Saturday, April 27, 2013

Reflections on Dutch visit

My wife and I are just back from a week and some in the Netherlands, which we spent mostly in Amsterdam, with time out for a couple of glorious days bicycling on the island of Texel.

Bicycles are everywhere in that country, which partly explains, no doubt, why any unfit person one meets there is probably a tourist, and why, for a big city, Amsterdam is so stunningly quiet. As we pedaled from place to place within the metropolis, I couldn’t help thinking how much more livable our own big towns would be –not to mention how much “greener”– if they were equally bike-friendly. And it frankly depressed me to imagine the shouting down of such an idea, were it proposed in most of those towns.

Bicycles for commuting? How Third World.

Of course the Netherlands is anything but that. We Americans are so schooled in the We’re-Number-One mentality that many of us instinctively impute inferiority to all places that happen to lie outside our borders. Yes, the Dutch do pay a lot of taxes, a word that not even liberal politicians dare speak in our current, constrictive moment. At the same time, their poverty rate is a mere fraction of ours; the gap between upper and lower financial strata is an immensely thinner one; there is little evidence of homelessness in the Dutch streets; a comprehensive health care system ensures that catastrophic illness will not bankrupt a family, as it can so easily do here; and their infrastructure makes ours, crumbling under our very noses, appear the Third World example. But.

But the inclination of self-styled sophisticates in the anti-We’re-Number-One direction is often just as misguided. A monumental blessing of having been a writer and/or academic for four decades is that I’ve enjoyed very extensive travel experience– from which I have concluded that to grow instantly infatuated with this or the other “foreign” society is facile and wrong-headed. It’s a silly mistake to imagine altering all we stand for in order to ape that society’s virtues. (Not that reasonable people shouldn’t, for example, be appalled by the U.S. rate of infant mortality, on a level with Jordan’s.)

One can draw no useful conclusions on the basis of a vacation, or even a few years of residency. Indeed, I’m sure it takes a lifetime to understand the nuances, grim and bright, of any culture, and to think otherwise is to engage in cartoon sociology. Our own Dutch stay was briefer than brief, but with each passing day, this conviction recurred to me with increasing force. At 70, even if I wished to, I wouldn’t have enough time left on earth to get a true sense of what we (wrongly) call Holland. For starters, I’d have to learn the language at least as well as most Dutch know English.

One morning, I got out of bed earlier than my wife, wanting some time to polish a lecture I’d soon deliver in Brattleboro. For whatever reason, though, I found my mind wandering off task.

Here I was, shaping up a talk I’d been asked to give on the premise that the state poet must “know a lot about poetry.” Well, yes, I suppose I do know a lot about poetry. Some of it.

How much, I mused, do I know about Dutch poetry? Precious little. In fact, the only Netherlands poet I know personally (and this mostly by way of correspondence) is Hans van de Waarsenburg, whom I met at an international conference in Slovenia a decade or so ago. His English is every bit as good as my own, so I am inclined –far more than is usual for me– to trust the poet’s translator, Hans himself having overseen the rendition of a poem I cite below.

This is a poem that captures my attention not only for its salty humor, its incisive perception, and its economy, but also, the writer being just my age, for its dead-on evocation of rock ‘n’ roll’s explosion onto the scene in the 50s, and of the fabulously outraged responses of our elders...which anticipated our own responses to the music our own kids seem to favor. In short, amid the nostalgia and the wit, there’s a faint smirk at hypocrisy in every human quarter.

Early that morning in an Amsterdam hotel, as I remembered “Bill Haley in Maastricht,” I wondered: if there’s work of this quality in one Dutch poet, what might be the general case for that country’s poetry? I am not equipped to say, will never be.

I refer to poetry here simply because it’s what I have known for a great portion of my life; but I hope, with rightful humility, that my thoughts may extend to other modes of human behavior. We may or may not be artists, but we all must be citizens. As such, should we not bear in mind that whatever we think we “know a lot about” excludes the experiences of countless, unnameable others?

            Bill Haley in Maastricht

            What had not assailed the ears!
            The dulcet tones of Mantovani, Helmut Zacharias
            Sugary syrup of the lowest seaside sort. Incestuous
            Family gathering. Hurrah for raised skirts

            The grasping, groping hands. The uncles
            Heated, randy with lager and provocative drops
            Of gin. Catholic orgy, suddenly smothered
            By Bill Haley and his whirling Comets.

            Their sound burst into the room like
            Exploding shells. As if the devil himself had
            Appeared. As if the end of time had come
            And the curtains were torn to shreds.

            Never were heads shaken so firmly and was
            Spittle blown to all points of the compass.
            One of those days, filled with dire curses,
            Sleepless nights and snoring daydreams.

            Time languishes in vinyl, like sad banknotes.
            Yes, the spit curl stuck to his forehead. Yes,
            Blue jeans blew their top. Fat-bellied
            Rock 'n' Roll, with Moluccans swinging and

            The bass player bestriding his instrument.
            Pints were downed, disappearing in the
            Hollows of everyone's past. Bill Haley
            In Maastricht. Late Sunday service, brylcream

            On old heads. Their fathers, already dead,
            Had to be reburied. Steam rising
            Once again. I turned my back on those fragile
            Days: SHAKE RATTLE 'N' ROLL.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

subscribing to my blog

Some seem to have found difficulty in subscribing to the blog. If you wish to be notified when I offer a new post, scroll to the very bottom of your screen and you will see a place where it says "subscribe now."

Off to Canada, and then to the Netherlands. Back on 4/25.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

My Concert with VCME

I will be out of the country until late in the month, but before I go, I want to celebrate an occasion and give thanks for it.

Last weekend, I was honored to the point of bedazzlement to take part in a concert by the splendid Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble. Its artistic director and clarinetist Steven Klimowski had contacted me over a year ago, suggesting that the ensemble commission five Vermont composers to write work prompted by my poems, and then to offer two public evenings of poetry and music combined.

My gratitude is indescribable to the composers, comprising Alex Abele, Lydia Busler-Blais, Michael Close, Erik Nielsen, and Thomas Read. At each event, I would recite a poem of my own, and one of their compositions would follow, as performed by first-rate musicians, to whom I am also deeply obliged: Nicola Cannizzaro, percussion; Rachael Elliott, bassoon; Berta Frank, flute and piccolo; Rebecca Kauffmann, harp, Bonnie Thurber Klimowski, cello; Steven Klimowski, clarinet and bass clarinet; Peter Matthews, guitar. Anne Decker conducted Mr. Nielsen's extended composition. The variety and unfailingly high quality of the compositions, the mastery of the players, the intriguing instrumentation: all these together truly thrilled me.

We often speak of poetry's "musical" qualities, but the term is a bit misleading. As my friend Marvin Bell once asked, "If poetry is only music, what chance dos it have against real music?" So I was especially pleased that the writers were not setting my words to music, but rather responding to them. Once I got over my nerves (which were jangled a bit by the novelty of this performance in my case, and by the nagging sense that I was whatever I was, whereas these were genuine professionals)– once I felt at ease, I had the curious experience of learning more about my own work by attending to the creations it had helped to motivate.

The whole affair was no doubt the high point of my tenure thus far as state poet, and maybe of my entire writing life. As we received our ovation on the second night, I found myself thinking, "How would I have dreamed, back when  I was a typically hyper-hormonal, hockey-playing, unbookish high school boy, that I'd be standing here after participating in such an affair?" But that's exactly where I did stand, and my indebtedness to composers and musicians alike is boundless.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Many Roads to be Taken


                 For this post,  I have chosen to muse on a poem by Vermont’s first poet laureate, arguably one of the two or three most famous American poems we have. I want to consider it  because the poem is so often read incorrectly. No, too strong: incompletely.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

                    This one is forevermore trotted out at graduations, retirement dinners, award ceremonies, and so on, always by way of illustrating the importance of Rugged Individualism – the bravery and benefit of taking one’s own course in life, of going against the grain if need be– of being an ornery Yankee, in short.

                     Such a reductive take on Frost’s effort shows a failure of attention to the poem’s own words, which explicitly indicate that the speaker’s choice of a path is downright arbitrary, the two roads before him being “really about the same.” He likewise makes clear some dissatisfaction at not being able to go back and try the other path. The poem, curiously enough, is called not “The Road Taken,” but “The Road Not Taken,” as if the author’s chief concern is sorrow over his choice.  But logic dictates that if the road he does opt for represents Yankee self-sufficiency, then surely the other represents a sheeplike conformity. So why would he want to try that one too? Why is the one he does take not fairer, but “just as fair”?

                    In a letter to a friend, Frost observed that “Not one in ten will see the humor in the poem.” What could Frost have meant as funny here? Well, the humor, I would say, is ironic, designed less to induce laughter than a wry smile in those who get it.

                     Get what? Well, I turn to the final stanza, where Frost predicts that in his later years he “shall be telling” how once “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.” He’ll be spinning such a tale, throwing in a theatrical sigh for good measure, and nine out of ten will fall for it!

                 But no, that’s too strong as well. The speaker here is not con man alone. If I earlier said that many read this poem incorrectly, I should have said they read it half correctly, because I think there is a lot of Emersonian self-reliance in “The Road Not Taken.” It’s only that as soon as we choose that and that only as its message, the “humor” undercuts our certainty, just as when we try to see the whole effort as an ironic sleight-of-hand, the self-reliant theme rings out.

                 “If you want a message,” Frost once quipped, “call Western Union.”

                 I just said that logic dictates the either/or reading of the poem, but the plain fact is that logic is rarely the right faculty for the writing or reading of poetry; we poets do not labor to produce that single message but a complex of thoughts and emotions. For me, poetry is so true an indication of our hearts’ and minds’ reality because it shows how multidimensional those minds and hearts are: the plain fact is that much great lyric entertains equal and opposite impulses at the same time, without, as John Keats put it so eloquently, “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

                 As an English teacher, I have been as guilty as the next of asking my students to find “the main idea” of a given poem, and using it to illustrate something solid and permanent. But if the word idea has anything at all to do with lyric, then that idea is always ambivalent, rich, varied…and thus often even self-contradictory.