Sunday, April 30, 2006

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Essay on Jazz


Dave Holland Quintet, Theater Basel, April 27, 2006
Robin Eubanks—trombone
Dave Holland—bass
Steve Nelson—vibes, marimba
Chris Potter—soprano and tenor saxophones
Nate Smith—drums

I go to hear live jazz to clear my head.
But it is not the soloists alone
whose riffs turn down the noise that fills my brain.
When I can hear the players interact,
the chords and phrases moving round the band
from instrument to instrument, a riff
on sax that turns into a tom-tom beat
and reappears, rephrased, a gift returned
from the bassist to the tenor man—
and when this band, of drums and bass and vibes,
trombone and sax, begin to play together
like nobody I've ever heard before—
then through my eyes and ears they take my mind
and give it back to me again, refined.

Chris Potter wrote a tune to play with Holland,
his solo first a duo with the leader,
their lines like double lightning bolts across
a mesa, moving faster than my eyes
can follow, but my ears can pick them up
and grow accustomed to how bass and tenor,
returning to each other, turn away
again, again, until the click of sticks
opens my eyes, and I discover drums.
The driven sax then tells me what to call
this song without a title: "Rise and Rise."

But then they prove it's not how loud you are:
the quiet climax of a Holland solo
in the bass's upper register
with cymbals lightly ringing in and out,
and then the horns come in, an orchestra
of sound and volume giving meaning to
the concept of dynamic range—then stop.
This tune entitled "Ebb and Flow" has ended.

Steve Nelson starts his "Amateur Silenti"
as quietly as possible. He touches
his vibes with double mallets in each hand,
a ballad of how silent love can be.
Bowed bass and stately horns, the drums
a gentle swirl of brushes. Tremolos
begin to stir the surface like a breeze
that hints the sky will not be blue for long;
the tremolos crescendo into words
rising through the forces up to gales
until a hurricane of walking bass
and swing provides a center for the storm.
And when bowed bass and stately horns return,
the drums, now sticks providing stops and starts,
keep shifting till the tune has blown over.

"Lucky Seven" is indeed in seven:
another classic Potter tenor solo,
then Smith supporting Holland's dancing bass:
a giant instrument, the lightest touch,
surprising shifts of rhythm and of key
in passages fulfilling the ideal
of spontaneity as composition.
They first exchange a glance and then their roles,
with Holland's ostinato under Smith,
carefully constructing his crescendo
until the horns and vibes begin to play
legato deconstructed Dixieland
over Holland's still-repeating line.

Applause, applause. The encore is a lesson:
how Eubanks on his brand-new tune invites
just Potter to begin a dialogue
in brass, the black trombonist talking to
the white guy on the tenor, chattering
and passing phrases back and forth, a game
of tag as played by children innocent
of race, if anyone can ever be.
The stage becomes a place for acting out
a better world, for weeping joyously
despite and with the bitter certainty
that this is only play. And yet it's play,
this listening to jazz with Aristotle
and all the other seekers of catharsis
going out into the night with clearer heads.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Daily Poem Project, week 3

This week's vote for the Daily Poem Project took place yesterday. The poems in question were those on Poetry Daily from Tuesday, April 18, to Monday, April 24.

This time, six of the seven poems received votes, and all poems receiving votes received at least two. The winner was clear: a selection from "Epitaphs," by Abraham Sutzkever, translated from the Yiddish by Jacqueline Osherow, received seven votes, while Elsa Cross's "The Lovers of Tlatelalco," translated from the Spanish by Sheena Sood, came in second with four votes.

It was a dark week: four of the seven poems (by Sutzkever, Cross, Forrest Hamer, and Major Jackson) were about war, violence, or genocide. I voted for Jackson's "Hoops," the title poem of his new book, which I gave the nod over Sutzkever's stunning poem (it received three votes in all). I was won over by Jackson's variably rhymed and invariably subtle quatrains: remembering Radar, a friend who played hoops well enough to get a scholarship but ended up getting shot in a drive-by shooting.

For the first time, a poem did not receive a vote, but it was the third poem I was considering voting for, "Breakfast with Bonnard," by Margaret Holley. This elegant depiction of how a poster in one's home becomes an intimate part of one's life probably did not stand a chance against several poems that addressed not a scene from everyday life but an Ausnahmezustand, and did so so well. Sutzkever's "pearls / threaded on a blood-red string of silk" figure so powerfully how the extraordinary and horrifying are touched by the everyday. It's hard to beat a poem that takes on such issues in such a grounded, memorable way.

Light Quarterly No. 50; Richard Wakefield, "On Dogshead"

Light Quarterly no. 50, Autumn 2005, does conclude with a poem of mine, "Habit," but that's not what I want to share here. First of all, I just want to recommend this magazine, which I have been subscribing to for several years now, and which I always enjoy. On the whole, the number of poems that stick with me from this journal is as high as (or in many case much higher than) the number that stick with me from more "serious" journals. And the ones that don't stay with me are at least funny!

Secondly, I want to share this sonnet by the featured poet in this issue, Richard Wakefield:


The rock formation there we're standing on
was known as Dogshead, jutting from the side
of Mount St. Helens. Now, of course, it's gone,
along with half the mountain, in a slide
that took out trees for twenty miles downstream.
This was taken in seventy-four, six years
before the mountain blew, and don't we seem
secure up there, triumphant mountaineers?
It's strange to think we stood a thousand feet
above the present summit. A single blast,
a sudden welling up of buried heat,
and all this mountain fell so far, so fast.
I look back on that climb we're resting from—
our innocence, not knowing what would come.

A Cliché about Formal Verse

In his brief New York Times review (April 23, 2006) of Hapax, by A. E. Stallings, Eric McHenry writes:

"Strict fidelity to traditional forms is brave — not only because these forms are unfashionable but because they're unforgiving. Readers know what rhymed pentameter sounds like, and what language sounds like, and when one has been sacrificed for the sake of the other. Stallings deserves high marks not only for the performances in 'Hapax' but for their degree of difficulty. She may wobble from time to time, but she always stays on the beam and usually sticks her dismounts."

As McHenry suggests, traditional forms are challenging, but his own approach to discussing a "formal" poet is not very brave: he goes right for the cliché that formal verse leads poets to constantly distort what they are saying in order to fit the form. There is, of course, a corresponding cliché for non-formal verse: the reviewer calls the poet's language "slack." But every review of "formal" poetry seems to harp on supposedly problematic passages where the form has distorted the writing, and it is rare that anyone reviewing "free" verse says that a poet might have done better to use form.

There's a paradox in McHenry's comments, too: on the one hand, traditional forms are unfashionable; on the other hand, readers of poetry still manage to be sophisticated enough to hear when language has been sacrificed to "rhymed pentameter" or any other form. Considering how often one reads that students in MFA programs are supposedly unable to identify pentameter (and in some cases, even teachers apparently fail to do so), either McHenry is wrong about the sophistication of readers of poetry today, or traditional forms are actually more popular than he thinks. I'll go for the latter.

I should stress that McHenry agrees with me that Hapax is a wonderful book. I agree: it is full of memorable poems, and "The Village in the Lake" (the poem McHenry criticizes for its "noisy end-rhymes") is one of them.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tennis Numerology, or Comfort for Federer fans

This week, Roger Federer has exactly as many entry-system points as Rafael Nadal and David Nalbandian combined:

Federer, Roger (SUI) 7160
Nadal, Rafael (ESP) 4335
Nalbandian, David (ARG) 2825

So he's as good as the two of them put together. Some comfort for the fact that Nadal has now beaten him three times in a row, and Nalbandian was the last player to beat him besides Nadal.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Greg Brown concert review from recent Philadelphia show

Here's a long review (with gorgeous photos) of a recent Greg Brown show in Philadelphia.

My sentence for today (well, yesterday)

At some point in my education, I came across the idea (hypothesis? suggestion?) that every person, every day, utters at least one sentence that has never been uttered before.

Mine for yesterday: "I had kind of a mayonnaise problem when you ran into the refrigerator door."

I guess this is kind of like a caption contest in reverse: now, cartoonists should draw the cartoon with this caption! :-)

Friday, April 21, 2006

You ful I

What did Miles mean when he wrote this with our magnetic-poetry kit last December?


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Daily Poem Project, week 2

The vote for the Poetry Daily poems from Tuesday, April 11, to Monday, April 17, took place this morning. Once again, all seven poems received votes, but this time the votes were distributed more evenly, with no poem receiving more than four, and there was no first-round winner: "Dowsing for Joy," by Floyd Skloot and "Springtime, 1998," by Hayden Carruth tied for first with four votes. A runoff vote was necessary, and the winner was Carruth's poem, nine to eight.

In both the main vote and the runoff, I voted for Skloot's poem, in which a dowser discusses how dowsing works:

He says there are signs everywhere,
obvious things that most of us simply miss
like the scent of blooming lilies carried on air,
or hidden fields of force that call us home
when we can no longer bear to be alone.
What is music but waves plucked from the sky [...]?

For me, John Koethe's "Hamlet" (which received three votes) was quite striking, as Koethe's biography is uncannily like mine: off to college to study physics, he finds the courses disappointing:

................................instead of paradox and mystery
And heroic flights of speculation that came true,
You had to start with classical mechanics and a lab ...

So he ends up studying philosophy and writing poetry. The poem is also interesting because it reveals the existence of a DVD of Richard Burton playing Hamlet in a stage production!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Easy bunny

I hopped into the room with my hands up by my ears, index and middle fingers pointing up. Since rabbits cannot talk, I made gestures to Miles, Andrea, and Luisa, who were still at the dinner table, that they should close their eyes. Miles and Andrea did so, although Luisa did not, of course, as she is not yet two. I pulled little chocolate Easter bunnies out of my pocket, put one at each table setting, and hopped back out of the room. Then I walked back in as if nothing had happened, and I asked Andrea what had happened. "The Easter bunny was here," she said, "and brought us chocolate bunnies."

I did the same thing again the next day. On the third day, something different happened, although I am not sure exactly how it came up. In any case, somebody (Miles?) said we should close our eyes for some reason, so Luisa put her hands up by her ears and said, "Easy bunny!"

Since then, we all call the Easter bunny the Easy bunny.

Daily Poem Project, week 1

This semester, I am teaching a course called "13 Ways of Looking at a Poem." As part of this course, I am repeating the "Daily Poem Project" that was part of the course on "Quality" that I taught last summer with my colleague Lucia Michalcak.

The Daily Poem Project involves reading the poem on Poetry Daily every day for a week. Then the students in the course vote, as I do, for the best poem of the week. As the course is on Tuesday mornings, our week runs from Tuesday to Monday. After we have done this for twelve weeks, we will have a final vote in the last week of the term on the best of the winners. Last summer, the winning poem in the end was "The Shout," by Simon Armitage. Poems by Bob Hicok and Ted Kooser came in second and third.

The first vote for this semester took place this morning. The poems were those on Poetry Daily from Tuesday, April 4, to Monday, April 10, including a selection from Czeslaw Milosz's brilliant "A Treatise on Poetry" (which is included in a new and selected edition that has just been published) and "Elena Ceauçescu's Bed," by W. D. Snodgrass, a poet I have recently come to admire.

But the winner was a much younger poet, as well as a poem that I recommended yesterday in my last blog entry: "Fragment," by A. E. Stallings. Not only did it win, it won hands down: it received 11 votes, and all the other poems received one each. I was quite surprised that AES's poem won so easily against such strong competition (in addition to Milosz and Snodgrass, Tomaz Salamun; for the complete list, see PD's archive). Alicia beats the old guys!

Monday, April 10, 2006