Sunday, July 30, 2006

Unless you're a genius...

Unless you’re a genius...

This was the narrative when I was a teenager. Unless you’re a genius, it won’t be easy.

Pray that you aren’t a genius.

JS Bach.

JS Bach was one of the greatest musical composers who ever lived. His mastery could not be overstated. And yet, Bach was the very last choice among all the applicants for the post of Cantor at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. He was chosen only after such a luminary as Johann Christoph Graupner could not be had. Some critics even went so far as to call him nothing more than an organ grinder. After his death, his wife died in poverty. A third of his cantatas, legend has it, were sold as fish-wrap. Meanwhile, the genteel mediocrity of younger composers like Johann Adolph Hasse were met with wide approval and stunning popularity.


Mozart was possibly one of the most consistently underemployed composers of the 18th century. Despite entertaining the Aristocracy as a child, that same Aristocracy flatly turned their backs on him when he was later in need of employment. Marie Antoinette, of beheading fame, personally sunk one of Mozart’s opportunities for employment calling him (and his father) little more than common beggars. Little good being a genius did Mozart... He died in debt and impoverished at the age of 36. Meanwhile, Salieri, the very poster child of mediocrity, lived to a successful old age. Salieri’s pupils included Beethoven and Schubert.


Beethoven’s music was “blamed” on his deafness. Meanwhile, Ignaz Pleyel, a tunefully mediocre composer had become one of the most famous composers in Europe. Pleyel’s music is the only music of a classical composer who, contemporaneously, was played in America. He outlived Beethoven and died a rich man. Beethoven died in poverty.


Schubert achieved some very limited success in his songs (none of the great publishing houses ever rewarded him with more than a pittance) , while the rest of his output was met with a kind of benign pity. Schubert, already a very shy man, frequently shelved his compositions with the slightest disapproval. He was never able to find employment and was forced to rely on friends and acquaintances. He died at the age of 31.


Shakespeare’s initial reception was a hostile one. Robert Greene, an older contemporary & dramatist, considered Shakespeare to be an “upstart crowe”, an over ambitious actor (an insult) and a plagiarist. Greene later apologized, it seems. Although Shakespeare did well, he was not substantially more successful than some of his peers – like Thomas Heywood. In his own day he was considered, by many, to be a lesser dramatist than his friend and contemporary Ben Jonson. After the Restoration, it was Jonson’s plays which were to shape English drama, not Shakespeare’s. Beaumont and Fletcher’s collaborations were also considered to be superior to Shakespeare. If not for the effort of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, who published the first folio shortly after his death, many of Shakespeare’s works might have been lost (like Cardenio) or at least badly garbled (many Restoration dramatists ruthlessly altered and adapted his plays). The recognition of Shakespeare’s genius, like Bach’s, came nearly a century after his death.


His first book, containing poetry no worse than most of his contemporaries, was critically savaged. It was later said that Keats' early death was hastened by the even nastier reception of his last (and great) poems. Although his death was not caused by the critique, the fact that the legend exists says something for the level of antipathy aimed at the poet. He died at the age of 25.

Robert Frost

Our last example has a happy ending. The start of Frost’s career was anything but auspicious. In fact, the first half of Frost’s life was spent in complete obscurity. He was forty years old before his first poems were recognized, and not in his own country. It was after he had moved to England that his first book was published (with the help of Ezra Pound). Prior to his year in England editors, who would later compete to publish his poetry, soundly rejected him. In fact, some editors would later choose to publish the very same poems they had earlier rejected (much to Frost’s satisfaction). Frost’s greatest asset was a long life. If you are going to be a genius, and successful, live a long life.

Among the composers, only Bach was moderately good at self-promotion. Shakespeare was an astute man, knowing (perhaps more so than any other artist who has ever lived) that discretion is the better part of valor. If history is to be the judge, it teaches one that success in any given art (or any livelihood really) is not so much a matter of talent but of self promotion. Even the most mediocre, if he or she knows how to ingratiate his or herself to the tune of the times, will be more apt to live a long and successful life.

If you want to be successful, let your genius be self-promotion.

If you want to be a great artist, rest assured that you will be loved once you’re dead.

Best of all, be blessed with both talents.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Ulysses in Burlington, Vermont

Here is a poem I wrote a while back. It's one of my favorite poems. However, nobody else likes it. I have submitted it to several publications and none of them show any interest. In one case, the poem was met with outright hostility. So, either the editors are stunningly poor judges of poetry, or I am.

I am always amazed at how some artists can't recognize their own mediocrity. Alfred Austen (the poet laureate of England after Tennyson's death) being a prime example (The Joy of Bad Verse by Nicholas T. Parsons). Here was a man whose breathtaking mediocrity was only rivaled by his sense of genius. Maybe I fall into that category. You be the judge.

Anyway, one of the reasons I like the poem so much is because it was fun to write. I took Tennyson's Ulysses and tried to "modernize" it. At the same time, I closely followed his grammatical style and used much of his vocabulary. This gives the poem the odd feeling of being in two worlds at once, I know. I came up with the idea a while back when I read that student Edward Elgar (an English late-romantic composer), came up with the idea of re-writing Mozart's (40th or 41rst?) symphony while using all the same note "values". In other words, he changed the melody but kept everything else the same. I wanted to know how that would work in poetry.

It's a pastiche. In the musical sense, this means that we take an old song and put new words in it, giving it a new meaning. For my part, I tried to turn the whole thing upside down.

It little profits that–a girl stopped
By traffic lights in Burlington, Vermont,
Skateboard idle at the curb–I dole
My laws to boys that leer and know not me.
I cannot rest for riding every day
Downhill to Lake Champlain. I have enjoyed
The streets alone, with friends, at times with strangers
But always with an equal love–in sun
And summer or when winter topples snow
From the Adirondacks’ slopes and seals
The roaming lake. I’ve made myself a name
By daily boarding past the populous fronts
Of Church Street. I’ve come to know the people:
Its jugglers, pipers, lovers and its children
As I myself am known by them and am
Become a part of them. Who haven’t I told,
And freely–that experience lessens me
That makes me more; that having had, the heart
Desires more and still forever more
The world that never can be fully traveled,
Whose end is my own ending. Bring to me
Days piled on days. Bring me roads, my board,
Unburnished life. So have I told my lovers
And held them to my breasts to hear my breath,
My ringing blood–there is no hour saved;
Drink now and fully, here where falling’s scraped
My skin, here where the wind has chaffed, drink here,
My lips. So have I stood atop the hill
To see the sunsets and all the city spread
Beneath me to the lake and said to those
Who with me readied for the day’s last free-fall
Down through the arc-lit streets: here is my knowledge,
My utmost–life as in love. Let us go
And meet the glittering boundary of the dark water.
This is my mother, whom I love; the room
I left behind (she keeps the knick-knacks–stones
And seashells I discarded); this her house
Round it the wildflowers she’s subdued,
Finding in them their usefulness and good
(Her work now that I’m gone)–and I’m amazed
By her no less than she by me. She’s said:
‘By what we do we love or fail in love;
‘In life our work’s no different–yours and mine.’
There lies the avenue, the broad downhill
To Union Station, there before the shoreline–
The traffic veers. For me alone to go
Or stay, and there’s a joy in having to
Myself the choice–not asking what comes next;
Life’s for the taking. You and I are young,
Our coiled bodies ready to be sprung,
Our corded backs and shoulders to be stretched
(What is torn will mend). Let our mistakes
Be ours, and our successes; what we are
Be boundaryless. The early morning sun
Is furrowed in the climbing waves, and tops
The further mountains. Come, the day awaits us–
The city wakens–what new byways, who
We’ll meet, what friends or strangers, what new lovers,
Ours to discover; if this day’s the last
Then nothing to regret, if not, what change
Another will have wrought on us may touch
Us with a wonder greater than we dreamt of.
Perhaps we each will have a child someday,
Perhaps she’ll say: ‘I want a skateboard just
‘Like yours. I want to be like you.’ Then I’ll say:
We are the lives that we create. This is
The lake, and this our earth and heaven; my love
Abide in you and yours in all you do.
Live to the last day and let the poets say:
‘To be like her!–in Burlington, Vermont.’

Ulysses in Burlington, Vermont
February 3, 2000

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Blurb Wars

Match the poets to their blurbs. If you can do it, and if I were rich... but I'm not and there will be no prizes. (Hint: Some poets have more than one blurb...)

Notice how the blurbers always say " of...". As if to say: "Well... he or she really isn't that great" or "I'm just going to write 'one of' because I don't really know if they're all that good..." or "Good God, they're *all* geniuses..."

If you have more, add them to the list...

A.) Timothy Steele
B.) T.S. Eliot
C.) Robert Frost
D.) Thoma Lux
E.) John Ashbery
F.) Elizabeth Bishop
G.) Galway Kinnell
H.) Mary Oliver
I.) Seamus Heaney
J.) Dana Gioia
K.) E.E. Cummings of the finest poets of this century... of America's finest poets...

... one of the poets on whom the future of the genre depends...

...his generation's most gifted and eloquent poets...

...among our finest poets, and still growing...

...the poems stay in the mind, which is the one essential feature of major poetry... of the most distinquished poets of our century...

...recognized and cherished as American's favorite poet...

...a poet of the rarest ability, the kind who comes once or twice a generation... of the finest poets this country has produced in this century... of the greatest lyric poets of all time...

...internationally known poet...

...rises to the occasion of all great poetry...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Poetry of A.E. Stallings

The Poetry of A.E. Stallings

A.E. Stallings recently published HAPAX, her latest book and published in 2006.

Among contemporaries, Stallings makes for some of the most enjoyable reading. Her skill with language and form is foremost. Too few contemporary poets stick out their necks like Stallings, preferring the ease of free verse.

Stallings poetry is clever and that can be taken in its complimentary or pejorative way. Her poems can be compared to Wilbur's and especially to Edna Saint Vincent Millay; in certain respects, Dorothy Parker. They are cogent, masterfully fitting theme to form. When Stallings is off, though, she only writes prettily. Her language feels studied and affected; and she can’t help remind readers of the Victorian poets in the thrall of Greek myth. Most of all, few of her poems exceed the sum of their parts. One wonders if there are not more profound or deeper emotional experiences she is not sharing or if the formality of her poetry is a kind of barrier. The risk in formal poetry is in letting the formality become the matter of the poem, intentionally or otherwise.

First, consider the poem "An ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro." It begins:

"It is not the curled up bones, nor even the grave
"That stops me, but the blue beads on the collar..."

The first facet of Stallings' writing is her easy and regrettable use of linguistic archaisms like "nor". "Nor" just isn't used in common parlance and I wonder why she felt compelled to use it except for the sound or that she likes archaic, literary sound of it. She could have written:

It is not the curled up bones, not even the grave...

Her usage is especially odd in a free verse poem. (One could not successfully argue that this poem is blank verse.) Formalist poets frequently resort to literary archaisms because they're needed for metrical padding but they are a form of laziness.

Stallings imagines the dog's wandering after death, making its way to the river Styx and crossing it. The poem is sensitive and touchingly asks why the owner put the collar on the dog. "A careful master/ Even now protects a favorite, just so./ But what evil could she suffer after death?" Stallings never ventures an answer. Instead, she's emersed in the underworld walk of the dog that may or may not have something to do with the collar. The poem closes with a kind of cleverness.

A shake as she scrambles ashore sets the beads jingling.
And then, that last, tense moment--touching noses
Once, twice, three times, with unleashed Cerebus.

Is this the evil the dog might suffer? Was Stallings' question only a rhetorical one? Touching as the poem may be, one wonders why anyone would read it to a friend. There is no psychological insight. The symbolism does not reach outside the poem. It does not offer anything beyond its own bemusement. It is one of those poems whose 'whole' fails to exceed the sum of its parts, charming and clever though it is. It sits like a still-life, justified by its own beauty. And for some readers this may be enough.

Consider the poem "Noir". The reader is met with the following lines:

"Late at night,
"One of us sometimes has said,
"Watching a movie in black and white,
"Of the vivid figures quick upon the screen..."

Once again that word, which only belongs in fairy tales -- upon -- makes its appearance. It is the bane of formal poets. There is no reason for Stallings to use it except for iambic appeal. There is also the matter of the archaic diction. There is no reason for the grammatical inversion of "figures quick" (rather than "quick figures") except to preserve the iambic patter. It is a form of laziness. Another example appears in the line "...lisping in tones antique..." One might argue that this "anitique" diction is intended and a kind of joke except that it is a pattern that appears in other poems.

One of my favorite poems is the modest "Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks". Almost every line offers up what's best in Stallings, an elegance of language that rivals Richard Wilbur.

"A freight train between stations
"Shook you out of sleep with all
"Its lonely ululations."

One couldn't ask for a more effortless and prefect verse than this. The rhyme of station and ululation, two contrasting words, is inevitable and natural, perfectly suggesting the child or baby's own crying. The final lines close with a lovely image:

"Here comes the freight train nosing west,
"Pulling the dawn behind her."

This is Stallings at her best. Even if it does not carry the psychological complexity of a Frost poem she is a poet's poet when she writes like this. There are no archaisms. She skillfully weaves rhyme and verse with meaning, such that the building of the poem appears inevitable. The formal poet is at his or her best when the formal structure of the poem isn't noticed.

"Aftershocks", a Spencerian Sonnet and justifiably the first poem of the book, also holds out Stalling at her best, while "Bad News Blues" plays on Stallings' sly, sardonic humor.

Overall, there is the impression that either there are very old and new poems mixed together, or Stallings is of a split person when she writes. Among the most individual and compelling poems are "Aftershocks", "Bad News Blue", "Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks", "Alice, Grown-up, at the Cocktail Party" while other poems like "Acteon", "Empty Icon Frame", "Mint" and "The Modern Greek for 'Nightmare'..." or "Noir" are too clever, frequently archaic in diction and contrived in their rhyming.

But she is among my favorite poets.

She fully takes to the various arts unique to poetry -- rhyme, meter, metaphor, simile, verse structure. She is a rarity. I'll be buying her next book as soon as it comes out.