Podcast • August 31, 2017

Amiri Baraka: Ennobled by Coltrane

Amiri Baraka‘s death prompts me to repost a conversation we had about the music of John Coltrane, which inspired Baraka and ennobled the ambitions of his Black Arts movement. “Trane was our flag,” Baraka remembered ...

barakaAmiri Baraka‘s death prompts me to repost a conversation we had about the music of John Coltrane, which inspired Baraka and ennobled the ambitions of his Black Arts movement. “Trane was our flag,” Baraka remembered back in 2007. “We could feel what he was doing. We heard our own search and travail in the opening of ‘Giant Steps.'”

In the summer of 1957 the poet then known as Leroi Jones chanced to live over the Five Spot in Manhattan when Coltrane and Thelonius Monk had a five-month learning-by-doing gig on the Bowery. Willem de Kooning and Jack Kerouac were also among the listeners and drinkers at the Five Spot. Baraka told me he missed barely a session of the music that culminated in the Monk-Coltrane Carnegie Hall concert in November, 1957 — a Blue Note best-seller only after the Library of Congress unearthed the tapes in 2005. This was early, lyrical Coltrane, at the dawn of the civil-rights era — “the rebellion” in Baraka’s phrasing, then and ever — for which Coltrane became a sort of soundtrack. For Baraka, Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” planted a bomb inside the sentimentality of Richard Rodgers and “The Sound of Music.” The hostility in Baraka’s listening had softened a lot by 2007, but Coltrane was still perhaps his highest representation of black art with social traction. Baraka follows Coltrane to the yowling last recordings — Coltrane’s ultimate showdown with self and life — with a shudder of shared pain. But if that is what Coltrane wanted us to hear, serious devotees have no choice. “You have to listen to it.”

“Ironic thing is,” Baraka said, “when I was locked up in 1967 in the rebellion in Newark, I found I was listening all the time to Coltrane’s tunes. And then late one afternoon, the jailer came by — it was July 17, 1967 — and said ‘your man Coltrane died today.’ When I was locked up. That amazed me!”

This Week's Show •

Bob Dylan, The Poet

Bob Dylan, the poet, has been singing more than 50 years, but have you ever really stopped to listen to the words? Now that Dylan is a Nobel giant of literature, we asked Christopher Ricks, professor of English ...

Bob Dylan, the poet, has been singing more than 50 years, but have you ever really stopped to listen to the words? Now that Dylan is a Nobel giant of literature, we asked Christopher Ricks, professor of English at Boston University, for a line-by-line, close-reading of a few lyrical wonders.

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 First page of “Like A Rolling Stone” manuscript.

Listening to Dylan the poet, you hear many things: rural protest storyteller, Greenwich village freewheeler, king of rock surrealism. A people’s poet and songster (in the tradition of Robert Burns), a modernist beatnik (in the zone of Allen Ginsburg), a classic versifier (in the bardic tradition of Orpheus—that’s what Salman Rushdie says), and a prolific quoter and sampler (in the old, weird, American blues style, as Greil Marcus says). The novelist Francine Prose hears Arthur Rimbaud and Walt Whitman; the journalist Charlie Pierce hears gonzo journalism. Only Ricks would dare to compare Dylan to literary jumbos like Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Eliot.

Of course, Dylan is in a category of his own (not just because, unlike most writers, Dylan is heard through records, radio, and on stage); in fact, Ricks contends that Dylan the “greatest living user of the English language.”

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Here are some of our favorite annotations from Ricks:

Desolation Row

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown,

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Christopher Ricks: Hanging is lynching… Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if “selling postcards of the hanging” was only a surrealist sickness. No, no. It was the American way of life. It was quite central. So then you move into these things that are surrealist, all right. “Painting the passports brown.” Oh, that’s “painting the town red.” And the town is going to turn up a moment later in the song. So you’ve got this strange feeling that you often have in a dream, that there’s a word just below the surface, there’s some sort of link, there are strange things floating one into the other. Is the “blind commissioner” a commissioner who is blind, or a commissioner for the blind? It’s blind partly because you’re visualizing things. Sound wonderfully visualizes.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen

She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children

Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage

And never sat once at the head of the table

And didn’t even talk to the people at the table

Who just cleaned up all the food from the table

And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level

Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane

That sailed through the air and came down through the room

Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle

And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger

And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears

Ricks: Cain, as the first killer, turns up in many of Dylan’s songs. So the question is, when you sing a word like “cane,” it’s identical in sound with C-A-I-N. And when you have “table,” “table,” “table”—are you near Abel? Maybe not. But it’s a little bit of a coincidence. You’ve got cane. “Slain by a cane” reminds you: That was the first killing ever. So that you’ve got the primal curse of mankind on it!

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,

And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,

And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,

Oh, do they think could bury you?

With your pockets well protected at last,

And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,

And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,

Who could they get to carry you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,

Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,

Should I put them by your gate,

Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Ricks: This is like a huge, Petrarchan poem. It’s like four, six sonnets by Petrarch. Every one of which lists all the wonderful apparatus which surrounds a seductive woman. The seduction may be her very goodness, or it may be other things about her. The song overlaps terrifically with Swinburne’s poem “Dolores,” where Dolores is our lady of sorrows, “the sad-eyed lady of the lowlands.” … The refrain is a very great beauty with great dignity. It’s about “should I lead them by her gate? Or sad eyed lady, should I wait?” “Should I wait” is like Shakespeare’s sonnets, where the speaker in the sonnets is always saying “please, I’m perfectly happy to wait, happy to wait”—with a terrific edge of resentment—and this a song which understands resentment. That is, it’s not simply grateful to a woman who puts you through all of this with her this and her that, “with your, with your, with your…” Terrific song. Terrifying song, really.

dylan at the piano

If you want to learn more about Dylan’s time in Cambridge, read our own Zach Goldhammer’s piece on the ARTery.

Illustration: Susan Coyne; Photos: Ted Russell/Polaris, Hulton Archive/Getty Images. The audio above is a re-run, broadcast June 8, 2017. Listen to the original program at the Internet Archive here.

July 3, 2014

Updike in the Archives

  By Max Larkin As a companion to our show on John Updike — now gone five years and at the same time back with us thanks to our guest Adam Begley’s brilliant biography — we’re ...

Updike-header

 

By Max Larkin

As a companion to our show on John Updike — now gone five years and at the same time back with us thanks to our guest Adam Begley’s brilliant biography — we’re seeking the writer in the trail he left behind: the postcards he sent and his TV interviews, in the fan letters and the criticism.

He was a writer above all things, determined to generate three pages per workday. That adds up, over a fifty-year career, to a huge bibliography (see below).

Updike By the Numbers

67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography: 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction;

186 stories across 1,949 pages in the new Library of America edition;

2 Pulitzer Prizes, among many others;

an archive purchased for $3 million by Harvard University after his death;

and an 18 handicap at golf (his second-favorite pastime).

Updike was a writer and reader more prolific, maybe, than any ‘literary’ author now working — though we’re interested to hear where you see Updike’s habit, or his tone, today. But he was also a father and two times a husband. Adam Begley points out a moving moment from the 1982 documentary, What Makes Rabbit Run?, in which David Updike wrestles with being a writer’s son:

There are also the dozens of postcards and letters that Updike sent our host, Chris Lydon, as a longtime guest and friend of The Ten O’Clock News and The Connection. Best among the available meetings is a seven-minute interview Chris did with Updike on the beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, after Rabbit At Rest had won Updike his second Pulitzer in early 1991. Enjoy the hair, the feeling of the wind, and the good serious talk of death and what’s important:

The interview was seen from another angle, and recorded forever, in a watercolor painting done by a friend that hangs in our Beacon Hill office.

Updike watercolor

I didn’t know Updike, but I know that it was a term of art on The Connection to “pull an Uppy” — that is, to decline participation in a radio conversation more kindly and thoughtfully than most people accept. And the postcards testify to that genteelness in Updike, the kind of thing that made Nicholson Baker, himself a great New England transplant and the avidest fan, sent his hero a quote regarding Balzac from John Jay Chapman:

Your complete literary man writes all the time. It wakes him in the morning to write, it exercises him to write, it rests him to write. Writing is to him a visit from a friend, a cup of tea, a game of cards, a walk in the country, a warm bath, an after-dinner nap, a hot Scotch before bed, and the sleep that follows it. Your complete literary chap is a writing animal; and when he dies he leaves a cocoon as large as a haystack, in which every breath he has drawn is recorded in writing.

Lydon-+-Updike

Podcast • July 3, 2014

The John Updike Radio Files

We've discovered some old gems in our radio archives and sprinkled them through a conversation with John Updike's biographer, Adam Begley, for our show this week. Begley talks about Updike's Pennsylvania boyhood, his wives and lovers north of Boston, his children, his spiritual life, his voracious reading, his travels  — and how he created the most graceful prose of our time by cannibalizing all of it for his art.
Updike in the Archives

updike1950
We’ve discovered some old gems in our radio archives and sprinkled them through a conversation with John Updike’s biographer, Adam Begley, for our show this week.

Begley talks about Updike’s Pennsylvania boyhood, his wives and lovers north of Boston, his children, his spiritual life, his voracious reading, his travels  — and how he created the most graceful prose of our time by cannibalizing all of it for his art. Between lived experience and the pages of the New Yorker magazine, John Updike had the shortest digestive tract in the modern practice of serious literature, Begley says. How we miss him and wonder: what’s Updike thinking — as we did back in the day about the expanding universe, or Barack Obama on the rise, or the Red Sox in a pennant race? What would he say today about our obsession with our phones, or about the the jobless generation, or Google Glass?

Watch one of our favorite interviews with Updike, on the occasion of his second Pulitzer win in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest, from The Ten O’Clock News. What do you hear in that voice, and who has filled Updike’s shoes today?

Adam Begley sent us a Guardian list of his ten favorite Updike short stories. What are yours?

Five years ago, when HarperCollins approached me about writing a biography of John Updike, I would have classified myself as a moderate fan, thrilled by his supple, precise prose and respectful of his wide-ranging talent and effortless industry: every year a new Updike book! I admired many of his novels and most of his criticism; though aware of his poetry, I hadn’t read very much of it. It was apparent to me even then that Updike had earned himself an exalted place in the pantheon of 20th-century short story writers.

Now, after a thorough immersion in all things Updike, my admiration has spread and deepened. I’ve come to cherish many of his poems, and the large majority of his 23 novels. After countless hours in the archives, I’ve discovered Updike the helplessly prolific letter-writer, scattering literary jewels throughout a vast correspondence. But Updike’s stories – there are 186 of them in the two-volume Library of America edition – remain for me the chief glory of his collected works. His stated aim in his short fiction was “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and it’s an aim he achieved beautifully.

1. The Happiest I’ve Been (1958)

An Updike alter ego, John Nordholm, looks back in tender reminiscence to a time when he was a second-year student at university. He has been home for Christmas at his parents’ farm, and is leaving again. He’s eager to put his childhood behind him and at the same time desperate to preserve the past intact, to protect and cherish it. The tension between these two impulses supplies the emotional power here, as it does in many of the stories Updike wrote about Olinger, a lightly fictionalised version of his Pennsylvania hometown, Shillington. While writing this story, Updike later explained, he had “a sensation of breaking through, as if through a thin sheet of restraining glass, to material, to truth, previously locked up”.

2. Separating (1974)

A devastating story about the break-up of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, stand-ins for Updike and his first wife. It features a tragicomic last supper at which Richard, an unfaithful husband and flawed father, is supposed to inform his children that he and their mother are splitting up. At the end of the story, his eldest son asks him “why?” – which prompts an indelible final paragraph: “Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness … Richard had forgotten why.” Minutely autobiographical and gorgeously shaped, Separating is perhaps the world’s best (and worst) argument for writing about what you know.

3. A&P (1960)

Updike’s most widely anthologised story, about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. As Updike’s first wife pointed out, the teenage narrator’s voice (“In walks these three girls … “) is very Salinger – but the dazzlingly vivid detail and the quixotic romanticism are pure Updike.

4. A Sandstone Farmhouse (1990)

A sequel of sorts to his brilliant early novel Of the Farm (1965), as well as a memorial to his widowed mother who died in 1989 and is here is resurrected with unsentimental candour and evident affection. Updike filled the story with incidents snatched directly from her last six months, quoting her verbatim and giving the precise circumstances of her death by heart attack. An attempt to immortalise the most important person in his life, it was also, for him, a kind of therapy.

5. The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island (1960)

As the story’s comically long-winded title suggests, Updike here stitches together disparate elements, a daring collage construction. Among the many marvels, this striking description of how fiction writers condense and transform experience: “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.”

6. The Bulgarian Poetess (1964)

The first (and sweetest) of 20 stories featuring Henry Bech, another – this time rather unlikely – Updike alter ego. A New York Jewish writer, Bech is in some ways everything Updike was not: an anguished urban bachelor beset by writer’s block. But thanks to Bech, Updike was able to record in fiction an important part of his experience: the life of a professional author. In this story, Bech is travelling behind the Iron Curtain, as an ambassador of the arts, sponsored by the US government. (Updike did the same, the same year.)

7. Bech in Czech (1986)

Returning to eastern Europe decades later, our hero visits Kafka’s grave, meets a handful of dissidents, broods about the Holocaust, and suffers an attack of anxiety that is at once existential and postmodern: “More fervently than he was a Jew, Bech was a writer, a literary man, and in this dimension, too, he felt a cause for unease. He was a creature of the third person, a character. A character suffers from the fear that he will become boring to the author, who will simply let him drop.”

8. Problems (1975)

The problems in this very short and ostentatiously clever story are presented as questions on a maths test: “During the night, A, though sleeping with B, dreams of C … Problem: Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C?” The story, from a collection of the same title, is emblematic of the brief moment of guilty limbo between Updike’s first and second marriages, a period during which divorce and its discontents replaced adultery as his simplex theme.

9. Here Come the Maples (1976)

A bittersweet record of the court hearing that put an end to the Maples’ marriage. The 17th of 18 stories chronicling more than two decades of the couple’s quarrels and reconciliations, it’s a barely fictionalised yet artful retelling of Updike’s own experience in the divorce court. The concluding kiss is priceless.

10. My Father’s Tears (2005)

Like The Happiest I’ve Been, this is a story about a university student who’s come home for the holiday and is now leaving again. Updike was 26 when he wrote the first story, 73 when he wrote the second. There are fewer bravura moments in My Father’s Tears, less writerly zeal, and yet it achieves a quiet, sober intensity. The reason for the father’s tears? “I was going somewhere,” the son tells us, “and he was seeing me go.” Updike’s talent had mellowed and deepened; it certainly hadn’t diminished.

Also explore a little-read essay from last week’s subject David Foster Wallace on the late writings of the ‘phallocrat’ novelists (or Great Male Narcissists), with John Updike ranking first among them. Quoting feminist friends who read “a penis with a thesaurus,” Wallace wrote for a generation that received Updike more skeptically, and with less rapture. Which is the Updike you know? Where’s his place in 21st-century literature?

March 27, 2014

The Transcendentalist Ripple Effect

Check out a growing timeline of the Transcendentalist lives and legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in a tangled infographic above.      

Check out a growing timeline of the Transcendentalist lives and legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in a tangled infographic above.

 

 

 

March 26, 2014

Harold Bloom: “Emerson Speaks to Me”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immortality in American poetry and prose has never been in doubt. In his philosophy of self reliance, the “American Plato,” it is said, invented the American mind, and maybe the American religion ...

harold bloomRalph Waldo Emerson’s immortality in American poetry and prose has never been in doubt. In his philosophy of self reliance, the “American Plato,” it is said, invented the American mind, and maybe the American religion in this nation of sturdy believers. The keeper of the literary canon, Harold Bloom, calls Emerson a “living presence in our lives today.”

This podcast is a short excerpt from Emerson Redux, a full hour show on Ralph Waldo Emerson created in 2006.

 

March 26, 2014

Cornel West on Emerson’s Enduring Importance

Emerson is called the founder of the American religion, sometimes the American God, and surely he’s the voice of American individualism in “Self Reliance.” A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of ...

Emerson is called the founder of the American religion, sometimes the American God, and surely he’s the voice of American individualism in “Self Reliance.” A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within,” Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Cornel West, like Emerson, is a preacher with a national audience, and without a church. Emerson is his number one American writer, a soulful modern and a model public philosopher.

This podcast is a short excerpt from Emerson Redux, a full hour show on Ralph Waldo Emerson created in 2006.

March 26, 2014

A Walk in the Woods with Robert Richardson

This podcast is a short excerpt from Emerson Redux, a full hour show on Ralph Waldo Emerson created in 2006. We all half-know Emerson by the other writers he gathered around him in the American renaissance ...
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A replica of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond

This podcast is a short excerpt from Emerson Redux, a full hour show on Ralph Waldo Emerson created in 2006.

We all half-know Emerson by the other writers he gathered around him in the American renaissance of the 1840s and 1850s – Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Walt Whitman, and most especially Henry David Thoreau, who wrote his masterpiece as Emerson’s tenant on Walden Pond.

To get the feel of Emerson, who can be elusive on paper, I went out to Concord on a brilliant October afternoon with the great biographer Robert Richardson, in the wind-blown woods where Emerson took his walks with Thoreau. I asked Richardson to connect the dots –  nature, divinity, spirit, the very wind over our heads, and the voice of Emerson today.

March 18, 2014

The Transcendentalists Are Coming!, Again

This week on Open Source, revisiting the birthplace of the American mind. Five houses on three streets within a period of five years in Concord, Massachusetts launched American literature and poetry, the environmental movement, progressive politics, feminism, and new ideas about religion and education. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, and their friends and neighbors. Where is the center of the rebellious mind today and what is it saying?
Robert Richardson on Emerson's Apostasy
Harold Bloom: "Emerson Speaks to Me"
A Walk in the Woods with Robert Richardson
Cornel West on Emerson's Enduring Importance
The Transcendentalist Ripple Effect

This week on Open Source, we’re taking advantage of a sick-leave rerun to revisit the birthplace of the American mind a year after we first broadcast this show. The story of the Transcendentalists starts in five houses on three streets within a period of five years in Concord, Massachusetts. And it launched American literature and poetry, the environmental movement, progressive politics, feminism, and new ideas about religion and education. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, and their friends and neighbors. The Transcendentalists are coming. What is the legacy of this American renaissance? What do these thinkers mean to you?

The Transcendentalist Ripple Effect

Check out a growing timeline of the Transcendentalist lives and legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in the tangled graphic below (click here for full-size). Transcendentalists Big Bang-01

Podcast • January 30, 2014

The Infinite Boston Tour

David Foster Wallace’s biographer, D. T. Max , says Infinite Jest is the contemporary novel that has the best chance of being read fifty years from now. Sven Birkerts, a critic who knew Wallace, says the popularity ...

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David Foster Wallace’s biographer, D. T. Max , says Infinite Jest is the contemporary novel that has the best chance of being read fifty years from now. Sven Birkerts, a critic who knew Wallace, says the popularity of the book amounts to ”a whole generation saying, ‘We’re kind of crazy, but we’re also really smart. And D.F.W. is our man.'”

It may be a book of global significance, but today we explore the idea that Infinite Jest is fundamentally a Boston novel, that Infinite Jest is to Boston what Ulysses is to Dublin.

Last week the writer Bill Lattanzi led us on a tour of Infinite Boston, inspired partly by Bill Beutler’s website. The tour begins in the “seat of empire,” so to speak, Harvard Square — epicenter of the ivy-clad buildings, cobblestone streets, churches, libraries, museums, the ancient glory of Boston and New England — which is to say, everything that David Foster Wallace did not write about. We are looking at the Boston traversed by addicts, the homeless, the-down-on-their-luck. We stop at the Harvard Square Homeless Center and Cambridge City Hospital, and Wallace’s apartment on the Somerville edge of Inman Square. We walk his main drag, the stretch of Prospect Street connecting Inman and Central Square. We hop on the T moving across the Charles to Brighton, where Wallace spent time after leaving McLean Hospital and where he found some essential characters and atmosphere of Infinite Jest. As Bill says, we walk through “the Boston of Wallace’s imagination.”