Podcast • September 7, 2017

Let Us Now Praise John Ashbery

John Ashbery seemed to lower, not raise, his voice when he spoke his poems. “Hammer and tongs, as it were, tended to drive ideas and meanings away,” he thought.  “They only come back in when ...

John Ashbery seemed to lower, not raise, his voice when he spoke his poems. “Hammer and tongs, as it were, tended to drive ideas and meanings away,” he thought.  “They only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat will rub against your leg.” One of his innumerable tricks was that “who, me?” question in his poems, as if to ask: “Why not you?” John Ashbery had the most imitated voice in American poetry through the second half of the 20th Century. What’s obscure in hindsight is the tag of obscurity on his work. Slippery, shape-shifting, elliptical–for sure. But clearly now: soulful, musical, funny, conversational and beautiful.  Just life, just poetry, he’d have said.  

Frontispiece for Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror shot by Richard Avedon

The poem is you, John Ashbery says, but our guard stays up. Ashbery is a by-word for difficulty, at least puzzlement in contemporary poetry—off limits, almost by definition. So our first question is: am I ready for this? Must we do poetry push-ups, or or take a course, first? Steph Burt says emphatically: No! Spoken with the authority of Harvard’s chief critic and guide to contemporary poetry:

In Ashbury you almost never need to get the joke or get the reference. There is not one right answer; there are multiple answers. There is not a consistent situation where you need to decode the poem and realize that actually it’s about Spiro Agnew or actually it’s about this event in Scotland in 1750. The poem is supposed to slip away from you no matter where you start.

The name John Ashbery will stand not only for poems but for a long era and an aesthetic sensibility touching all the arts. He had really intended to be a painter, he said, until he discovered that poetry was easier. After college, his first real job was writing reviews of the Paris art scene in the 1950s. He knew everything about music, old and new, serious and pop; and became a connoisseur of art films, and even wrote one. The avant-garde film-maker Guy Maddin, now teaching at Harvard, told us this week about Ashbery leaping into a project with him, to compose a new monolog for an old movie title from the 1930s, “How to Take a Bath.”

Screenshot from Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (2015)

Elsewhere Ashbery said that his writing was not made for analysis; it is analogous, he said, to “an immersive experience like bathing.” So Ashbery was drawn to film, and filmmakers to him. Jim Jarmusch, for example: a hero of the independents since the 80s for movies like Stranger than Paradise, and Coffee and Cigarettes and last year for Paterson, about a working-class poet in the New Jersey hometown of medical doc and poet William Carlos Williams. Jim Jarmusch celebrated his Ashbery connection with us this week.

                                       

The flood tide of Ashbery imitations, and parodies, must have passed before the poet’s death last weekend, at 90. But young poets just finding their voices are still finding Ashbery inescapable and influential. Rickey Laurentiis is one of them: 28 years old, born in New Orleans, African-American, now living in New York.  In an essay recently, Laurentiis asked: “If a black poet opens a book of Ashbery in a forest, will anyone believe him? Where do I fit in these traditions?”

 

He spoke to us on the phone this week of Ashbery as an “acquired taste” — one he has learned love. One of his favorite Ashbery poems, How to Continue, ends with this exquisitely poignant stanza:

And when it became time to go
they none of them would leave without the other
for they said we are all one here
and if one of us goes the other will not go
and the wind whispered it to the stars
the people all got up to go
and looked back on love
Finally, we’re joined live by two of our favorite poets, Adam Fitzgerald and Eileen Myles, who were both deeply and personally influenced by Ashbery’s life and work.

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.

August 30, 2016

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

In the time of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, the poet Claudia Rankine has been the lyric teller of our deepest hurt. Her new book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was a best-seller and something of a lifeline this year, ...

In the time of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, the poet Claudia Rankine has been the lyric teller of our deepest hurt. Her new book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was a best-seller and something of a lifeline this year, mapping America’s racial traumas — from the Katrina travesty (2005) to the death of Trayvon Martin (2012) and the now-and-then travails of Serena Williams.

Rankine says that American life is made of these moments when race gets us “by the throat.” Only some are nationally noted tragedies. The rest: millions of episodes between friends and loved ones, errors of human interaction, when “citizens” of different races trip up, and damage each other, typically without realizing it.

She calls them microaggressions. An example:

A friend tells you he has seen a photograph of you on the Internet and he wants to know why you look so angry. You and the photographer chose the photograph he refers to because you both decided it looked the most relaxed. Do you look angry? You wouldn’t have said so. Obviously this unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable, and he needs you to account for that.

If you were smiling, what would that tell him about your composure in his imagination?

Screenshot 2015-07-13 17.35.02

We had gathered a poets’ panel in Chris Lydon’s living room led by Harvard’s Stephen Burt earlier this year, and the conversation about Citizen took over. Burt and company were ready to compare Rankine’s poetry to The Wasteland or Howl, and they marveled over Citizen’s Whitmanian multitudes: elegiac verse, poetic prose that reads as diary or essay, video scripts, and diptychs of words and art.

Rankine works every angle to take us inside the reality of what it’s like to be a black person in America — how “black bodies” are contained, how the smallest slights replay history, and how racial judgment in first class cabins and subway cars hurts everybody:

We followed Claudia Rankine to a packed house at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, where she described Citizen’s last page, which depicts J.M.W. Turner’s terrifying painting The Slave Ship, and her wary brand of hope:

I didn’t want to create false hope… I thought, “Gosh, this problem has been around since the market—since black bodies were part of the market. When they were objects. When they were considered property.” And that equation between whiteness and the black body as property of whiteness is the equation we can’t get out of… I wanted to end [Citizen] with Turner because people always say, “Well, I didn’t know. It wasn’t my intention. I wish I had known more about this…” But Turner knew better in the 1800s. He knew better. And this is 2015. So, there it was. The end.

Rankine told the ICA crowd that she has always loved Turner. He shows her that not everyone is stuck all of the time. The micro- space where people live and create is where we fail each other every day, but it’s also the place where sometimes we surpass ourselves.

As our own conversation closed, Claudia Rankine took heart from Samuel Beckett’s old advice. “We will always fail each other,” she said. Her hope is that we will not fail the same way forever — that we will “fail better” or, more realistically, “fail other.”

Can any of us listen to Claudia Rankine without asking: How have I failed this year? How have you? So tell us on Facebook: When does race have you by the throat? And, just what does it feel like in your skin?

— Pat Tomaino.
Photograph by Don Usner/Lannan Foundation.

Whose Words These Are: A Questionnaire

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After a long interview, Claudia Rankine agreed to field our sometime questionnaire for poets and writers, which we’re bringing back in 2015. See the other questionnaires here.

As a poet, who’s in the conversation with you, living or dead?
Toni Morrison, of course: “This is not a story to pass on” — the last line of Beloved. J. M. Coetzee: I love the way he sees blacks, whites, everyone, as failing, failed, anxious, self-interested individuals, which we all are. Fred Moten, The Feel Trio. Louise Glück, who taught me at Williams, whose ability to interrogate a moment has stayed with me. Claire Denis, the filmmaker. Chris Marker.

Who do you think of as doing the work of your spirit in a different medium?

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a really important book to me right now, in terms of “the school-to-prison pipeline.” Many of the visual artists in Citizen, people like Glenn Ligon and Wangechi Mutu.

Steve McQueen — did you see that film he did, called Hunger? It’s the most beautiful film, on a hunger strike in Ireland. One of the things I love about him, the sense that one can interrogate a social condition through beauty. Beauty doesn’t just fall by the wayside. Because the eye is always looking, it’s always seeking, you know?

When you walk down the street, who do people see?
That’s odd. I don’t know. I’m looking myself. I’m always looking. I love being outside. I love overhearing conversations. Maybe what they see is somebody who’s watching.

What is the talent that you’d most love to have that you don’t have (yet)?
My husband is a filmmaker; I wish I had his ability to see, actually. It’s astounding to me, sometimes, what he can point out visually. I listen the way he looks. Maybe together we’re one being. (Laughter.)

What’s the keynote of your personality, as a poet?
I think I’m patient on the page. I will stay with something for as long as takes for me to feel that whatever I wish to communicate is being communicated. And if that’s the whole book on one thing, that’s OK.

Who’s your favorite character in fiction?
In J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the plot in a sentence is that the guy who’s in charge of the village. He has a black housekeeper who he falls in love with. And at a certain point of the story he says to her, “You can leave, or you can stay with me.” And he’s very torn up about what she’s going to do. I love that character, because you know she’s going to leave — and she does leave. She’s always been a favorite character of mine.

What is your favorite quality in a man?
Man or woman, I love anyone who will laugh — at anything. At things I say, at things they say, at things they see, at things that aren’t even funny.

I was going to ask you: what’s your favorite quality in a woman?
I love women who don’t care, who are not being controlled by external ideas about what it means to be a woman. And you know those women when you see them — they just don’t care. It’s sort of Sula, in Toni Morrison: women who make their own terms.

What are your desert-island discs?
I would take Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. I know it’s traditional, but I would take it. I would take Adele, 21. I love Adele; I love that voice. The third one would be the hardest one to choose: I guess I would take a radio.

What’s your motto?
There’s a quote from Romare Bearden, the collagist. He said, “There are all kinds of people, and they will help you if you let them.” As somebody who collaborates a lot, I take that to heart, and I certainly would hope that other people would see me as one of those people who would help them, if they would let me.

What’s your city for all time?
New York. I know I live in L.A., but… New York.

How would you like to die?
Old, I’d like to die old — and laughing.

April 27, 2016

Eileen Myles’s Moment

This week, we’re tuning into the writer Eileen Myles. Born outside Boston in 1949, Myles is just now having an all-American moment. Myles has spent the last forty years as a queer and feminist icon, who’d like to be ...

This week, we’re tuning into the writer Eileen Myles. Born outside Boston in 1949, Myles is just now having an all-American moment.

Myles has spent the last forty years as a queer and feminist icon, who’d like to be known not as she or he, but as a complex they, “the gender of Eileen.” Today, they’re not just a poet but also a famous muse, inspiring Cherry Jones‘s charismatic character—a radical lesbian poet named Leslie Mackinaw—on Jill Soloway‘s hit show, Transparent

In a moment when transgender rights and women in power are front-page issues, we are hearing again what Myles has been saying all along, as a poet, provocateur, and presidential candidate (in an “openly female” write-in campaign in 1992).

Myles is a natural on Instagram and Twitter with her one-of-a-kind, high-velocity, irreverent and vernacular voice. That voice is on display again this year in books put out by Ecco: Chelsea Girls, a republished novel/memoir of New York bohemia, and I Must Be Living Twice, Myles’s new and selected poems. Try “On The Death of Robert Lowell,” an anti-elegy:

O, I don’t give a shit.
He was an old white haired man
Insensate beyond belief and
Filled with much anxiety about his imagined
Pain. Not that I’d know
I hate fucking wasps.
The guy was a loon.
Signed up for Spring Semester at Macleans
A really lush retreat among pines and
Hippy attendants. Ray Charles also
once rested there.
So did James Taylor…
The famous, as we know, are nuts.
Take Robert Lowell.
The old white haired coot.
Fucking dead.

Before all else, Myles was a townie—who wore a Catholic-school uniform to a job at the Harvard Coop—and an old-fashioned Boston talkah. Myles has lived elsewhere since 1974, but retained the accent as part of their poetic personality.

And, in the middle of this career year, Myles has finally come home to roost: finishing up a month-long project at Harvard on the poetic applications of the Boston sound for working-class poets like John Wieners. In Wieners’ reading,”cared” turned into “cay-uhd,” and that made all the difference. As in “My Mother”:

We spoke to Myles about the democratic virtue of individualism: in dialect and sound as well as in gender and sexuality, politics and aesthetics. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Cover photo by Emily Berl/NYT.

Podcast • January 21, 2016

For C.D. Wright, Poet of the Ozarks

We lost C.D. Wright, our Ozarkian friend and poet, who put the history around her into verse so we might hold it in more beautiful detail — as in her nostalgic Ozark Odes and in One With Others, ...

We lost C.D. Wright, our Ozarkian friend and poet, who put the history around her into verse so we might hold it in more beautiful detail — as in her nostalgic Ozark Odes and in One With Others, Wright’s much-admired narrative poem rendering the Arkansas theater of our continuing Civil Rights epic.

Listening back to our 2011 conversation, we’re hearing Wright’s portrait of ‘V.’, her hero in life and in One With Others. The place was Forest City in the Arkansas Delta. The time was August 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, about 40 miles away. The central event was a March Against Fear led by one Sweet Willie Wine. “If white people can ride down the highways with guns in their trucks,” he insisted, “I can walk down the highway unarmed.”

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The Ozarks in Arkansas. (Creative Commons, Buffalo Outdoor Center)

V., the center of Wright’s poem, was the one white person who joined Sweet Willie and the black cause — a mother of seven whose raging erudition and reckless love of freedom in action showed Wright the provocative life and a reason to be a writer. “Just to act,” V. liked to say, “was the glorious thing.”

Shortly after she won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Wright told us about V. and her native Arkansas, then and now. One With Others renders home in mixed-media detail. Food price lists of the time and place (“Jack Sprat tea bags only 19 cents. A whole fryer is 59 cents… Cherokee freestone peaches, 5 cans for $1.”) are juxtaposed with Dear Abby advice columns in the local paper (“DEAR TOO MUCH IRONING, I would iron his underwear. You are wasting more energy complaining and arguing than it takes to iron seven pairs of shorts once a week. Everybody has a problem. What’s yours?”) and intercut with the poet’s interviews — 40 years later — about her V.:

The woman who lived next door to the old house came outside to pick up her paper. I asked if she had known my friend V who lived there in the 1960s, and she allowed that she did. Flat out she says, She didn’t trust me, and I didn’t trust her. Then she surprised me, saying, She was right. We were wrong. Then she shocked me, saying, They have souls just like us.”
— from One With Others.

We first met C.D. Wright at Brown University in 2008. As the Bush era ended, the playful Southern poetess had already turned urgently political, and angry, in her art. But she reminded us that mirth and anger, the personal and the historical are fused in the average human lifespan. As in the protestations of her grumpy subject in “Why Ralph Refuses to Dance”. As in the mountains she left and didn’t:

The Ozarks are a fixture in my mindscape, but I did not stay local in every respect. I always think of Miles Davis, “People who don’t change end up like folk musicians playing in museums, local as a motherfucker.” I would not describe my attachment to home as ghostly, but long-distanced. My ear has been licked by so many other tongues.
— from Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil.

June 2, 2015

Whitman at War

The best of American poets and the worst of American wars met head-on 150 years ago this summer in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his reflections on nursing the wounded and dying soldiers of Union and Confederacy. ...

The best of American poets and the worst of American wars met head-on 150 years ago this summer in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his reflections on nursing the wounded and dying soldiers of Union and Confederacy. This is not the Whitman who celebrated himself and working people in Leaves of Grass ten years earlier, though he is more than ever “the poet of the body and of the soul.” This is Whitman in his mid-forties, crossing like Dante into a mass-murdering inferno of screaming pain, and finding also in the despair an astonishing measure of beauty and love.

The audacious young composer Matt Aucoin, at 25, three years out of Harvard, sets his new Whitman opera in the battlefield hospital where Whitman served as a nurse. Aucoin hears Whitman in a mid-life crisis. He’s gone South in a hurry to find his brother, who’s been wounded at Fredericksburg, Virginia. But Whitman is crossing, with a purpose, not just into a war zone but into an oozing “bloody, black and blue” pit of amputation and agony after battle: 18,000 men had been killed or wounded in the Confederate victory over three days at Fredericksburg. In this setting, Whitman took on his last big mission in poetry: to see and describe what no one, back to Homer, had described before. That is, the comradeship, kindness, generosity, the “adhesiveness”—inescapably the love—that surfaces among men at war.

Lisa New, who teaches American poetry at Harvard, is going to remind us of the Whitman who wandered Brooklyn leading up to the Civil War. And throughout the hour, Ben Evett—actor and artistic director at the newly revived Poets’ Theatre—summons the Whitman of key poems like “The Wound-Dresser.” Here’s an excerpt:

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
The literary critic Harold Bloom chimes in with his ranking of Whitman: great American or greatest American? And finally Lawrence Kramer, the musician and cultural musicologist at Fordham University who edited the 150th anniversary edition of Drum-Taps from the New York Review of Books, will examine the sonic dimension of Whitman’s words.

Podcast • March 2, 2015

A Winter Journey with Ian Bostridge

The English tenor and writer Ian Bostridge is happily and articulately fixed on a musical mountaintop: For 30 years he has been singing Franz Schubert’s deathbed song-cycle “Winterreise,” the “Winter Journey” of a desperate traveler ...

review-books-nonf_9_210239cThe English tenor and writer Ian Bostridge is happily and articulately fixed on a musical mountaintop: For 30 years he has been singing Franz Schubert’s deathbed song-cycle “Winterreise,” the “Winter Journey” of a desperate traveler toward madness and death. Think of these 24 songs as the first and all-time concept album, written in 1827 by another of those Viennese geniuses in the footprints of Mozart and Beethoven.

These are songs conceived by a 30-year old genius who knows he dying — of syphilis, it is said. Winterreise has the rattle of death in it, like Schubert’s most-played posthumous Piano Sonata in B-flat, and long soaring melodies as well. The cycle has an unearthly ring all through it, the sound of the heavens looking back on natural life. Or so it has often seemed to me. Ian Bostridge sings these Schubert songs as a path that many moderns still find themselves following — Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman come quickly to mind. Ian Bostridge’s omnidirectional book of reflections on the songs chase down a host of implications along the way.

Franz SchubertThe short form on Schubert (1797 – 1828): he was a demigod of musical Vienna in Beethoven time, popular and prolific. Hundreds of songs and chamber pieces, 7 finished symphonies and 1 famously unfinished one. But it’s this set of 24 songs, finished on his death bed, aged 31, that seals his genius. It makes almost any list of the faultless master creations in any category of art—up there with Don Quixote, the Taj Mahal, Moby Dick, My Fair Lady — and Ian Bostridge gets to live inside those songs on stage year after year and now inside this irresistible manual: Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.

Winter Journey is a punctuated series of cries from the heart of a desperate traveler—sometimes melting, sometimes burning, mostly frozen by snow and ice—hail storms in his heart and a bitter wilderness outside as he plunges toward his own black graveyard. You can feel the frenzy in Bostridge’s sometimes grainy tenor; the standard “Winterreise” in our time has been the majestic, perhaps more stoical procession of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who made it a baritone’s piece. Either way, the piano voice in these songs is as marvelous as the singers, it’s not just accompaniment. And maybe the most distinctive touch in Wintereisse is that each of the 24 links in this headlong adventure — the story possibilities, connections and digressions in art, history, life, love, science, German unification, anything — fan out in every direction. We’re taking up Ian Bostridge invitation to listen carefully and then digress with him.

February 18, 2014

Nick Flynn: The Day Lou Reed Died

Nick Flynn, who blew us away with his take on Boston Noir, wrote his breakthrough memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which became a Robert De Niro film, about a tortured relationship with his vagrant and ...

nick flynn father

Nick Flynn, who blew us away with his take on Boston Noir, wrote his breakthrough memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which became a Robert De Niro film, about a tortured relationship with his vagrant and alcoholic father. Jonathan Flynn died his past October at the age of 84 on the same day as American rocker Lou Reed. Nick read for us the poem he wrote about that day. Kunal Jasty mixed it with an outtake of The Velvet Underground’s “Ride into the Sun.”

THE DAY LOU REED DIED

It’s not like his songs are going to simply
evaporate,

but since the news I can’t stop
listening to him

on endless shuffle—familiar, yes, inside
me, yes, which means

I’m alive, or was, depending on when
you read this. Now

a song called “Sad
Song,” the last one on Berlin,

sung now from the other side, just talk,
really, at the beginning, then

the promise
or threat, I’m gonna stop wasting

my time, but what else
are we made of, especially now? A chorus

sings Sad song sad song sad song sad

song. I
knew him better than I knew my own

father, which means
through these songs, which means

not at all. They died on the same day, O
what a perfect day, maybe

at the same moment, maybe
both their bodies are laid out now in

the freezer, maybe side by side, maybe
holding hands, waiting

for the fire or the earth or the man
or the salt—

if I could I’d let birds devour whatever’s left
& carry them into the sky, but all I can do

it seems
is lie on the couch & shiver, pull a coat

over my body as if it were all I had, as if I
were the one sleeping outside, as if it were my

body something was leaving, rising up
from inside me

& the coat could hold it in
a little longer.

February 15, 2014

Nick Flynn Reads “Embrace Noir”

Nick Flynn — memoirist of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City — gave us this reading of one of his own poems: “Embrace Noir.” It’s a bonus on his appearance on our show about Boston ...

nick-flynnNick Flynn — memoirist of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City — gave us this reading of one of his own poems: “Embrace Noir.” It’s a bonus on his appearance on our show about Boston Noir last week. Kunal Jasty mixed his reading with the John Coltrane classic, “A Love Supreme.” Have a listen, and have a noir week….

 

EMBRACE NOIR

I go back to the scene where the two men embrace
& grapple a handgun at stomach level between them.

They jerk around the apartment like that
holding on to each other, their cheeks

almost touching. One is shirtless, the other
wears a suit, the one in the suit came in through a window

to steal documents or diamonds, it doesn’t matter anymore
which, what’s important is he was found

& someone pulled a gun & now they are holding on,
awkwardly dancing through the room, upending

a table of small framed photographs. A chair
topples, Coltrane’s band punches the air with horns, I

lean forward, into the screen, they are eye-to-eye,
as stiff as my brother & me when we attempt

to hug. Soon, the gun fires & the music
quiets & the camera stops tracking & they

relax—shoulders drop, jaws go slack
& we are all suspended in that perfect moment

when no one knows who took the bullet—
the earth spins below our feet, a murmuration of

starlings changes direction suddenly above us, folding
into the rafters of a barn,

& the two men no longer struggle, they simply
stand in their wreckage, propped

in each other’s arms.