tells me that when he sits down to write, he has—in fact he needs to have—nothing whatsoever in mind (unless you count the knowledge that he’s sitting down to write). If he’s lucky, some words will emerge from this void. If he’s doubly lucky, a subject will emerge from these words. If he’s lucky cubed, he’ll find the subject worth pursuing—at which point he’ll have an incipient poem on, and in, his hands. But since I’ve also spoken with poets who do maintain a list of subjects…You’re looking at your list, trying to choose which subject to take up in your next poem. On what basis are you going to make this choice? Quite possibly on a basis one hesitates to even call a basis. I suspect I’m far from alone in tending to select, from my own list of prospective subjects, simply the most recently added one. This is the one, after all, that will be most freshly charged with the excitement of discovery. Or, in a move that’s almost as mindless, I might choose a... Continue reading
Posted Aug 16, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
When we think of counterpoint, we’re usually thinking of the "imitative" kind, where melodies (or bits of them) echo one another. This is certainly the kind most of us encounter first, when we learn as kids to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Frere Jacques” as a round. It’s also the kind we encounter most often: sometimes on a cell phone these days, whose ringtone may well be the opening of Bach’s Two-Part Invention in F. (Click on the "Play" symbol in the upper left of the score to hear it.) But there’s also a non-imitative kind of counterpoint, a kind where different (often very different) melodies are made to fit together. Maybe the most familiar example of this sort of counterpoint is also found in Bach: his setting of the “Wachet Auf” chorale (again, click on the the "Play" symbol to hear it), in which he overlays a stirring Lutheran hymn with an almost ostentatiously dissimilar melody–one of the all-time ear worms, as it happens–of his own invention. (Think this trick is simple? You try writing a tune-for-the-ages that has to work contrapuntally with an existing one.) My first encounter with non-imitative counterpoint was a revelation (not that I was old enough to have called it that). One day the director of our grade school chorus introduced us to a pretty little song called “Inch Worm” (music and lyrics by the great Frank [Guys and Dolls] Loesser: it's in his score for the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen). Our director divided the chorus in half, and taught one half the song's main melody ("Inch worm, inch worm...", sung by Danny Kaye in the clip) and the other half the song's haunting countermelody (which you hear first in the clip, sung by the class of children: “Two and two are four…” etc.). The sinuous combination of melody and countermelody still gives me the beauty-chills. It was only many years later that I realized Loesser’s full brilliance in contriving this counterpoint of differing melodies. The overall meter of the song is 3/4 (i.e., waltz tempo), into which the lyric of the main melody fits perfectly: “Inch worm __, inch worm __, measuring the marigolds...”. But the lyric of the countermelody doesn’t fit into 3/4, at least not comfortably; the meter leads to unnatural stresses: “Two and two ARE four __ , four and four ARE eight __ , eight and eight ARE sixteen, sixteen and sixTEEN are thirty two…”). But the lyric of the countermelody (along with the countermelody itself) works perfectly in 2/4 (alternating stressed with unstressed syllables): "Two and two are four __ , four and four are eight __ , eight and eight are sixteen, sixteen and sixteen are thirty-two…". Which is to say that this seemingly innocent ditty is not only polyphonic but polymetric! But here’s the real kicker: what is the lyric of the (2/4) countermelody talking about but measuring marigolds by multiples of two! The mind-boggling musico-verbal wit of this connection--a duplicity (not to... Continue reading
Posted Aug 15, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
In yesterday's post we saw Mozart focusing his Futurescope forty years forward, into the sound-world of Schubert. As it turns out, this gizmo had a range substantially greater still. If you're a nostalgist and/or a New Yorker old enough to remember Joe Franklin's long-running talk-show on WOR-TV, you might recall the show's theme song, "Twelfth Street Rag." (The first 40 seconds of this clip of the song are all you need to hear for present purposes, but feel free to follow this ear-worm further down memory lane.) As will be more than obvious, the gist of the song is a descending three-note figure repeated (and repeated) in syncopation over a four-square beat. I don't know where Mozart heard this number, but it clearly made a dent in him. The finale of his last string quartet, K. 590, is a brilliant mix of joie de vivre and contrapuntal complexity. This wasn't the Mozart piece that moved Beethoven to exclaim "Why can't I write music like that?", but it might as well have been. (The piece that drew these words from Beethoven was a wind quintet being played in the street outside his window.) I encourage you to hear, enjoy, and marvel at the whole K. 590 finale (which begins at 19:03 in this clip), but would call your attention here to the catchy little tune that ends the movement's first section (at 20:55 in the clip). If it makes you laugh out loud, you’re forgiven: the syncopated, dizzying repetitions of its descending three-note figure whisk us ahead a hundred years-plus to an age when "Twelfth Street Rag" and its ilk roamed the earth. (The bluesy alternation of major and minor chords beneath the repetitions of the figure is prescience squared.) Mozart himself knew he’d happened on a remarkable, and remarkably winning, thing in this tune--as shown by the fact that he works its three-note figure non-stop for almost the entire central “development” section of the movement (which goes from 21:07 to 21:50). This look-ahead to jazz had no precedent in Mozart (or anywhere else), and was not to be repeated by him. (Not that it had much time to be: K 590 was written only a year and half before his tragically untimely death at thirty-five in 1791.) But jazz did receive a return visit 30 years later--from Beethoven. His last piano sonata, the Opus 111 (1821-22), has only two movements rather than the customary three or four, but it’s safe to say that no one has ever felt shortchanged by the work. The second movement, in particular, is, to adopt a phrase sometimes applied to Schubert, of a “heavenly length:” a theme and variations, marked Adagio molto ("very slow"), that lasts at least fifteen minutes, and often a good deal more, in performance. (It starts at 9:22 in this clip.) While the movement’s glacial tempo never changes, things seem to speed up from variation to variation in the first few of them, as Beethoven packs the same capacious beats with... Continue reading
Posted Aug 14, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
I once heard a lecture by the late great critic and pianist (or, as he would have said, pianist and critic) Charles Rosen on two strands of Romanticism: a backward-looking "classicizing" one (exemplified by Mendelssohn and Brahms) and a forward-looking “advanced” one (exemplified by Schumann and Chopin–and later, of course, Wagner). In a Q & A period that followed, I asked Rosen where Schubert fit into this scheme. I was expecting Rosen to say that Schubert combined elements of both strands of Romanticism, but he surprised and intrigued me by suggesting that the case of Schubert was even more special still: that Schubert stood off to his own, inimitable side of the 'classicizing'/'advanced' dichotomy, though he was also the recipient of a direct, intravenous magic-drip from from Mozart. (I’d say Schubert’s early symphonies also indicate receipt of a healthy dose of Haydn–but then what composer of the time wasn’t hugely influenced by Haydn? Beethoven actually took composition lessons from Haydn for a while, but then dropped them, grumbling that the elder master had "nothing to teach me." Ironic, since Beethoven had already learned the better part--in a couple of senses--of what he knew about music from, if not Haydn's lessons, Haydn's works.) Rosen was surely onto something when he said that Schubert was Mozart-infused, but there’s at least one case in which the influence seems to run the other way. I’m thinking of a remarkable passage in the slow movement of the Mozart’s G Minor String Quintet. At the risk of telling you what you may well already know, the last three of Mozart’s four string quintets, in G minor, D major, and E-flat major respectively, are among his great works in any genre. (Not that his first string quintet, an early work in B-flat major, isn't considerable and--especially in its minuet--cherishable itself.) The slow movement of the G Minor (beginning at 16:23 in this clip) has its share of wonders, but one of them stands out, in its sheer unaccountability, not only in this quintet but in Mozart's work as a whole. At 18:49 in the clip, a theme enters whose simple, “oom-chuck” accompaniment and surpassing lyricism make it sound like an emissary from another world. The world in question is the future: in particular the province of it where Schubert lived. It’s as though Mozart saw what music would be forty years on, and demonstrated that he could not only envision it but produce an unbeatable example of it. (I'm not sure even Schubert could have conceived the impossibly beautiful echo with which Mozart dance-partners his theme at 19:03.) Having brought off this unparalleled bit of time-travel, Mozart returns his movement from the nineteenth century to the eighteenth as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (He may have visited the future, but apparently had no inclination to move there.) The late great critic Donald Tovey once accused Haydn, in an immortal phrase, of “impudent prophetic plagiarism.” (The bit Haydn had pilfered was a spot in Brahms.)... Continue reading
Posted Aug 13, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Beethoven was facing an especially tough compositional problem. He’d just brought off one of the most singular coups in music. The problem was how to repeat it. A little context: The third movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is that mischievous descendant of the minuet known as a scherzo (Italian for "joke"); the symphony's fourth movement is a rousing finale. This sequence of symphonic movements is entirely conventional (Haydn had patented it decades earlier). But in the course of the 5th's scherzo, some strangeness starts seeping in. The movement begins with a quiet theme, followed by a loud one whose da-da-da-DAH rhythm echoes the famous “fate” motive that opens the symphony. (This stentorian theme comes in at 0:21 in this clip.) In a typical scherzo, these themes would, after an intervening episode, be literally repeated. Sure enough, the quiet theme does return (at 3:14), but–the first hint that something unusual is up–after a few measures, Beethoven reorchestrates it (bowed notes become plucked ones). And when the loud theme returns as expected (at 3:35), it isn’t loud: it’s as quiet as the quiet theme–and also reorchestrated (stated not by the horns of its first appearance, but by more plucked notes in the strings ). As if these departures from the norm weren't peculiar enough, at the point where the movement should end, it doesn’t. It’s suspensively prolonged (starting at 4:46) by a sustained low note which is soon joined by wisps of the scherzo's "quiet" theme. Things are clearly hanging some sort of fire…until without warning a rapid build begins, a breathless crescendo that climaxes in the fortissimo opening theme–all golden trumpets and sun-resplendent C major–of the fourth movement (at–not that you could miss it–5:07). This glorious outburst, we realize in retrospect, is what Beethoven has been setting up with all the unwonted quiet that's been preceeding it. So far, so stupendous. We're now into the symphony’s final movement. This movement is in a classical finale's usual “sonata form.” An all-but-mandatory feature of a sonata-form movement is a return, part-way through, of its opening theme. And with this requirement comes Beethoven’s above-mentioned problem. After all, the original statement of the finale's opening theme was so stunning that its return will almost have to be a letdown. But what made this theme’s original statement so stunning? The suspensive buildup to it. Of course that buildup, being a feature of the preceding movement, is now history... Whereupon Beethoven issues one of the great “So what?”‘s in the history of the arts. If the buildup to the finale's opening theme was essential to that theme’s impact, then let's bring the buildup back! Let's just forklift the whole bleeping buildup out of third movement into the fourth! Which Beethoven goes ahead and does (at 8:39)--resulting in a return of the finale's opening theme (at 9:21) that has all the splendor of its original appearance. The boldness, even ruthlessness, of this solution reminds me of a method suggested, when all else fails, for dealing with a bottle... Continue reading
Posted Aug 12, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Up through my early twenties, my dream was to be a composer—a calling for which, talent to the side, I had all the equipment. In the years since, I’ve occasionally asked myself if I wouldn’t rather have composed, had I been able to, than written what purports to be poetry. An answer that comes to mind is, who wouldn’t? (Wagner looked forward every morning to sitting down at what he called “the incredible loom.”) But actually—and maybe I’m just consoling myself here—I’m fine with writing poetry rather than music. On a good day, in fact, I can feel downright fortunate that this is how things turned out. If there's a central reason why, it’s because writing poetry gives me the chance to choose a poem’s subject. (Frost once said that the whole trick to writing poetry is “knowing what to say”—rather as Bach once said that playing the clavier is simply a matter of “pushing down the right key at the right time.”) One way of choosing a subject for a poem is to ask what’s worth saying, forget poetry, to others. For an answer to this, you’ve but to consult the annals of this afternoon. What did you say to others? No doubt much of it was fairly utilitarian, but somewhere in the mix was…an anecdote? A bright idea (or at least your idea of one)? A diatribe? A description? A joke? Whichever of these may have cropped up, it was in at least one respect like a joke: it was too good—too interesting, moving, surprising, exciting, helpful (or, yes, funny)—to keep to yourself. It asked—even begged—to be shared. Anything that begs to be shared could be the subject of a poem. Not that it necessarily should be; deciding whether it should is a matter of assessing what’s important: not just in poetry but (and here’s where the poet may go beyond the composer) in life. Socrates, Google tells me, is the source of the old saw that an unexamined life is not worth living. If you were designing an exercise that promotes the examination of life, you couldn’t come up with a better one than choosing a subject for a poem. Making this choice calls upon a poet’s every evaluative faculty—intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, moral…is in fact a practicum in the examination of life. When I consider all that choosing a subject does for a poet, I can almost pity the poet who banishes subjects from his poems (not that such a poet needs anyone's pity, unless it’s for his difficulty in preventing the acclamation of the current herd from going to his head). In celebrating what a subject can do for the poet, I don’t want to lose sight of what it can do for the poem (aspects of which I discussed in the first three installments of this series). No one remaining in the room may believe this, but I’m far from immune to the pleasures of the subjectless poem. Some of these pleasures are unique to... Continue reading
Posted Sep 25, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Last I checked, human faculties include the ability to follow a thought, a story, or a description. The author of a poem without a subject withholds engagement with these faculties—withholds engagement, that is to say, with whole tracts of a reader’s humanity. Why a poet would want to do that? Because a poem without a subject is something new? (I’ll grant that it’s as new as Dada….) Because it reflects the randomness of experience? (But how much randomness survives our parsing of experience into the bins of a mental Dewey Decimal System?) Because it reflects the chaotic blizzard of bytes with which modern man is bombarded? (Here we have a descendant of the idea, which goes back to Eliot, that a difficult world demands difficult poetry. This idea might make sense to someone who believes, say, that a poem about boredom should be boring, but if you believe that, I suppose you'll be telling me next that there's such a thing as an objective correlative.) One can even imagine what might be called an evolutionary rationale for the subjectless poem: that subjects are something our mentality has gotten beyond—or at least ought to get beyond if we know our trans-human future when we envision it. I’m not saying this future will never come—I’d even be willing to say “how couldn’t it?”—but how are poets to occupy themselves in the billion-year interim? It’s not clear that even Ashbery, an emissary from the future if there ever was one, has gotten beyond subjects. If he has, why is “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” a poem that circles a subject par exellence, widely considered his signal achievement? Whatever a poet’s reason for writing poems without a subject, such poems are a deprivation not only for their reader but for their author. A subject requires decisions as to its treatment, and these decisions are among the most absorbing a poet can face. Should the poem show, or should it tell? Should it ornament? Digress? Without a subject, there’s nothing to show, or tell about, or ornament, or digress from. (You’d think writers of poems without subjects would have bored themselves to death long before they’ve killed off their readers.) And I haven’t even mentioned the most authorially rewarding decision of all regarding the subject of a poem: what that subject should be. Which will be my subject tomorrow. Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Some poets want every line in their poems to pop. And in their better efforts, most lines do: the poem goes off like a string of firecrackers. But if a poem is to make the earth move under a reader’s feet, even a cherry bomb is insufficient. What’s needed is a more seismic sort of power. And the source of such power that's readiest to hand is a subject. Consider this well-known poem by George Herbert: The Collar I struck the board, and cried, "No more; I will abroad! What? shall I ever sigh and pine? My lines and life are free, free as the road, Loose as the wind, as large as store. Shall I be still in suit? Have I no harvest but a thorn To let me blood, and not restore What I have lost with cordial fruit? Sure there was wine Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn Before my tears did drown it. Is the year only lost to me? Have I no bays to crown it, No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted? All wasted? Not so, my heart; but there is fruit, And thou hast hands. Recover all thy sigh-blown age On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage, Thy rope of sands, Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee Good cable, to enforce and draw, And be thy law, While thou didst wink and wouldst not see. Away! take heed; I will abroad. Call in thy death's-head there; tie up thy fears; He that forbears To suit and serve his need Deserves his load." But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild At every word, Methought I heard one calling, Child! And I replied My Lord. For most of its length, this poem is about what the speaker sees as the oppressive yoke of moral (mainly religious) stricture. Although it's replete with local strokes of imagery, language, and music, these are all delivered in the service of an extended rant that grows ever more “wild.” But then the poem's fast-freight momentum piles into its closing lines, where it’s converted to a momentous acquiescence in the will of God. These lines aren’t remarkable in themselves (their modesty is diametric to the tenor of another kind of ending, one represented by, say, “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea”), but their force is overwhelming. The coup of “The Collar’s” ending is, like any artistic triumph, unrepeatable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not instructive. In pondering it, I find myself thinking of a golf swing. Even the strongest hands can’t drive a ball 300 yards. The power for that comes, rather, from the large muscles of the legs, back, and torso, which transmit it through the levers of the arms and the hinges of the wrists to a particular dimple on the back of the ball. Without the “large muscle” of a subject, a poem can only hit so hard. Continue reading
Posted Sep 23, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I began yesterday with some quotes from Frost's essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Here's another, in which Frost imagines a self-indictment from what he sees as a misguided school of poets: “We bring up as aberrationists, giving way to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper.” For all that this was written seventy five ago, it may call to mind any number of poets currently in the throes. Some of them might enlist their “undirected associations” in the cause of radicalism, but how truly radical is a poetics that Milton’s Satan might have formulated as “Lousy, be thou my good?” “Theme alone,” Frost continues, “can steady us down.” A poem can have a salutary, even necessary “wildness,” he says, but can have as well—and this he calls one of poetry’s mysteries—“a subject that shall be fulfilled.” The “steadying down” of a poem by a subject can be pursued to the point of near-stasis. And yet the result may be hugely, if quietly, dynamic. For an instance of this mystery, I’ll stay a bit longer with Frost (who once penned, in the margin of a draft, the self-injunction “quieter”): Neither Out Far Nor In Deep. The people along the shore All turn and look one way. They turn their back on the land. They look at the sea all day. As long as it takes to pass A ship keeps raising its hull; The wetter ground like glass Reflects a standing gull. The land may vary more; But wherever the truth may be— The water comes ashore, And the people look at the sea. They cannot look out far, They cannot look in deep, But when was that ever a bar To any watch they keep? This poem gets by with mostly monosyllables, employed mostly in simple, declarative sentences. This stripped-down aspect contributes to the poem’s effectiveness: the bare, repetitive periods induce a kind of mesmeric hold. But there would be no effectiveness—in fact no poem—without the sub-surface thrumming of a subject. To say this subject is something like “humanity’s hopeless yet incorrigible search for meaning” is unfair to the poem’s subtlety and indirection, but for purposes of explication I see no way around it. Like a dynamo in the basement, this subject sends its charge up into the poem’s particulars. Even the second stanza's superb visuals, whose role might seem to be exclusively scenic, are informed by its master concern. The intermittent visibility of the ship’s hull suggests the impossibility of looking “out far;” the reflective glassiness of the “wetter” ground suggests the impossibility of looking “in deep.” Not for an instant does the poem lose its conceptual focus—a clear sign that it has a concept to focus on. Continue reading
Posted Sep 22, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
If you’ve read only one piece of Frost’s prose, it’s probably his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.” And if you remember only one thing about it, it’s probably that it’s studded with indelible metaphors (all right, similes): that poets don’t come by knowledge systematically, as scholars do, but rather pick up bits of it like the sticking of “burrs when they walk in the fields;” that a poem’s meaning should unfold as it’s being written the way “a piece of ice on a hot stove…ride[s] its own melting;” that even if you read such a poem a hundred times, it will retain its freshness of surprise forever, “as a metal keeps its fragrance” (this last sometimes seen with the catastrophic misprint of “petal” instead of “metal”). This essay is also where Frost famously says that the clarification at the end of such a poem will not be a great one “such as sects and cults are founded on,” but “a momentary stay against confusion.” (As well-stocked with gems as the piece is, it's not entirely free of the borderline asininity that can mar the prose—and sometimes the poetry—of Frost as self-anointed sage: the tone of someone settling the world from his bar—or milking—stool.) I’ve been quoting from the main portion of Frost’s essay, one whose principal business is a paean to the poem as “a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.” But this poriton is preceded by an opening foray that’s less often remembered: in part because it's less memorable, but also, perhaps, because its burden is sterner. It's mostly about the importance of subjects in poetry. Its key stretch begins with the serious crack that “the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other,” and that “the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, metre are not enough. We need the help of context—meaning—subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety.” This need leaves us “back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say.” A view of subject matter as fundamental to poetry might be resisted, if not dismissed, by the growing number of poets whose discontinuities Stephen Burt was the first to term “elliptical.” The approach of these poets can seem innately inhospitable to subjects. And in fact you can read any number of their poems without finding one in which a subject provides Frost’s “help of context.” I think this is unfortunate. I think there’s a lot—still—to be said for subjects in poetry, and I’m going to devote my week on this blog to trying to find some ways of saying it. Continue reading
Posted Sep 21, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Sep 19, 2014