Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Anecdote on Genre-based Prejudice: Fiction Writers versus Poets

    Once when I was in graduate school in the Creative Writing Program lounge at NYU, I was talking with a classmate from a poetry workshop. Corie had noticed that I had bound a manuscript together with thick brown strands of material that was much fatter than a string and much thinner than the thinnest rope. She wanted to know what it was and where it had come from because it looked so familiar but strange.
    Then a young fiction writer walked in to get a book off a crowded shelf and began eavesdropping, which is a habit of fiction writers, by the way. I explained to Corie that the strands were cut off a brown paper shopping bag, so they were probably some sort of recycled paper. Corie was delighted, and she started to say what a great idea that was and how she should do that, which was, admittedly, a very “poet-ty” way to talk.
    Then the fiction writer had had too much! He let out an exaggerated, exasperated breath, sneering and glaring at us. His expression reminded me of the way that the high school football players would sneer at the soccer players. It was as if our very “poet-ty” existence threatened the heroic and hardworking field of fiction writing. He exclaimed, “Poets!” and stalked out, shaking his head in disgust.
    We had a pretty good laugh about that because we were familiar with the prejudices of writers against poets.
    In real life, there are often differences between fiction writers and poets. Fiction writers on average live much longer. There was even a study published in the Chronicle of the Associated Writing Program once. Anyway, the stereotypes about fiction writers are that they are long distance runners or hikers who can traverse mountain passes that ascend all day. They are disciplined workers. They are up early to write before the rest of the world gets up and distracts them from their very important work. They are good parents even if they are divorced. And even when they are drunks, they are the high-functioning drunks who can always come up with a great story in a pinch.
    The stereotypes about poets are that they die too soon, and they are allergic to sports, money, and power. If they are ever up early it’s only because the drugs that they took the night before kept them up. They think their work is the most important thing in the world, which is ironic, because they rarely want to do any. They are heavy drinkers with no ability to function well, even when they are sober. They are usually mediocre parents (when they kill themselves) or terrible parents (when they don’t kill themselves, first, that is). But sometimes they say something that seems to illuminate everything and make life feel worthwhile in a new way.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Reflection on the Russian character in Petrushka and Juliet

    When I was young, some of the musical compositions that touched me the most profoundly were Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and I think the especially Russian character of these works may be why they still speak to me so pointedly. Though I have never seen either ballet in real life, and I saw only a mashed-up video of  Petrushka, I know about the way the themes fit the main characters from reading liner notes and short articles about the musical scores.

    In both ballets, there is a very strong musical theme that is attached to the main character, and each one is terribly oppressed by forces far more powerful than he or she is. In Petrushka the title character is a puppet who falls in love with a ballerina, but she prefers a bigger, stronger, more primitive and masculine puppet, a Moor. In Romeo and Juliet, the heroine loves Romeo, but the family (and, by extension, the society) she is a part of forbids her love. In both compositions, we have a feeling that the forces that work against the one who loves are an order of magnitude greater than the resources that the lover has. The theme of the Moor is ominous, dark and deep; meanwhile, the theme of the puppet hero, Petrushka, is light, innocent and tender. The music tells us also that the ballerina is beautiful and vain, so the deck is stacked pretty badly against the puppet. Meanwhile, regarding Juliet, the themes that represent family and society are very powerful, repressed and even terrifying. Juliet’s themes are sweet, vulnerable and passionate. The music seems to have its greatest sympathy for the lone individual pitted against enormous social power, power that will ultimately destroy the lovers.

    To me, the Russian character of these ballets is inherent in the way that the power structure is so heavily stacked against the one individual who desires love, whether that love is a more innocent and childish desire (Petrushka) or a more vulnerable and passionate desire (Juliet). The ones we have the most sympathy with are destroyed, and that also seems to reveal something about the Russian national character. That may also explain why Stravinsky and Prokofiev became exiles. It seems that in the long history of Russia, there has been a very strong oppressive ruling class or ruling state, long before the Czars, and throughout the time of the communists. So perhaps that is another way to understand the terror and oppression that inspires these stories.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

other americas under the sensationalism, commercialism, academicism

A great Czech-born writer, Milan Kundera, spoke about the oppressiveness of living without many political and personal freedoms. Going to Paris when he did and from where he did, I imagine he felt far more free and able to simply breathe. The life under a totalitarian regime that he has written about so well seems very alien to us in the West. However, one may well ask how it is that a great poet in a country with almost no freedom can be celebrated, beloved, and read while great poets in the United States are ignored, forgotten, and buried.

Could it be that having too many sensational cultural magnets for the attention of the people, having too much money sucked into the vacuums of corporate monoliths, and having too many great geniuses hidden in academic enclaves is worse for art than having people deprived of free thought, independent artists, and authentic culture? Even in our greatest cities, the audiences for poetry and prose events are almost always minuscule.

There was an episode of The Simpsons once where Homer said something about art being imprisoned in museums so that no one would ever have to look at it. Maybe academia serves a similar function for American writers, i.e. we hide away our writers from society and the greater public so that no one will ever have to pay attention to them. Otherwise, they might start to make us think about what kind of a society we are actually living in. That would throw a wrench into our economy of blind and mindless consumption and unhealthy overdoses of sensational "culture" in every eye-popping direction.

But despite these inauspicious circumstances, we still have great writers struggling to be heard. We have a kaleidoscopic-noise-machine-industrial-sized-crassness-blasting-increasingly-money-powered-mindless-movie-making-steroid-pumping-youth-and-sex-exploiting-colors-killing culture.

And then we have artists, who have to work two, three, four, five jobs at once to just stay alive and, sometimes, do what they were born to do. I am thinking of American artists who don't blend into any of our "mainstreams" of entertainment, the artists who speak from and to many other Americas. Many of our artists only can produce new work when they are given grants from foundations and state sponsors. Even these little piddling streams of money are problematic, too.

In the long run of history, though, I believe that the truly successful works of art will still be discovered, recovered, loved and respected. If for no other reason than the fact that it will be impossible to care about most of the junk our culture shoves over on us, someday the real distinguished things will emerge again.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Genius and fraudulence in music and poetry

Genius is easy to recognize if you understand how it works. Once when I was in college studying music, I had a professor who asked me to explore some early Mozart works. I was very curious myself as to what this child genius would sound like as a composer. The music library had some very old rare LP records, and I heard some of Mozart's earliest symphonic works. What was so moving and poignant about the child Mozart was that I could hear and feel the style of the mature genius, but he was still very obviously a child. But within that child I could see and feel that self, the original and unique style of the later Mozart. The genius of Mozart was always there from the beginning, and he had learned later to do more marvelous things with it, but the self within that style was the same "person."

Just as one can often see the same smile on a baby picture that one sees in the adult picture, there is something essential that identifies one self as no one else. And one self can sometimes do truly awe-inspiring things by remaining true to itself.

On the other hand, fraudulence in poetry and in the arts in general is quite easy to slide into. Likewise, corruption is easy to fall into, that is, if one is given certain unfortuitous circumstances. It often begins with the best of intentions; for example, an editor might believe that there really is only ONE style of poetry that has validity, relevance and truth on its side (or beauty, irrelevance and truth on its side, as some might believe).

When poets realize that a style or trend is running "hot," they know that they must appear to embrace this craze or they will miss out on the wave. One can learn to mimic the particular affects of a style and to plug them into one's work, as needed. Then one can ride the wave, which may include publications, jobs, money, prizes etc.

But when poets study the affectations of any new style just to show off that they have acquired the new or last or greatest avant-garde symptoms, it is like they are checking off a list of things to do and to not do. Now they will be accepted, promoted, and valued, or so they believe. In reality, what has happened is that they have sacrificed the most important thing in any self-expressive art—one’s true self.

I actually know some people who have altered their style for exactly these sorts of reasons, which means that they did not feel that the writing was truly better. But it would help them please the powers-that-be.

The poets who do this sort of thing may be largely unconscious or lying to themselves in part about their own motivations. I had a friend who was a well regarded, famous poet who admitted that he thought all of his poetry was $#!*. He wrote just to make a career. I had been troubled personally by the way he portrayed himself and his culture sometimes, for he would sometimes create self images that would play into or gratify a cultural hegemony that put a dominant Eurocentric American culture above his own culture. I do not believe he really thought that any Eurocentric culture was superior to his own culture. But it worked well for his career.

I have also known poets who are in positions of power of one sort or another (editors, publishers, professors in Creative Writing programs) who only promote poets who emulate their own school or style. (You know who you are by whom you have hired.) If one fails to subscribe to and support the "right" people, then one is devalued and marginalized. One fails to get the invitation to the big wealthy-donor-supported conferences. One does not get the great job.

I have also known people with great integrity in similar positions of power who, due to ideological systems of belief, cannot recognize any great art unless it conforms to certain political ideals, whether they are very progressive or very conservative. I have seen both sorts of ideological programming, and they both suffer from a lack of openness to real differences of perspective.

It's hard to truly love any art that was made to fit a political agenda.

And, by the way, for some strange reason, the average book of poetry published in the United States today sells 300 copies.

The generally curious and intelligent reader who cares about society and culture resorts to the poetry area of the bookstore only if serious depression strikes. Or it could be during the post-New Year's doldrums when winter has a grip on everyone and life isn't fun anymore. That's when poetry books have their best chance of selling. And those books are written by mostly dead poets and older poets.

In the end, after the careers and the short-lived fame of prizes no one will value in the future, only the love will remain. The love, and only the love, will remain.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

On the disconcerting klutziness and greatness of Maurice Ravel's Pavane, etc.

Recently, I've woken up and gone to sleep with Ravel's music on my mental music player, (formerly known as one's memory). These memories drove me to seek videos of some of my favorite compositions by Ravel, The Left Hand Concerto in D and Pavane pour une infante defunte. I used to compose left hand piano music and loved some of Ravel's works for many years. At the same time, I have to say I'm no musicologist and I was never even a very good musician though I did sometimes entertain friends and small audiences of strangers on the piano. That said, it has always seemed to me that Ravel lacked a power of musical imagination that one finds far more effusively expressed in Mozart or Debussy—they never seem to run out of great musical ideas, phrases, and sentences. They always have more to say that makes sense, and the ideas follow with a fluidity and inevitability. Such imaginative genius can find or invent new musical ideas everywhere and in everything. On the other hand, Ravel seems to very obviously (even embarrassingly) run out of ideas sometimes.

In his famous Pavane, he works through some profoundly beautiful variations on one simple theme—it is so poignant that it is truly unforgettable. But then after doing that over and over for a while, it feels like he really just runs out of ideas! The B section that follows does not really stick together very well or even make sense. It even sounds klutzy, confused and confusing. I've heard many great pianists struggle to make this B section make sense. At best, it is bearable, but one really just waits for it to end. Fortunately, it doesn't last that long, and then the theme from the first part returns in an even more gorgeous variation. So the greatness is really undeniably there, and it reasserts itself.

One has to wonder why he could not find a more worthy second theme, something at least a little memorable. Perhaps it was wisdom or perhaps it was simple despair to accept the fact that he just could not invent or discover a second theme anywhere nearly as good as the first theme.

In retrospect, to be able to accept that inner failing and to lurch bravely forward is a very humane way to go on. He was kinder to himself than many other composers would have been. Somehow, I think we forgive him as listeners. We don't listen to Ravel for the same reasons we listen to Mozart, whose genius can shine so magnificently all the time that it is awe inspiring. We can still remember and love those parts of Ravel that ring the most true to our feelings.

The Left Hand Concerto in D has a less obvious flaw in its "great" cadenza, and many people may disagree with me on this. But to me it seems as though he spent so much energy trying to make one left hand sound like two hands that he did not really develop the melody very much or very far. He manages to create a very powerful and beautiful series of effects with some of the longest and fastest arpeggiated passages anywhere in piano literature. After he establishes the methods of his techniques, he does make it sound very powerful, convincing, and engrossing. But then it seems like he just runs out of ideas again! So we get all the ingredients for a great cadenza, and then he closes it out with a big orchestral bang. So it is a little disappointing musically, but one cannot deny that there is still greatness there, even if just for a few brief moments.

The story around this concerto may explain why people love it so much—Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist and brother of the very famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, lost his right arm in WW I, and this piece was commissioned by him. The fact that Wittgenstein was playing at that level at all with one hand was a triumph, and to keep this almost "magical" series of technical feats going too long might have seemed a little like tempting the fates or torturing a musician who had already seen more than enough suffering. So there is that sense of the humane acceptance of one's limitations again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Today I got up early and read in the NY Times that Galway Kinnell passed away on Tuesday, 10/28/2014. He was one of my greatest teachers at NYU. So I am re-posting some brief 'snapshots' in prose [from 3/8/05] on Galway Kinnell, the teacher/poet.
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[March 8, 2005* On Galway Kinnell as a teacher/poet, something to be grateful for....]

Galway would regularly ask us to do the impossible. Once in a one-on-one conference in the spring of 1999 he was helping me with a poem about the out-of-body travel experience of a thirteen-year-old. I was struggling to show how it was both a transcendent and a sexually arousing experience. He perked up with a great idea, which went something like: ‘Why don’t you show how the spiritual and the sexual are interwoven inevitably in adolescence? I’ve never read a poem about that. Why don’t you do that?’

After the enormity of this sank in, I said something like, ‘Okay.... I guess I could try that....’ (read: Sure, just toss off the answer to a mystery that has baffled thinkers and sages for millennia).

Even though I was stumped for a very long time, the idea Galway planted took root and a year later I wrote the poem that fulfilled that idea, and it was published later in 2000.

I have always felt indebted to Galway for daring to believe in me (and so many of us) with the same kind of ambition that he had in his own work. That was a gift that you could never fully measure. Thank you, Galway!

(The poem that Galway and I were discussing this idea over was called "digression," and it was written as the second part of a series called "out-of-body travel at thirteen." I think he had already seen the third part called "out-of-body travel at thirteen"—that was the most narrative part. The next part, which took a year to write was about the transcendental and sexual elation, and it was called "elation: some variations." I brought this to Sharon's workshop the following year and explained how it came about. I seem to remember Sharon's reaction when I recollected Galway's suggestion to the class as a kind of moment when her jaw dropped open momentarily. Thanks to Ashlie Kauffman, fellow NYU alum for asking about this.)

[The wonderful poet and fellow alum Susan Brennan sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

Once, in Galway's classroom, he played a tape of animals sounds—I remember the wolves especially and thinking—this is wild, and comforting and—so sexy. In that same class, he explained Whitman as a kind of fertility god who spoke through the lines of Leaves of Grass. I remember cherishing this note especially because the previous semester I was in an English class with doctoral students who just about crucified Whitman.

Reading Galway's work, being his student at NYU, watching him get intense over line-drives at Squaw Valley, having him generously listen to poems that were difficult to write—all these moments have conveyed to me a special knowledge about poetry; that it's a wilderness which poets can graciously and proudly inhabit. Galway has shown my poetry-creature ways to make a home in this wilderness.

A couple of summers ago, I was standing on West Third Street with Humera and we saw Galway crossing the street. He had on a bright, white shirt and it was billowing in the wind. We watched as strangers turned their heads to look at him with an impulsive curiosity. We sighed to each other "he's so beautiful and sexy and wild and free"! Poetry.


[This is from fellow alum Emily Gordon who sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

This is the Galway story I love to tell. In 2002 on the last day of Craft, he gave out books of his to everyone and talked for a little while about how much having poetry friendships has meant to him. He said, "When you leave, I hope you'll stay in touch with each other, and trade poems. The most marvelous thing is how easy it can be! You don't have to wait for the mail for weeks anymore to find out if your friend liked your poem. Now there's the fax machine, which makes it so that in only a few minutes your friend can see your poem, and send it back, and you can read it! Isn't it wonderful?" And we all burst out laughing in the most affectionate way possible, just about in tears.


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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

early memory from infancy

I can remember one of the first times I was ever photographed. I was only three months old, according to the notes written on the backs of the photos. The moment stood out because my parents went to some great efforts to get me to smile. They moved away from me so I was alone on a big red blanket, and they made silly, funny noises that were supposed to sound like a baby’s sounds.

If I had had an ego at the time, I might have thought that this was very patronizing of them to imitate the way I sounded as if mocking my infant sounds would entertain me. But I did not have an ego at the time, so their pseudo-baby sounds worked. I started to laugh at how silly they sounded.

As I was starting to laugh, I saw that they got behind a cumbersome machine, which looked very big to me. It blocked one of their faces as one of them held it up. They also spread a shiny chrome-plated parabolic mirror—almost as big as a face—that was attached to this machine. I had no idea what was about to happen. 

Then it struck me—F L A S H ! ! !  

I was not only blinded, but it felt as though the painfully bright light had penetrated to the very back of my little head. It really HURT my head! I also realized in that moment that my parents had TRICKED me! I had been SET UP to be exposed to this painful explosion!

In an instant, I started to crumble up inside.

Meanwhile, they were thrilled at their success. 

Before I could protest (meaning, cry like an H-bomb), they did it again.

F L A S H ! ! !

I cried like an H-bomb!

They thought that that was really funny, and they had a really big laugh at me before they picked me up to make me feel better.