In my continuing year-end link clearance, today is the day for cleaning the shelves of accumulated poetry-related inventory. Here we have no fewer than four (count 'em, four!) items all drawn directly or indirectly from 3quarksdaily, which is by a fair margin my favorite cultural discovery of the past six months or so. This group begins in all seriousness, before sheering off rapidly into an abyss of poetical whimsy. As we shall see in the final item, "The owls are not what they seem!"
- Australian poet Peter Nicholson contributes a regular Poetry and Culture column to the quark-ish mix, and his November 21 essay took up composer Benjamin Britten, declaring him perhaps this past century's most adept at the difficult art of melding music to poetry.
Britten played with Menuhin at the end of the war for survivors of the concentration camps, and the memories he brought back from that time prompted the song cycle he composed not long after, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. The muscular confrontation with the fact of suffering brought forth a cycle in which Donne’s verse starkly counterpoises the music. The counterweight to this confrontational style is the calm and lucid settings of Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare in Nocturne, where Britten finds the kind of equipoise so often missing elsewhere. On the edge of sleep, or in the idea of sleep itself, the composer finds repose. To use Yeats’ words, the ceremony of innocence may be drowned, but the memory that one was once innocent—Britten reaches at that with all his yearning. You still wake to find the blood and pain of the real world, but during the cycle one has been enchanted, a little. Some of Puck’s juice has been sprinkled in our eyes too. The moment passes, but the moment was beautiful. And one doesn’t forget that it was real. Britten has made it so. Poetry has helped the composer get there....
If one takes account of all the poetry settings Britten composed, and thinks of the literary input from Crabbe, Melville, James and Mann, and others, then one really is prompted to consider Britten one of poetry’s, and language’s, most eloquent advocates. A composer as subtle and as various in his or her choice of texts, and the ability to set them as memorably as Britten: the muses were here in agreement, and they bestowed their graces liberally, even though darkness is clearly visible and any joy achieved is hard won.
Large quantities of Britten's poetry settings, including I think all of the works mentioned in this piece, are included in the enormous Naxos catalog that has become available for download to subscribers at eMusic. I received an e-mail earlier this month from our author, Peter Nicholson, pointing me to his recently published pieces; I had already saved the link to this one at that point, and now I commend it to you.
- Although they later had a bit of a falling out, Britten collaborated early on with W.H. Auden. In a 3quarks item from earlier this week, Abbas Raza points to this article by Alexander Nemerov on the elaborate interrelations between Auden's poem, "Musée des Beaux Arts" -- which my 15-year old son recently was introduced to in a literature class -- and the painting to which it refers, and the relations between the painting and its sources, Ovid in particular. Nemerov writes:
Pieter Bruegel made Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in 1938—or so W. H. Auden helps us see. Auden wrote his famous poem 'Musée des Beaux Arts' that year, with its last stanza devoted to Bruegel's picture, and under the poem's pressure The Fall of Icarus becomes a commentary about events in the months leading up to inevitable world conflict. More precisely, the poem transforms Bruegel's painting into a surrealist diagram concerning the place of the intellectual in violent times. What do artists and poets and critics do in the face of catastrophe? How do they register it in their work, or should they even try to do so?
- Jack Gilbert is one of my own favorite poets, as I have mentioned at length previously. Here, 3quarks contributor Morgan Meis reproduces a new Gilbert poem, "Ovid in Tears," one of five printed in the new issue of The Paris Review. The other four poems are not available online, nor does the Review offer any online excerpt of the interview that apparently accompanies them. Definitely enough to send me out hunting for a physical copy in short order.
- Gilbert would have been a subject of a post that I have been meaning to get around to writing since mid-July, but will probably never actually compose. The tale runs in this wise:
Back on July 28, post-avant poetics guru Ron Silliman posted the story of his emergence from a meeting on a hot afternoon and his retreat into the air-conditioned interior of a Barnes & Noble store, where he bought two volumes of poetry, one of which was Jack Gilbert's newest collection, published earlier this year, Refusing Heaven, which I had mentioned, partly as an excuse to post a photo of a hedgehog, a week prior to Ron's post. [With me so far?] Now, Ron Silliman knows a little something about Jack Gilbert, and is in a position to speak with some authority because the two poets knew each other and Ron studied with Gilbert many years back in San Francisco. Fleeting references to Gilbert have cropped up in Ron's posts for years. In this July 28 post Gilbert and Laura (Riding) Jackson, who is the other poet Ron whose work purchased that day, are described as
a bizarrely apt combination, these two gloomiest of poets. One so in love with truth she sounds like Fox Mulder in the old X-Files,the other equally in love with beauty and the romance of the difficult. It’s funny how very much alike they sound – but both are totalitarians as poets. Both use generalizations, but they each absolutely are committed to the concepts that underlie them. Neither is at all like the bland muddle of Auden.
The post moves on and Gilbert is not mentioned again. (Many commenters spring in at this point to defend Auden, however.) The following day, Greg Perry posted on Gilbert, quoting and praising a passage from "A Brief for the Defense," the initial poem in Refusing Heaven. Greg's post was not triggered directly by Ron's, but was instead a follow-up to a brief item by Chris Lott in which Chris stated an obvious point:
I can’t tell from Ron’s hot post whether or not he actually likes Jack Gilbert’s work.
Now then, the post that I had planned to work on but never did was meant to be an answer to Chris Lott's question: I would run a thorough search through Ron Silliman's collected posts, find all of the references to Jack Gilbert, and deduce from this evidence whether or not Ron Silliman actually likes Jack Gilbert's work. (My untutored speculation is that Ron probably does like Gilbert's work, but grudgingly and without the degree of enthusiasm he might otherwise muster, because he views Gilbert as a poet with the wherewithal to be so much better if only he had followed a more post-avant route rather than working uncomfortably close to Ron's bête noire, the alleged "School of Quietude." If Ron Silliman characterizes you as "totalitarian," it is probably not entirely complimentary. Only Ron himself knows for sure, of course.)
And there we are. The post has never been written, and probably never will be. BUT, if I ever get around to it, I have selected a really good title. I will call it: "Topsy-Turvy: Gilbert & Silliman."
P.S., Since I've mentioned him above, this is as opportune a moment as any to say how much I liked Greg Perry's Blue Moose.
- And now, the promised poetical silliness, and worth the wait I assure you. 3quarks' Abbas Raza, again, points the way to Alex Lencicki's Brokentype which in turn points the way to Francis Heaney's soon to be published
AnthologyHoly Tango of Literature.
In it, [Heaney] made anagrams of the names of famous poets, and then wrote poems based on the anagrams in the poet's style. The book includes Emily Dickinson’s 'Skinny Domicile', Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 'Errol Flynn’s not Dead', and William Shakespeare’s 'Is Sperm Like a Whale?'
Both posts reproduce Heaney's William Carlos Williams send-up, "I WILL ALARM ISLAMIC OWLS". As Alex says, it is "several grades of awesome." Other offerings include T.S. Eliot's "Toilets," William Butler Yeats' "Till I Must Be a Lawyer," and Wallace Stevens' "Elves Enact Laws," which begins:
Call the roll for the majority whip,
The wispy one, and bid him vote
On autumn leaves’ numismatic worth.
Let committees dawdle in the glen
As they are wont to do, and let their aides
Weave flowers through broken lute strings.
Let vetos float amid the spheres.
The only senator is the senator of pointy ears.
Nor do playwrights escape Heaney's notice: we are offered excerpts from, among others, Samuel Beckett ("Bake Me Cutlets," in which Vladimir and Estragon co-host a cooking show), Tennessee Williams ("Ellen's Siamese Twin"), and 2005 Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, whose "Horrid Planet" is a previously unknown episode of the Star Wars saga:
C-3P0: There’s a lot of sand here, that’s all I have to say. (Pause.) A lot of sand. (Pause.) Don’t care for it. No. Don’t care for it at all. (Pause.) And too much sun. (Pause.) I don’t mind a bit of sun, of course. I can’t think of anyone who minds a bit of sun. It’s nice. Warms you up. Glints off you, it’s cheerful. But there’s a limit. And then there’s all this sand. (Pause.) Too much sand. It’s interesting. When you think about it. Eh? What you do, when you’re crash-landing on a planet, you’re worried about landing in the sea. The sea! Because you’d be stranded, wouldn’t you. No land in sight. And then you crash. And this is what you get. Sand. (Pause.) It’s funny, when you think about it.
I am at a loss for, well, words.
The book can be pre-ordered through various outlets (Amazon, f'rinstance), and in a fit of generosity Heaney has posted the whole thing in PalmReader format (for those who read on PDA's) and as a text file, here.