Commentaries - May 2011
Some years ago, while reading around in the Poetry magazine archive in the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, I ran into a stack of letters to and from Lee Anderson. Anderson had just made an arrangement to present his archive of reels of audiotape to the Beinecke Library of Yale University. He would deliver recordings he'd made of poets to that date, and then would continue to record and deposit subsequent reels later. I took a mental note, but then forgot all about the project. Then, later, came PennSound; we began of course to collect and borrow recordings to add to the quickly growing online archive. More years went by. Last year I was back at the Regenstein, as it happens, giving a talk on Henry Rago at a conference there, and met the poet-archivist Nancy Kuhl, another of the presenters. Nancy is one of the head librarians at the Beinecke; we talked; then the fact of Lee Anderson's recordings came back to me. I asked Nancy about them, and, as it happens, she'd already started the process of digitizing a few of the old reels. Were we interested in perhaps requesting some as a priority? Yes. The result is, among other recordings we will present over the coming weeks and months, the 1959 recording of Muriel Rukeyser made by Anderson. Just today we have created our new Rukeyser author page, and, thanks to Anna Zalokostas, we have already segmented the poems in the reading and the discussion.
Nancy Kuhl's (and her colleagues') generosity made this possible. William ("Bill") Rukeyser, the poet's son, readily agreed that it was a good thing to make Muriel's recordings available. We are thrilled by this Beinecke/PennSound partnership and can hardly wait to bring you more from the Anderson tapes.
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.
Patricia Spears Jones is the author of Painkiller, Femme du Monde and The Weather That Kills
Paint It Black
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.
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.