Vyshinsky: Why did you write the poem?

Rostov: It demanded to be written.  I simply happened to be sitting at the particular desk on the particular morning when it chose to make its demands.

–Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

In music and in poetry live ongoing revelation.  Whether we choose the metaphor of a birthing process, a weaving of cloth, a chiseling away of stone, a building up of structure, or the mixing of reactive chemicals, something is showing or becoming known that wasn’t before.  We experience this when a classical artist reinterprets a well-known work of music, something canonic that’s been played and recorded dozens of times, and manages to bring a new phrasing or inflection to the piece. Same with a band covering a great song from a decade before, or a young generation discovering the folk music of their grandparents. Listeners get a sense of pleasant surprise, and the work maintains its reputation as classic because it always has new depth for us.  We experience that sense of the new while reading poems composed of ordinary words arranged in novel ways: maybe a noun verbed, or a double meaning that reveals a third meaning.  We are always recycling material, but humans rarely repeat ourselves exactly.  We’re driven to show our insights, tiny intimations seemingly given us to show the world.

Musicians reading this will object that there is a difference between reinterpreting and composing.  The composer writes music that didn’t exist before; the improviser creates in real time; the performer makes sound that exists temporally in its moment but was reproduced from memory or from a printed score.  The sound engineer makes possible the preservation of the art, which is, itself, an art. There’s no hierarchy to this.  I do wonder why some are drawn to writing and others to reproducing or recording. Russell Brakefield’s poetry collection from 2018, Field Recordings, deals implicitly with these questions. The book is possibly unique in being a poetic ekphrasis on texts about music.  It is a reflection on and homage to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, specifically the work he did documenting folk songs in Michigan in the early twentieth century.  To a lesser extent, Brakefield also deals in a poetics of musical sound itself.

Yes, I’m shelving the discussion about the term ethnomusicologist until another time. But feel free to comment on that.


Brakefield (whose reading in Ann Arbor I just missed) writes about Michigan like someone who has lived and traveled here.  He understands that moods in this landscape are nearly always weather-based or circadian:

If we walk slow with the bugs,

down along the grassy bank,

under that rib cage bridge,

we can catch a fat buzz

off the night air, our cheeks

like hard white shadows

(After the Labor Day Procession)


I’ve waited all day for this light—orange fog

above the pond where all life lifts away.

(Ode to Joy)


We will hunt mushrooms

in the dew and leaves

along Morrison Road,

consoled by our quiet looking,

the necessity of space apart

below the sparse, dark trees.

(Kalkaska County, Michigan)

Brakefield’s poems are not, to my ear, lyrical.  But they are beautiful. I would describe them as somehow chordal: colors layer into harmony, sometimes with pedal effects.  They don’t refer directly to one another, but they associate and interleave, especially on repeated readings.  His musical references are easy to understand and, although he could have gone into esoteric territory when dealing with the Lomax documents, he keeps things approachable for a lay reader, with plenty of attractive byways and “I wonder what he means by that” along the path.

There’s an agreeable quality to the whole collection.  As a narrator, even when ventriloquizing Lomax, Brakefield maintains an even-keeled persona, appealing—Midwestern nice?—without begging for the reader’s regard.  He seems to have found some answers about how music performers, composers, and documentarians relate. I was going to say, what we owe each other, but beholdenness doesn’t come into play.  It’s all very fair:

Part of the player

is leased to the listener like sign language or a farmer

swatting a barn cat from the butter dish.

(The High and Lonesome Sound)

And, conveniently, when dealing with a history of folksongs, we don’t have to worry about violating copyright.  Here is an interview Brakefield gave to Ann Arbor literary arts reporter Martha Stuit about working, writing, and listening to a wide swath of music.  My favorite quotation from the interview: “Many of the songs we know come from these oral traditions and have been passed down, translated, changed, stolen, updated, recorded, revised, celebrated, etc.” Brakefield doesn’t go deeply into the topic of cultural appropriation, but he’s clearly not at ease with the white legacy of profiting from black music or the legacy of literate, well-off music producers profiting from the folksy caché of less educated, poor whites.

Music of a different sort comes and goes through Noah Eli Gordon’s book of connected poems The Frequencies.  There’s less landscape here, more interiority.  More closed rooms, cabinets, and the sometimes claustrophobic space inside one’s own head:

“We filtered sound for an hour.  The phone at the station, off the hook.” –98.7

“…another beautiful abstraction, the ivory keys that collect because I couldn’t remodel the dust into an acceptable swell of music & the movies end despite everything.  My hands in my lap the whole time.” –95.7

“The paint was making us sick but we still loved the walls.” –106.3

Each poem’s title is a number, specifically, an FM radio setting.  As Gordon obviously has some experience as a broadcaster and radio aficionado, I have to think he knew what he was doing, using frequencies as titles that would have different associations for him than for any given reader.  I had my own associations with many of the stations, based on what type of music or other programming they play where I live, or where I grew up.  Those associations, of course, have nothing to do with the poems’ or the poet’s intention; within a piece of literature, “88.7” has no more absolute meaning than, say, the color red or the letter W.  If we assume that each station number has private meaning to the author, then the numerical titles might function as labels or file names, calling up a state of mind or an image related to the words on the page.  Lacking that point of reference, the reader is left with whatever state of mind or image the words on the page conjure.  It follows that we might then associate that feeling with the numerical title.  It’s like a way of reverse engineering meaning in a poem.

I’ve always considered myself bad at titles, and I always come up with the title last when I write. Some number of poems remain untitled or unsatisfactorily titled still.  But those tend to be stand-alones, not sections of a book-length woven-together work.  In a book where each poem, or section, functions as an integrated part, perhaps verbal titles aren’t necessary.  I found each one in The Frequencies to have its own subtle shading, but the recurrent themes and linkages between them might be the most salient feature.

Radio broadcasters are some combination of performer and documentarian. Perhaps aural docents: they curate and present art for the sake of an audience they cannot see, much as a violinist playing to a darkened full house. How much can any of us trust that the message is getting across? That ambiguity winds through the poems. Mostly I’m not sure whether Gordon even receives the messages he sends himself; the quick changes of tense and point of view seem to reflect the poet’s own disorientation.

Gordon makes reference at various times to music notation, to Braille, to the sound of the shofar, and to hearing disembodied or imagined voices.  His experience of transmission, then, has been varied and perhaps a little haunted.  He doesn’t seem to trust what he hears or reads, leading to (or resulting from?) a lot of puns:

“There was a tone in my shoe.  I was picking up the station with my teeth.  When I met you earlier at the restaurant, you winked at the waiter, told him you’re always hungry after six.” –107.9

“The call letters made an anagram we interpreted as feedback until our sentences ran out of themselves.” –107.1

“I’m still unconvinced reading music leaves nineteen letters unaccounted for.” –92.5

“Still, life with radio is remembering sound.” –100.9

That last line is reminiscent of the pun wrought repeatedly by the great Thomas Lynch, poet-undertaker of Milford, Michigan: Still, life = still life.


I had to wonder whether Gordon had read Lynch (“Still, life in Milford isn’t all that bad”) or whether, and very possibly, he had independently thought up the “still life with radio.” As active as these poems are in the sense of internal, private goings-on, a sort of twitchy itchiness, they leave a closing impression of muteness. I keep picturing a recording booth and thinking of the way all sound is absorbed by the acoustical walls. You could say anything and never be overheard.


“Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches the images out that hurt and connect.” W.H. Auden, The Composer

“Evil often stops short at itself and dies with the doer of it; but Good, never.”  Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Collaborative piano is the best job in the world.  I get to play gorgeous, challenging music while supporting and learning from other musicians.  By choice and by happenstance, choral music has become a sub-specialty of mine.  I’m not much of a singer, but if you are a choral director, I am the accompanist you want to hire.  At present I am preparing the Mozart Requiem with the director I have worked most closely with over the last decade.  Her large, multi-lingual, musically sensitive high school choir is up to the task of singing this meaningful work.  And I like to think I’ve risen to the task of playing the orchestral reduction.  We’ll be performing portions of the Requiem for the community this week.

If you’ve never been immersed in European choral music or Catholic musical tradition, here are the basics: many famous classical composers wrote music for mass.  Some wrote specifically a requiem, which is a setting of the mass for the dead (“requiem” translates as “rest”).  The text comes from Catholic liturgy; there are several sections, in Latin mostly, with a little Greek. All of the composers wrote their own music for the text, and the music varied a lot by time period and personal style.  So Mozart’s setting from 1791 sounds very different from Fauré’s, composed one hundred years later.

Mozart’s Requiem is extra poignant because he died composing it.  He accepted a commission to write it, found himself in failing health, and got eight bars into the Lacrimosa before his life ended.  The work was completed by Franz Süssmayr, a protégé, at the request of Mozart’s wife.

While the Lacrimosa is perhaps the most famous sub-section in the whole work, and the Dies Irae probably the most impressive, it’s a different part that stays in my head after each choir rehearsal: the Confutatis.

Without knowing a word of Latin, you can hear in the music alone that something scary is going on, followed by something calm.  If you read the text, the parts that Mozart set to scary music have to do with the condemnation of the damned.  The calm parts are the ordinary folks’ souls imploring, “Call me, call me among the blessed.”  A separation is going on: it is the day of wrath (“dies irae”) and humanity is being sorted.  The last section of Confutatis is quietly haunting. There’s an image of the speaker’s heart turning to ashes. And there is the beseeching line, “Help me in my final hour.”  No wonder Amadeus became a hit movie; the drama writes itself.

I’m not Catholic or, for that matter, religious at all. I appreciate the mass as poetry. I’m sort of a humanist agnostic, more concerned with how we treat each other on earth than what happens in a mythical apocalypse.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think about issues of life and death.  It so happened that, as I was working up the score for our upcoming concert, a spate of school shootings occurred.  The most deadly was the rampage at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

When tragedies occur that shouldn’t…when I am powerless to help people in deep mourning…when a response is called for and no amount of practical actions will suffice…that’s when I go to the piano or to the page.  I started writing a poem about Confutatis because the music reached me. And it will always stop me in my tracks to realize that Mozart died younger than the age I am now.  Parkland wasn’t on my mind—consciously—as I wrote notes for the poem.  I didn’t realize until the poem was almost finished that it was going to be about my sacrilegious response to gun violence.  It’s a truism that people who have been through a tragedy either cling more tightly to their faith or give it up altogether.  Each time I find myself a witness to someone else’s life-altering tragedy, I become less inclined to believe in the omnipotent, personally caring god of Western monotheism.  Simultaneously, I become more stubbornly attached to the idea that we will ultimately save each other.  I have hope because of the student activists working to preserve their own safety.

Confutatis (Mozart Requiem)

homage to Parkland


When is it the wicked will
be silenced, confounded, or doomed
depending on translation? Why
must we wait till then to be counted?
Call me now. Call today with
some good news, unconditional.
Speak to us the way we speak to you.


How many hands has
this music been through?  Sorry
I asked.  A copy of a copy
of a manuscript starts to look like
ashes.  Like, almost.  Nearly.
Near enough to ashes to count.
Contrite as if.  Contrite as/like.  That’s
where the page cuts off.  Call
me when you have something to say.
Speak to us as if you were our god.


How could the composer stop
living, scoring, mid-mass, leaving
a student to finish the job?  Expired
over the page whereon “help me.”  How
could any of us? Yet they will. Finish.
Don’t speak to me until you answer them.
Before this movement there will be
judgment; afterward, lilting tears.
Tell you what, don’t call me among the blessed.
Don’t call me at all.
Speak for yourself; I cannot hear you.  Like the rest of them you died young and scared.

Did the purported son of god ever despair? Jesus died at the hands of attackers around the same age Mozart died of natural causes.  According to the spiritual, he didn’t say a mumbling word.  It’s natural that Mozart, in extremis, would cry out—either literally, or through his music—for divine help.  The men’s voices declaim the terrible fate of the damned; the women’s voices ask for mercy. Finally, all parts come together in abject humility.  In the Germanic Latin in which this piece is sung, the word for ashes (“cinis”) is pronounced “tzeenees.” It has a certain crackle.  The hard consonants and rounded vowels of “gere curam” express a calm resignation.  It’s a cry for help without expectation of an answer. It is the acceptance of death as inevitable.

What I don’t view as inevitable is the enacting of some rigidified plan in which human will takes no part.  Hence the irreligiosity.  Where help is needed, we must provide it or let the supplicant go without. I believe in the act of asking for what we need, but not begging.  If help isn’t forthcoming, it’s time to form a strategy and provide for ourselves.

In the poem “Alms,” by Idea Vilariño, the speaker craves help and attention so badly that she will settle for a “dirty dirty crumb.”


Each time I read this short poem, I change my mind about it.  Is it sincere?  Is it satirical?  Is it a portrayal of a viewpoint we all can recognize, having found ourselves abased or without hope sometime in our lives?  Or does the poem inspire us to say that we, in contrast to the speaker, will not settle for mere crumbs?  I’m still going over and over it.  “Alms” happened to be published the week I was finishing “Confutatis,” and it was like reading a sympathetic note from a fellow poet.

As I write, students in many cities are walking out of their classes in protest of the fact that they are unsafe where they learn.  Large companies are raising the required age to purchase guns.  The high school where I work, a high school where everyone sings, is performing a mass for the dead in the quiet comfort of our small auditorium, and we’re thinking of the lost. The age-mates, the younger-thans, the what-would-she-have-achieved-ifs.

I watch these students sing about such dire things, happily so distant from their lived experience. Prior to the Confutatis, we hear a prophecy of judgment in the Dies Irae.  In an odd admixture of Old Testament and ancient Greek lore, we hear that both David and the Sibyl have foretold the burning of the world.  Even a skeptic like me takes pause to wonder whether it will come to that—how much destruction, after all, must we witness before heeding the warnings filling our ears?  We have been warned.  We grieve with the grieving; we are as sorry as our hearts can bear, and then some.  We are collectively contrite, because even those of us who avoid guns, or who own and use them safely, haven’t done enough to protect the innocent.

There is no pause between Confutatis and Lacrimosa.  The music is marked “attacca,” go right on. There is a brief tension chord, an A7, before the sweet and tenebrous tones of D minor usher us into collective mourning.  I want there to be more space than that.  I want a large caesura, a moment for Mozart to write his will and collect his payment for the Requiem. In that imaginary pause, I want an intake of breath much larger than that allowed by a quarter rest.  I want to avoid the Lacrimosa altogether.  After all, there are six more sections of music to come.  Scholars believe Mozart left only sketches, and Süssmayr wrote most of this material himself.  And I say, so what?  It is where the hope lies.  Of course our students will pick up where we left off.  Rightfully so.  May they not face our obstacles, our intransigence, our hidebound insistence on mere good and evil and divine intervention.  Their universe is so much more frightening and glorious than that.



I recently gave a reading (and second book launch) at my local independent book shop.  After the reading portion of the event, I took questions from local writer/reviewer/actor/raconteur Roy Sexton about the process of writing poetry.  Then we had a short Q and A with the audience.  It was my first time giving a live interview as a poet, and only my third time reading my work at a public event.  Rebecca Biber: Unaccompanied was thoughtfully reviewed by another local writer, Sherlonya Turner:


Photo of Rebecca Biber by Rebecca Winder


“…the impulse to keep the hands moving, feeding tiny answers to vast demands.” –Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior


“But what else do I believe in?  Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond.  I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose.” –Patti Smith, M Train

This post is not about elegies and valedictions.  Nor about requiem masses.  Solace and healing don’t reside there.  Or, not only in those institutionalized forms.  Let us agree that poetic and musical mourning have been done, done well, done to a turn, for however long poetry and music have each existed.  Let us, then, wave at Sappho and Donne, at Guido d’Arezzo and Mozart, and consider the consolation of the living as we continue (for now anyway) to live and work.

I think novelist Kingsolver has it right when she suggests that coping is tactile.  We can release sorrow and gain reassurance working at something beautiful: so playing an instrument, quilting, gardening, drawing, woodwork, mosaic…all are ways of hands-in-the-materials meditation.  Despite popular misconception, poetry and music are not essentially comforting.  And a lot of poems written with the express function of salving grief or speaking about bereavement fail to bring any help whatsoever.  The works that are most successful are often those that approach sadness or hardship sideways, that seem to be discussing something else, but strike a glancing blow at the difficult human condition.

When I was in high school, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye gave a reading in our school auditorium. One of the poems she read was “Famous.”  The line “the tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek” has stuck with me all of the twenty years between then and now.  I was just beginning to understand that I had depression. I didn’t pay as much attention to the ending of the poem but, as I reread it recently to think more deeply about consolation—this short, straightforward poem that has been consoling me since the author’s voice landed on my ears two decades ago—it was the ending that brought me to tears. And these tears were more hopeful than sad. Here it is, in its entirety:


I’m struck here by the aspiration of the speaker to attain the status of simple tools: the buttonhole, the pulley.  There isn’t much in life more comforting than a thing that works as it is supposed to work, reliably.  What a good goal for a human being to have.

The desire to help, to improve life for someone else, is an essential part of self-consolation.  As Ms. Nye writes of wanting to be remembered for smiling at strangers, another contemporary poet, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, wrestles with the selfsame impulse to participate in the world, as with all of humanity and her surroundings partnering in the endeavor.  The poem “To Love Is” bears an epigraph from the Jewish text Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. It frames the yearning to help and be helped in the concept of tikkun olam, an idea usually translated from Hebrew as “repair of the world.”  While the first two stanzas seem to refer to a pair of human lovers, the third stanza reveals that the relationship in question is between the speaker and the world at large.  She realizes that she can’t determine the relationship, or even her place in it.  All she can do is affirm her “original loyalty” and recommit.

“To Love Is” appears in Ms. Ostriker’s 1989 book of poems, Green Age. Lacking a publicly available source, I will quote the poem’s beginning and ending here:

You do not need to accomplish the work; nor are you free to desist from it. –The Ethics of the Fathers

To love is
To desire the liberty
Of the one loved
And if I have desired
Since my first childish moments of sentience
When I recognized that I ardently loved the world
The balanced radiance of its good and evil
And wanted to help unlock it to become
More and more itself—
More and more alive—
What then?  As I grow older
I love it less, the evil seems denser,
More strangely skewed,
My world uglier and myself weaker.
Still I keep my original loyalty,
My memory—a child on a busy
Sidewalk looking around and thinking
Beautiful dirty city, beautiful planet
I have my task,
What matter if I can
Never accomplish it.

The end of the poem refers again to the idea of manual labor, with the word “task.” Just as a buttonhole or a pulley never reaches the end of its work, neither do we.  We are all still useful as long as we exist.  And maybe afterward too.

Just a few years before Ostriker published “To Love Is,” Adrienne Rich wrote “Dreams Before Waking.” This poem also deals with sorrow experienced in the everyday urban world, with our participation in that world offered as a way out.  Rich uses two epigraphs, one from the Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel, the other from renowned Cuban poet Nancy Morejón.

“Despair is the question.” –Elie Wiesel

“Hasta tu país cambió.  Lo has cambiado tú mismo.” –Nancy Morejón

My own translation of the Morejón quotation is “Even your country changed. You yourself have changed it.”  Late in the poem, Ms. Rich turns it into an exhortation: “you yourself must change it.”

“Dreams Before Waking” was published in Your Native Land, Your Life (1986) and is well worth reading fully.  Here is a memorial essay about Rich that quotes the last stanza, which as far as I can tell is the most widely remembered and reprinted part of the poem.  While the poem ends on a hopeful, or at least hortatory, note, it doesn’t start there.  The first stanza describes the descent of the mind in despair as the deepening shadow of a skyscraper under construction.  The second stanza begins “At the end of winter something changes / a faint subtraction / from consolations you expected / an innocent brilliance that does not come…”  It’s through this silhouette-making, this collage of sadness in negative values or cutouts, as it were, that Rich’s speaker arrives at the realization that things won’t improve without her volition.  She feels a frightening unity of fate with people she had scarcely noticed before, in the fifth stanza:

even the woman who sleeps at night
in the barred doorway—wasn’t she always there?
and the man glancing, darting
for food in the supermarket trash—
when did his hunger come to this?
what made the difference?
what will make it for you?

When it occurs to us that the hungry person on the street could be us—not in a vague hypothetical way, but in the immediacy of true, visceral empathy—we’re motivated to work toward change.  When we get to work, then sadness loosens its grip slightly.  We’re not free of it, but might we, as Rich writes in the concluding lines, get a different view when we “stand on the first / page of the end of despair?” So the word that started the poem also ends the poem, but this time despair comes with a question mark.  It is, quite literally, the Wiesel quotation.  Why is this consoling (question mark)?  Because, if despair is the question, it is not also the answer.  It breaks us open to inquiry without breaking us.

There is a universality to grief and consolation.  Meaning not that the same things get us down or cheer us up, but at a fundamental level, the things that bring all human beings low—poverty, oppression, loss of family—are healed with pure human love and attention.  As Nye and Rich suggest, it can come from strangers.  As Ostriker suggests, it can be directed outward from the heart without a specific target in mind. For certain, it crosses cultures and eras.  The preeminent poet Rita Dove constructed a devastatingly beautiful grief-music-memorial poem based on the experience of a Holocaust survivor named Alice Herz-Sommer, a career pianist and music educator who survived the Terezin concentration camp, where she sustained herself and other prisoners by maintaining a regular practice and performance schedule.


Dove’s poem opens with the famous line from Twelfth Night, so oft-quoted that it’s nearly cliché.  The poet, working with the material of Ms. Herz-Sommer’s life, un-clichés it as she illustrates that music kept the prisoners alive by feeding them emotionally, intellectually, even as their bodies were malnourished from “the black water passing for coffee / white water for soup.”  She also makes an interesting distinction in kind that is very musicianlike: Chopin was the food of love, and not the music “composed to soothe regiments.” This is not merely a pianist’s preference for her own repertoire as contrasted with “horn flash, woodwind wail.”  And one could note that Chopin composed plenty of pieces with a military flair, regiment-inspired if not strictly regimental.  No, it’s clear that the camp survivors made of their playing a subversive act, and of their chosen repertoire a rebellious anthem.  Like the ancestors of Langston Hughes’s streetlight soloist and Tyehimba Jess’s Blind Boone, the Terezin musicians created their autonomy, their very survival, from whatever materials were available to them.  Even in the teeth of death, they made choices. Even faced with annihilation, they accomplished artistry.

My life has been fortunate and materially easy.  But, like all humans, I have my griefs and, like all musicians, I cope through my instrument.  Part of it is the establishment of routine or, beyond that, the refusal to relinquish routine in the face of crisis.  Part of it is the physical/emotional/intellectual alchemy that playing works on the player.  In other words, I can relate to holding music as a lifeline, even as I stand awed at the extremity of some musicians’ life and death experiences.  In a much less extreme situation, really in the day-to-day challenge of improving craft for its own sake, I see musical practice as a problem holding its own solution.

We all go through periods of doubt in our own capabilities, and see ourselves improving over time.  We all wonder whether we can live up to our calling, whether we are good enough—not just technically, but somehow spiritually.  This is the internal struggle of every performer, teacher, and writer.  This was the impetus behind the title poem of my book, Technical Solace.

It is the irony of musical work that our ephemeral, totally transient product comes out of intense physical labor.  Perhaps for that reason, I love concrete imagery both as a teaching tool and as a personal way to attach to the music.  Having a material or structural image in mind—or sometimes just a color—often helps me to get the sound I am striving for, and to improve my odds of playing something the way I want it to sound.

When I think of music-related images, it is almost always spontaneous, while I am playing (“oh here is that red passage”) or when I am reflecting on playing, as above.  Some musicians also perceive themselves performing, but I mainly perceive the internal experience of the music, rather than watching myself, as it were, making the sounds.  When I came across the poem “I live in music” by African American feminist poet Ntozake Shange, I was delighted with how she portrayed the world itself as made of music.  It’s radically different from our usual perception of music as existing within the world.  Her vision is both concrete and theoretical, dreamlike yet vividly sensual, and the poet herself strides through it.

After introducing us to her neighborhood (“i live on c# street”), she pauses to ask the reader “do you live here in music.” But because Ms. Shange’s style is almost totally unpunctuated, there is no question mark or stopping of any kind except the natural line break.  So, “do you live here in music” can have an upward inflection or a downward one; it can be a statement.  My favorite lines occur about halfway through the poem, with the punch of a bumper sticker and the wisdom of ages:

i got 15 trumpets where other women got hips

& a upright bass for both sides of my heart

i walk round in a piano like somebody

else/ be walkin on the earth

“I live in music” takes up less than a page, but it was published as a gorgeous book, one line per page accompanied by the artwork of Romare Bearden (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1994).  The pairing of Shange’s words with Bearden’s painting and collage is perfect, and each deepens the other.

I find poems like this to be more heartening than poems written purposefully to hearten.  The need for consolation is not explicit, but the comfort given implies the need: what could be more protective than an upright bass, itself a resonating chamber, guarding the heart with its heart-like curves and strong vibration?  What could be more body-positive than brassy, beautiful hips made of fanfare?  And where could one be more at home, more in one’s element, than walking round in a piano?

If despair is the question, then music is the answer.  If love is a hunger, then poetry is food.


The book launch on November 5 was a rousing success.  With a standing-room-only crowd on the third floor of the downtown library, I and eight other local authors read from our newly-published books.  We schmoozed, met friends and family, met each other’s friends and family, and signed copies of our work. Technical Solace continues to be available for purchase, from the publisher and now also at Ann Arbor’s own Bookbound, a wonderful independent book shop on the north side. And…yes…Technical Solace is now on Amazon.  If you like that sort of thing.

If you happen to attend, or sell your work at, Ann Arbor’s annual Tiny Expo arts and crafts fair, my book will be for sale there too.

The reading itself was a performance much like any other.  My last name was mispronounced; the amplification and acoustics were so-so; the crowd was supportive and I was nervous as a flea. Usually I am less nervous for public speaking than for public piano playing, because the act of speaking is so much easier than playing an instrument.  But reading my poems to an audience bigger than my dog was a new, intense experience.  My take on the crowd’s reaction was that most did not have previous exposure to poetry reading and didn’t know quite what to make of it.  But they tried.  I’ll post what I read here, with a synopsis of my introduction to each poem.

Since I always like to know where the titles of books come from, I started with the book’s title poem.  This is simply about learning to play the piano, trying to get good. (I am still trying to get good.)

Technical Solace

It was years before the scales became
like old jeans.  The ease snuck
up on me, then there it was, keeping
me meditative in the afternoon.  Sharps
made seams in smooth cloth, flicked
my fingers up and back.  Those edges
led to Mozart, the iffy son.
             Arpeggios arrived
after, an unexpected second child
so squally I’d give up, surprised anytime
docility spread a smile.  Tantrums
made me run outside, away from the
crying.  But I always came back.  Keys
are my landscape, cool barefoot
pedals like stones.

This next poem has a bit of a backstory.  As you may remember, before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality, we were in a kind of limbo where gay and lesbian couples could be legally married in one state and not in the next.  There was a brief window of time when it was legal in Michigan, but no one knew how long that would last.  So, at the time, lots of couples, some of my friends among them, rushed down to City Hall to be married while they could–not knowing if those marriages would be legally upheld, or if so, then for how long.  The law was in a state of flux. As was the weather: early spring in Michigan is a precarious time, and we don’t know from one day to the next (or one hour to the next) whether we’ll have beautiful warm weather or more blizzards.  I wanted to be hopeful with my friends, but it is hard to hope in the face of persistent backlash.  Thus it was out of feelings of ambivalence–perhaps, unsupported optimism–that this poem came about.

Winter’s Fool

April, Ann Arbor, 2014

It resembles spring, that’s as good as I can give you.
It’s not snowing at the moment, and the ban on marriage
lifted last night. Temporarily, say.  It’s still cold
and windy out there.  My row of tulips, sheltered halfway
behind boxwoods, is getting intrepidly up but tomorrow
the old governor might stop the process again; we’ll find
discouraged flowers ice-rimed and separated pairs of men.  On
the road, asphalt looks like gold.  We wait to change tires, clothes,
to hold out hope, until sure the sleet has gone, fled in drops and shiny
rivulets down drains tucked under curbs.  We halt, wary of pride, Michigan
tough and winter tender, hoisting signs:  Love is love, as jays meander
back to the trees they dwell in.  Bold nature says, “of course I’m here,
where else?” Each frail fellow creature without a house or car, feral,
fearless as humans wish to be.  We move from desk to store to bedroom,
from van to school to kitchen, wincing to be caught between.  We move
from habit to decision back to routine, until today. Maybe just
this day, a line at the county clerk’s office and flowers in women’s hands.
The freezing-out cannot be ended, it’s too unlikely, I don’t trust
the reprieve.  But for now.  When my boot goes through
the ice, not over.  When one bit of good news is on the radio every hour.
When we linger on the pavement around the store, when mail carriers
again are glad they hired on, rain and color stand a chance, chapped lips
heal and debates resume, when the art class sees the jay, the branch, picks
up pencils and moves outside for drawing, it resembles spring, resembles
something thawing.

After I read the above, someone in the audience uttered an audible “huh.”  That was my favorite reaction.  As I was signing books, the only person to approach my table whom I didn’t know introduced herself as a music teacher (she was wearing the obligatory eighth notes scarf) and said she loved all of the music references in the poems.  This woman is my ideal audience.

Since the book launch, several friends have sent me photos of my book as it’s arrived at their homes near and far.  I’ve walked into a client’s house to see my book on her living room table.  I’ve been told that certain poems made people cry.  Thus far, I like the response.  Though it’s odd to think of something I created making people cry as a good thing.

I will be holding a solo reading on January 13 at Bookbound (more info to come).  I plan to read more from Technical Solace as well as some new work.  Come by for some tea and onomatopoeia, some cake and enjambments.


“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.”  –Igor Stravinsky

Structure is lovely.  Who doesn’t enjoy the calm of symmetry, the excitement of following an unfolding pattern? It’s as true in architecture and tapestry as it is in music and poetry.  Even the departure from form can be, itself, a kind of plan or process: here’s how the artist fulfills an expectation, here’s how he breaks one. The dissonance in the harmony.  Good art can draw from disparate source material; it can recreate past themes or innovate greatly. It can surprise us, but it is not random.

As part of my autodidactic poetry work, I’ve tried composing in various classical forms.  There was the sonnet to a college boyfriend (Shakespeare I wasn’t). The villanelle (same form as In Flanders Fields).  The sestina.  Composing within these structures reminded me a lot of learning to compose music.  As a kid taking piano lessons, I had assignments to complete eight-bar phrases or write variations on a given theme. The idea was to learn guidelines of what made musical sense, e.g. you need the same number of beats in each bar; you mostly end on the tonic, that sort of thing.  Breaking the “rules” of the form could result in something funny-sounding, or cool-sounding, at times. But I understood even that young that the point was to be able to converse musically—to show that you had the skill to play the game.  Students of any art who have a grasp of structure are better at improvising, and more skillful at breaking conventions with a purpose in mind, than students who are completely unlettered.  In college we analyzed Bach chorales and composed our own, according to the rules of Western tonal harmony.  Parallel fifths were verboten, likewise doubling the leading tone.  It was interesting to see how often the great composers broke the “rules” to which we students had to adhere.  But again, there were reasons why they did—why their part-writing yielded a more compelling whole with the nonconforming bits in there.  Looking at poetic form, one makes the same observation: in the sonnet, the rhyme scheme is such-and-such, except when it isn’t.  In a ballad, the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is thus-and-so, except when it isn’t.  The “when it isn’t” usually is the most interesting part, but it couldn’t exist effectively without the surrounding steadiness of the expected form.

Musical forms and poetic forms are, traditionally, different.  Classical piano forms (or, sometimes in the literature, “styles”) include the sonata, the rondo, the minuet and trio, the invention, and the fugue.  The structural elements deal with time—numbers of beats and bars—as well as motif, or how collections of notes are presented and developed into musical ideas.  One other important element is tonality, which plays out through time and pitch.  A typical thing for a composer to do is open a piece with a catchy bit of melody or a few strong chords: a main idea, or motif.  Then the composer goes on to repeat and vary that motif, lengthen, shorten, and elaborate on it, imparting some sense of unity to the piece through timing and harmony. (I’m purposely not dealing here with chance or aleatory music, or free improvisation, but I’m not claiming that those categories of music can’t have structure too.)  Poems don’t work in that many dimensions at once.  But we use the same quick system to describe poetic rhyme scheme that we use to outline musical form: just big capital letters.  So a poetic quatrain goes ABAB, and a binary-form keyboard minuet goes AABB.  So a terza rima  poem goes ABA BCB CDC, and a keyboard rondo goes ABACABA. (There’s also a poetic form called the rondeau, pretty different, very cool.)   It’s not as simple as snapping component parts together, or not if you want a poem with any depth. And it would be a stretch to suggest that poems and music could take each other’s forms. And yet.

We know that poems and music can both fulfill formal expectations. We know that both proceed from what coalesces in the mind and falls upon the ear.  It all led to me wonder whether a musical form could be used as the mold for a poem.  I invented (as far as I’m aware) a form that I call the keyboard rondo.  It’s a poem of several stanzas—number of stanzas not predetermined—in which each stanza has the rhyme scheme ABACABA, which, as I mentioned, is the formal structure of the musical piece known as a rondo.  Timewise, a Mozart or Beethoven rondo is going to take longer to unfold than one of my poems, because each of those capital letters represents a section of music, rather than one line of text.  So, the poem form I invented is a microcosm that repeats, within itself, the structure of the macrocosm.  I wanted a musical form to hold thoughts about music, so it seemed an appropriate linkage.

Here’s a rondo where I try to have word-by-word discipline while writing about the acquisition of piano technique, and falling somewhat short both inside and outside of the poem.

Keyboard Rondo III (Albumleaf)

How many different saints you’ve been

and how often betrayed.

How various the kinds of din

you’ve borne in silent thought.

Each time I play, almost, a sin

and my damnation stayed

by your corrective mercy listening in.


Sometimes I cough up notes, as ill

as anyone who has bronchitis.

It shouldn’t be like phlegm, or fill

my head with pounding pulse,

I know, and you remind me, still

upon your bench as Christ is

on his cross upon the hill.


Other days are better, the trill

tweedles out between lean fingers

that hardly seem mine, and no more will

is needed to play than desire.

Then all is temperate, nothing shrill

or gurbled, nothing lingers

after the pedal echoes to nil.

Until recently, the rondo was the only classical music form I consciously tried to imitate in poetry.  Last month I wrote a short piece based on the idea of the etude, or study.  In music, an etude can be a piece of any length meant to teach or reinforce one musical idea or technique.  If you’re a brass player, you practice partials etudes, getting your lips and air to cooperate in producing different notes with the same fingering.  If you’re a flutist, there are plenty of trill and turn etudes, refining those ornamental groups of notes.  If you’re a pianist, you study Hanon and Czerny for speed, fluency, and coordination between the two hands.  For my poem/etude, I explored the idea of the fifth, broadly defined: the dominant note of a scale; a “perfect” interval between two notes; a bottle of whiskey, and even the number five as relates to counting, for example in the Dave Brubeck tune “Take Five” (which also begins on the fifth note of the scale).  The title is a pun on “Solitude,” the Duke Ellington tune made memorable by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong.

Sol Etude

I’ll arrive soon, see you

in five, schedule up

in the Airegin.  Don’t count

on Brubeck or Rollins, fly there on

my own time, in my alone

time, don’t count on the Duke,

C Jam Blues has an open secret. Same

as Bingo, Happy Birthday, Auld Lang Syne:

home isn’t where you start, perfect, but

where you, broken, end.  Work’s not what you’ve

done, it depends on repetition-love

and liminal lines.  If tonic

is a drink

for the health, a mixer

for something strong then



If a fifth is

what you sip at

don’t wait, screw

the cap back on

or swig it

down, i.e. fish

or cut bait.

As I rambled through my music form exploration, I discovered that some poets had gotten here before me.  Specifically with regard to adapting song (and dance) form to poems, drawing on the black American heritage that includes spirituals, jazz, blues and all of their offshoots.

Two poets who have been trailblazers in the marriage of musical and poetic form are Afaa Michael Weaver and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon.  Mr. Weaver invented a sonnet-like form with refrain called Bop, which Ms. Van Clief-Stefanon has adopted and used in two of her books: Black Swan and, more recently, Open Interval.  The latter contains a variety of forms, several of them music-influenced.  What I like about her writing in general is that she always picks the structure best suited to the particular poem she is writing, and breaks the structure she herself has set up when it’s most effective.  A word about the book’s title: although the phrase “open interval” doesn’t appear in the text of the book itself, it’s relevant for a few reasons.  In music theory, an open interval (usually an open fifth) consists of two notes some distance apart, without a third note in the middle. Basically it’s a chord without its middle note, two slices of sandwich bread without the filling. It’s the sound string instruments make when tuning up, haunting and spare. An open interval, of course, could also be a blank space in time.  A break between meetings.  A pause in conversation.  An undetermined place. Here is an interview where the poet explains her understanding and use of the term.

Open Interval‘s opening piece is based on the poet’s experience teaching at a maximum-security men’s prison in Auburn, New York. It also refers to her love of stars and astronomy, which is linked to her first name (RR Lyrae is a type of star in the constellation Lyra).  In this poem, we see an unfolding of narrative and image, planned yet improvisatory.  While some bop poem refrains come from African American song, this one comes from Rainer Maria Rilke.

Bop: The North Star

If a bop is a jazz tune, a structure with its own artistic constraints and freedoms, it bears resemblance to a type of Baroque keyboard piece called an invention.  The Two-part Inventions of J.S. Bach are short, intricate contrapuntal pieces.  They can be played by intermediate-level students but sound brilliant at fast tempi played by the likes of Glenn Gould.  Each invention is based on a single brief motif, and unfolds as the motif jumps from hand to hand, octave to octave, sometimes played backward, sometimes upside down. I’m tempted to see this happening in Van Clief-Stefanon’s poem “Dear John: (Invention)” but, beyond the two-line couplets, I’m not sure why she chose that word for the title.  Perhaps because the motif is sound itself. The “John” whom she addresses here and elsewhere is deaf 18th-century astronomer John Goodricke.

A few years ago, Mr. Weaver held a contest to find new work for an anthology called Bop, Strut and Dance.  The idea was for contributors to write poems inspired by, structured like, and/or quoting African American musical forms.  Writing from outside of this culture, attempting to pay respect without appropriating, I tried my hand at a couple of poems. One of them was selected for the anthology;  sadly, the book got held up in publication snarls and never was produced.  Here is the poem they accepted.

Sing and Shout

It’s not all bleak and dry, depression:

this city has spires.  Flashy cars

and buildings, thoroughfares; picture red

lights, metallic blue signs and neon flares.

It’s always rush hour when I try to leave,

no traffic the other way.  You can get in,

day or night, under any of these portals. There’s

twelve gates to the city.


Three in the east: pogroms, displacement, death;

three in the west: the pain of everyone else.

Three in the north, three in the south: guilt so large

it’s worth traveling to see.  And genes (I meet

my dad and granny there) like invisible shards.

Sun glitters on the tips of razor wire

and plane geometry of a temple square.

There’s twelve gates to the city.


Someday smuggle me out on prayers, pills

and reason.  I’ll wait for you by the familiar rough

roadside, we’ll go, and stay in the country awhile.

But this metropolis has weight and pull; it shines

and groans and tries to make citizens.  It’s got cops,

and they are waiting for the wandering girl; say

let us show you.  Stop working and start crying.

Twelve gates to the city, hallelujah.

There are some nice versions of the gospel song that inspired the poem easily accessible online.  My favorites are those by Clara Ward and the Davis Sisters, respectively.  Great keyboard parts.

There’s one musical form, above all others, that suffuses our American listening vocabulary, and that is the blues.  Of all forms arbitrarily designated classical or vernacular, the twelve-bar blues seems to me to have the most perfect unity and sense of inevitability.  It’s like a musical glass sphere, one that can hold and reflect all aspects of the songwriter’s psyche.  Written and published poetic blues goes back at least to James Weldon Johnson, and flourished with Langston Hughes.  Hughes’s “Weary Blues” is a singular poem: it’s a music poem, witnessing a performance; it’s an adaptation of musical form, rendering blues tempo and cadence; AND it’s a setting-down of song lyrics in print.

                     The Weary Blues

Did that specific singer exist, singing those very words? Or did he slide out of Hughes’s imagination, into the spotlight of that old gas street lamp, to represent a kind of music, a kind of feeling the reader recognizes implicitly? I love the way the singer ropes in the piano, not merely as a sound-producing tool but an accomplice.  Maybe an unwilling one, as the piano is made to moan not once but twice.  Hughes doesn’t have to say much or explicate the black experience.  The bone-deep weariness of the Negro performer is evident in every line.  Here, at least, he seems to perform for his own sake–if not for pleasure, at least for catharsis.  Poetic blues, like the music itself, sends our collective human memory back to the slave coffle, a reminder of the untold strength it took to survive. To make art from the materials at hand, to make black music on black people’s own terms.

Women, too, can play and sing the blues.  A couple minutes of listening to Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, or the delightfully raunchy yet proper Emma Barrett, is enough to know it’s a different thing from men’s blues.  Because it’s always heartening to hear a woman reach her own conclusions at the end of the verse (right where the chords go V-IV-I-I), I’ll cite two more by Ms. Van Clief-Stefanon. This is about as concise as it gets:

Blues for Dame Van Winkle

I drove over to the Catskills

Met a woman there like me

Took a trip down to the Catskills

Was a girl there just like me—:

Not so much waitin for her man

as she was waitin to feel free

It’s funny to read/hear a blues about the Catskills, because it’s not a region of the country much associated with the blues.  On the other hand, this poem refers, as many blues compositions do, to an American legend.  Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, written in the style of a fable heard and repeated second- or third-hand, and possibly based on earlier German folk tales, tells the story of the main character’s unusually long sleep and return to his village as a stranger.  Dame Van Winkle, Rip’s wife, is cast as a shrew.  She dies while Rip is asleep on the mountain.  Since we don’t know much about her, we are free to imagine, along with the poet, Dame Van Winkle’s own side of the story.  Perhaps Rip was a layabout who deserved to be nagged.  Maybe she didn’t miss him all that much.  Maybe she was hoping to hear some definite word of his demise, so she could live in freedom.  And how weird and sadly signifying to reach back two centuries and across a racial/ethnic divide and realize–any two women could be alike in this way.

Love is equivocal.  That’s true in folk tales as well as real life. And not only the love between spouses or paramours–we can also feel ambivalent about our calling in life, at times.  A musician’s devoted relationship to her instrument is equivocal. Anywhere there’s passion, there is bound to be some anger.  With that in mind, I’ll close this post on musical-form-as-poetic-form with one more by Ms. Van Clief-Stefanon.  Unlike the other poems I’ve cited, “Maul” is not available in an online reprint, so the best way to read it would be to find a copy of Open Interval.  As a stopgap, here is a citation page from a journal archive with the spacing all wrong but with the text intact.

This blues reads very much like lyrics.  It’s impossible for me not to hear the harmonic progression that would go along with each stanza.  It’s impossible to read it in anything other than the paced andante in which blues is traditionally sung.  (The author did, at one point, perform it with guitar accompaniment at a literary festival.) But there’s something here that keeps the poem from being merely lyrics set down on a page à la Leonard Cohen.  The punning of the last line, “be a hard cold fall,” as in autumn/the fall the narrator anticipates taking in the earlier line “stick with you til I fall,” is essentially a poetic device, not a songwriting one.  The title, too, takes us a little out of the realm of repertoire.  By pulling out a single word from the final stanza, the poet brings to our attention an image and idea that could have been easily overlooked in the final coast to the end of the verse.  “Maul” is both noun and verb.  In the poem’s text, the narrator instructs the unnamed man to bring his maul in order to split her firewood.  Subtext: bring his something to split her something.  Context: his imminent departure, and maybe the whole of their relationship, will leave her feeling bruised, beat up.  There’s no indication that the man acts violently–merely that the narrator experiences both his love and its loss as a blow.

That’s as a good a segue as any to the next post, where we’ll explore the idea of music and poetry as consolation.


Herewith, a break from our regular semi-scholarly musings and comparative reading.  Work on my forthcoming book continues.  It is now officially in production and available for pre-order from Seattle Book Company.

Click here to order Technical Solace

And, in what I hope will be the first of several reading events, I will be appearing with a group of other local authors at a Fifth Avenue Press book launch.  As I mentioned in my first post, Fifth Avenue Press is a new imprint of the Ann Arbor District Library.  We will be the first group of authors published by the press.  Check out this book launch event page. I hope to see you there!


“Poems are not ‘why.’ They are ‘because.’  Comprised of both question and answer they mirror music more singularly than any other human enterprise.”  –Ned Rorem, “Settling the Score”

So much has been written about the setting of poetry to music that I won’t try to improve upon it here.  Mr. Rorem is fabulously cantankerous about how the poet and the composer are both right, and both wrong, and about the difference between poetry set to music and lyrics that were never meant to be read in silence.  My angle is a little different. I’m into music poems.

There are two categories of music poems that I write and like to read.  One is poems about music, that allude to, analyze, or react to specific pieces of music or aspects of music-making.  The other is poems that imitate musical form. In this post, we’ll look at the first category.  Here’s a gorgeous music poem by Mary Karr:

Carnegie Hall Rush Seats

If you listen to the audio of the author reading the poem, close your eyes.  Even though I had read the poem several times over on the page, there was something I didn’t realize until I heard her read it: the ending sounds like what it is describing.  My ears expected her voice to keep going, but it stopped abruptly, as if at the edge of a cliff.  It’s chilling, then you savor the expertise of it.  Very much like the perfect cutoff of a solo cello line.

In addition to being illustrative, this poem works in other ways.  It contains its own raison d’etre and so, as Rorem says, it is “because.”  It’s a poem about virtuosity that is itself virtuosic, and so it works on the reader-musician as a kind of meta-artwork: like a great concert, it makes me want to redouble my practicing and/or give up entirely.  The poem is remonstrative; how could we forget that instruments are made of trees?  That, in bringing the cello to life, we kill the tree?  Karr is not the first writer to notice that cellos and women’s bodies are similarly shaped, but she avoids any shallow comparison here by using “shaped” in the sense of objectivity: having undergone a process (we are both shaped and smoothed).  I’m drawn in by her honest intimations of violence.  Often, the musical product we see in concert is presented in a luxurious way, plated, as it were, like a steak, a foregone conclusion.  Karr takes us back to the butcher shop.  We then have to reckon with where beauty comes from, and decide whether we can stomach the knowledge of brutality that yields the finished piece.

Taken with “Carnegie Hall Rush Seats,” I penned a poem in response.  Technique is always on my mind, never more so than when reading or writing a music poem.  But I was also swept up in Karr’s visual imagery and an almost kinesthetic sense of sway—both the feeling of holding and playing the cello (which I studied briefly in college) and the vertiginous feeling of sitting in nosebleed seats overlooking a stage far below (rush seats tending to be up there in the concert hall’s precipice).  I don’t have Karr’s technique, and anyway my means of expression is different. But I tried to attend to some of the same details she did from within my own transported state.

A dying sound
(homage to Mary Karr)

How you could shout on paper my
wrist vibrated taking in the shock
of your quiet song.  All those men
cutting down trunks and felling
women to get a cello in their muscled
legs.  All the times we almost missed
transcendence for the ticket price, concert
manners scrimming mortality.

How could I forget that the windowed
hourglass was also mine?  That instruments
are made of trees, tension, and age?  Saints
beyond Cecilia wait around the stage
doors of their graves, calling like hucksters
like hookers, like gangs, asking me do I want
to practice because they’ve got just what
I need.  Tell me again, it’s resin-sweet.

Here is a different kind of music poem, this one formed around/within a particular rhyme structure:

 A Heritage of Trumpets

Clive James, a white Australian poet who lives in England, here pays tribute to the great African American trumpet players who bequeathed us our musical heritage: Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Cootie Williams, Bill Coleman, and Miles Davis, along with the Caucasian trumpet master Bix Beiderbecke, here envisioned as a kind of musical St. Peter at the gates of the hereafter. (For haunting historical fiction, look no further than Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, where the author imagines himself into the short, tragic, brilliant life of Buddy Bolden.) The poet even nods at Elijah McCoy—who eventually settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

But “A Heritage of Trumpets” looks back further still, its references to dying and to funerals reminding us of Biblical trumpets.  The archangel Gabriel, recognized in the mythos of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, is often portrayed as a trumpet player.  The Battle of Jericho (Book of Joshua) was supposedly decided by the powerful trumpeting of the Israelite army.  And Christian tradition depicts the coming of Judgement Day accompanied by trumpets.  Thus, James’s poem reads as a kind of psalm, a religious song-poem bearing a message in its text and in its subtext.  I wonder if it is a memorial, not only to the trumpeter-heralds of swing and bebop, but, in addition and in advance, to the poet himself.  The narrator has that slightly instructive yet overawed tone of a minor prophet, someone who knows he’s a conduit for bigger powers.

Again, as with the Karr poem, the writing here exemplifies itself. “A well-timed silence puncturing the swing / Only to add propulsion” contains a tiny musical rest followed by a quickening of beats. Slightly less successful is “The lawlessness, the skipping lilt of it,” which, while it comes across as basic iambic pentameter in my head, does have more lilt in the author’s own reading. And the assonance of kit/lilt/it is a pleasant touch.  Ultimately, this poem succeeds because it, like a trumpet fanfare, pronounces itself with clarity.  The cadence is clear, the evenness of phrasing gives it stability; it’s bright but not strident.  Like good brass, it has some darkness. Like a good funeral march, it’s never entirely dark.

A few years ago, by a series of associative leaps, I came across the album Four Marys, on the Chesky record label.  Rebecca Pidgeon’s title track was my first exposure to both this song and the legend to which it refers.  Briefly, Mary, Queen of Scots was thought to have had four namesake ladies-in-waiting: Mary Hamilton (the narrator of the song), Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael.  Mary Hamilton supposedly became pregnant with the child of “the highest Stuart of all,” a child whom she abandoned or killed, depending on the version. The (probably fictional) Mary Hamilton paid with her life; the song is a series of her recollections and thoughts as she is led to the gallows.

The Child Ballads contain no fewer than eighteen versions of Four Marys.  It’s been recorded by Joan Baez as well as any number of Celtic music groups.  Oh, and here’s the sheet music for a solo piano arrangement of it I wrote for a theory class in grad school.

Stumbling upon a reference to a chilling old ballad one has listened to, sung, and arranged would be satisfying. Encountering it in poetic form, even more so. That’s what happened when I opened my copy of the New Yorker and saw this:

Homage to Mary Hamilton

First, let’s appreciate the deluge of allusions, parallels, and puns. Green-wood/the greenwood of many a Scottish ballad.  Queens, New York/Queen of Scots. Murder, Inc./infanticide.  Heartbeat in recycled newspapers/the infant wrapped in Mary’s kerchief.  Romeo and Juliet/the ill-fated couple of Mary Hamilton and the King of Scots. Three crows/the two crows of the, yes, Scottish ballad also, coincidentally, track #12 of the Four Marys album.  Four Toms, the author’s winning play on his own name and fictitious namesakes.  Second, let’s savor the way he weaves in lines from the original ballad, lines the poem’s narrator is hearing diegetically in his car in the poem, alternating with his own distracted thoughts.  And finally, the way he ties it all together lyrically, rhymingly, rhythmically.  There is both straightforward appreciation and satire of a super-mournful ballad at the heart of this poem that is, in effect, an appreciation and satire of the ongoing human condition.  It’s playful and sad and has that shrug-like quality of rueful inevitability.

Whereas Mary Karr describes a specific concert in general terms, and Clive James sums up a lineage of musicians, Tom Sleigh does something else here: he reacts to a specific song. He makes art about art that already exists. This is what we call ekphrasis, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world.  Even better is that the song is itself rooted in an unverifiable legend.  We can’t know if Mary Hamilton ever really lived, but her story is generalizable: a young woman taken advantage of by her powerful employer, resorting to a desperate solution that solves nothing, and coming to the worst possible end.  Tom Sleigh’s story is also generalizable, and perhaps more relatable to those of us leading ordinary lives: we grapple with the elements from a place of relative safety, we notice the perils and crassness of life and reflect on our own character in the world.  We hear echoes of the past and feel we’re not exempt.

We’ve seen by now that the New Yorker’s editors have fine taste in music poems.  Time to get a little more personal.  There is another well-known folk tale close to my heart, not included in Child but listed in Roud’s index, that made its way from Ireland to Appalachia.  It’s known by several titles, including Molly Vaughan, Molly Bawn, Polly Vaughn, and, in Gaelic, Mailí Bhán (which translates as “fair-haired Mary”).  Spoiler alert, it’s about another ill-fated young woman.  This time, she’s the victim of circumstance and ineptitude. Molly (let’s call her) goes for a walk at dusk, takes cover from a rainstorm in some shrubs, and pulls her white pinafore around her to stay dry. Her boyfriend, out hunting at the same time, mistakes the white cloth for the feathers of a swan and shoots the woman he loves.  The chorus of the song, “she’d her apron about her / and he took her for a swan / but oh and alas / it was she, Molly Bawn” shares that same what-are-you-gonna-do quality as “Four Marys,” frustrating for a modern listener.  Whereas Mary Hamilton was executed for setting her baby on the sea, the killer of young Molly is never specifically punished–or, rather, his confession and feelings of guilt and loss are implied to stand in for any other punishment.  There are lots of good recordings, my two favorites being by Pete Seeger and Alison Krauss, respectively.

The ballad of Mary Hamilton is partly in third-person perspective, partly first-.  Mary gets to speak for herself quite a bit.  But Molly/Polly Vaughn does not.  It’s a truism of narrative style that first person gets us closer to the character, and I think it works that way in the songs.  We have less reason to sympathize with Mary, yet more inclination to do so, than with Molly.  Molly is wholly innocent, yet rather removed from her own tragic story.  It’s the dude who acts and experiences.  This got me thinking about the role of the singer and the listener.  What do we make of the story? Are we moved because of Molly’s murder or her boyfriend’s guilt?  Why is the only thing we know about her the way in which she was killed?  Does she bear any responsibility for being swan-like, in the woods, in hunting season?  I don’t truck with victim blaming, but I entertained the idea that she had some facets to her character, perhaps even foolishness, rather than being an entirely flat surface.  I also wondered how the urge to couple, to kill and to die draws a rope line from the ballad down to our own era.  The result is this poem:

Bird Legend

I will take you for a lot of things but probably not a swan.
You could wear romantic garments in the woods
but surely not an apron, and if so, not perching
under a hawthorn, in a storm.  Not that Polly Vaughn
or Molly Bonn deserved to be shot, no one does, but come on.

The swan can be different things: Leda’s rapist, or Camille
Saint-Saens reaching his blanched spirituality to the high re.
French, Irish, Appalachian even, it’s all a Greek tragedy.

Three swans, equidistant, ply
the still water just past the ice’s curve;
wind plays in the unstrung lute of bare trees.
Three swans, the border between winter
and water, and never once
have I thought of killing them, have I?

If the swan girlfriend is anything
like the crane wife, she’ll wish
for a bed soft as her own down.
If the rash young hunter is
anything of a husband, he’ll stalk
the stores until he brings it home.
By the time he starts to grieve
the song has flown.

This is where I’ve traced you, Moll:
to Erin.  Native of the strong green
and rough rock, nearly haunting cabins
in your slack dress, real woman or verse, wan
Mailí Bhán, your love was out shooting
his mouth off, drinking and gunning
for home.  You were gone over
the ocean—America—or only down
the ditch out of town, either way
white, either way far from everyone, you
cipher, you sweet long-lost moan.

A few things, without over-analyzing my own work.  The swan, as a mythical/animist figure, can be either victim or aggressor.  The Saint-Saens piece is “Le cygne,” penultimate movement of Carnival of the Animals.  The Crane Wife legend comes from Japanese mythology, is way more uplifting though still very creepy, and was explored in album format by folk-rock group The Decemberists.  There’s also a bit of Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Would it be too circular to suggest that Tom Sleigh, in “Homage to Mary Hamilton,” also makes reference to Stevens with the three crows?  (Maybe crows and blackbirds are so emblematic and widely written about that it’s a coincidence. Or maybe we’re all doing an homage to Wallace Stevens all the time.)

One thing I didn’t attempt here was regular meter and a planned rhyme scheme (I always have a bit of incidental, internal rhyme, and sometimes visual rhyme such as own/down).  Music poems don’t necessarily partake in the elements of music.  They can, as we’ve seen.  Or they can describe without exemplifying.  Here’s a poem by Pulitzer-winning writer Tyehimba Jess about the blind pianist John William Boone.  Among several things I love about this poem, it is the piano version of the John Henry legend:

Blind Boone’s Pianola Blues

I’d say this poem is in the key of D major, because it has two sharps.  The first “sharp” describes the pianola, or player piano, against which Boone demonstrates his prowess.  The second “sharp” describes Boone’s clarity of vision, as it were, his way of seeing/comprehending music by ear.  Contrast that with the blindness exhibited by the men judging him, who, rather than praise Boone’s intellectual caliber and total dexterity, put down his playing ability to luck. There is such a lyrical canter to this poem, it’s begging to be read aloud.  Here is my reading (with a rainstorm in the background). There is more to be said about human-versus-machine, whether it’s the modern version of this contest (digital pianos and recorded music, pop stars who lip sync to themselves) or the more general human anxiety that we will eventually be replaced by efficient robots in the workforce.  Then again, this poem is the last word: nothing mechanical, however accurate, will give us the “lunge” and expression of a human player; the “science of touch and sweat” is the beautiful endeavor of creatures who are dying as soon as we’re born.

There are more music poems to explore, but for now, let’s pause.  In the next post we’ll look at the second category of music poems: those that imitate a specific musical form.


“The world is in the work.” —Dina Maccabee

I have a couple of college degrees in music education, but that’s not what makes me a teacher.  I have zero degrees in fine arts, but I managed to become a published poet. Credentials aren’t meaningless, but they are contingent.  We’re born with certain aptitudes, we develop others, and luck has a lot to do with it.  What determines the nature and quality of our work? I’m a pianist by training; a linguist by birthright; and a finicky son of a gun because I said so.  If the goal in any craft is constant improvement, then we need to figure out what works, and try to repeat that.   As far as I can discern from my thirty years of playing and writing, craft comes down to three things.  They are (in order, I believe):

  1. Attention to detail
  2. Technique toward expression, and finally
  3. A transported state

Before we get too abstruse, here’s a picture of me playing the piano around the age of eight.  I had recently started lessons and my parents had purchased a little spinet for me to practice with.

piano kid (2)

That expression on my face, of total concentration and happiness?  Still a good indicator of how I feel while playing.  Not all the time.  There are moments of strong concentration without the happiness tincture, and there are moments of happiness or freedom, noodling about, without serious concentration.  There are also moments of getting stuck and frustrated.  But the combination of engagement and love of the activity with which one is engaged forms, to me, the condition for performance that I call transported state.  It’s like what Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, though his model has an important time component, which I don’t discuss here because it’s a separate (and pretty elusive) concept.  I do agree with him, though, that time seems to pass differently when one is engaged in work-play.

So how did I arrive at that state, or how does one arrive there in general?  Why does transported state end the list above, not start it?  Actually, it does, implicitly, start the list of conditions for good performance, whether written or musical.  First, we hear, listen and read.  We have to hear good stories to know that they can be told.  I had to hear and see someone playing the piano to know that that was a human activity.  I have an early memory, from around the age of three, of watching and listening as a woman played the piano in my nursery school.  The children were lying down on the colorful rug for a rest, and she played the haunting Southern song “All the Pretty Horses.”  I learned recently that the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax thought it originated with enslaved African Americans.  Being a toddler, I had no frame of reference, so all I could grasp was the sound itself.  Kids love novel sounds, especially minor and modal tonalities, which we don’t hear much in ambient American music.  I’ve found, teaching young students, that the first time they hear minor, they all perk up and want to try it.  That day in preschool I certainly perked up; I remember not lying down.  It wasn’t an impulse to disobey the teachers, I simply had to hear that music sitting up.  That was my first moment of piano craving.  I still remember that the name of the woman playing was Lyudmila, I remember the layout of the room and where I was in relation to the piano, and I remember feeling that there was no taking a nap while that song was going on.  You could say I was inspired.

In order to get from a wholly innocent attraction to the piano, to being able to play that song, or any song, for myself, I needed to learn a host of facts and skills.  Among them: fingers have numbers, certain ways of curving the fingers are best for making sound, the black keys are arrayed in groups of two and three, except at the lowest end of the piano, low means left and high means right, although I’m right-handed I play with both hands, separately and together, unlike most things it’s easier to play the piano with only one hand at a time, in lessons you learn but in practice you learn more, there are sharps and flats, each key has a basic hand position for the first five notes, when you play every other one it is called a triad.

And that’s leaving out music notation entirely.

People are drawn to their instruments for various reasons. I think I was drawn to music in general, and the piano in particular, because I love dwelling in details. (I also work well with my hands; I learned to sew and knit very young.)  It was clear enough to me, by the time I reached adolescence, that I would never exhaust all there was to learn about the piano, never be able, or have time, to play even a small fraction of the standard piano literature.  It was clear enough that, when I came across a garage sale copy of an old piano method book whose cover boasted that this method would “lead to mastery of the instrument,” I smirked visibly and thought about the patriarchy of the 1960s.  Except for a few exceptional humans, no one masters the piano.  It masters us. And that’s the point.  The worth of studying is to devote oneself to detail, to serve some musical end, which might be as abstract as making music for its own ephemeral sake or as concrete as accompanying a soloist to earn rent money.  In any case, the idea is to deepen and broaden experience.  What once was novel and difficult becomes routine, in order that we build complex skills from simple ones and complex understanding from early apprehension.

If we have decent teachers, and decent instruments, and decent time, and decent self-discipline, and encouragement, we can begin. Imagine how much depends upon just this.  Then we start to build what is known as technique.  Any practitioner of any art form, visual or aural, written or material, will tell you that certain fundamentals must be entirely within a student’s grasp before free expression can take place.  That doesn’t mean that utter beginners cannot explore, improvise freely (or “babble,” a term used in music learning theory to describe the sorts of unstructured musical utterances all musicians blurt out before learning guidelines).  It also does not mean that artists can’t be self-taught.  But imagine a student wanting to create something original and beautiful, lacking the vocabulary—of words, of sounds, of gestures, whatever—to convey the inner idea to an audience.  It’s part of why toddlers have tantrums, why young writers compose in strings of clichés, and beginning musicians have no phrasing.  They may know what they want to say, but lack the physical and mental experience or finesse to do so meaningfully.

All technique starts with imitation.  The legendary music pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki grasped this intuitively as he developed his methods for young children in postwar Japan.  Today, Suzuki music is a thriving industry.  Teachers are specially trained to gift children their songs and exercises by rote, in a compassionate way, beginning with actions that are easy to do and easy to remember.  Eventually, the students learn to read music.  From the beginning, parents must practice with their children, so in effect, the teacher teaches the parent as well as the child, and the parent continues teaching the child at home.  There are many music teaching methods besides Suzuki, and many unofficial offshoots that teachers create on their own.  Any one of them worth its salt relies, at least in part, on imitation.  Whether consciously or not, as we learn to speak and then, later, to read and write, we are imitating the elders and peers all around us.  And so, when we begin to write in a purposeful way, we, like music students composing for the first time, are drawing on what we have already learned by rote, and what we have already learned to hear and to make sense of.

Around the same time that I started piano lessons at the age of seven, I was getting interested in poetry.  I wrote short rhyming couplets about my favorite colors.  It was the verbal equivalent of picking out a basic folk song on the piano (which I also did, although it was not part of my teacher’s lesson plans).  I was calling on some cultural knowledge I’d been given about how sound is organized and trying to do it myself.  I wasn’t doing it for any reason I could name.  When we discover our interests, it often happens in that way: I didn’t go to the piano or make up a poem because someone told me to, although they were happy that I did.  I wanted it; that was all and that was enough.

Since I had parents with the means to provide me with music lessons, and since they were great readers and language-lovers, I got to have my start. I got to have what I wanted.  No learning process is perfect, and I missed plenty along the way.  But as I acquired a basic technique, greater fluency and range came along.  If you imitate good art enough, eventually you may produce some good art. Or some not-too-bad art.  And when you gaze at the details, practice toward proficiency, and eventually succeed? Presto, transported state.  The elation of creation.  Recycle, replicate, repeat.

How we learn is clearly connected with how we express ourselves.  And how we understand and use what we’re taught makes the difference between merely repeating the songs and verses we know, and creating something entirely new.  In the next section we’ll look at music and poetry as linked art forms.