Monday, August 27, 2012

A Broken Fiddle, A Broken Laugh & A Thousand Memories: Revisiting The Spoon River Anthology

In my naivete I used to think that the course of human history, at least during my lifetime, was more or less a straightline thing -- society was getting better and better, humanity was growing more tolerant and inclusive, we were leaving all the bad things behind, to be waved at through the rear view mirror, we were moving toward a bright and better future.

I thought America had made irreversible progress in protecting the rights and dignities of ordinary people -- workers, women, minorities, immigrants, the elderly and the infirm, all the downtrodden people who took it and took it hard in the 'bad old days.'

Whew! When I look at the politics of the day, and the pressures from the radical right to erode hard won achievements in human dignity, I'm increasingly struck by how little we have progressed, how much danger there is for hatred, ignorance, intolerance, greed and exploitation to return.

That and how much there is to learn from revisiting the literature of the muckrakers, activists and progressives of the early 1900s -- who fought the good fight against such things a century ago.
People Like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Frank Norris and Carl Sandburg. I mean they ought to be required reading for anyone presuming to hold the values of American citizenship dear.

And Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology I recently picked up again after many years.

The man takes on some surprisingly contemporary issues head on. On page after page in the little midwestern town he created, we're confronted with unscrupulous bankers, influence-peddling politicians, rapacious corporations working hand in hand with judges, media moguls and flat-earth religious leaders to maintain the status quo of t
he 'Robber Baron" era -- ie, unharnessed economic and political domination by the rich and powerful. Coarse swaggering, abuse and corruption. Brutal subjugation of workers and the poor.

Masters gets mighty specific about it.

A woman is raped, and dies in a back alley abortion. Another women dies in childbirth because she's forced, against medical advice, to carry a baby to term.

Unregulated banks speculate wildly, ruining homeowners, businesses and small investors. Corporations buy or bully their way out of accidents in an unsafe workplace. Political, judicial and media institutions protect the interests of giant corporations and a tiny elite of the most wealthy people.

Sound familiar?

Interestingly, these themes come out in Spoon River Anthology through a patchwork kind of reading -- as if they are a series of 'depositions' to be matched up against each other.

Makes sense really. After
all, Edgar Lee Masters was a career lawyer, and the son of a lawyer -- accustomed to taking depositions from witnesses, for all their lack of objectivity and self-serving nature -- and then stacking those depositions up against each other to see what patterns and truths emerge.

That's what I've been doing this week, examining the whole patchwork of dramatic monologues. It's startling to me how many of the issues Masters addresses are back in the national discourse -- the deleterious effects of materialism, capitalism, puritan zealotry, anti-rationalism, xenophobia and religious closemindedness.

Most of the characters in the collection are part victim and part perpetrator. That's a nuance which tends to confirm my sense that in an unhealthy society even the perpetrators are victims, forced by circumstances at least as much as their own weaknesses into becoming agents of its worst dynamics.

But some of the characters are unapologetic villains, like the banker Thomas Rhodes -- who even at death sneers at those he has ruled and rode over. The best he can offer the trampled down is an acknowledgement of how hard it is for 'small folk' to 'keep the soul from splitting.' Join the exploiters, he urges -- the ones who embrace corruption, 'seekers of earth's treasures, getters and hoarders of gold,' who are 'self contained, compact, harmonized, even to the end."
Masters does offer a glimpse of people who've managed to keep their souls together, however -- and who we might emulate. Like Lucinda Matlock, who is untouched by modern corruption and has conducted her life in accordance with a simpler and more innocent past. In her youth she went to dances, fell in love, married and had children. Over the course of her life, she spun, wove, kept house nursed the sick, made a garden, and for fun, she
    rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
   and by Spoon River gathered many a shell
   and many a flower and medicinal weed--
   shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.

At the age of 96, she'd live enough, that's all, and passed to a sweet repose.
Hard to emulate her. But then there's Fiddler Jones, who, through his focus on his art rather than possessions, manages to remain untouched by his lack of material success, and is therefore able to retain a Whitmanesque conception -- he sees Original Grace, and the transcendental hum, all around him, in all things. 'The earth keeps some vibration of joy," he declares, 'there in your hearts, and that is you.'

Because of his musical talent, he's called on to play so often for the people that he never has a chance to prosper or fail according to society's terms -- and it doesn't bother him one bit.
    I ended up with a broken fiddle
   and a broken laugh and a thousand memories
   and not a single regret.

Finally, and almost as a call to arms, Masters tells us through the voice of Jim Brown that it's up to each individual to decide which side they're on. You're either 'for men or for money,' says Brown. You're either 'for the people or against them.'

I suppose my poetic temperament makes me more of a Fiddler Jones type, happy with a broken fiddle, a broken laugh and a thousand memories. But t
his week as the Republican Party prepares to offer its heart and soul to the very people who would return us to the dark ages of willful ignorance, unchecked capitalism, and back alley abortions, I'm thinking that for America in 2012, a healthy dose of 'which side are you on' progressivism may be just what the doctor ordered. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

CONNECTING THE BOP: The How And The Why Of America's Heartland Music

Wow what a treat to visit with fellow poets and painters at the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs, LI, to share a reading for Jackson Pollock. No threat of rain or summer heat could slow us down or keep us from sharing our Jackson Pollock related inspiration.

For me it was especially gratifying to ‘connect the bop‘ -- ie, relate  the swirling circular and hugely energetic Pollock canvases to Whitman, to Charlie Parker and the KC vortex, to the bop prosodists of the 50s, and to my own work.

The KC vortex which produced bebop jazz. of course, but also  Thomas Hart Benton, indisputably Pollock’s mentor and whose abstract ideas about rhythm on the canvas transcend the WPA figurative aspects of his work in a manner that profoundly inform his work .

Musically stated, there’s the structural thing -- improvising off and around and beyond and back to the core statement. Being able to jump into the conversation (musical or visual) from anywhere on the scale. Using your woodshed skills to blast out an extended and irrepressible improvisation which seems beyond deliberation, inspired, almost autonomic -- but at its core, is deeply schooled. Camouflaging the subject, circling around it and going tangentially away from and back to it with sculpted micro-flourishes, teasing it out of perceptual existence and back in again. A rhythmic and tonal explosion that never loses its deep reference to the form. And finding the resolution, the landing point. Getting it back there.

It’s the essential HOW of bop, whether its Parker, Pollock or the prosodic flights of Kerouac, O'Hara and the rest.

Then there's the WHY (as jazz musician Tony Scott, born Tony Sciacca in NJ testified, 'I studied the how AND the why' of bop).

The range of emotional statements that can be sustained is wide. Bending the voice of the man, through the plaintive protestations and sly subversions of blues and jazz musicians finding solace, kicks, competition and comradery in the midst of Jim Crow America. The frenzied search for articulation of Pollock. The vernacular longings and raw industrial energies and arguments of Thomas Hart Benton.

The rebelliousness of the Beats and the aesthetic nuancing of the New York School poets. Their playfulness too, and the joyousness and transcendental celebration of our own Walt.

That's right, Whitman -- who in 1879 visited the grass prairie of Kansas, confluence of cattlemen, homesteaders, and declared that a pure new and original American voice would emerge from it.
Whitman didn't mention the big muddy river rolling down from the north, or the irrepressible blues & jazz current that would sweep upstream from New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. He couldn't know that there would be cross-country trains carrying  car after car of popping bi-coastal swing musicians, cats overnighting in what amounted to a free-for-all laboratory at 18th and Vine; a place to stretch their wings in time and space, to experiment with their music, to transform it into something new.

Whitman didn't know it would be bop. But Whitman got it right. All those elements thrown into the hot crucible of America’s midsection added dimension and gave moment to an emergent American voice Whitman predicted would come.

Okay, a lot of it came to a head here in the Big Apple -- jazz clubs, juke joints, painters studios and writers' pads. And further on out, to Jackson Pollock's bucolic retreat in Springs, a shingled house beside the sheltered salt marshes of Gardiner's Bay.

But the roots go way deeper than that, deep into midwestern soil.

(Thanks to Tim Sullivan, Ros Brenner and Helen Harrison for organizing the poetry reading at Pollock-Krasner House, and to fellow poets Lucas Hunt, Michelle Whittaker, Max Wheat and Claire Schulman for adding their voices in)