Commentaries - May 2011

Just like Shakespeare (sort of)

Gil Scott-Heron was an African–American poet, writer, composer and musician. His understood the use of rage; the power of satire and the need for embrace and love. He was not the father of hip hop or spoken word, but his ability to speak truth to power in his lyrics; to satirize the political elite and to portray the complexities of African American culture and liberation struggles has given all of us much to contemplate and those who are part of the hip hop generation a model to use. As Ron Carter, who played on "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," said: "He wasn't a great singer, but with that voice, if he had whispered it would have been dynamic. It was a voice like you would have for Shakespeare."  The comparison to Shakespeare makes sense to me.  “Your Daddy Loves You,” “Winter in America,” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” are songs about divorce; disillusionment with America society; and the possibility of nuclear disaster – what a range.  And like other great writers, he found important collaborators who spurred his creativity, most notably Brian Jackson.  Few American poets of the postwar years have successfully created poems, stories and songs on large political and social concepts, while simultaneously dealing with intimate issues of love, family, loss, and yes addiction.

And few have been as innovative.  “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” brought a new vocabulary to the talking blues, without cutesy nods to hippies or drug culture.  Besides a critique of mass communication, it testifies to just where liberation struggles were and how willing and able many were to consider armed struggle to force greater change.  The anti-war movement, the suppression of the Black Panthers, the rise of the police state (now enshrined by the Patriot Act) was in the song’s background,  but my favorite Scott-Heron song remains “Watergate Blues,”  which may be the best “report” on the Nixon years and on right-wing political power — that song got me through Bush the Younger years. 

What amazes me is that Scott-Heron was able to reshape the talking blues into something contemporary and lasting using his “dynamic” voice.  In an era of great Black American male singer/songwriters — Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Smoky Robinson, Bobby Womack — he brought a new sound, a city sound that rocked, folked, jazzed and salsaed to make us think and dance.  I saw him perform on a glorious summer day in Central Park on the same bill as Miles Davis.  It may have been 1974 or 1975, “The Bottle” was everywhere — blasting out of windows across New York City — the sound of a poor city doing its best to survive with whatever means benevolent and malign that it found. Only a revolutionary poet can make you think and dance.  Rest in peace, Gil Scott-Heron.  62 years will have to be enough.

Transcript of "H-2-0-Gate [Watergate] Blues"

Patricia Spears Jones is the author of Painkiller, Femme du Monde and The Weather That Kills

Gil Scott-Heron

Paint It Black
[MP3 [youtube]
Picture a man of nearly thirty
who seems twice as old with clothes torn and dirty.
Give him a job shining shoes
or cleaning out toilets with bus station crews.
Give him six children with nothing to eat.
Expose them to life on a ghetto street.
Tie an old rag round his wife's head and
have her pregnant and lying in bed.
Stuff them all in a Harlem house.
Then tell them how bad things are down South.

text: The Revolution Will not Be Televised & youtube audio
text: Winter in America & youtube video
text: Enough
text: Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul;   youtube

wiki page
New York Times obit

When Alan Bernheimer hosted Bill Berkson on the In the American Tree radio program, September 7, 1979, Berkson read eleven poems, including “Duchamp Dream,” and “Camera Ready Like a Dream.” Although this recording has been available through PennSound for several years, only today have we had a chance to sort out the poems he read on that occasion, and to segment them. Go to PennSound's Bill Berkson page for links to these poems, and more.

Clark Coolidge's PennSound page is one I happily recommend. I think my favorite set of recordings there is from his March 2000 reading at the University of California at Santa Cruz, hosted by Peter Gizzi. Peter's introduction — also among the recordings — is itself a fine introduction to Coolidge's life and importance to contemporary poetics. After the reading Coolidge took a few questions. Someone asked about burn-out (a writer reaching the end of writing) and Coolidge responded by speaking of Kerouac's line, Where pain don't take you by surprise. Coolidge discusses Kerouac's line and Kerouac, and then he re-reads the poem in which Kerouac's idea occurs. The Coolidge-Kerouac connection is edifying. Here's the recording. And here is Coolidge's essay on Kerouac's sound or “babble flow,” which I ask my students to read. Here's a sampling of the babble flow: "Black black black black bling bling bling bling black black black black bling bling bling bling black black black black bling bling bling...." The essay was first published in the January/February 1995 issue of American Poetry Review.

From Jacket #3 (April 1998)

Drawing by Antonio R.Romera, the only known portrait of Omar Cáceres, courtesy Eliot Weinberger

All the stories from the capitals have grown familiar, but where are the histories and accounts of modernism as it was lived and practiced in the provinces? Latin America, for example, in the first half of the century, has shelves of unwritten magical realist literary biographies: The Peruvian Martín Adán, whose first book made him famous at twenty, and who then checked himself into an insane asylum, where he lived for another sixty years, writing on scraps of paper he threw away that were dutifully collected by the orderlies and sent to his publisher. Jorge Cuesta, a poet and the leading Mexican critic of the 1930’s, who castrated and slowly fatally poisoned himself as part of his alchemical experiments. Carlos Oquendo de Amat, a Lima street kid who published one book, 5 Meters of Poems, on a folded sheet of paper five meters long, then gave up writing to join the Communist Party, and bounced in and out of jails and tuberculosis wards in a half-dozen countries before dying in Spain just before the civil war. Joaquin Pasos, a Nicaraguan who also died young, who wrote Poems of a Young Man Who Has Never Traveled about the places he hadn’t seen; Poems of a Young Man Who Has Never Been in Love, which are all love poems; and Poems of a Young Man Who Doesn’t Speak English, which were written in English. Felisberto Hernández, a writer of stories unlike any others, more associative than narrative, who lived with his mother and wrote in a windowless basement, who paid for the publication of his books by playing the piano in bars in the Uruguayan hinterland, and who died so fat the funeral home had to remove a window to get the coffin out.

And Omar Cáceres: A Chilean, born in 1906, who worked as a violinist in an all-blind orchestra, of which he was the only sighted member. In 1933, hearing that a group of young poets was meeting in a café‚ to put together an anthology of the new Chilean poetry, he walked in, waited until one of them was alone, gave him a poem, and left. The group wrote him, asking for more work, and he agreed to meet on a busy street corner. He handed over a manuscript and kept walking — a tall, thin figure with empty eyes and the ‘elegance of a ghost,’ as one of the poets, decades later, recalled.

[read more of this article from Jacket #3]