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

Friday, July 31, 2009

20th century poets wrote about jazz a lot --
Nathaniel Mackey, Ntozake Shange, Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka,
to name some I've been happy to read --
and Wagner made a big splash with late 19th century poets --
Baudelaire, Mallarme --
and the only 20th century poet I can think of writing about 20th century Euro-derived music
is Frank O'Hara, with his series of poems "On Rachmaninoff's Birthday,"
and his beautiful poem "Radio."
Music enraptures poets, since Romanticism anyway.
Jazz was the leading Romantic music of the 20th century,
in the capital-R sense of Romantic Individualism,
and a lot of classical music dudes consider Rachmaninoff's style
a 19th century Romantic holdover,
which, in my view, doesn't make it bad music,
not at all, some of it is gorgeous,
and he had an influence, I think,
on some of the more florid precincts of Muzak and related "beautiful music,"
as a radio genre used to be known as --
it was also called "Easy Listening" --
Ferrante & Teicher come to mind particularly.
"Easy Listening" reminds me that a friend in college
wrote a poem about "Difficult Listening" --
he was a musician and a poet --
and Charles Ives said that his father inveighed against Easy Listening,
that a person should open their ears to difficult listening.
I love a lot of that noisy 20th century music,
tending to favor the noisy jazz over the noisy classical,
though of course there are fabulous passages in Stravinsky,
and I do adore Varese,
whom I checked out from the library in high school because Frank Zappa touted him.
I don't listen to Zappa any more --
but that's cool if you do.
I shouldn't say I favor the noisy jazz
because I also adore Ives
and sometimes the Viennese atonalists
and sometimes even the 2nd & 3rd generation atonalists.
But I adore noisy jazz.
When Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders or Roscoe Mitchell,
to name three idols,
go into sheets of multiphonic intensities and harsh timbres at fantastic speeds,
a lot of people have said they hear anger --
people used to say this about Coltrane especially --
I usually hear ecstasy.
I started writing this poem several days ago
and then got interrupted
and as I was writing it on a computer
and didn't have computer access for a couple of days
I didn't get back to the poem for a while.
I remember thinking I knew where I was going with it,
knew where it was taking me,
and feeling confident that that direction would be evident
when I looked at the poem again,
but I've lost it,
I've lost the thread.
Ariadne had given me the thread before I entered the Labyrinth
to slay the monster at the center,
she gave me the thread so I could find my way out again.
And now I'm afraid that, since I've lost it,
I'll never find my way out.
There remains the monster to deal with.
Perhaps we could parley.
Does it speak English?
I don't know.
When dogs bark at me I try to remember to chuckle and say
"Good doggie, good puppy" in a sweet and condescending voice
which dogs seem to like.
Will the monster respond similarly
if I come across it?
The jazz soloist improvises within a set parameter,
the parameters within which soloists improvise vary widely,
wild wide wildly --
the great wide wild --
a wild ride over the wide wild --
the parameter of a jazz solo can be a set number of measures over a set chord pattern,
or as many times through a set chord pattern as the soloist wishes,
or over a particular scale or mode for a determined or undetermined length of time,
or simply, whatever the soloist wishes to play
for a period of time predetermined, or set by the soloist or by someone else on the fly.
The individuality of the soloist's style
is key to his or her stature in jazz culture.
Ntozake Shange writes about this.
I'm sleepy now and am going to bed, to pick up this, or another, thread,
another day.
Now it's the next day.
I remember more of where I was going with this poem,
where it was taking me,
or, where I thought it was taking me,
last week when I started writing it.
It was inspired by a discussion on
Poetry magazine's group blog,
and by reading a book on jazz aesthetics by Ted Gioia,
which had insightful things to say about jazz and Romanticism,
thoughts that had echoed notions I had entertained
about post-Dylan Rock and Romanticism,
and about jazz and stardom and individualism,
though I hadn't connected the individualism of jazz with Rock and Romanticism,
and so I was happy to be reading a writer who had,
and my beloved spouse and I had just seen a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock,
and Sandra Bullock's love interest was a sensitive artsy type rebelling
against his hard-nosed successful businessman though loving in-his-conflicted-way father,
and sensitive rebellion is signified by the son being a novelist,
in which activity we never see him taking part,
or even him reading anything,
and his being a novelist made sense -- a novelist has a place in today's society,
and a chance for direct remuneration,
whereas a poet is an unclassifiable eccentric
whose only hope for income related to his or her art is to teach other unclassifiable eccentrics
in a college.
A novelist -- and Sandra Bullock, who's a book editor and would know, says this to him,
her love interest, that he does it well
-- a novelist observes society
and the relationship between human behavior and emotion and economics.
What does a poet do?
Well-meaning trivializers like Bill Moyers and Garrison Keillor --
though I'm not sure if the latter is well-meaning --
they say that poets mess around with words.
And yeah, kinda sorta, that's part of what poets do --
I might say phrases rather than words, but, whatever.
There's no reason, though, that poetry can't be a vehicle
for ferrying a writer's observations
of society and the economic causes of emotion and behavior.
It's just not the style today.
I like watching romantic comedies
because you always know how they'll end
though not how they'll get to the ending.
This Sandra Bullock flick was no different
and even though it had one or two preposterous plot points
its good humor and the attractiveness of the stars made it enjoyable.
The Romanticism of jazz is different
than the romance of a Sandra Bullock comedy.
A movie star, ideally, should have a specific individuality,
as a jazz soloist should,
but in movies,
the individuality is not the point.
Ntozake Shange says that a poet should have as individual a style
as a great jazz soloist
and I'm inclined to agree
even though
I'm aware
that this poem's style is derivative --
I'll leave it to you to decide from what it derives --
and as this poem goes along we'll see whether its derivativeness
falls away -- I'm interested to find out and hope you are too!
The jazz soloist is an existential figure -- he or she has their one shot
to deal with the musical moment
and create a beautiful or exciting or otherwise absorbing musical experience,
which is what we all must do with our lives,
we're all improvising, right?, even when doing things we've got down to a routine,
every day throws a new wrinkle, a new demand,
a new fold in the fabric,
and like the jazz soloist we have our shot to do our best.
In most of life, though, the context in which we improvise ourselves
does not put a premium on individuality,
but in poetry and jazz it does --
in any of the arts, really -- no, that's not true --
not in section work, not in orchestral playing,
and most of the famous jazz players are good section players too --
they can play anonymously to blend in when that's what's wanted,
and that's a lesson too --
we rarely get to solo.
In some of his late '50s recordings with top-flight post-bop players,
when Coltrane comes in, he grabs the ear with his distinctiveness,
his urgent attack and phrasing, his severe tone,
as if he has something deeply important to say that
can't wait,
he needs you to hear it
right now,
whereas the other players, all of them superbly accomplished,
lack that individuality and urgency,
they're playing "period style."
A major period style today is irony.
I'm soaking in it!
For instance, that last line is a quote from a TV commercial for dish soap from my childhood.
It shows up in this poem, hoping to charm
by triggering a shared memory with people
who remember that TV commercial
who notice how it applies to this situation.
There are ways of transcending period style
that differ from Coltrane's Path of Intensity --
Dylan's singing, hugely influential, as was Coltrane's,
is usually not particularly intense,
though he could and can be intense too,
likewise Monk is intense in a way that differs from Coltrane's --
a Monk solo splatters bright shards of oblique harmony
in rhythmic figures that are at once extremely subtle and extremely in-your-face,
or perhaps I should say complex rather than subtle,
they would be very complex to notate,
and, to my knowledge, have never been widely discussed and analyzed --
Monk's rhythmic individualities, I mean --
and, I'm guessing here, an analysis of his solos
would demonstrate a very subtle regularity
within his own style,
his own ear-grabbingly unique style.
Once in a Starbucks
I heard a Miles Davis recording
on which Monk was the pianist --
one of Monk's few sessions as a sideman --
few people hired him because his sound was so unique that it can dominate its surroundings --
and Monk's solo on this recording,
which I had listened to many times,
is so startling
that I couldn't believe that Starbucks was playing it,
and it turned out that my skepticism was warranted --
they faded the track out before Monk's solo!
The track was a Gershwin tune, "The Man I Love,"
in case you're interested.
Coltrane recorded gorgeous records with Monk and with Davis,
both of whom always transcended their periods
with the uniqueness of their styles,
so I didn't mean to say that Coltrane always stood out
while his collaborators faded into the period style --
but on some recordings he does.
None of this can be codified -- or, at least not yet --
maybe there is a formula for lastingness,
for uniqueness,
but nobody has discovered it yet.
Lots of times when listening to music
I wonder why the writer wrote the song
or the singer sang it,
I don't get the motivation,
I don't feel the impulse
that called the performance into being.
I never feel that way with Coltrane or Davis or Monk
or many other musical idols.
I feel that even a favorite musician
lacks a good idea
or that their rhetoric and their intention don't match,
for example,
a favorite singer and songwriter, John Lennon,
when he writes about his love for his second son,
I understand the intention
even though the musical rhetoric doesn't persuade me,
I'm thinking of that song "Beautiful Boy,"
which might have worked with a more delicate vocal,
something whispery,
like a lullaby,
but, as it's recorded, sounds to me like Lennon's heart isn't in it,
and he was usually a very heartfelt singer.
The rhetoric of "heartfeeling" has to do with attack and timbre and phrasing --
we all understand it, we all hear it,
and it's very hard to talk about --
just think about how tone of voice can affect how you understand what someone says,
what, for instance, sarcasm sounds like.
Overemphasized, as if there were quotation marks around it.
You know it when you hear it.
Same is true of music -- you know heartfelt when you hear it,
although you may well hear it differently than I do!
Right now my favorite song on popular radio
is something about "Turn the Car Around,"
in which the singer yearns for escape
but always turns the car around.
I think he wants to escape a bad relationship,
but I've never listened closely to the words.
The recording is saturated with emotion,
soaking in emotion,
it feels like a whole movie,
as the best songs do,
a whole story encompassed in the emotional catharsis of the moment,
you feel the whole arc behind the outburst,
and, like the movies, it englamors you,
engulfs you with its glamor,
so that you identify with the singer,
or the main character,
and project your own fantasy life onto an attractive surrogate.
Jazz and, even more so, poetry have lost their glamor in our culture.
It may sound like a complaint but it's not.
Unclassifiable eccentricity -- I'm OK with that.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Computers have revealed to us
that prose
has never existed
if we define prose
as text written
line breaks.
This makes sense
since most people recognize
that almost nobody
speaks in prose,
grammatically correct prose.
With computers now
we can actually have text without line breaks,
we can have left-to-right scrolling
with computer texts.
So-called prose writers
have always relied on
to decide on the line breaks.
But if a printer were to
print a book
on pages so wide that they would accommodate whole paragraphs,
which are the only line breaks that the the so-called prose writers put in themselves,
if a printer were to print these super-wide pages
with one line per paragraph,
people would go bananas.
People would hate it.
People love line breaks.
They just like to pretend that
the line breaks don't matter.
And I guess they don't
as long as they're there.
One of these days I'm going to figure out how to print some prose
with a paragraph per line
just to show people
how much they love poetry.
I don't expect gratitude for this revelation --
the idea of people being grateful for learning this about themselves makes me chuckle --
but I have to admit
that gratitude would be nice.
Typesetters have been the most important poets
in the age of prose.
They've decided on
print size and page width
and that has determined line lengths.
I know I get nervous when paragraphs go on too long.
I like that breath at the end of the paragraph
and if I can't see the paragraph's end
I worry that I won't be able to hold my breath that long,
not that I literally hold my breath to read a paragraph --
it's a psychological thing
and I don't think it's uncommon.
A friend of mine who used to teach prose writing in college
used to bust me for my long paragraphs,
telling me that people don't like
long paragraphs.
Which is funny
because since I started writing
poems on the computer
for my blog
I've decided on a,
an, rather,
an endless scrolling stanza
in honor of the computer scroll,
the computer's scrolling function.
I sometimes think about gathering
computer poems
into a collection
and ideally
I would collect them onto
a long long scroll.
I got to thinking about
the poetics of prose
because sometimes
in these
computer poems
I've put some
passages without line breaks
and simply relied on the
screen width
to generate the line breaks.
I could modify this blogging program
so that it could accommodate
lines without breaks
where the reader would have to
scroll left to right
for the prose-like passages
but I probably won't.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I am going to write a poem.
It is going to be a very beautiful poem.
It will have politics, and pathos, and lyricism,
and a savvy self-consciousness about the resources and quirks
of the English language and poetic tradition.
It will go down smooth when smoothness is warranted,
and burn harshly when that's what's wanted.
It will be familiar and surprising -- familiarly surprising and surprisingly familiar.
It won't be all of these things as well, and sometimes it will be hard to tell.
Hard to tell for you, or hard to tell for me? I don't know.
Will I find out?
I don't know.
A poem is a gesture. That's how you can tell
it's not simply prose. Prose is not gestural,
or, at least, not in the same way that poetry is.
The politics of my poem will be amazing,
because it will know more than I do, and I've been studying.
How is a poem political? I don't know, but the poem knows.
If I don't know how it's political, how do I know whether it is at all?
You might suspect that I'm writing this off the top of my head
or pulling it out of a different anatomical feature
and, while such suspicions would not be literally true,
they would also not be unwarranted.
Is this the poem referred to in the first line of this poem?
I don't know, probably not.
I could be walking around with a paintbrush in my hand,
painting my words on the walls of underpasses,
but I'd be likely to be caught and would get in trouble.
"But I'm just writing a poem, a very beautiful poem,"
I could protest.
Ah, but I wouldn't have authorization to write the poem, not there.
I once saw, on a public square in Beijing,
a man holding a book open in one hand
and a hollow, plastic staff filled with water in the other.
At the end of the staff was a sponge, and he was copying lines
from the book onto the square, writing in water from the sponge.
I did not -- do not -- speak Mandarin, but I had a phrasebook,
and I looked up the word for poetry.
"Shih?" I asked the man. I had to ask a few times before he smiled enthusiastically and nodded yes.
Yes, he was copying poetry from the book, in water calligraphy.
By the time he got to the end of the poem the beginning had evaporated
because even though it was a cold March day, the sun shone brightly.
The calligraphy was beautiful, and the evaporation so beautifully emblematic
of all individual human endeavor, regardless of how beautiful.
Everything evaporates, everything dissipates.
For 2,600 years or so, at least since Sappho,
poets have boasted of their verses lasting "forever,"
an unprove-able duration. I hope Sappho and Shakespeare
and a few others make it there, though most of Sappho's work is already gone,
a melancholic consideration -- I mean, everybody loved her,
all the other poets, and philosophers, and presumably anybody who loved poetry,
and people still do, me very much included, and yet
only a tiny fraction of her poetry survived.
More of Shakespeare survived -- apparently most of his work --
though his language has shifted to the extent that we no longer know
all that he meant, not only that, we're not even sure which meanings
may have been lost already. This seems to me natural,
a feature of time, and our relationship to time, as we change with time,
and the changes we make affect future changes
in utterly unpredictable ways.
Life glockens spittily as we bang bangle voracious vicious virtue timber tumble mumbling benumbing without number ringing bells high N G blick universe wes kopf kaput ration mestizo actuarially instead of homestead of steady where she blows and blow she do skidoo whether weatherly or botheringly wellspring fundahoovian gawful puddle pudding proof positive posturing possible possum tater spelunking galumph galoof gallant galleon round round round round
round round round round
round round round round
around around around.
We feel very modern, we like feeling modern -- I like it too -- but I know, nope,
our arrogance is foolish, like all arrogance probably, or most anyway (arrogant to say, "all," no?),
our arrogance is foolish because, really, we know so little, understand so little and so poorly,
and take such delight in meanness and belittling -- me too, no doubt, though my reluctance
to admit it precludes examples from coming to mind, surprise surprise --
no, here's an example -- a recent issue of Harper's magazine has the question on the cover,
and I paraphrase, can Bill Gates turn hunger into profit?, implying, his own profit,
when really, if you read the article, and I did, it's a critique of the market-based solutions to which
Bill Gates is donating millions of dollars, with no thought of profiting personally monetarily from it,
simply as an expression of his faith in markets to solve problems, and the critique had sense,
was persuasive, but in the same issue of Harper's was a symposium of fictioneers and cartoonists
fantasizing the Great Depression that may or may not be coming,
and to hell with Harper's, I mean seriously, shove that Schadenfreude back into your
filthy mouths, you anuses, your delight in misery-making folly makes me viciously nauseous,
and fuck you, I know that "nauseous" used to mean nausea-inducing and not nauseated,
well get a grip, snooty pricks, dictionaries have caught up with usage, and it means nauseated now too.
Now, I don't mean you you, dear reader, I meant you, Harper's.
See what I mean? I found that rant delightful, took real pleasure in my feeling of superiority
to a famous magazine, enjoyed the meanness and belittling.
How childish, how adult, how human, how pathetic.
But seriously, that headline really undermined their critique of Gates's plan to end hunger,
because it was dishonest.
40,000 years from now, if our species survives, and I sincerely hope that we do,
400,000 years from now, ditto, I like to imagine that our present understanding of
how to organize our collective human life and distribute resources
will look preposterously barbaric, unimaginably vicious, unfathomably foreign,
as the slave-owning doctrine of the earlier United States looks to us today.
Death sorrows me, but as I imagine our species tens of thousands of years from now,
having made it through our present follies and found better ways of living,
the perspective of a vast amount of time -- in human terms, though not in universal terms --
that perspective calms me, my little problems, which often don't feel so little,
really are tiny flecks in the oceans of space, merest tiniest droplets in the oceans of time,
hello little droplets, pitter patter of rain in the endless sweep.
Now, no mistake, the perspective of humanly vast stretches of time
and the fantasy of species survival do not dis-obligate me from
doing my part to let it happen, not at all.
I'm here, which means I'm on the hook, which means, I'm wanted,
and so are you, my friend, so are you, very much.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

I was in Michigan visiting my mom and not reading the paper or anything online, when Michael Jackson died. My brother put some MJ and Jacksons on a CD and we listened in memoriam. Was blown away more than ever by the rhythm tracks. The productions by Quincy Jones especially: Deep Brazilian/disco percussion, disco strings, Earth Wind & Fire horns -- and unstoppably catchy songs. My friend Jay was visiting his folks too, and he chimed in with two observations. First, he’d read that Quincy Jones, when asked what distinguished Michael from the competition, what was the secret of his success, answered, “the ass factor.” Meaning, when recording, he showed up at 8 in the morning and sat his ass down all day and worked. Unlike most musicians -- very much unlike most musicians. Reminded me of Fred Astaire, who showed up first for rehearsals and left last. Second, Jay noted how Jackson tasked himself with writing Number One hits -- and then did it. Phenomenal songwriter. I listened to those rhythm tracks and thought -- he was the Elvis of the ‘80s -- simply the best, a cut above. Only crazy fans and a handful of aficionados believe this about Presley any more, but it’s true -- he outsang everybody within distance. Jackson’s records have more going on in them than anybody else’s of his time, comparable to any great music of any style or era. Terrific singer too, of course.


* * *

Wonderful trip. Wrote 4 songs for my son and his cousins and friends while I was there; fabulous jam session with Jay and his cousin Tanner in a bizarre room full of dozens of hunting trophies; hung out with my 3rd cousin Mark for the first time since we were kids and got to know him a little bit, and he’s a great guy; his kids are great too; my son running around with his cousins, and Jay’s kids, and a raft of friends from the lane, all about the same age, running and running and running; a moving and lovely 50th anniversary party for Jay’s parents; Jay’s brother and his family there too and always great to see them; met more of Jay’s relatives, lovely people; found lost treasures from my childhood in a box in the crawlspace below Mom’s house; got my mom canoe-ing for the first time in years; saw my 89-year-old aunt and uncle for the first time in a couple of years (they’ve been married 67 years!); hung out with other distant cousins and lifelong neighbors of many generations, and my sister and brother and brother-in-law, and other aunts and uncles and cousins; communed with the auras of dead beloved ancestors in the ancestral home; went swimming and swimming and swimming; and on the way back caught up with some old friends in Chicago.

Happy Summer.

* * *

-- Photo by Jeff Shaw.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?