Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, February 13, 2004


If you’re a Wallace Stevens fan, there are probably a handful of poems that stick with you, that you like to track down and read every once in a while. For me, some of those poems might be “Farewell Without a Guitar,” “Tabletalk,” “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams,” “The Snow Man,” “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “The Palm at the End of the Mind.” Only people who are deeply into Stevens would say something like, “Oh I love his stuff from ‘Harmonium’ [his first book]; ‘Transports to Summer’ [a later book] has a great flow to it too.” His individual volumes have been out of print for decades; a modern reader’s choices are the various “Collected” and “Selected” editions.

Stevens is a lyric poet -- the poems are individual, usually non-narrative, usually non-dramatic works. His stuff is more in the meditative tradition of lyric soliloquy than the “I’m talking to YOU” lyric love-hate tradition. No doubt he arranged the poems in his individual books in order to give them a pleasing order, but he intended the poems to stand on their own, and that’s how readers know them today.

Outside of operas, oratorios, and cantatas, it’s hard to think of any songs at all that aren’t in the lyric tradition in that sense. Songs stand or fall on their own. Even during the era of the "concept album" (circa 1967 through 1976), the large majority of songs were intended to have independent lives.

I haven't been paying much attention to the discussion over how internet downloading of music is undermining the top dog position of the album in favor of the individual song. As soon as I got a programmable CD player, the album era was pretty much over for me. "I'm so glad it's so easy to skip that SONG I Don't like! So convenient!" And there are few albums that don't have at least one or two songs I'd be happy never to hear again.

The 33-RPM record brought the "Long Playing" ("LP") record into existence. Before then, "albums" got their name because they resembled photograph albums: They were books full of several 78-RPM records with one song or short piece on each side that the musician and record company wanted you to hear as a collection. Most records just came out as "singles," a single song on each side of one record.

Ella and her "friends" recorded the 20 songs that Decca Records later collected onto "Ella and Friends" as singles, in the pre-LP era, between 1944 and 1950. In 1996 the record company picked what they considered to be the best duets Ella recorded and put them out on this CD. I happen to like this way of putting collections of songs together. And I happen to like this collection very very much; my affection for it lately is less problematic and easier and merrier than my affection for the great albums she recorded in the 1950s and 1960s -- the albums she recorded as Albums.

Here's "Table Talk," which Wallace Stevens wrote in 1935.

Granted, we die for good.
Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should.

And that, too, granted, why
Do I happen to like red bush,
Grey grass and green-gray sky?

What else remains? But red,
Gray, green, why those of all?
That is not what I said:

Not those of all. But those.
One likes what one happens to like.
One likes the way red grows.

It cannot matter at all.
Happens to like is one
Of the ways things happen to fall.

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