Category Archives: Music

Matthea Harvey’s “The Oboe Player”

This month’s Music Poem post, Matthea Harvey’s “The Oboe Player” from her 2000 collection Pity the Bathtub its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.

“His lips are full, but to play he must fold them in, / make a tight line of those wet curves” begins Matthea Harvey‘s sensual “The Oboe Player”. “It is shocking to see / them sprout out again when he finishes playing a long note” it continues, opening a poem full of luxurious descriptions.

The poem moves between the audience’s reactions to the power of the oboe player (“Those who pick / at their programs wish his solo were over, others look down / thinking he would only have to look at a bundle of green twine / and it would burst into flower”), the other musicians’ and the conductor’s reactions (“The conductor who approached the podium resolving / to rein him in abandons his brisk baton strokes, succumbs / to swaying”).

And the oboe player’s relationship with his own playing: Continue reading

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Memphis Minnie on the Icebox

By a poet, though not technically a poem, “Memphis Minnie on the Icebox” is this month’s Music post — a hell of a great piece of writing by Langston Hughes penned originally for the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1943.

All of it is fabulous. For instance, the description in this paragraph:

Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.

You can hear it, even if you’ve never heard Memphis Minnie (or possibly even if you don’t know what the blues sounds like — hard for me to say on that one, but I’ll venture it’s so).

And then the turn the piece takes from the music to the world from which the music comes, with the gesture of the question, the mindset, “It was last year, 1941, that the war broke out, wasn’t it?” and then that end bit, about the men who take the money. Chillingly, thrillingly good little bit of writing, this piece — it seems to me it does everything a good short essay should. Sets the scene and puts you in it, has something to say, says it, and leaves you feeling your life has another before and after to mark, before and after you first read this.

 

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And so it is.

For this month’s Music post, I point you to A.E. Stallings again (and why not?), this time to  “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three.”

I don’t know how she does it, is part of why I re-read Stallings, how she uses such formal (here rhyming triplets for goshsakes) forms but sounds so natural and contemporary so, yes I’ll say it (and why not?) accessible. Shouldn’t this poem be sort of boring? But it’s not.

It’s a small domestic moment, the action of “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three,” taking place at present, and the detailed look it’s given, quite perfectly described — but not at length. I mean the moment, the listening to the music, the speaker’s reaction to the child’s grave and logical pronouncement, is not expanded to make some much larger point or dwelled upon philosophically, expounded or held up from all angles. Continue reading

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Levine’s Bud Powell and Matthews’ Bud Powell

For this month’s Music post, a look at two poems about jazz musician Bud Powell, William Matthews’ “Bud Powell, Paris, 1959” and Philip Levine’s “On 52nd Street“.

There are poems about the sound of the music, and there are poems about the musicians, and there are poems about the experience of music. It’s probably true that all music genres have a special hero worship to their culture, but it seems like jazz in particular has HEROES. (Rock music I guess more has rock GODS.) Both Matthews’ and Levine’s poems are about their jazz hero Bud Powell in less-than-stellar form. Continue reading

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“We still believe what we hear.”

For this month’s Music poem, I point you to Seamus Heaney’s “The Singer’s House

Like all great Heaney poems, and especially appropriate for a poem engaging with music, it is delicious to read/hear aloud. The give and take of the alliterative/echoing sounds, “a hint of the clip of the pick / in your winnowing climb and attack” to “Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear” —oh, delicious. And the salt imagery builds more the more you read it. (There are a million more things to say about how this poem is built from a form and structure perspective which I might come back to in future, but this’ll just be a short post this month.)

In an interview in the Paris Review the late Heaney says this poem is about “the poet’s and the poem’s right to a tune in spite of the tunelessness of the world around them” and has more to say about the situations from which it arose, and of course there’s information about Carrickfergus and its salt mines and Gweebarra you can find online worth poking about in, but, as with all the best poems, that’s all not strictly necessary for an enjoyable first reading.

 

 

 

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Briefly Reviewed: Satan is Real and Suzy Zeus Gets Organized

I picked up Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin (and Benjamin Whitmer) off a random shelf because of the totally amazing cover, was intrigued by the blurbs even though I didn’t know who Charlie Louvin was, started reading and then realized I totally should have known who he was because I know his songs, which folks like Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Alison Krauss have covered (“I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” “If I Could Only Win Your Love” etc.). The Louvin Brothers’ swooping, interchanging harmony inspired the Everly Brothers and others, and they were reportedly Elvis Presley’s favorite gospel duo (and the reason why Presley, despite this, never covered them is herein explained). Continue reading

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Lyrics

A long time ago, my dad asked me if I wanted to write poetry for a living when I grew up. I responded, terribly sarcastically I’m sure, by asking what poet he could name who made a living writing poetry (there being a writing vs. teaching distinction about being a poetry professor). He said “Paul Simon.” I retorted that Paul Simon was paid to sing. But my dad was right about the poetry of his lyrics, of course.

Song lyrics to poems — horses to zebras, leopards to lions. Most fall pretty flat alone on the page without music, but not all — take for example the lyrics of Tom WaitsLeonard CohenBob Dylan, and Paul Simon. (Hmm, 3 out of those 4 are gravelly-voiced. Cause and effect?)

Tom Waits is brilliant (the Grammys are a terrible indicator of excellence; they’ve only given him two). My favorite of his songs, lyrics-wise, is “Burma Shave” from Foreign Affairs (though just the line “How do the angels get to sleep / When the devil leaves the porch light on?” from “Mr. Siegel” is a close second).

“Burma Shave” begins “Licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue / Scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town.” Continue reading

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