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by Earle Hitchner, Best American Poetry guest blogger, Oct. 23-29, 2011 Religion as bluster and bullying: it's sad to see faith reduced to its basest denominators. The current, seemingly interminable brouhaha over contraception versus religion recalls a darker, denser time in recent American history and obfuscates what unpoliticized, unfettered faith... Continue reading
Posted Feb 29, 2012 at Ehitch2's blog
As Terence Winch, one of America's finest poets, reminded us, Patrick Kavanagh's two best-known, best-loved poems are "Raglan Road" and "A Christmas Childhood." Of the two, I still prefer "Raglan Road" as both a poem and a song. I like Van Morrison and the Chieftains' rendition of the song, but the best version I ever heard appears on Dick Gaughan's sadly out-of-print and/or hard-to-find solo album in 1976, "Kist O'Gold," on Bill Leader's old Trailer label. No one has a voice like Gaughan's. Here are the song lyrics of "Raglan Road": On Raglan Road on an August day I saw her first and knew That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue I saw the danger yet I walked along the enchanted way And I said, Let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge Of the deep ravine where can be seen the true worth of passion's pledge The queen of hearts still making tarts and I not making hay O I loved too much and by such, by such is happiness thrown away I gave her gifts of the mind, I gave her the secret sign that's known To the artist who has seen the true gods of sound and stone And word and tint, I did not stint for I gave her poems to say With her own name there and her long dark hair like clouds over fields of May On a quiet street where the old ghosts meet I see her walking now Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of day. Bravo, Terence, for bringing Kavanagh's poetic gifts back to us this holiday season. Earle Hitchner
First, buy, rent, or check out of your local library Sondheim! The Birthday Concert, a 116-minute DVD issued in 2010 that contains several stunning performances of songs chosen from musicals composed wholly or partly by Stephen Sondheim on a March 2010 night celebrating his 80th birthday at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Then buy or check out of the library Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim. It’s a coffeetable-size book without the dismissibility of a coffeetable book. It is fascinating and, to the surprise of no one who ever attended a Sondheim musical, well written. In it he offers this caveat: “Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.” That’s why I recommend Sondheim! The Birthday Concert. You’ll hear glorious music set to equally glorious lyrics. Together they form, within the milieu of musical theater, poetry. Sondheim, a brilliant wordsmith, is guided by this dictum: “Content dictates form; less is more; God is in the details—all in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.” The compactness, concision, and other lexical mastery of “The Road You Didn’t Take,” a song from Follies, and “Move On,” a song from Sunday in the Park with George, provide a teaching tool of the highest order for any composer, lyricist, poet, or other writer. Have these lyrics in your hands as you listen to and watch John McMartin, who was in the original Broadway production of Follies, perform that first song, which Sondheim describes as “a classroom example of subtextual writing” in Finishing the Hat. “I should add that the last two lines make me glow with self-satisfaction,” he adds. Why shouldn’t they? Every serious writer knows that feeling when it hits, when diction, syntax, and their interaction match the intent. There is no fat in these lyrics. None. And even without music, they unleash meanings and memories far beyond the spare or spartan. I wonder what Robert Frost, who died in 1963, eight years before Follies made its Broadway debut, would have thought of this song and its tip of a finished hat to his poem “The Road Not Taken”? “The Road You Didn’t Take” by Stephen Sondheim (from Follies) You're either a poet Or you're a lover, Or you're the famous Benjamin Stone. You take one road, You try one door, There isn't time for any more. One’s life consists of either/or. One has regrets, Which one forgets, And as the years go on, The road you didn't take Hardly comes to mind, Does it? The door you didn't try, Where could it have led? The choice you didn't make Never was defined, Was it? Dreams you didn't dare Are dead. Were they ever there? Who said? I don't remember, I don't remember At all … The books I'll never read Wouldn't change a thing, Would they? The girls I'll never know I'm too tired for. The lives I'll never lead Couldn't make me sing. Could they? Could they? Could they?... Continue reading
Posted Nov 4, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
[NOTE: The freakish pre-winter snowstorm of this past weekend shut down the power, heat, and computer in my Hudson Valley home in New York, and caused me to relocate to precipitation-light southern New Jersey in a hurry and thus to miss my last two guest blogger entries for the week of October 23-29. So here’s the first of the last two blog entries that I was working on. I’ll post the other soon. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. — Earle Hitchner] Literarily and musically, I tend to swim more in the runnels than in the mainstream. As poet Philip Larkin once admitted, “I feel very much the need to be on the periphery of things.” My private literary pantheon includes Bernard MacLaverty (especially his short-story collection A Time to Dance and his novels Lamb and Cal, which were made into excellent movies), Richard Yates (especially his short-story collections Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love, and his novels A Good School, The Easter Parade, and Revolutionary Road, despite its disappointing filmization), Andre Dubus (notably his novella Voices from the Moon and his short-story collection Separate Flights, containing “The Doctor,” a genre masterpiece), and poets Tim Dlugos (his long poem “G-9,” first published in The Paris Review and now in A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, is unforgettable), Piet Hein, Ciaran Carson (his poem “The Tag” in his collection Until Before After is monumental in its brevity), John Montague, Terence Winch, Louis De Paor, Philip Schultz (his poem “Failure” in his book of the same title is breathtaking), Wendy Cope (her verse is still not well known stateside), Dana Gioia (subject of my doctoral dissertation), and Charles Causley. My private musical pantheon is far harder to hint at here. But I am an ardent fan of jazz, owning 23 albums by pianist Steve Kuhn, whose music I cannot get enough of, and at least 20 albums featuring one of my musical heroes, the saxophone colossus himself, Sonny Rollins. I am also an admirer of classical, blues, R&B, soul, Cajun, zydeco, old-timey, bluegrass, and select rock, pop, and country. Among musicians I have interviewed are Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Peter Rowan, Joshua Redman, Alison Brown, Don Braden, Mark O'Connor, Natalie Merchant, and Sonny Rollins. And Irish traditional music, which I’ve been formally writing about since 1978, remains my fiercest passion. But I also relish other Celtic traditional music, including Scottish traditional music from what I regard as its last efflorescence in Scotland: the 1970s and 1980s. Groups such as Ossian (especially with Tony Cuffe as member), Silly Wizard, Kentigern (fine band too often overlooked), Alba, Tannahill Weavers (only with highland piper Alan MacLeod as member), Jock Tamson’s Bairns (first two albums only), the Fisher Family (Archie, Ray, and Cilla), and the delectably difficult-to-define Easy Club, and soloists such as Dick Gaughan, Dougie MacLean, Jean Redpath, Sheena Wellington, Hamish Moore, and Aly Bain (specifically Shetland), all have given me... Continue reading
Posted Nov 1, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
It’s sold out, but figure out a way to get in. Last night was so crushingly crowded that you could barely move in your seat—if you were lucky enough to find one. Standing room was several rows deep. A total stranger from Norman, Oklahoma, told me that he pleaded and wheedled until he was told yes, you can come in. What’s this all about? It’s “Other Voices New York City,” an extraordinary, maybe once-in-a-lifetime club showcase—sponsored by Culture Ireland (CEO Eugene Downes is an indefatigable marvel) and one of its many laudable initiatives, Imagine Ireland—of Irish and non-Irish musical and literary talents on Oct. 27 and 28 at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. The October 27 concert that I attended as a journalist-critic started at 7:15 and ended at 10:45 p.m. There were no breaks. Forget your loins. Gird your bladder. You won’t want to hit the restrooms during most of these performances. The cause was mighty: “Fighting Words.” It’s a creative-writing center and program co-founded in 2009 in Dublin, Ireland, by Roddy Doyle and Sean Love. Their mission is to help “students of all ages to develop their writing skills and to explore their love of writing. We provide storytelling field trips for primary-school groups, creative-writing workshops for secondary students, and seminars, workshops, and tutoring for adults. All tutoring is free.” The idea is to get people to discover the writer already lurking inside them. They see their words on screen or, in some cases, eventually in books. With the assistance and participation of “Fighting Words,” Ireland broke the Guinness Book of World Records for “most people to write a story”: 953. Now that’s co-authorship! Visit the website to learn more about this fresh, fun, and effective approach to inculcating a love of writing: Spread the word about “Fighting Words.” Masterminds behind the “Other Voices New York City” event were Philip King (he’s the creative force of the ten-year-old “Other Voices” music series filmed in St. James Church in Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland, and made available globally), Glen Hansard (known for the Irish rock band the Frames, he is the co-star of the movie Once and co-winner of an Oscar for best song from that movie), and Thomas Bartlett (a/k/a Doveman, he’s a brilliant pianist, composer, and arranger). Besides those three, who performed on harmonica (King), guitar, piano, and vocals (Hansard), and acoustic and electric keyboards and vocals (Bartlett), there were singer, songwriter, guitarist, fiddler, and banjoist Sam Amidon, singer and guitarist Martha Wainwright (daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, who died from cancer in January 2010), and, from Ireland, The National (Aaron and Bryce Dessner), Bell X1, the Lost Brothers, Jape, virtuosic traditional fiddlers Martin Hayes and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, and sean-nos (old-style) singer nonpareil Iarla O Lionaird (he sang in Irish with a full band last night). Every poetic and other literary reading on stage was spellbinding. From Horse Latitudes, his 2006 volume of verse, Armagh-born poet Paul Muldoon read “Bob Dylan at... Continue reading
Posted Oct 28, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
“Literature in a hurry”: that’s how Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), perhaps best known for his poem “Dover Beach,” once defined my profession, journalism. Arnold died in the city where John Lennon, who appears in my previous blog, was born: Liverpool. In his A Concise Treasury of Great Poems (my crumbling copy is a 12th edition paperback from 1966), anthologist Louis Untermeyer, who is no longer well remembered as a critic or poet, introduced Arnold’s most famous poem this way: “It has been said that Arnold’s verse is respected but no longer loved, that his social criticism is infrequently read, and that he is quoted only for a few phrases, such as ‘sweetness and light,’ and his definition of poetry as ‘a criticism of life.’ His poetic activity lasted less than ten years, yet Arnold did not underestimate his verse. It is ethical, earnest, and melancholy in tone. What was once considered to be its great virtue now seems to be its chief defect: its purposeful ‘high seriousness’ is muted by the low emotional pitch. But poetry is not all song; and here, for the most part, instead of singing, it searches.” Can you imagine the reaction to a graduate student making that remark in a course taught by a great Arnoldian and Victorian literature scholar, such as the late David DeLaura? I took a seminar, entitled “Arnold and Clough,” with DeLaura during my years (1974-1976) as a student in the Graduate English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. My future wife, Nancy, was also in that seminar, and her brilliance as a student and writer often cowed me into relative silence in class. (I called her “the machine” back then, and she is still my vast superior as a writer.) Though only mildly interested in Matthew Arnold, Arthur Clough, and Victorian literature (my passion was for post-WWII American literature, which made me something of an odd duckling in that swan-filled Penn pond), I loved the seminar because of DeLaura’s own passion. Like poet, critic, anthologist, librettist, and former NEA chairman Dana Gioia, who is the subject of the doctoral dissertation I’m now working on at Drew University, David DeLaura was one of the most articulate and knowledgeable men I’ve ever encountered. He was exceedingly supportive, considerate, generous, and gentle in his treatment of me and my classmates. He was, in short, a magnificent teacher. Even so, I had not thought of David DeLaura much in the intervening years until I read Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan. You may know Corrigan as the book critic heard on Terry Gross’s justly popular National Public Radio program Fresh Air. “I read for a living,” Corrigan notes in her book. She is a true bibliophile, as I suspect everyone who regularly visits the Best American Poetry blog is. Her radio commentaries on books are consistently sharp, smart, and, according to format, succinct. I enjoy them. Corrigan was also a student in Penn’s Graduate English Department, although I think we did not overlap... Continue reading
Posted Oct 27, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
John Lennon, the son of working class parents in Liverpool, recorded an answer. Dig out your copy of the John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band album from 1970 and listen to “Working Class Hero” on it. It’s a devastating track—spare, intense, chorally yet unpushily sarcastic—with just Lennon singing over an acoustic guitar. But there’s also an empathetic ache pulsing through his performance. Lennon had been caught in that life, the one he was raised in and learned with, the one he could never shake off or, perhaps, want to. If you’re a Green Day fan, as I am, also listen to their compelling rendition of Lennon’s song on Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur, a CD from 2007. Or just locate John Lennon’s and Green Day’s uncensored performances on YouTube. Here are the song lyrics, slightly expurgated in two spots to keep the propriety beasts at bay: As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small, By giving you no time instead of it all, ’Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all. A working class hero is something to be, A working class hero is something to be. They hurt you at home and they hit you at school, They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool, ’Till you’re so f—king crazy you can’t follow their rules. A working class hero is something to be, A working class hero is something to be. When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years, Then they expect you to pick a career, When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear. A working class hero is something to be, A working class hero is something to be. Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV, And you think you’re so clever and classless and free, But you’re still f—king peasants as far as I can see. A working class hero is something to be, A working class hero is something to be. There’s room at the top they are telling you still, But first you must learn how to smile as you kill, If you want to be like the folks on the hill. A working class hero is something to be, A working class hero is something to be. If you want to be a hero well just follow me, If you want to be a hero well just follow me. Even if Philip Levine, currently the Poet Laureate of the United States, never heard Lennon’s un-anthem about working class existence, he lived it. Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine saw his initially middle-class life slip into lower-class travail after his businessman father died with too little financial security set aside for his family. In his “short view” of Levine in Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, published in 2004, poet-critic Dana Gioia, who was raised in a tough working class neighborhood of Hawthorne, California, cites “the middle-class terror of becoming poor” as both... Continue reading
Posted Oct 26, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Trick and treat: The trick is to reach students in any effective way you can, including the treat of Homer Simpson or Basil Rathbone. You are obviously an effective teacher. Now I have to locate and hear Homer Simpson's recitation of "The Raven." I'll bet it's a hoot ... or caw ... or whatever sound a raven-manque might make inside Moe's Bar.
Hi, Terence, Thanks for directing readers to another Melville work of ongoing importance and, using that word of wide circulation in the 1960s, relevance. Now let me direct readers to Terence Winch's fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, includng his superb new volume of verse, FALLING OUT OF BED IN A ROOM WITH NO FLOOR. Just click on his name that appears in the column to the immediate left here. Given what I wrote about Melville's low self-esteem, I recommend Winch's villanelle "Against Low Self-Esteem" in his new book. Earle Hitchner
At the risk of annoying the apolitical or infuriating the politically antithetical, I admit I’m dismayed by all the brickbats hurled at the spreading Occupy Wall Street movement. The main accusations are that OWS, a nonviolent, nonsubsumable protest I find encouraging, is waging class warfare and lacks a coherent message or list of demands. What would Bartleby say to that? When I first read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” I let out a reflexive chuckle every time the titular character greeted his boss’s request to do work with this mild-mannered reply: “I would prefer not to.” At one point, Bartleby’s boss felt as if he had been “turned into a pillar of salt.” Such was his lot or, in keeping with Genesis 19.26, Lot’s wife. Then he “began to reason with him.” Uh-huh. How long do you think a boss today would reason with Bartleby? My guess is that security guards would have swooped down on him—“drop your pen and back away from your scrivening, sir”—and hustled him to the door before the word “prefer” lolled again from his “I would prefer not to” lips. One of the greatest American short stories ever written about work, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” was published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1853. By then, Herman Melville had been a bank clerk (starting at age 12), fur-cap store functionary, farmer (twice), country schoolteacher, and whaler deckhand. The best “day job” he ever had was a political appointment in 1866: deputy customs inspector in New York. At various times in his life Melville was broke or heavily in debt, unemployed (especially after the Panic of 1837, akin to our own Great Recession), disparaged by reviewers (especially for his 1852 book, Pierre), deemed crazy by some of his in-laws, and afflicted by rheumatism, sciatica, and faltering eyesight. “All my books are botches,” he noted despondently in a letter to his then better-known and more respected contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Job of jobs, Melville knew the world of work firsthand and usually failed at it. Would we call him, in the cruel parlance of today, “loser”? I would prefer not to. Melville died in 1891, by which time his foundering literary reputation had slowly begun to re-aright itself—in England. His home country would take longer to re-assess and re-appreciate his work properly. In fact, the resuscitation of his literary reputation in the United States started in earnest in 1919, the centennial of his birth. In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” re-read the coda that Melville wrote for the fictional boss to deliver. Based on a “vague report” of what possibly befell Bartleby, the following lines were surely inspired by Melville’s own multivocational miseries: “Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?” Bartleby, the precursor of... Continue reading
Posted Oct 24, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Oct 19, 2011