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

Wednesday, June 23, 2004


The sense of hearing is the only of the 5 Big Ones that doesn’t have a noun for its name. Taste, touch, and smell get double duty words that serve as both nouns and verbs. Sight is the only sense that gets a noun-only name, and hearing is the only that gets a verb-only.

I thought of this while contemplating the phenomenon of hearing one piece of music while simultaneously hearing a different one in the mind’s ear. This happens visually a lot -- staring off into space while the mind’s eye registers some remembered or imagined sight. I’ve experienced the musical equivalent a few times in the last week while listening to the AM pre-and/or-non-rock pop station. It happened today while hearing some chesty ‘40s or ‘50s belter singing the Ray Charles unrequited love classic “You Don’t Know Me.” I’d bet this guy recorded his version before Ray’s, and all through, I was hearing Ray sing it, with much more pathos. It was the best Ray tribute I’d heard since the great musician’s death -- a tribute to his pathos and power as a singer, his tremendous control and originality of timbre, pitch, and phrasing.


I wrote the other night that Jerome Kern was born in Europe. Wrong. New York New York in 1885. He wrote his first hit in 1905, at the height of the American light operetta period, a couple years after Victor Herbert’s most famous hit, “Babes in Toyland.”


Last night I wrote about my recent posts on modernism, “My snottiness probably came from a revulsion that I always have chalked up to a belief that life-oriented art is superior to innovation-oriented art.” This morning I got an e-mail from my friend Jake London:

“But who says that life-oriented art is somehow a separate thing than innovation-oriented art? Perhaps for some people they are one and the same thing. If by innovation oriented you mean innovation for innovation's sake art, well, then I hear ya.

“On the other hand, I think some of my favorite stuff is stuff where somebody is being life-oriented but in the process is innovative too (i.e., their very being just happens to be that way). That certainly wouldn't be me, but I appreciate it.

“On the other hand, I too get tired of art where it's clear the artist is obsessed with innovation at the expensive of any other value. Seems such a shame, as often times a lot of really great stuff gets discarded (stuff that in many cases sometimes feels better to me than the stuff they choose to keep).”

JOHN REPLIES: I agree. The poet and thinker David Antin (about whose thoughts on grammar I wrote on February 18) confirmed my faith about this in his brilliant book “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde.” I don’t remember which poem he says it in, but somewhere he says that an artist makes what he needs to make with what tools he has at hand, and if he needs to make something for which the right tool doesn’t exist, he develops a new tool.

The technique is in the service of the art, not the other way around.

Antin’s history is interesting in light of his formulation. Originally a ‘50s American surrealist poet (published in the New Yorker, no less), he disavowed that stuff and wrote hard-nosed, sardonic, avant-garde poetry in the ‘60s, a lot of it “found” poetry. (A few of those poems light my brain up.) Dissatisfied with that, along about 1970 he decided to improvise-talk his poems, long poems, long poems of thinking-out-loud and telling stories. He devised his own method of transcribing his talk-poems that eschewed the justified margins of prose and the traditional line breaks of poetry, as well as punctuation and capitalization -- a phrasal poetry that mirrored actual talk, with the phrases set out with spaces between them. (Antin, among others, including psychoanalysts and the English professor and critic Northrop Frye, made the discovery that almost nobody speaks in grammatically correct prose.)

Antin’s an erudite, witty, imaginative -- brilliant -- man who knows how to tell a story, so the early talk-poems always have gems to ponder. But I haven’t felt like re-reading them. Early in his talk-poem career, he took part in a 3-way correspondence with the two editors of the postmodern literary journal “boundary 2” that sheds interesting light. One of the editors really dug his talk-poems, the other thought they were interesting but un-gelled, too discontinuous, too Socratic and not Homeric enough. Too talky, too thinky, not poetic or narrative enough. Antin didn’t disagree with the description, but with the judgment.

Antin’s most recent book, “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde,” almost reads like an answer to the hopes of the editor who didn’t like his stuff. Very powerful narrative poems in the talk-poem lay-out and the talk-poem style, interladen with his typically acute observations on art, poetry, and society. The culminating piece, “The Structuralist,” is my favorite poem of the 20th century, tragic and hilarious and mind-blowingly erudite and inventive -- a true heroic poem. The hero is a friend of Antin’s, a fellow poet and linguist and translator, and the mind-blowing inventiveness is ascribed to him. It’s too late at night to do the story justice -- just believe me that I can’t recommend the book and the poem too highly.

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