Podcasts

Bard goes country (PoemTalk #4)

Allen Ginsberg sings Blake's 'The Garden of Love'

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Hear the voice of the bard…

Which bard? Well, we’re not quite sure how bardic Charles Bernstein is, but he certainly loves the idea of poem as song; he jouned some by-now regular PoemTalkers (Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jessica Lowenthal) and chanted for us that very line. We’ve worn the grooves on an old LP of Allen Ginsberg signing William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and for the fourth PoemTalk chose Ginsberg’s countrified (crossover?) rendition of “The Garden of Love.” Does the snappy, twangy (and relatively tuneful) setting create an irony? Jessica thinks yes; Charles thinks no.

But perhaps the tune should be in conflict with the poem’s sense, and thus perhaps Ginsberg was not so much pushing a song of experience into a popular (and thus single-direction-tending) mode so much as making it still more Blakean.

The binary of innocence and experience, Rachel says, is broken by the way the song is sung. Blake wanted the binary to be broken; Ginsberg only breaks it further. And seems to be having fun along the way.

Listen for the happy out-take at the end. We had some fun ourselves, albeit somewhat atonally and quite arhythmically.

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

PoemTalk #4 was recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay produced; Steve McLaughlin is our director, engineer and editor. Ginsberg’s Blake song were recorded in New York City in 1969; PennSound has a complete collection of these recordings. Be sure to check out PennSound’s Ginsberg page.

Don't know how to say (PoemTalk #3)

George Oppen, 'Ballad'

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Joined this time by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, the PoemTalkers wasted no time grappling with George Oppen’s grappling with the real. The rock of the island he’s visiting — its locatedness to be cherished — “outlived the classicists.” Is this anti-academic? Yes, we agreed. On an island in Maine, he meets a lobsterman and his wife and finds them super-articulate and at the same time admirably, wonderfully halting in their speech (like Oppen himself here). Oppen: “Difficult to know what one means.” The lobsterman’s wife: “I don't know how to say.” We are all in this real together. Jessica was just back from Vegas, Linh from Iceland, Rachel from teaching a class on the other side of town. Which instruments — archaic and etymologically historical or local, broken-toothed and ready-at-hand — are the tools that will help us understand where exactly we are? “Geo-positioning” seemed to be the word of the day.

Ballad

Astrolabes and lexicons
Once in the great houses—

A poor lobsterman

Met by chance
On Swan's Island

Where he was born
We saw the old farmhouse

Propped and leaning on its hilltop
On that island
Where the ferry runs

A poor lobsterman

His teeth were bad

He drove us over that island
In an old car

A well-spoken man

Hardly real
As he knew in those rough fields

Lobster pots and their gear
Smelling of salt

The rocks outlived the classicists,
The rocks and the lobstermen's huts

And the sights of the island
The ledges in the rough sea seen from the road

And the harbor
And the post office

Difficult to know what one means
—to be serious and to know what one means—

An island
Has a public quality

His wife in the front seat

In a soft dress
Such as poor women wear

She took it that we came—
I don't know how to say, she said—

Not for anything we did, she said,
Mildly, 'from God'. She said

What I like more than anything
Is to visit other islands...

Linh Dinh blogged about our Oppen session the evening after we recorded #3, so why shouldn’t Linh take it from here?

Rachel is a great Oppen scholar, knew him for twenty years, edited his collected letters, so of course she made many sharp points, which I won’t misquote here, but being gaseous, as usual, I observed that there is an alluring tension between the poem’s stately, majestic tone and its choppy, fumbling syntax. I hazarded that Oppen’s probing, drifting language, free of embellishments, reflects a tentative, doubting relationship to the real. There is a tourist logic working here. ((What the fuck am I talking about?)) My mind is still in Iceland, I fear, not the Swan’s Island, Maine, of the Oppen poem.

Island, insular, isolated, all derived from the Latin insula. Hawaiian-raised Zach Linmark told me that, as a teenager, he couldn’t wait to get out of Oahu. And yet, after bouncing around the U.S. mainland, England, his native Philippines and even Japan, he’s back on his lava spill for at least a portion of each year. Ólöf Arnalds, “Iceland's acid folk angel,” and I’ve heard her sing, and she's very good, told me that many of her compatriots also want to get out. Of the younger generations, almost everyone has travelled overseas. Those who haven’t are either very weird or very poor. Many Icelanders have settled abroad, but most would return home to live. It’s very odd, she thought. Ólöf herself has spent a year in Berlin.

We were riding back to Reykjavik after the farewell dinner for the Nýhil's Poetry Festival. The organizers had hired a bus to take everyone to a fine lobster feast in the village of Stokkseyri. Our conversation turned to the hegemony of English. English syntax is creeping into Icelandic, Ólöf informed me, “Sometimes I hear things said in Icelandic that appear to have been constructed in English.”

“That's incredible! You mean Icelanders are thinking in English while speaking Icelandic?”

“Yes, sometimes. Many Icelanders are so proud that we have come up with new words for ‘computer’ and ‘software,’ for example, but they don’t realize that English is creeping into our syntax. Icelandic grammar is very different from English. The language itself is very compact, whereas English is stretched out.”

Suddenly we were engulfed by a funny, rotten egg smell, similar to the tap water funk back in my bathroom. “It's the sulfur in the hot springs,” Ólöf laughed. It came from outside, in the darkened landscape. “I didn't want you to think it was me!”


PoemTalk #3 was recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House, that 1851 Tudor-style cottage on Locust Walk in Philadelphia which was taken over in 1995 by a gang of learning-community-starved writers. The show was produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay, directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin. Oppen’s “Ballad” was recorded in 1979 in Brooklyn, by Verna Gillis and Michael Heller. Visit Oppen’s PennSound page.

No place for little lyric (PoemTalk #2)

Adrienne Rich, 'Wait'

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When Adrienne Rich wrote the poem “Wait” she and many Americans and others were awaiting the start of what seemed an inevitable war in Iraq, in March 2003. The PoemTalk crew — Jessica Lowenthal, Linh Dinh, Randall Couch and your convener-host Al Filreis — couldn't wait (as it were) to get going on this terrestrial poem. Is it a personal is political poem? The soldier, after all, looks at his or her wedding ring and thinks about why s/he wasn’t told...but not told what? Is it a make love, not war poem? Is it a political poem at all? The Iraqi desert is “no place for the little lyric.” The gang variously wonders if the poem had something large to contend about lyric’s talent for reminding us of reasons why war is inhuman? Randall thinks it isn’t much of a war (or antiwar) poem; its strengths diminish as it gets more clearly into its political subject; in the end it closes off “with a click.” Linh prefers a less formalistic approach. Jessica and Al riff on the 1930s-style “hobos in a breadline” genre: its reputation for conservative form carrying radical content. Is this a formally conservative poem? If so, there’s an irony, for sure. The PoemTalkers can only agree that such a question is open, making the poem all the more interesting (and in that sense it’s a meta-poem, a poem about the problems of political poems).

Wait

In paradise every
the desert wind is rising
third thought
in hell there are no thoughts
is of earth
sand screams against your government
issued tent hell's noise
in your nostrils crawl
into your ear-shell
wrap yourself in no-thought
wait no place for the little lyric
wedding-ring glint the reason why
on earth
they never told you

PennSound’s collection of Rich recordings offers downloadable mp3s of three reading, including her 2005 performance at the Kelly Writers House, where she read a bit from The School among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004, including "Wait". She also gave a 32-second introduction to our poem.

PoemTalk #2 was recorded in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay. Steve McLaughlin was our sound editor and we had help from that talented soundhead, Curtis Fox. We're grateful to Adrienne Rich who agreed, when she visited in 2005, to recite “Wait,” a favorite of the Writers House-affiliated students.

Broken Pieces (PoemTalk #1)

William Carlos Williams, 'Between Walls'

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Can such a brief bit of writing — William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” — be a “campaign poem,” as host Al Filries at one point in PoemTalk#1 suggests? Saigon-born poet Linh Dinh (Jam Alerts) insists that it is a garbage poem and prefers not to claim for it such large literary-political territory. Williams is “flirting” with the poetic, but never quite gets there. Teacher, editor, poet, translator, college administrator Randall Couch sees greater awareness of the poetic line in the poem as printed on the page than in the way Williams read the poem at public readings. Linh and poet Jessica Lowenthal (As If In Turning) see and hear two different poems. Al keeps wondering if the poem can be negative (be about nothing) and yet at the same time produce something and point toward this bit of shining broken modern shard to discover, or re-discover, life. To Al and Jessica it is positive (“lie / cinders / in which shine”) but Linh insists with pleasure that Williams is being neutral — just a snapshot of an urban scene. As such, the poem has had a huge influence on poetry and photography since its first publication in 1934. Yet can any artist today get away with so straightfoward and seemingly objective a mere observation?


Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle

We at PoemTalk were celebrating Williams’s 124th birthday a little while back when we noticed several bloggers seemed to feel it necessary on that very day to “avoid[...] the urge to romanticize” WCW. The blogger who creates Caught in the Stream led the way, pondering — and then rejecting as untrue — the distinction between Walt Whitman’s long-lined sentimentality and WCW’s succinct and seemingly exclusive focus on things. We delighted at the way respondents to the blog weighed in on one side or the other. But on our cake, at least, we held an extra candle for Walt, sensing that the two poets are very much in the same line.

PennSound’s Williams page has the complete recordings, every last one so far as we know. Including, of course, the three recordings of the poet reading PT’s first poem, “Between Walls.”

PoemTalk #1 was recorded in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The show was produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay, and was directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin with help from Curtis Fox.