Commentaries - January 2013
Full set of posters for the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program's Wednesdays at 4 Plus series, Fall 1990 - Spring 2003, during the time I was coordinating the series. Susan Bee designed the posters
Bill Berkson, "Signature Song"
Marci Nelligan, David Kaufmann, and Thomas Devaney joined Al Filreis to discuss what David thinks might well be one of Bill Berkson’s own signature songs; during our discussion, David opines that Berkson’s poem “Signature Song” is the best of the poet’s “fact poems.” Marci and Tom certainly did not disagree with that judgment. Its diction and tone are mostly that of familiar factistic subgenres: the liner note, the encylopedia entry, etc. Finally, of course, it’s more than merely encyclopedic, for it wanders around both historical and personal connections and interleavings, and concludes with a quiet but still jarring judgment of the “odd” work of writing through these associations in and out of the extremity of political situations they somewhat ignore and somewhat express.
The poem gives its own historical and audiographical basis, so we needn’t do much here in the way of providing notes. The poem is itself such a note! Listen to Berkson’s PennSound readings of the poem and read the text below. Yet we can here add a link to a 1937 recording of Bunny Berigan performing his signature song, “I Can't Get Started,” with its long-mounting intro and late-arriving lyrics. In this version Berigan himself sings the vocals, but Berkson’s assemblage of the song’s audiographic nexus evinces a keen interest in Lee Wiley’s vocals and her brief emotional association with the ill-fated bandleader and — not quite — with the song that was his hallmark but which others have famously performed better.
In 2004 Berkson was interviewed by Carlos Villa on KUSF radio in 2004, and confirmed that “Signature Song” has to do “with a fascination with facts and how any one fact will connect one or more other facts in a very interesting way.” He noted that Lee Wiley is “one of my favorite singers,” and that as he wrote the poem he felt compelled to explore “the temporal connection with the Spanish civil war” (1936-1939), and only “then ... realized there was part of the lyric [in the Berigan song] about ‘settled revolutions in Spain.’” And was left wondering: What did Berigan really mean by the reference to Franco’s fascist counter-revolution? Yes, “the Spanish civil war was ‘settled’ [but] in what you and I would consider a negative way."
Our poem appeared in Berkson’s book Fugue State, published by Zoland Books in 2001. Within Fugue State it is placed in a section of 19 short poems titled “A Copy of the Catalogue.” PennSound’s Berkson page has two recordings of the poet reading this poem – one as part of the 2004 radio interview with Villa, and the second — the one we use for PoemTalk — comes from an October 2002 performance in the Segue Series at the Bowery Poetry Club.
David Bunn listened to this episode and sent us this helpful note: “I've just listened to the discussion of Berkson’s ‘Signature Song’ and went to Wikipedia (noting Al’s misgivings) to check the chronology of ‘I can't get started.’ According to Wikipedia the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (in which the song premiered) opened on 30 January 1936. Ira Gershwin must have written the lyrics in 1935. Franco's revolt began in July 1936. It is most likely that Gershwin is referring to Franco (not yet rebellious himself) putting down the Asturian miner’s rebellion of October 1934. The reference doesn’t exonerate Gershwin from making light of other peoples’ tragedies, but he’s not alone in that.”
“I’ve settled revolutions in Spain” goes Gershwin’s lyric, just as odd.
Tell me, do you only read American poetry? No French, British, Australian, German … ? Oh, really? Here’s a true story about the unconscious insularity that is rife in the USA among the college-educated. Australian film director Gillian Armstrong said, in 2012:
[I] was previewing my World War II film Charlotte Gray (2001) in the US (in Pasadena) to a supposedly college-educated test audience. [In this film, a young Scottish woman joins the French Resistance during World War II to rescue her (British) Royal Air Force boyfriend who is lost in France.] Afterwards the Warner Bros head of marketing came forward extremely shamefaced, clutching a pile of audience test cards.
He confessed most of the audience had a problem comprehending the film because there was a terrible gap. They didn’t know that Britain was involved in World War II. At all.
Yes, they thought that someone like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan had led US troops in France and killed off all the Germans. This may be an example of a poor education program but it is also about the colonisation of culture and history.
From: Sydney Morning Herald Entertainment Guide on 30 September 2012 at http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/tv-fails-the-screen-te...
Scott Peterson, an ophthalmologist, was a student in my open online course on modern and contemporary poetry last fall (“ModPo”). We studied William Carlos Williams’s poem “Smell!” in that course, and naturally there was a lively discussion of WCW's nose and its various meanings and functions. Scott then told me that since college he has been passionate about collecting Williams-related items. His undergraduate work on Paterson was published “way back in 1967,” as he puts it. Among his Williams holdings are a bronze bust of the poet (Scott cannot remember the artist’s name) and Emmanuel Romano's well-known portrait in oil. Scott has kindly given me permission to publish images of the sculpture and the painting.
Paul Mariani in his biography writes several informative paragraphs about Romano's painting — and the brief connection between the painter and the poet. Williams sat for the portrait in September of 1959. One of Romano’s reasons for doing the portrait was to get Williams to write a statement about his paintings for a one-man show in New York scheduled for that December. Mariani notes that in this painting the poet's “face was angular, almost fractured in a style recalling Cezanne.”
In Williams's poem “Self-Portrait” written in 1959:
No time for any-
thing but his painting.
Romano wrote in his own diary (entry of September 27) that he was “disturb[ed]” by “the reflection of the light in [WCW’s] eyeglasses.” Take the glasses off, the painter thought, and he would lose the look of “boyish enthusiasm” and would also lose, Romano felt, the look of the poet’s mother's “silky independence” and her dark Caribbean features which the painter felt “revealed themselves” in the portrait.
John Ashbery talks for five minutes on being an art critic and on the influence of Jane Freilicher on his poetry: MP3. The recording was segmented from a longer recording of proceedings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery 60th anniversary program held at The New School in New York on January 31, 2011. The conversation with Jane Freilicher was moderated by Jenni Quilter. Links to recordings of Ashbery’s other comments during this program are here, on PennSound’s Ashbery page.