Thursday, August 30, 2012
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Rehearsal for The Rocklins today -- the play based on a story by Harvey Fite that we'll be premiering June 9 and 10 at Opus 40! Today we worked on the music - by Thomas Workman - which is wonderful and challenging. There's essentially one song in the play - "Spirit of Stone," developed from a one- stanza poem by Harvey Fite in his book "The Rocklins." but different verses are sung at three different points in the play by representatives of three different cultures, and Thomas has varied the melody subtly to reflect each culture, using an Aeolian scale for the Greco-Roman Rocklin, A Phrygian scale for the Egyptian Rocklin, and a pentatonic scale for the Mayan Rocklin. It's very beautiful.
Sunday, May 13, 2012
She gives him "Revolver" to listen to, and as the episode ends, he's standing in his perfect living room, listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows." He, of course, looks perfect as only Don Draper can. And the swirling sitars and guitar tape loops, and the lyrics about people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion, are moving the world into a place where Don's perfection is no longer relevant.
And it's a requiem for jazz. Don Draper is the Playboy ideal. His apartment, even with a wife, is the Playboy Pad. And this is the Playboy of the 50s, of the Kennedy era, of the Peter Gunn era, when jazz was the musical accoutrement to the hip lifestyle. Of course, the Playboy reader was the guy who regularly voted Doc Severinsen as the top jazz trumpeter. Music mattered in this era, the era of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Zoot Sims and Lennie Tristano, but to the Playboy reader it was background...the Playboy-approved background. And as Don Draper stands there, perfect, listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows," he is on his way to cultural irrelevancy, as the Playboy reader moves from choosing Doc over Miles to McCartney over Mingus, or for that matter Lennon over Hendrix.
Friday, March 23, 2012
I wrote this some time ago, for the New Country Music Encyclopedia, but it can't hurt to pull it out of mothballs:
Speaking of songs...one of the commonest and easiest cheap shots against country music goes something like this: all country songs are about the same cliched themes, generally about drinkin' and cheatin', lovin' and hurtin', workin' and dancin', or making that good ole country music, with the odd inspirational ditty thrown in. The old joke is that if you play a country song backwards, you get your wife back, your truck back, your dog back...Well, they say every great novel or play ever written is a variation on seven basic plots, so it's hard to figure out why someone who writes two and half minute stories set to music should be criticized for mostly writing variations on the same half a dozen or so themes, especially if he or she does it with style and feeling. Anyway, it occurred to me that if country music is scorned for having such limited range of subject matter, other forms of popular music must be much more diverse, right? So I checked out a few albums at random, starting with the Great American Songbook as represented by Natalie Cole's tribute to her father, "Unforgettable." Turns out there are songs on the themes of lovin' ("The Very Thought of You," "This Can't Be Love," "For Sentimental Reasons," "Our Love is Here to Stay"), hurtin' ("Paper Moon," "Mona Lisa," "Don't Get Around Much Any More," "Too Young"), ramblin' ("Route 66"), and an inspirational ditty about makin' the best of life ("Smile").
Well, maybe we'd do better with the most exciting musical innovators of our time, The Beatles, in "A Hard Day's Night." It has songs about workin' ("A Hard Day's Night"), lovin' ("I Should Have Known Better," "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," "And I Love Her"), cheatin' ("Tell Me Why"), hurtin' ("I'll Cry Instead"), and an inspirational ditty about livin' life with the right set of values ("Can't Buy Me Love."
How about a master American singer-songwriter, Bruce Springsteen? On "Born in the USA," he writes songs about ("Workin' on the Highway," "Downbound Train" -- actually about workin' and hurtin'), lookin' for love ("Cover Me" "I'm on Fire," "Dancin' in the Dark"), tough times ("My Home Town," the title song), ramblin' (Bobby Jean," "Darlington County"), and an inspirational ditty about livin' life with the right set of values ("Glory Days.")
Surely, I'd find more variety in the work of acknowledged musical genius, George Gershwin? So I pulled out an old vinyl album called "Chris Connor Sings Gershwin" from the back of the shelf and gave it a spin. I found lovin' ("Love Walked In," "A Foggy Day." "Love is Here to Stay"), cheatin' ("I Love You Porgy"), playin' music ("Slap That Bass") and an inspirational ditty about family values "Summertime").
Saturday, February 25, 2012
Exigeses of the individual verses to be continued.
DESCORT: DUPREE VARIATIONSBetty told Dupree she wanted a diamond ringBetty told Dupree, I want a diamond ringDupree told Betty, I’d buy you most anythingJust sleeplittle Bettysee what tomorrow bringsGo to sleep my little Bettysee what tomorrow bringsNow it’s onlyDupreeIf history and legend have it right,A man will risk it all to please a mistress.We know from witnesses that Dupree’s nightWas fueled by coke and weed; his mood was listless,Then near berserk; at last, by early lightHis eyes were bloodshot and his hands were restless.His mind was fixed. He took a .44,To get that ring, he’d rob a jewelry store.His mind was fixed. He took a .44,The frame was cool and dry; the grip was warm.To get that ring, he’d rob a jewelry store.No use to try and hold him back—the doorClicked softly shut behind him. Like a charmOr talisman, he held his .44.You knew that this would be a night for gore.He smashed the glass with gun and bloodied arm,
And blindly crashed into the jewelry store.He scarcely seemed to care what lay in store,And, heedless that he’d triggered the alarmHe grabbed the ring, and waved his .44.He killed two cops, and wounded several more.Then, weary in his soul, and sick of harm,Threw down the ring, and fled the jewelry store.The law all vowed they'd even up the score.Dupree beat west, and hid out on a farmWith no companion but the .44And stalked by nightmares of the jewelry store.Sheriffs and troopers and Highway Patrol,Squad car and motorbike, horseman and hound,Chasing Dupree like a fox to its hole,Bloodlust won't cease till they run him aground.Radio says that Dupree has been found,Betty just listens and says a soft prayer,Dupree walks out with his hands in the air.Betty asked the sheriff, where will they take Dupree?Sheriff said Your man's gone down to Atlanta jail.Betty went to visit, his face she could not see,They said Your man killed cops, you cannot go his bail.Oh, please, Mr. Jailer, give him this note for me.Sail on,Dupree, sail on.I don't know where you're bound,just wish it didn't have to beso long.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Sheriffs and troopers and Highway Patrol,
Squad car and motorbike, horseman and hound,
Chasing Dupree like a fox to its hole,
Bloodlust won't cease till they run him aground.
Radio says that Dupree has been found,
Betty just listens and says a soft prayer,
Bull horns bark orders and SWAT teams surround,
Dupree walks out with his hands in the air.
I moved to a ballade for the next stanza, which moved away from the blues, and brought me to a very different moods. There are many ballades, but the one that always sticks in my head is Edmund Rostand's, from Cyrano de Bergerac -- the part where Cyrano improvises a ballade as he duels with a churl, ending
Qu'a la fin de lenvoi, je toiuche!
There are various translations, but I still like the one voiced by Jose Ferrer in the movie:
Then, as I end the refrain, thrust home!
There's certainly room for this sort of boast in the blues, although not in Betty and Dupree, and not quite in that language:
Going to Black Mountain, with my razor and my gun,
Going to Black Mountain, with my razor and my gun,
Gonna cut him if he stands, shoot him if he runs.
The rest of the scansion story -- and here it gets really boring, unless you're a poet, or even if you are -- it's hard to imagine Gregory Corso reading this and not throwing his laptop across the room in disgust. Well, it's hard to imagine Gregory Corso having a laptop, or any circumstance under which he would not have thrown it across the room. But back to scansion. This particular ballade was written in dactylic tetrameter, which means it goes DA-da-da four times. Except, of course, it doesn't go DA-da-da four times. It only goes DA-da-da three times, and then ends with DA. Or anapestic tetrameter, which means that it doesn't quite go da-da-DA four times, more like one DA and three da-da-DAs.
That's called a catalexis, and that's a term I only learned recently from R. S. (Sam) Gwynn, who...well, the expression is, has forgotten more about scansion than I'll ever know, except that he hasn't forgotten anything about scansion. Anyway, a catalexis occurs when you truncate one of the metric feet, either at the beginning of a line or the end. I first fell in love with this gambit reading W. H. Auden:
Time, that with this strange excuse,
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardon him for writing well.
Before I learned about catalexes, I would just have described that line as either truncated iambic or truncated trochaic, but what I loved about it is that there was always a tipping point, where the line subtly moved from one to the other:
TIME, // that WITH // this STRANGE// exCUSE,
PARDoned // KIPling // AND his // VIEWS,
AND will // PARDon // PAUL // ClauDEL,
PARDon // HIM // for WRIT // ing WELL.
Anyway, my favorite poem employing that galloping anapest is Browning's "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix":
And I think Dupree takes on a little of that rollicking British hunting song quality in this stanza.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
The one thing I'd emphasize -- workshopping student work is an important part of the course. You're expected to do it, and the students sort of expect it. But once you give it to them, they don't know what to do. Because critiquing the work of others isn't something that comes naturally. It has to be learned, and it's not always easy to learn. So -- you'll find you own way to teach this, but it has to be taught.
One way is to offer discussion questions. I can't really do this -- it's not natural to me. But it's one way.
Another -- and this works better for me -- is to set up forums on Blackboard. Divide the class into smaller discussion groups -- say, for to six in each group. Everyone in the group is to post his or her assignment, and everyone is to critique the work of the other members of the group. Then you start a dialogue, critiquing their critiques, suggesting things they might have thought of, encouraging perceptive critiques. Most of the first ones will be awful. I loved this -- it reminded me of my own grandmother. This had a really good flow to it. That sort of thing. As I said, they won't know what to say -- they won't have any sort of critical vocabulary. You encourage them to do the same things you encourage them to do in writing about literature -- go to the text, focus on specifics. What more could the author do to make this the poem it wants to be?
Don't do in-class workshopping right away. Start giving them that vocabulary first, and the encouragement that it's all right to be critical, and how to constructively bring out the things that are good about the piece -- not all criticism has to be negative.
Do some workshopping in small groups, and some in the whole class. But this will be one of the most important skills you'll teach them all semester.
You MUST read the article I just read today in the New Yorker -- Groupthink, by Jonah Lehrer. It's absolutely fascinating about the ways people make progress in groups, and the ways that they don't.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
I've been talking to my daughter about characters' names. She says that one of the reasons it's so hard for her to write a novel is that she can't name her characters. Most of her short stories, she says, are about lost, lonely women who don't really have names, and I think actually that this is one of the strengths of those stories. The characters have a haunting, unsettlingly memorable quality that could be blunted by naming them. But in a novel you pretty much have to name your characters, and what if you choose the wrong name? Will it throw everything off, or get you pointed in a wrong direction.
Poe did very well with unnamed characters. But what about full-length fiction?Are there novels -- other than really experimental ones -- where the character doesn't have a name? There's Proust. We generally call his character "Marcel" because that's Proust's name, and the novels are so clearly autobiographical. But actually, he only refers to himself as "Marcel" once in the seven volumes, and that fairly far along. Mostly, he has no name.
Can you go through a private eye novel without naming the lead character? I bet you could. Spenser only has one name. In the Sergio Leone Westerns, Clint Eastwood is The Man With No Name. In Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe has a name but nothing else -- we never see him except for a couple of shots in mirrors, we just see what he sees. A first person narrator can tell or withhold whatever she likes, and no reason that she can't withhold her name. Instead of saying "My name's Honey West," or whatever, it can just be "I told him my name."
Anything you deny yourself can be made into a strength. Those writers who self-censored, or were censored, away from George Carlin's seven dirty words lost a certain realism, but gained the creativity of circumlocution --"He told me to do the impossible to myself!"
Here's a nice use of that device from Tom T. Hall, in "A Week in a County Jail."
Well, I told him who I was and told him I was working steady
And I really should be gettin' on my way
That part about me bein' who I was did not impress him
He said, "The judge'll be here any day."
Perhaps not naming a private eye cloaks her/him in a layer of invulnerability. Someone who won't even share her name with her readers is a very guarded, close-to-the-vest person. Just as naming a character makes, consciously or unconsciously, certain character choices, so does not naming a character.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
The Byronic stanza, of course, had ended with a couplet, and I decided to take that couplet, sandwich a third line in the middle, and make it a villanelle stanza. But you can't really give the flavor of a villanelle in one stanza, so I had to write the whole villanelle.
anthology edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Eizabeth Mali. (I'm in it -- not with this one -- but there are lots of real poets, too -- using that famous question that was put to Carl Sandburg -- "are these real poems or do you just make 'em up yourself?")
Anyway -- forms that use repetition can be playful and not so playful, and of course the blues goes in both directions too.
I think there's a real connection between the blues and the ghazal. But use repetition, both come from Africa, and both frequently make use of the poet/singer's name. I don't think there's much likelihood of a cultural connection between the blues and the villanelle, but as Joseph Campbell pointed out, we're all part of one big mother myth, and there are many cross-cultural correspondences.
So I found myself going back to the grim fatalism of "Betty and Dupree" with the villanelle, but I also found myself being more literary -- the villanelle pushed me that way, as a blues would not.
His mind was fixed. He took a .44,
The frame was cool and dry; the grip was warm.
To get that ring, he’d rob a jewelry store.
No use to try and hold him back—the door
Clicked softly shut behind him. Like a charm
Or talisman, he held his .44.
You knew that this would be a night for gore.
He smashed the glass with gun and bloodied arm,
And blindly crashed into the jewelry store.
He scarcely seemed to care what lay in store,
And, heedless that he’d triggered the alarm
He grabbed the ring, and waved his .44.
He killed two cops, and wounded several more.
Then, weary in his soul, and sick of harm,
Threw down the ring, and fled the jewelry store.
The law all vowed they'd even up the score.
Dupree beat west, and hid out on a farm
With no companion but the .44
And stalked by nightmares of the jewelry store.
Monday, January 16, 2012
DESCORT: DUPREE VARIATIONS"Betty and Dupree" begins with a hopeless situation. Dupree will do anything for Betty, but he will never be able to afford a diamond ring. The blues stanza is not particularly designed to carry a plot. Its AAa form presents a statement, generally an emotional predicament, repeats that statement for emphasis, and then resolves it, with a fatalistic inevitability or an ironic twist. "I've got 19 men, and I want one more / I've got 19 men, and I want one more / If I get that one, I'll let those 19 go" (Bessie Smith). Bt "Betty and Dupree mak s it work. Each stanza is a separate and complete chapter in the story.
Betty told Dupree she wanted a diamond ring
Betty told Dupree, I want a diamond ring
Dupree told Betty, I’d buy you most anything
Just sleepI got this form wrong (sorry, Lew!) A rubliw, invented by Richard Wilbur (hence the name) is supposed to be a monorhyme -- each line rhymes to the same sound. But I did have the syllabic pattern -- 2, 4, 6, 8, 6, 4, 2 -- and I chose it because I could keep the AA lines of the blues, using the second stanza of "Betty and Dupree" almost intact. But then I needed to shrink the final line, which in the original is "When you wake up in the morning, you just might have your diamond ring." I had thought that in spite of the tragic nature of the original, all this playing with form would result in a playful, mostly comic poem, but that didn't happen here. As the form closed in on itself, so Dupree's options were closing in on him, awake and alone in the dead of night.
see what tomorrow brings
Go to sleep my little Betty
see what tomorrow brings
Now it’s only
If history and legend have it right,The ottava rima stanza is Byron's, and it's hard to approach it without Byron's ironic distancing. Nothing could be farther from the blues, which is all about empotional directness and intensity. I think this is one of the main reasons that the blues has lasted as important art form -- it is uniquely able to express deeply personal and powerful emotion. "Betty and Dupree" tells a story in the third person, but it's still Dupree's story, and the narrator is powerfully involved with him. The first important artist to use the blues as a storytelling vehicle with an ironically detached narrator was Chuck Berry. My third stanza ends with the song's third verse -- "Dupree took a pistol, it was a .44 (2x) / To get that diamond ring for Betty, he had to rob the jewelry store." The song gives us Dupree's isolation and desperation. Byrony irony puts Dupree in a historical/psychosical context, and moves us away from Dupree. We only know his story from witnesses. More later.
A man will risk it all to please a mistress.
We know from witnesses that Dupree’s night
Was fueled by coke and weed; his mood was listless,
Then near berserk; at last, by early light
His eyes were bloodshot and his hands were restless.
His mind was fixed. He took a .44,
To get that ring, he’d rob a jewelry store.
Friday, January 06, 2012
A little research into the form: there is actually a wiki entry on it, in which the invention of the descort is credited to Garin d'Apchier, whose exact dates are lost to history, but he did write the first descort, and I would share it with you, but it, too, is lost.
Gautier de Dargies, for whom we do have approximate dates (ca. 1170 – ca. 1240 -- he lived to be approximately 70, a ripe old age in those days), is said to have written three descorts.
Dargies has his own Facebook page, which I am the only person, as of this writing, to like.
Here's one by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras (1180-1207). It's written in a variant of the form -- each stanza is in the same verse form, but in a different language. And it's quite beautiful. English translations are interspersed between the verses.
Eras quan vey verdeyar
Pratz e vergiers e boscatges,
Vuelh un descort comensar
D'amor, per qu'ieu vauc aratges;
Q'una dona.m sol amar,
Mas camjatz l'es sos coratges,
Per qu'ieu fauc dezacordar
Los motz e.ls sos e.ls lenguatges.
Now that is see becoming verdant
lawns and bowers and woods,
I want to begin a contrast
about love, on whose account I am distraught;
for a lady used to love me,
but her mind has changed
and therefore I sow enmity
among the words, the sounds and the languages.
Io son quel que ben non aio
Ni jamai non l'averò,
Ni per april ni per maio,
Si per ma donna non l'o;
Certo que en so lengaio
Sa gran beutà dir non sò,
çhu fresca qe flor de glaio,
Per qe no m'en partirò.
I am the one who have no good
nor ever shall I have it,
either in April or in May,
unless I have it through my lady.
True, in her own language
I cannot describe her great beauty,
fresher than gladiolus' flower,
the reason of my persistence.
Belle douce dame chiere,
A vos mi doin e m'otroi;
Je n'avrai mes joi' entiere
Si je n'ai vos e vos moi.
Mot estes male guerriere
Si je muer per bone foi;
Mes ja per nulle maniere
No.m partrai de vostre loi.
Fair, sweet dear lady,
to you I give and give up myself;
I shan't have my whole joy
unless I have you and you me.
You are a most treacherous enemy,
if I die through my good faith;
but still, there is no way
I shall part from your dominion.
Dauna, io mi rent a bos,
Coar sotz la mes bon' e bera
Q'anc fos, e gaillard' e pros,
Ab que no.m hossetz tan hera.
Mout abetz beras haisos
E color hresc' e noera.
Boste son, e si.bs agos
No.m destrengora hiera.
Lady, I surrender to you
as you're the best and truest
that ever was, and sprightly and valiant,
if only you weren't so cruel to me.
Most fair are your features
and fresh and lively your hue.
I am yours, and if I had you,
nothing would be lacking to me
Mas tan temo vostro preito,
Todo.n son escarmentado.
Por vos ei pen' e maltreito
E meo corpo lazerado:
La noit, can jatz en meu leito,
So mochas vetz resperado;
E car nonca m'aprofeito
Falid' ei en mon cuidado.
But so much I fear your anger
that I am in complete despair;
for you I have toil and torture
and my body is racked:
at night, when I lay in bed,
I am awoken many a time;
and since I gain no good for myself,
I have failed in my intent.
Belhs Cavaliers, tant es car
Lo vostr' onratz senhoratges
Que cada jorno m'esglaio.
Oi me lasso que farò
Si sele que j'ai plus chiere
Me tue, ne sai por quoi?
Ma dauna, he que dey bos
Ni peu cap santa Quitera,
Mon corasso m'avetz treito
E mot gen favlan furtado.
Fair Knight, so precious is
your honoured thrall
that every day I despair.
Alas, what shall I do
if she whom I call my dearest
kills me, I know not why?
My lady, by my faith in you
and by the head of Saint Quiteria,
you have taken away my heart,
and stolen it by most sweet talk.
English translation follows each stanza. The original is in Provençal, Italian, French, Gascon and Galician respectively. In the envoi, the five languages are mixed together.
I did find one contemporary descort, in Drunken Boat. it's pretty good, and for some reason is unsigned.
Anyway, that's enough for one blog entry. I'll get to mine next time.