Together is a curatorial project where poems written by myself and a wide range of contemporary and historical authors are accompanied by informal introductions. The project takes its name from the french word ensemble, meaning ‘together’, among other things. Creating a gathering place of voices, the series takes on the character of a recurrent scene wherein a cast and collective support and strengthen each other in celebrating the language of poetry.
January 20, 2018
The following is a preamble to a consideration of Samuel Beckett’s oft-maligned yet brilliant 1930 poem Whoroscope that will appear in an upcoming entry of TOGETHER.
DIEPPE was written by Beckett in French in 1937 and is often discussed as prescient of the Second World War that was to come. It’s also a simple quatrain modeled on part of a bucolic poem by German poet Friedrich Hölderlin DER SPAZIERGANG from the period of writing that is less notorious in the studies of Hölderlin as it preceded his succumbing to incoherence.
Ihr lieblichen Bilder im Thale,
Zum Beispiel Gärten und Baum,
Und dann der Steg, der schmale,
Der Bach zu sehen kaum
While Hölderlin, a major influence on Beckett in the 1930s, stands at the edge of a stream in the passage above, Beckett stood at the edge of the Atlantic ocean in the town of Dieppe, a small fishing town on the Normandy coast in France when he wrote the eponymous poem DIEPPE. Indicative of a period of transition, Beckett had just had his first novel Murphy accepted for publication by Routledge after many rejections when he penned the poem. Indeed, it was the painter Jack Butler Yeats (the younger brother of W.B. Yeats) that had worked behind the scenes to get the publisher to take on the avant-garde novel, which is now considered a classic, and no doubt provided the struggling Beckett with some sense of relief.
Jack Butler Yeats, The Two Travelers (1942) Tate Collection © The estate of Jack Butler Yeats
Written at a time and age (31) where things had begun to move in the right direction but also demand that he decide on where to be based, Beckett is yet searching for his style in the poem and in real life. He had even traveled through Nazi Germany in 1936/37 to see if he might live there again, writing in his diaries of the “inhuman” and “incomprehensible machinery” of what the country had become. Having studied in Kassel in his twenties, and learned the language to fluency, Germany was a place Beckett regarded fondly until the rise of fascism.
And so, the beginning of 1938 would find Beckett settling back in Paris. However, in the first week of January he was stabbed on the street by a pimp after refusing to give him money. Even as his friends came to his aid (James Joyce in particular, who paid for the hospital stay and a private room for recovery)—with Beckett finishing proofs of the final manuscript of Murphy—it can be said that DIEPPE is beyond knowing as a turning point in Beckett’s life. The author could not know when he wrote it that he would become part of the French Resistance in the south of France, exiled to Roussillon where he began to write the play En Attendant Godot and the novel WATT to keep himself from utter anxiety.
image © private collection of the author
He could not know that he would become an ambulance driver in the city of Saint-Lô toward the end of the war in order to help compatriot Irishmen fighting in the resistance. None of this was clear to the Beckett that stood on the shores of Dieppe in 1937. And still the poem below seems to indicate all of this. Written in an effort to attune his use of French via simplicity, Beckett seems to intuit the path before him, the turn toward “the light of the old town” as he switched the English translation later in life. The first of many bilingual exercises by the Irish writer, DIEPPE is a great poem for memorizing in English and French, along with many of Beckett’s shorter poems. It is clear, however, that the French version reads better in its simplicity, something Beckett would take with him in writing his plays in his adopted tongue of French from that moment on as he began to consider the path before him.
Below is the 1937 version in French and English. First published in 1945 by The Irish Times, and then in Les Temps modernes (1946), DIEPPE was reprinted in Poèmes (Minuit, 1996), pictured above as well.
January 19, 2018
This is a poem written in the fall of 1996 after visiting the restrospective Corot held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, which brought together 163 of what were at the time considered his best paintings. I can attest the exhibition made an impression, not solely in the form of the poem below—which responds to one particular painting—but via many of the works included. Camille Corot (1796-1875) was an artist that worked tirelessly over decades without really stopping to worry overmuch about his standing or reputation as it were, even as he became well known. For instance, an earlier work House and Factory of Monsieur Henry, 1833 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)—included in the exhibition—was painted at the age of 37, and captures the uneasy proximity of an industrialist’s manor and the working class rather effortlessly. The taste and conflict of the age if you will.
House and Factory of Monsieur Henry, 1833 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) © Google Art
Commissioned by Henry because he was a friend of Corot’s father, the tension of the scene (painted in Soissons, just north of Paris where industry was taking rapidly taking hold and changing reality as it was known) is a matter of fact; In Corot’s painting, industry is captured by the way the manor recedes in the background behind gates, adorned with trees and plush grounds, while in the foreground factory workers mingle with manor workers—on a smoke break, washing linens, drawing water from a well. The effect is discomfiting as the structure of purported significance is dwarfed by the looming shadow of Corot’s rendition of the factory courtyard with its paucity of foliage or care. In short, it feels way ahead of its time in its implicit critique of new wealth and power. This is attested to by the fact that Monsieur Henry declared Corot an amateur upon seeing the work and declined the painting.
Corot took such slights in stride and kept to his developing vantage point of the world he experienced. It’s hard not to remember that the catalogue for the exhibition at the Met re-hashed famous and perhaps covetous quotes regarding the painter following his death. From Monet (in 1897): “There is only one master here—Corot;” and, from Degas, in 1883: Corot “is the strongest of us all, he foresaw everything.” The museum positions their exhibition via the quotes of acknowledged reception of the new. And yet, to my eye, at the age of 23, it was a late painting of Corot’s that prompted me to actually sit down and write something in response to a painting. This writing of a direct response to a work of art can be termed ‘ekphrasis’, an ancient Greek term.
From the Greek ek and φράσις phrásis, 'out' and 'speak' respectively, and the verb ἐκφράζειν ekphrázein, it means "to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name," quite literally. So, who was the real Mademoiselle de Foudras of Corot’s late 1872 painting? Her story isn’t in any of the books, and it doesn’t seem to matter oevrmuch to art historians or museums. Picasso took notice of the work and copied it in 1920, preparing his own post World War I stylistic shift, but her story remains for the most part in the painting itself. Among so many of Corot’s perceptive portraits of class and fresh takes on allegorical motifs, it was the looking out Ms. Foudras that led me to write a poem very much intuitively from the perspective of a young woman that sat for Corot, someone he clearly had gained the trust of.
It’s a poem that speaks to relationality but also tries to inhabit the simple fact that for both the painter and the young woman that sat in his studio—work was work—and the patience required for a portrait (lighting, repeat visits, daily conversation) was part of what makes the image possible. But here in the poem it is also the stepping into the street afterwards that is imagined, the before and after movement of occupying the place of subject.
Mademoiselle de Foudras, 1872 © WikiArt
December 31, 2017
What does it mean to crawl out from the mine and see blue sky for the first time since yesterday? To climb from the proverbial cave, or from the womb as we all have done? What does it mean to climb from ‘the last scene of the last glass moment you had to leave behind,’ as the poem “Surrender Blue” asks from last week’s TOGETHER entry?
Perhaps it’s akin to what it means to grow up with a funny name or nickname (we’ve all had one or two), and in this case let’s say it’s Lavon or Fionn? It means in your youth you hear all the mis-pronunciations, like “LIVE-on” or “FEE-on”, “LA-vin” or “FEE-own,” that sort of thing. It’s part of growing up. And then you come across some real-life friends and you get “LEE-von” or “F-ian like Ian with an F” and you go with it, even if it isn’t your given name nor the name you were born answering to. And that’s how it goes with names.
The French philosopher Alain Badiou says, invoking an age old, perhaps cliché phrase, “you must inhabit your name” and I tend to agree, though at times that might mean more than one name, particularly in the Americas. And so, Levon Helm (b. Mark Lavon Helm) took up the name “Levon” after fellow bandmates in The Hawks—Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson—thought Lavon was a bit off-sounding. Canadians christen their Southern brother anew, and the rest is musical history!
From Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, Helms’ spiked snare and back beat at the top of so many of the best songs by The Band (as they came to be known) is married to his lowdown delivery as a vocalist, and makes you want to hear more: “The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up On Cripple Creek”, and “Ophelia,“ are just a few of the tunes featuring Helm that start playing immediately. When critics and fans ask and debate who wrote the songs of The Band, the answer is quite simply: The Band. That was the idea, and anyone who says otherwise is likely fronting. After all, Levon was the tie that binds to blues and early country music (he saw a slew of the early recoding stars from blues and rock n’ roll in person as a boy), and was the reason Bob Dylan (b. Robert Zimmerman) invited The Band to back him up in the first place. The best recording of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”—with its references to Keats, Broodthaers, Rome, wild geese, and “the land of Coca-Cola,” and the portrait of the artist—was given to Levon to sing and The Band to record. But that’s a longer discussion for another time, and deviates from the subject of here: poetry.
This week’s poem is from Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States in 2017, and is the call and response to a poem titled “SONG” in her collection Life on Mars, first published in 2011, a year before Helm’s passing. I first met Tracy in 1996 when I moved to New York at 22 to enter the MFA program in Creative Writing for Poetry at Columbia University. Tracy was in the second year and I can remember distinctly her quiet way of bringing up poets I’d read and admired—Rita Dove, Seamus Heaney, and Philip Larkin, among them. She didn’t really blow any horns that she’d met these folks and already studied with some of them, but rather just wrote her way into the thing itself. I can count myself lucky to have met some of these writers mentioned above as well, including Tracy first and foremost.
In the entry below, the writer takes up writer’s block and the kind of emotional seizure that grabs hold of you. Pounding the devil of it all. And it’s then those hiked up shoulders of Levon Helm climb in the mind of anyone that’s watched him sing and drum simultaneously, gaining speed like a bird that can only fly close to the ground: just high enough to see your way forward, and low enough to feel your way back.
December 20, 2017
I first learned the phrase ‘surrender blue’ in passing from the renowned clarinetist and composer Evan Christopher at a late show in New Orleans in October 2014. Used to describe the feeling one gets having stayed up all night playing music and seeing that daylight has finally come, it’s a phrase you don’t forget. Time and place marked by words, light, and sound.
In the summer of 2017, while on an Agean Airlines flight from Kassel to Athens, this phrase came back to me as if occupying my neighboring seat. Tugging at me like a gift of small mercy and forgiveness, the poem below was the result. Written in entirety before the plane touched down, I read this poem as written by me but also not by me. A response to what it feels like to live in a difficult time in the United States, to be an American.