Commentaries

Pete's 90th

Dave Matthews at the Garden last night.

I and 15,000 others sang "Happy Birthday" to Pete Seeger last night at Madison Square Garden. Springsteeen sang "The Ghost of Tom Joad" with Tom Morello, after a longish introduction by Bruce which ended: "He's gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass." We saw and heard Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp ("If I Had a Hammer"), Ani DiFranco (selflessly sang to accompany several others), Arlo Guthrie ("Oh Mary Don't You Weep" with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band), Billy Bragg (prefaced by a great story of Pete's musical teachings), Bruce Cockburn (intense as always), Emmylou Harris (the most moving performance of "The Water Is Wide" I"ve ever heard), Joan Baez (two songs--the first not quite her usual, the second, "Jacob's Ladder," fantastic), Kris Kristofferson ("Got a Hole in My Bucket, Dear Liza"), Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Richie Havens (sang "Freedom"--his Woodstock song), Roger McGuinn (did the Animals version of "Turn, Turn, Turn"), Steve Earle, Taj Mahal (a favorite of mine), Bernice Reagon, Dar Williams, Tom Chapin, Tom Paxton, Eric Weissberg, and others.

The opening of the 4-hour performance: a lone light shone on Seeger (but we didn't really know it was Pete) as he played a flute solo called "Menomonee Love Song." As the lights came up, they revealed the outline of a sloop, apt for an event titled the "Clearwater Concert" after the organization's vessel, the gaff sloop Clearwater.

Best:

1) Dave Matthews, after telling us he should introduce himself as "David," since that's what his mother called him and she was the one who took him to his first concert, near Croton NY--a Pete Seeger concert. Matthews sang an emotional but musically pure version of "Whiskey Rye Whiskey."

2) Emmylou Harris, "The Water Is Wide," as noted above. Not a dry eye in the house.

3) Springsteen and Morello, trading verses of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Earlier in the week (!) I'd seen Bruce with the E Street Band, a great concert. The whole band did its hauntingly good "Tom Joad," but this, Bruce in the clear voice of a guy singing for just 10 minutes in a whole evening, and two acoustic guitars, and a harmony with Morello, was even better.

4) Seeger, Baez, Billy Bragg, Emmy Lou Harris singing "We Shall Overcome."

Immense dew (Stevens)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to follow the contemporary uses of Wallace Stevens. Most of this is of course trivial and/or incidental. Yet some of it makes startling great sense. Laura, a watercolorist who seems to reside in or aesthetically dwell upon some tropical clime, re-read "Nomad Exquisite" (presumably while painting one of her florid watercolors) and it suggested to her that it was time for another whiskey smash. She gives the recipe for the whiskey smash just below the poem, in similar format. So I read the poem and the drink recipe and realized that as parallel texts they make a great deal of sense. Especially after a few smashes. (Laura calls this drink her "summer Manhattan.")

Nomad Exquisite

As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth
The big-finned palm
And green vine angering for life,

As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth hymn and hymn
From the beholder,
Beholding all these green sides
And gold sides of green sides,

And blessed mornings,
Meet for the eye of the young alligator,
And lightning colors
So, in me, comes flinging
Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.

Holocaust verse

The blog, "Writing the Holocaust," as of this morning has just two blog posts, one for March and one for April. But it's of interest to me nevertheless. April's is a longish entry giving "some cautions on writing Holocaust poetry." It begins with Charles Reznikoff and makes reference to Holocaust verse by Snodgrass, Rich, C.K. Williams, et alia.

Who shall say I am not the happy genius? (WCW)

William Carlos Williams, "Danse Russe"

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,--
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
again the yellow drawn shades,--

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

[c. 1917]

- - -

Shawn Walker and I discuss the poem - an audio mini-lesson recorded for an all-online version of my English 88 course around 10 years ago. Williams recorded the poem a number of times, but here is a version made in 1950.

begging the reader's indulgence--not

On Tuesday morning I interviewed novelist Mary Gordon during her second day here as our final Writers House Fellow for '09. The recording of what was a live video feed is ready. There is also a downloadable audio recording as well.

I told her that the stories I admired most were her meta-stories - stories in which narrrative problems are foregrounded, in which the narrator's problem is part of the story, in which a Gordonian figure appears to talk about how the story got constructed or nearly prevented. The most upbeat of these is called "Storytelling." The most compelling is one called "Intertexuality," where the narrator's (indeed, and Mary's) embarrassing and sometimes hateful stolid grandmother angrily responds to her house having been completely made over while she was sent away for a vacation in Florida, and then gets treated to a finale in which she enters a scene in Proust, whom the narrator/Mary has been reading. The second intertext is this story itself.

After chatting about such meta-stories, and about "Intertexuality," I asked M.G. to read the end of that story. This is near the beginning of the recording. At the end, I ask her to read from the memoir she wrote in the mid-90s about the awful father whom she nonetheless adored (and somewhat still adores). In the passage she reads, from a preface directed "To the Reader," she is just about to ask the reader's indulgence--that conventional gesture--but then realizes that she's not writing for readers, but for her father, and so, she says, the writing is an undying. Powerful, compelling and not just a little creepy.