Friday, December 12, 2008

Elliot Carter, Bettie Page, Fame and Mortality


Happy birthday to Elliot Carter, the great composer just turned 100. And as the NY Times points out,

Classical music tends to lionize the great composer cut down in youth, but Elliott Carter made a mockery of that trope on Thursday. Mr. Carter, the dean of American composers, celebrated his 100th birthday, on the day, with a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Elliott Carter arrived early for Thursday night’s Carnegie Hall concert. Daniel Barenboim was to play Mr. Carter’s “Interventions.”

He had a piece on the program, of course, but not some chestnut written when he was a student in Paris in the 1930s or an avant-gardist in New York in the 1950s or a Pulitzer Prize winner in the 1960s or a setter of American poetry in the 1970s or a begetter of chamber music and concertos in the 1980s.

Mr. Carter wrote the 17-minute piece, for piano and orchestra, just last year, at 98. In fact, since he turned 90, Mr. Carter has poured out more than 40 published works, an extraordinary burst of creativity at a stage when most people would be making peace with mortality.

His first opera had its premiere in 1999. He produced 10 works in 2007 and six more this year.

All of which made me bow with admiration to Mr. Carter, and to think about my own creative life. I'm still on the sunny side of 70, but not by much, and I don't think I've lost anything creatively -- I like to think I'm still developing, as a writer, as a graphic artist, and as a teacher. Writing a note to the NewPo list, I said "I wonder sometimes if my relative lack of success -- no real laurels to rest on -- has been a spur to my creativity." Anny Ballardini responded with some kind strokes -- which I wasn't really fishing for -- and I amended my original thought: "I'd say, then, that it's maybe a combination of the respect of at least some of my peers, and the lack of laurels, that keep me motivated."

You certainly need that respect...someone has to be out there letting you know that you're not just wallowing in self-indulgence. So my thanks to those editors who have liked my work -- most recently Jim Cervantes in Salt River Review -- and thanks to Anny, and Marvin Bell, and Rachel Loden, and Peter Jones, and Bob Berner, and Dennis Doherty, and Fred Koller, and others whose opinion matters dearly to me, most of all to Don Finkel, whose memorial service in St. Louis is today -- a tribute to Don and his wife Constance Urdang, whom he now joins. I wish I could be there. His kids, Tom and Liza and Amy, know I'm there in spirit.

But what about the other part? What does success do to your creative juices? Richard Hugo once commented on reaching success rather late in his poetic life -- he said that for many years he sent out poems and got them back rejected, with no notes, and he didn't know whether he was any good or not. Then suddenly he got a lot of success, and a lot of acclaim, and he sent out poems and got them back accepted, with no notes, and he still didn't know whether he was any good or not.

A rocker of the 80s -- I forget who now -- who had achieved success in his thirties, after years of hardscrabble living, was asked how success had changed him. "When I get a bag of pistachios, I no longer get a hammer to open the ones in the bottom that haven't split," he said.

Tennessee Williams described it beautifully in his introduction to the print edition of Streetcar, which I don't have in front of me and will have to paraphrase from memory. He described an early career as an artist as scrambling desperately of the sheer face of a cliff, searching for tiny hand and footholds to keep going. Then, if you're lucky enough to make it, and you reach that rarefied plateau of success, you're still doing the same thing, reaching upward for handholds in empty air.

I haven't experienced it. But I'm guessing things change when you do -- that instead of trying to top, or extend, your creative output, you're to some degree trying to top your public acceptance.

I guess I had a little of it. When my first poetry collection, My Night With the Language Thieves, was published, Don Finkel wrote a cover blurb for it that said, in part,

Richards reconnoiters a fugitive terrain whoe inhabitants are disturbingly familiar and unsettlingly memorable -- particularly the women, lithe and button-breasted or forty with stretchmarks or old and bony, wise and tolerant or buoyant under you, as he put it, like a small craft.

That was high praise from someone whose judgment mattered to me, but I did go through a period where I caught myself being tempted, as I tried to work out new problems in new poems -- maybe I can just throw in one of those unsettlingly memorable women here? This, of course, was balanced out by the reviewer who commented on my "near-fetishistic interest in wonen's bodies." I asked friends about that, and they said nonsense, she was completely wrong -- there was nothing "near" about it. Anyway, I managed to fend that off, but it was so minor. What is the effect that significant recognition has on your work?

Hats off and happy birthday to Elliot Carter, who has not only continued but increased his productivity in his 80s and 90s.

And farewell to Bettie Page, a talent of a very different sort, but no less valuable in its own way, who died today at 85., and whose career, of necessity, was much shorter lived. The NY Times obit said that she

steadfastly refused to be photographed.“I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2006. “I want to be remembered as a woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form.”



This turns out not to have been 100 percent true. Here's Bettie at age 80, still wearing bangs and still beautiful.



And here she is as she wanted to be remembered, and as she is remembered, with a season's greeting to one and all. As Tiny Tim said, "God bless us every one," and as Bettie said, "Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden.



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