National Poetry Month, 20 of 30.

About Opera
By William Meredith

It’s not the tunes, although as I get older
Arias are what I hum and whistle.
It’s not the plots––they continue to bewilder
In the tongue I speak and in several that I wrestle.

An image of articulateness is what it is:
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?
Words as they fall are monotone and bloodless
But they yearn to take the risk these noises take.

What dancing is to the slightly spastic way
Most of us teeter through our bodily life
Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say,
In the heart’s duress, on the heart’s behalf.

Poet William Meredith was, among other things, an opera critic and librettist, and I quite like his idea of ordinary speech yearning to become opera. (This is perhaps even more resonant as Meredith’s speech was impaired following a stroke, although he continued to produce fine poetry, garnering the National Book Award for Effort at Speech.)

Mozart on the heart’s behalf, the trio “Soave sia il vento” from Così fan Tutte

National Poetry of Month, 19 of 30

NPG D9055; George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Henry Meyer, after  James Holmes
Lord Byron

Stanzas for Music
By Lord Byron (George Gordon)

   There be none of Beauty’s daughters
       With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters
       Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmed ocean’s pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming:

   And the midnight moon is weaving
       Her bright chain o’er the deep;
Whose breast is gently heaving,
       As an infant’s asleep:
So the spirit bows before thee,
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer’s ocean.

Lord Byron (of the sobriquet, “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”) has many connections to music. His Don Juan joins Mozart’s as one of the great settings of the story. And Childe Harold inspired, among other things, Berlioz’ Harold in Italy.

Day locked down

Day holed up in Harvard Square, not able to get to work at the office in Watertown for obvious reasons. Looks like this this horrible week may be drawing to a close with taking the suspect alive and a return to something closer to normal.

Below, Watertown as it was in a more peaceful past. Here’s to a normal boring day tomorrow and back to posting poems.


National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 18 of 30

New York poet Frank O’Hara’s did lots of chatty “I did this, I did that” poems during his lunch hours away from his job at the Museum of Modern Art. Art and music, Rachmaninoff or Billie Holliday (as below) light up many of his poems, which seems like they were written just yesterday.

The Day Lady Died
By Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sunFrank O'Hara
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                       I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 17 of 30

Today, some Baudelaire. Try saying the French even if you can’t really speak it. The sound embodieds the theme.


Music often carries me away like a sea!
Toward my pale star,
Beneath a ceiling of mist or in a vast sky,
I cast anchor;

My chest a bowsprit and lungs billowing
Like sails,
I scale the back of waves gathering
As night drops its veil;

I feel all the passions of a stricken
Vessel vibrating inside me;
The fair wind, the tempest and its convulsions

Upon the immense gulf rock me.
At other times, becalmed, great mirror
Of my despair!

(Text of the poem in the original French)

La musique souvent me prend comme une mer!
Vers ma pâle étoile,
Sous un plafond de brume ou dans un vaste éther,
Je mets à la voile;

La poitrine en avant et les poumons gonflés
Comme de la toile
J’escalade le dos des flots amoncelés
Que la nuit me voile;

Je sens vibrer en moi toutes les passions
D’un vaisseau qui souffre;
Le bon vent, la tempête et ses convulsions

Sur l’immense gouffre
Me bercent. D’autres fois, calme plat, grand miroir
De mon désespoir!

translated from the French by John Kinsella

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 16 of 30

Mingus at the Showplace
by William Matthews

I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,

and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat

literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long
since defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,

casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.

And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but they were wrong, as it happened.

So I made him look at the poem.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” he said,

and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He laughed
amiably. He didn’t look as if he thought

bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they’d plot

to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children. Of course later

that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.

“We’ve suffered a diminuendo in personnel,”
he explained, and the band played on.

In a memoir about his father Sebastian Matthews writes that he doesn’t know if this encounter took place, but that “the myth of it feels right.” Continuing, “For all of these reasons, and for a few, private, complicated ones of my own, I knew what music had to be played at my father’s funeral. Charlie Mingus’ haunting elegy for [Lester Young] would be mine to my father. “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” had to be his send-off.


Copying Out Poetry

I’ve been an amateur poetry anthologist for a long time (poems by Mark Strand and bits of poetic writing by John Cage were on my dorm walls in college, in far off pre-web days).

In that era, I frequently copied out poetry by hand, but now, like many, I am a maestro of copy and paste, and rarely even type in a poem, much less copy it by hand. As it happened, Monday was one of those rare occurrences: connection-less at Reagan Airport, I had to copy this Matthews’ poem out line by line. It’s a good task: Things that just slide by as lovely sounds become specific and legible: line endings (and how those endings get crossed over) become clear. Everything slows down a bit, and your attention becomes more acute. Even better if you read aloud what you have copied down, the bonus being you get a start on memorizing it.

Words of Solace: W.H. Auden

The events of yesterday in Boston called to mind some words of Auden’s, and thoughts, prayers, and hopes for safety.

The last stanza of Auden’s September 1, 1939

W.H. Auden in 1939
Auden in the 30’s.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 15 of 30

Music, goes one recent definition, is organized sound and silence. Keats perhaps had this idea earlier:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
 Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
 Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

(From the second stanza of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn“)

For today, some poetry sites, etc. that I like and that are more or less part of my regular routine. And as anybody who knows me well, I heart routine!

Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 7.49.24 AMPoetry Daily pulls from poetry published around the U.S., also has prose features and lots of good links. A weekly newsletter is chatty and highlights a poem about to disappear from the archive. For Poetry Month they send you a poem a day selected by a poet and glossed by him or her, usually eye opening. I discovered D. Nurkse and Albert Goldbarth through them.

Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 7.52.00 AMPoetry Foundation is the mother ship of U.S. poetry sites. Also has daily poems, and lots and lots of poetry and context. The Browse feature lets you look for anything you might want, poems by occasion, on particular subjects, that are good for children, have audio or video etc.

They have a mobile app that has a great “spin” button that just brings up a poem kind of like a roulette wheel, but with better odds of winning.

Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 7.54.42 AMAlso just learned from Jim about an app that helps you memorize poems from Penguin,
Poems By Heart from Penguin Classics. A wonderful new take on an old idea, namely that getting a few poems by heart is nice equipment for living. (App is free, but there are ‘in-app’ fees. And it’s rated 9+ for “infrequent mild/mature/suggestive themes,”  which gave me a wry smile.)

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 14 of 30

Today an excerpt from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, celebrating the Greek musician and poet who could charm the beasts and bring forth dance instead of savagery. The story of his journey into the Underworld to retrieve his beloved Euridice inspired the very first operas, and continues to intrigue composers. A list on Wikipedia of  “Orphean Operas” lists 70 some, including Monteverdi’s 1615 La favola d’Orfeo, the first operatic masterpiece, and still performed, to Philip Glass and Ricky Ian Gordon’s more recent ones.

From The Sonnets To Orpheus: I by Rainer Maria Rilke
Orfeo beguiling his audience, although I think the turtle is just trying to find his lost cellphone.

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from simply listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts. And where there had been
at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,

a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind-
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

(To me, this echoes ideas I got from Les Murray’s lines of a few days back, music’s paradoxical ability to help us find some quiet in ourselves.)

noguchi lyreOrpheus was also a guiding spirit of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, and a founding work of neo-classical ballet and the company. (It was on the very first program and the company’s logo was for many years referred to stylized lyre, at left, created by Isamu Noguchi who designed the production.)

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, 13/30

Today, a poem by Swedish poet and Nobel Prize Winner Tomas Tranströmer, who is often inspired by music, in this case, Haydn:

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 8.12.05 PM

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.

I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.’

The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.

And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.


And Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Haydn.

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