Reasonable Words: Guthrie and other Writing Machines

Among many great things in the 9 May London Review of Books was a review of Woody Guthrie’s novel House of Earth by Ian Sansom. I don’t think of Guthrie as a novelist, but he was one, and intermittently at least, a good one. Sansom gives this passage from the novel, introducing Tike Hamlin, the main character, with much in common with Woody (although he’s made himself a little taller, a move I sympathize with!)

Five feet and eight inches tall, square built, but slouchy in his actions, hard of muscle, solid of bone and lungs, but with a good wide streak of laziness somewhere in him … a medium man, medium wise and medium ignorant, wise in the lessons taught by fighting the weather and working the land, wise in the tricks of the men, women, animals, and all of the other things of nature, wise to guess a blizzard, a rainstorm, dry spell, the quick change of the hard wind, wise as to how to make friends, and how to fight enemies. Ignorant as to the things of school.

Of its era, the 1930’s and 40s, certainly, but a good rhythm, nice staircases of lists.

Having not known he even wrote a novel, I now want to read it, and Sansom also has some interesting comparisons to other writers while discussing another of Guthrie’s books, Seeds of Man,

a novel clearly enhanced with large doses of autobiographical fact, but also the thousands of songs, song fragments, gobbets of verse and prose, and the cartoons, journals, diaries, letters and endless observations banged out on a typewriter, or scribbled on a steno pad, and often carelessly discarded. Guthrie, like, say, Balzac, Simenon, Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, Richmal Crompton and Stephen King, was basically a writing machine, someone constantly in the process of noting, notating and composing.

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This machine writes novels: the IBM Selectric of my youth…a lot less fun than WordPress, and the kind of typewriter I wrote many truly terrible high school and college papers.

I love this image of “a writing machine,” the opposite of how most people view (or experience) writing. (“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -–Thomas Mann ) The trope on writing is that it is such a heroic struggle–be it a 500 word theme for a high school English class, or The Magic Mountain. The notion of getting up and just writing every day because you need to, because you are a writing machine, is a neat counterpoint to this, a story worth telling in its own right.

A Beautiful Song: Sarah Vaughan

Five minutes you won’t regret spending on YouTube if you are a fan of wonderful singing (operatic, jazz or otherwise). Sarah Vaughan singing Errol Gardner’s “Misty.” Yes, I know she had the most operatic voice of any jazz singer, and that’s perhaps what first drew me to her, but her way with a lyric, her style as a singer, and that ardent restraint keep me listening.

(And she had a cold, which you can tell–and still gives a performance like this!)

How to Get an Aacdemic Job

A job in ME Studies, and probably one of the most truthful academic job postings I’ve read (too bad it’s a spoof).

A giggle for my many friends in academe, or aspiring to same.

Me Studies Seeks Tenure Track Professor.

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“Don’t worry. You’re on your way to a solid career. you’ll be teaching younger, more irritating versions of yourself in no time.” The senior math professor to one of his grad students in David Auburn’s (not particularly good) play Proof.

Poetic Words: Thoughts Archaeological

Poetry Daily has a nice counterpoint to the recent stories about museums returning artifacts.

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At the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting
by Ernest Hilbert

O, ungrateful hordes! Archaeologists
Mill through the hotel lobby, like jammed cars,
Clogging doorways, aiming all ways, vaguely
Swerving clots of unflappable classicists.
While elsewhere, their counterparts, undertakers,
Are busy burying, they burrow to see
What’s still down there. To think, such an awkward
Set of characters would meddle with tombs
Of emperors, queens, and epic poets!
They hunt all summer long the long interred,
Gather smashed shields, pry seals from anterooms,
Blow dust from sherds, dive to black ships.
Veering, talk to talk, they discuss ancient glory,
Building careers, then joining their quarry.

Beautiful Pictures: Airplane Photos

Lots of work, so lots of air travel (and not much blogging, sorry). But did see this photo at Reagan National Airport (which I’d rather call DCA) this week, and it, and the rest of the show caught my eye.

Jeffrey Milstein, 49 Jets

The show is “The Jet as Art” and the photographer is Jeffrey Milstein. He’s also had work at the Smithsonian. Getting these shots must have been quite an ordeal. He stands on the runways! The results are graphically striking, and its also somehow helpful to be reminded of airplanes as an object of physical and technological beauty when you are at an airport, not generally a contemplative experience.

Silly Words: George Carlin’s Literary Advice

Because we could all use a laugh today: George Carlin’s “Join the Book Club Today!” K-Tel meets Book of the Month:

His voice has that unctuous “buy now” quality evoking bad local TV ads, and such great titles! My faves: “Fill Your Life With Croutons” and the “The Wrong Underwear Can Kill.”

There is a fun list of vanity press books at Just the titles are enough to make you smile at the enduring truth from Ecclesiastes “of making many books there is no end.”

Latawnya The Naughty Horse Learns To Say No To Drugs
The Shadow Mouse of Everjade
Night Travels of the Elven Vampire

As yet, though, Amazon has no evidence of George Carlin’s promised “Why Jews Point.”

Levine Back on the Conductor’s Podium

James Levine, the long-time music director of the Met, and previously of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has had a long series of health challenges. These have kept him from working for  two years, but he did lead a performance by the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Tomassini in the Times gave it a good review (although much of the story, which made the frScreen Shot 2013-05-21 at 7.22.33 AMont page, is about the concert rather than critique). Perhaps the story is that he conducted at all, given that his lack of mobility required a motorized wheelchair. Over on WQRX, Naomi Lewin gives the performance a thumbs up, and there’s a bit of the end of the Schubert, Great C Major Symphony, which closed the concert, available in audio. It’s a long piece, perhaps a trial for anybody to conduct. (Orchestra musicians also once found it too long and exhausting.) But it sounds like both conductor and orchestra were on fine musical form.

News from the Studio

Gramophone shares the distressing news that “Great Voices Sing John Denver” is not, in fact, an Onion headline, but an actual CD slated for release in June. Opera stars like Plácido Domingo, Danielle de Niese, René Pape, and Thomas Hampson assay the artistic heights of mountain mommas.

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Full marks for the cover though, you have to give them that. For a preview, one can find Domingo and Denver “dueting” on “Perhaps Love” on YouTube, a link you can find for yourself.

Next up no doubt: Alfie Boe records Rückert-Lieder, available for cheap if you order it with “Rammstein in the Cole Porter Song Book.”

Critical Words: Arnold Whittall on Meistersinger

Every month the classical music magazine Gramophone does a feature comparing recordings of some great monument of classical music. This month Arnold Whittall is surveying Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg versions on disc and and DVD and is, as is his wont, perceptive, even-handed and fleet of phrase.

Here’s a bit in which he takes care of a mid-century performance by the great Wotan, Hans Hotter.

The 1956 Bayreuth performance under André Cluytens is treasurable for capturing Hans Hotter‘s Sachs at its most subtle and least wobbly, though the Walhall sound quality is poor and Wolfgang Windgassen’s ardent but soulless Walther is an acquired taste.

39 words and you know what you need to know.

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Nürnberg possibly as it was in Hans Sachs’ day.

By the way, I heard James Morris (another great Wotan) on WQRX recalling this tidbit about Meistersinger: “I believe that Die Meistersinger is the greatest single work of art ever produced by man. It took more skill to plan and write it than it took to plan and write the whole canon of Shakespeare.” –H.L. Mencken. His trademark hyperbole, no doubt, but it is a kind of overwhelming opera to come to grips with (and is, to my mind, going for something completely different from the aims of Shakespeare).

Library Words: Pew Field Research on Public Libaries

Pew has foundation money to do research about public libraries and has put up a slide set of a recent report on the “library use” phase of their study, part 2, focusing on tech trends. (You may remember “state of reading” report, which seemed to focus mostly on e-reading).

Public Libraries and Ebooks come up as a predictable source of confusion (patrons are interested, but don’t know they are available). And there are legal, business, and operational issues with “lending” them. of course. More surprising to me was the finding that libraries are “still for books” and “browsing” for a lot of people, including young people. I go to the public library often, and it seems that at least 50% of the activity at any given time is browsing, but the Internet, not the stacks. Database access is highly rated too; I’m guessing this is for paid subscription services, that you can get free via public library membership. ( and Oxford University Press both work this way.)

The slides are up and don’t take long to zip through.

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The Friendship Heights branch of the DC Public Library, one of three branches within walking distance.


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