30 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/40

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, late flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
   Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats

As we head into October this seemed like an obvious choice; I guess I could try to be clever and come up with something else, but sometimes something is the obvious choice because it's the best choice. When I was young most of the poetry I read was dramatic or epic; I came fairly late to lyric, which I think is maybe not usual, but this ode has been a favorite of mine since I first read it: it's so vivid, so intensely pictorial, and surprisingly action-packed for a poem that spends so much time on ripening harvests. Instead of describing apples as abundant or hazelnuts as plump, Keats gives us verbs: the apples are so plentiful they bend their boughs, the gourds swell, the nutmeats plump up; even flowers, usually linked with spring, are profuse: budding "more, and still more." The busy bees think the warm days will stretch out forever.

The poet addresses autumn directly, and intimately ("thou" and "thy" sound formal to us only because they are archaic, but they are actually the English equivalent of the intimate/singular "you"). Even when Autumn is just sitting, she (or he – nothing in the poem specifies Autumn's gender, though the abundant seasons are usually personified as women, while only sparse Winter is usually seen as a man, generally an old and cold man) is active, in ways appropriate to the season: Autumn's hair is lifted softly and "winnowed," a metaphor which reminds us that this is the time of year when the reapers winnow the harvested grains to remove the chaff; or Autumn is like a gleaner, carrying off the last bits of grain in a basket balanced on her head; or Autumn is watching those bough-bending apples being pressed into cider. This is a very rural poem; autumn in London would look very different.

The gleaning and pressing and winnowing remind us that although Autumn may provide a superabundance of deliciousness, the on-coming months will take them away, making it necessary to store what generous Autumn provides. Winter is not mentioned directly, but there are hints throughout of what's coming: we are conscious, even if the bees aren't, that the warm days won't stretch out forever. Death is here, though it is not presented as grim or violent: the day's dying is "soft"; the diminutive gnats mourn in a humming chorus among the willows ("sallows"; the willow is traditionally associated with sorrow, particularly sorrowful love); the wind, which is light like a breeze, lives or, perhaps, dies. None of this seems tragic or unexpected, but rather gentle and inevitable.

You might expect the end of a poem about Autumn to segue into Winter, but in the third stanza Keats explicitly invokes Spring instead. Balancing all the death references in this stanza, which I mentioned above, there are reminders of birth and spring: without directly saying "born" Keats puts the word into our minds twice in the space of three lines with borne and bourne. Instead of sheep, Keats describes "full-grown lambs," an amusingly odd phrase that links their springtime youth with their autumnal maturity. Birds associated with spring and summer, robins and swallows, are still here, and still making music; Autumn and Spring are linked by their music. After all the action earlier, we close out gently, with solitary whistling, and a wheeling flock twittering up above. Death is not excluded from this scene, or felt as an intruder, but woven in gently, almost as an interlude in the on-going cycle of birth and rebirth.

I took this from the Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Poems of John Keats.

24 September 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: October 2013

First, a word of warning: as of this time, the BART labor situation is still unsettled. Even for those who don't rely exclusively on public transportation, a strike will roil and snarl Bay Area traffic horribly, and so in the continuing absence of a signed contract I would exercise extreme caution in making plans or buying expensive tickets for any events after 10 October, when the current sixty-day "cooling off" period expires, a period which appears to have been mostly wasted. My understanding is that if BART shuts down again due to a strike, there is little to nothing that anyone (such as the governor) can do. I am normally very pro-union, and hate the long-term trend in America of lavishing benefits on the few at the top by squeezing the rest of us, but I have no sympathy for the notoriously lazy and unhelpful BART employees, who give unions a bad name. They are already grotesquely overcompensated, and increases to their bloated salaries and benefits will be coming out of fare hikes and tax increases on people who do not make nearly as much – a further squeeze on people who can't afford it. I do not consider opposing the BART unions anti-worker, since I also consider BART management grossly overcompensated. It would be nice if any excess money in the system were used to improve their lousy service, but that doesn't seem to be a concern of any party involved.

While I'm talking about BART, here's a reminder that due to earthquake retrofitting on the transbay tube for the next year or so, trains after 10:00 PM Tuesdays through Thursdays will be delayed by up to twenty minutes. This means that, for all practical purposes, if you attend an event on those days that starts at the conventional 8:00 PM, your transbay trip is most likely going to be seriously delayed (twenty minutes counts as a serious delay when you have to get up to go to work the next day).

Over at the War Memorial, San Francisco Opera has a few October performances of Boito's Mefistofele (2 October) and the world premiere run of Picker's Dolores Claiborne (1 and 4 October). Bicentennial birthday boy Verdi is represented by his wonderful Falstaff, the only opera that actually improves on a Shakespearean source (granted the source is the weak Merry Wives of Windsor), opening 8 October, with Bryn Terfel in the title role and Nicola Luisotti conducting; and the other bicentennial birthday boy, Richard Wagner, is represented by The Flying Dutchman, opening 22 October, with Greer Grimsley in the title role and Patrick Summers conducting. There is also a one-off performance of Verdi's Requiem on 25 October, with Luisotti conducting and soloists Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, Michael Fabiano, and Vitalij Kowaljow.

There's also a lot going on across the street at the San Francisco Symphony, starting with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting a mini-festival of mostly Mendelssohn and Adès: 3 October (evening) Adèhimself joins baritone John Brancy and members of the Symphony in chamber music by Debussy, Ravel, and Adès; then on 3 (matinee) - 6 October Leila Josefowicz joins them as soloist in Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, along with works by Lully and Adès, and Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony; 10 - 12 October, in addition to works by Mendelssohn, soprano Audrey Luna, mezzo-soprano Chrlotte Hellekant, and baritone Rodney Gilfrey will perform scenes from Adès's The Tempest. Later in the month Edwin Outwater conducts works by Ligeti, Dvorak, Lutoslawski, and Prokofiev (Piano Concerto 3, with soloist Simon Trpceski), 24 - 26 October. There are also solo concerts by Andras Schiff (Bach Partitas, 6 October, and both the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations, 13 October) and Yuja Wang (Prokofiev, Chopin, and Stravinsky, 15 October), among other things. Get more details and check out the other scheduled concerts here.

For more in the symphonic vein, there's Wagner, Rachmaninoff, and a world premiere by Edmund Campion at the Berkeley Symphony on 3 October, with Joana Carneiro conducting. UPDATE: for medical reasons Carneiro is unable to travel, so Gerard Schwarz will now conduct this program.

Countertenor David Daniels and soprano Carolyn Sampson join Philharmonia Baroque in a program called Pergolesi in Naples, though it also features arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda and a concerto grosso by Durante. The Pergolesi works are his famous and beautiful Stabat Mater and the sinfonia from his opera L'Olimpiade. That's 2, 4-6 October, in their usual variety of venues, though note that the San Francisco performances are at the Jazz Center due to Herbst's closure for retrofitting.

Curious Flights closes its inaugural season with a program called Transatlantic Crossings (collaborations between Bay Area and UK musicians and composers), featuring new or newish works by Dylan Mattingly, Larry London, and Edwin Roxburgh. I missed CF's second concert, a Britten tribute, since I was having a cornea scrape, which is exactly what it sounds like (I've been having a superfun year!), but I was at their first concert, the pleasures of which made me want to attend the others. This one is 18 October at the SF Conservatory of Music.

Also at the Conservatory of Music, BluePrint new music ensemble, led by Nicole Paiement, plays David Del Tredici (Dracula), Stephen Hartke (Meanwhile: Music for Imaginary Puppet Plays), Tobias Picker (selected songs), and John Cage (Living Room Music), on 5 October. At the other end of the chronological line, you can hear the Conservatory's baroque ensemble in vocal music of Monteverdi, 24 October.

If you're looking for further adventures in new music, check out the schedule of the Center for New Music. A couple of events that jump out at me are pianists Sarah Cahill and Adam Tendler on 19 October and vocalist Ken Ueno with Tim Feeney on percussion and electronics on 31 October. I have not yet been to this venue, which is conveniently located right by the Powell Street BART stop, but I hear great things about it.

Another interesting new music event is composer/vocalist Lisa Bielawa's Airfield Broadcast, which involves hundreds of performers spread over Crissy Field, so that (at least this is my understanding) as you move around you will have different musical/spatial experiences, each unique to that particular moment and situation. That's 26 - 27 October, and you can find out more here.

San Francisco Performances opens its season this month; they are co-sponsors of the Andras Schiff concerts listed above under the Symphony, and they have the Juilliard String Quartet playing Beethoven, Schubert, and a new work by Jesse Jones on 27 October. Their season opener on 18 October features the exciting young singers Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader, both of whom have appeared in solo recitals presented by SFP, but it is a season opener and a benefit and tickets are priced accordingly.

Cutting Ball opens its season with Sidewinders by Basil Kreimendahl, directed by M. Graham Smith, 18 October to 17 November at the EXIT on Taylor. Shotgun Players continues its season with Strangers, Babies, by Linda McLean, directed by Jon Tracy, 15 October to 17 November at the Ashby Stage. Both these plays are new and I don't know much about them, but both these theaters have good track records, so dive in.

Speaking of diving in, there is the usual abundance of possibilities over at Cal Performances; highlights include Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette on 4 October, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor and soprano Jessica Rivera on 13 October, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe with Les Violons du Roy on 20 October, and Musicians from Marlboro on 26 October; find out more about those programs and check out the other possibilities here.

23 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/39

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

William Butler Yeats

This poem has a lot of movement, spatial, chronological, and psychological, for a single sentence about an old woman drowsing by the fireplace. There's a gentle, romantic haze over the first stanza, as the poet urges her, through the portal of the book we too are reading, to look backward into her romantic past – in fact, to dream of (rather than to examine clearly) that past. She is nodding, she reads slowly, her look was soft, and the shadows deep. The past here is a twilight kingdom, filled with her moments of "glad grace" and with many youthful lovers – this is a reverie, not a novelistic analysis. But the key word here is the very first one: when you are old. In fact, this past is still the present, and the woman at this point is neither old nor grey – the poet is telling her that this is what she should do, when the time comes. when she is old and grey.

At the moment when he is addressing her, presumably she is still young and graceful, with many admirers, but he's suggesting that in the long run his rivals will be a blur, and out of the many will come forth one – himself, the one man who sees beyond the deeps of her soft eyes and into her soul: her pilgrim soul. Pilgrim changes how we see this woman, and brings us in contact with a restless spiritual quality in her that immediately becomes more important to us than her outer appearance – it's such a vivid and unexpected word, its connotations of the sacred and searching overpowering the more generic "beauty" and "grace" that are attracting the poet's rivals. And pilgrim changes how we see the poet, who has a deeper sense than the others of what is valuable in the beloved. Her pilgrim quality is linked with her sorrows (again, unspecified, creating a melancholy sense of life's oncoming sadness as she ages; we're being drawn into a mood and a mode here, rather than a series of specific, narrative incidents). He's suggesting to her (warning her?) that the deepest, truest love comes from the one who sees beyond her enticing exterior to the deeper, more restless, sadder life within.

The sorrows reflected in her changing (aging) face bring us back forward in time to the old woman the poet conjured up at the beginning. She bends down towards the warmth and light of the "glowing bars" (the metal bars of the fireplace, that hold the burning wood or coal, and shine with their light and heat) – she seems to be alone; perhaps her rejection of the poet has brought forth this hint of a solitary future, and a warning against rejecting the true lover, since that rejection will result not just in the loss of love, but of Love – the capital letter indicates that there's more at stake than the loss of one man mooning over her; she faces the loss of Eros himself. In this last stanza she's no longer just sitting by the fire, she's bending down to it, and we have to move in close to hear her murmuring ("a little sadly"). While we move in closer and closer to her, as if a camera were moving into a tight close-up, the poem itself, its mode, mood, and meaning, are expanding, opening up more and more. We've gone from love to Love, a god fleeing and pacing on the mountains – run off, but still on this earth – until he hides forever beyond reach among the scattered crowds of stars. The rhyme here ties her fireplace (the "bars") with the mystic surrounding universe (the "stars"), which holds what she has lost (or what he is warning her she will lose).

I took this from The Collected Poems of WB Yeats, but the edition I have seems to be out of print; I think this one is the replacement, though there are a number of Yeats collections available. My copy indicates that this poem was first collected in The Rose, published in 1893. Yeats was born in 1865, and so was not yet thirty when he wrote this. In this poem, love among the elderly seems rooted more in memory and reverie than physical desire; I wonder if he still felt that way as he himself grew old.

16 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/38

by Walt Whitman, from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, the song of the hermit thrush:

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv'd us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night,
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love – but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.

From me to thee glad serenade,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil'd death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack'd cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.

This is for AMV, 8 February 1926 - 12 September 2013: "rest, rest, perturbed spirit!"

09 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/37

The Garden of Love

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

And the gates of the Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not, writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

William Blake

This is one of the first Blake poems I ever read, and it made an immediate impact on me, though really it was more visual than spiritual or intellectual: I could very clearly see, in the style not of Blake himself (since the copy I read did not include his artwork) but of a medieval illuminated manuscript, the priests in black gowns (actually I pictured them as monks, with long gray beards) wandering around the garden, among the tombstones and occasional remaining flowers, busily tying things up, and that visual image has always stuck with me. Blake was one of the pure-hearted, who thought that the rest of the world was pure-hearted too.

The Garden of Love is also the title track of a CD put out last year by Martha Redbone and the Martha Redbone Roots Project. She had the genius idea of setting some poems by Blake in the style of what is now usually called roots music, a blending of Celtic and African sounds that emerged in the Appalachians, inflected with hymn tunes and country and gospel styles. It's outsider music, and Blake was also an outsider, and a mystic; his simple yet striking words fit right into this musical style. You can easily imagine some of Redbone's settings being sung as hymn tunes in small backwoods country churches. I had never heard of her before last Christmas, when V gave me a copy of the CD. Since then I have listened to it often, pushing aside the ever-growing piles of other, still-unheard, CDs so that I could give it another listen, which is always the ultimate tribute. I recommend it highly. The CD is listed on Amazon, but it looks as if the best way to get it is directly from Martha Redbone's website.

The poem is from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience; I'm linking to the beautiful Princeton edition that reproduces Blake's colored plates, part of a series of Blake's illuminated books that the Princeton Press did a number of years ago, but of course there are many other editions.

02 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/36

Today is Labor Day in the United States, so here's something suitable. This is a song from the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical The Threepenny Opera, sung by Jenny, a maid/prostitute in Peachum's London brothel, referred to in the song as a "cheap hotel." (There are some stagings in which the song is sung by Polly, Peachum's daughter.)

Pirate Jenny

You gentlemen can watch while I'm scrubbing the floors
And I'm scrubbing the floors while you're gawking,
And maybe once you tip me and it makes you feel swell
on a ratty waterfront in a ratty old hotel
And you never guess to who you're talking –
You never guess to who you're talking.

Suddenly one night there's a scream in the night
And you wonder what could that have been?
And you see me kind of grinning while I'm scrubbing
And you wonder, What's she got to grin?
And a ship – a black freighter –
With a skull on its masthead – will be coming in.

You gentlemen can say, Hey girl! Finish the floors,
Get upstairs, make the beds, earn your keep here!
You toss me your tips and go down to the ships
But I'm counting your heads while I make up the beds
'Cause there's nobody gonna sleep here –
Tonight, none of you will sleep here.

Then that night there's a bang in the night
And you yell, Who's that kicking up a row?
And you see me kinda staring out the window
And you say, What's she got to stare at now?
And the ship – the black freighter –
Turns around in our harbor
Shooting guns from the bow.

Then you gentlemen can wipe off that laugh from your face
Every building town is a flat one;
Your whole stinking place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up safe and sound
And you yell, Why do they spare that one?
And you say, Why do they spare that one?

All the night through with the noise and to-do
You wonder, Who's the person lives up there?
Then you see me stepping out into the morning –
looking nice – with a ribbon in my hair.
And the ship, the black freighter,
Runs a flag up its masthead, and a cheer rings the air!

By noontime the dock is all swarming with men
Coming off of that ghostly freighter,
They're moving in the shadows where no one can see
And they're chaining up people and bringing them to me
Asking me, Kill them now, or later?
Asking me: Kill them now, or later?

Noon by the clock, and so still on the dock

You can hear a foghorn miles away;
In that quiet of death I'll say, Right now.
And they'll pile up the bodies, and I'll say, That'll learn ya!
And the ship, the black freighter,
Disappears out to sea – and on it – is me.

Bertolt Brecht, translated by Marc Blitzstein

Like most working people, Jenny indulges herself in the occasional fantasy that though she may appear to be merely a lesser cog in the machinery of profiteering, she is, in reality, powerful and important, enough so to exact retribution from her oppressors before disappearing to unknown destinations with her pirate crew – this is literally an escapist fantasy. This is not about people realizing something about "the person inside" someone they've overlooked; what Jenny's oppressors turned victims learn ("that'll learn ya!") in a blood-filled day of terror and revenge is that her social role is actually even more powerful and destructive than theirs. The "gentlemen" who treat her so contemptuously and condescendingly never see her as a person, really – and they never will. Everyone has been reduced to his or her social role. The gentlemen themselves aren't really seen as people, either, only as brutal samples of their social class. The same is true of the pirates: they have no individual personalities; they cheer and swarm and take the town in anonymous unanimity; they seek and obey Jenny's judgment without question. Why is she working as a maid/prostitute instead of sailing with the pirates? Where will they go, and what will they do, once they've destroyed the town for her? There's no indication, and there doesn't need to be; in fact, too much explanation would dilute her apocalyptic (you could say, potentially revolutionary) anger. The impossibility of her vision is what makes it so vivid. The dreamlike quality of "the black freighter" links it to doomed, otherworldly ships like the Flying Dutchman: it's "ghostly"; the crew moves "in the shadows where no one can see"; the ship does not sail or float or move out to sea, it "disappears." The most poignant detail to me is the ribbon in her hair – she can't resist the urge to make her triumphant exit in style, and though she could have given herself ropes of pearls or any other sort of pirate finery, for this impoverished drudge a nice-looking ribbon seems like luxury. It's the sort of realistic detail that people often unconsciously put into their fantasies, probably to make them seem less like fantasies and more like possibilities.

Remember, as Tyler Durden tells us: You are not your job.

I transcribed this from the 1954 New York cast recording, which features Lotte Lenya (Weill's widow) as Jenny. There are other translations of this song, but I love this one for "But I'm counting your heads while I make up the beds." There are other renditions, too, but I love the triumphant, longing, slightly spiteful yet dreamy way Lenya stretches out the final "me."