Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need...

In Memoriam: Maya Angelou (1928 - 2014)

You can read all of the great inaugural poem Maya Angelou read for President Clinton

"Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need | For this bright morning dawning for you."

Sharon Hershey's energetic melody setting this couplet as a fugue subject for an unpublished a cappella choral setting of the poem rings in my ear. I've thought of it often over the last several weeks following the sudden death of my former Westminster classmate, colleague and friend, Jeff Dinsmore. We rehearsed it together in Spoleto, Italy in 1997. Another recently and too-suddenly departed friend and colleague, John Webber, was also in the Bridge Ensemble - Spoleto Festival Choir in Umbria that summer, under Donald Nally's inspiring leadership.

It can be dangerous to quote anyone out of context. With that caveat, I have highlighted the most famous excerpt from William Carlos Williams' oft-quoted (and much longer) poem, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." Below are but the final 21 lines of a complex 200 + line poem.

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
I come, my sweet,
to sing to you!

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something

that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult

to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack

of what is found there.

Hear me out
for I too am concerned

and every man
who wants to die at peace in his bed

Yesterday, I experienced the not infrequent occurrence of rejection, when, at a business lunch, I made what we call "an ask" of an esteemed patron. Whether one can or cannot succeed in show business without really trying I cannot say, but one cannot survive very long in the "arts" without at least one layer of thick skin. If you're a performer or an administrator, you need several layers. Besides "no," I was also politely and directly told that if my non-profit-arts organization were to fold tomorrow, while it might make the news, it would not create much of a stir. (Sadly, this is true. And the same fate would be shared by dozens of other small non-profit organizations in "Virginia's Blue Ridge," who teeter on the edge survival not just year after year, but month by month, like "starving artists," the working poor, many small businesses, struggling families, ad infinitum... But that's another story or essay…)

I recently read in the introduction to a contemporary poetry anthology (Best of American Poetry 2013) reference to a critic's questioning, in the wake of the most recent Presidential inaugural poem, the recycled polemic, "is poetry dead?" This Washington Post critic called contemporary poetry "limp and fangless." This made me think of critics not so much as "pigeons defecating on the statues of real artists" (paraphrasing the conductor, Robert Shaw, among others) but of the critic as a blood-sniffing vampire. If the metaphor has any traction, contemporary criticism is like a bad vampire sitcom: trying too hard to impress/entertain with fake fangs & blood, dried up cliches, using someone else's old dirt…

On the website, Maya Angelou is the poet of the day, and her full-throated paean to survival, the human spirit, and the African-American voice in particular, Still I Rise, is the poem-of-the-day.

Among the many other aphorisms the great conductor, Robert Shaw was fond of sharing, here is my favorite: Art is not a luxury, but a necessity.

In his pithy, trenchant essay "The Almond Trees," written in 1940, Albert Camus takes issue with Napoleon's expired truism, on "the impotence of force to establish anything." Napoleon's positivism sees the "sword always conquered by the mind." [Aside: It's a shame that Camus was/is not taught more widely in public schools here. I suspect it is those twin bug-a-boo words, "communist" and "atheist" which stick too easily to "liberals" and thus find them too-easily tossed into the discard or dismiss pile. Camus was as much a humanitarian, philosopher, and freedom-fighter as anything, seen from another angle.] "I do not have enough faith in reason to subscribe to a belief in progress… We have not overcome our [human] condition, and yet we know it better…Our task…is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls." I don't find anything to dismiss in such clear-headed reasoning and vision.

Writing at the height of Hitler's power, he goes on to observe, "It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. 'Tragedy,' [D.H.] Lawrence said, 'ought to be a great kick at misery.'"

"The axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart," Kafka described art as. Why does great music move us so? Why do seasoned opera goers always weep at the end of La Boheme? Among other reasons, it is great art's ability to stimulate intense emotional responses. After our heart and soul have been opened, the mind usually follows...

In his famous poem - is any poem "famous" outside of artistic circles anymore? - eulogizing W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden wrote that "poetry makes nothing happen." I'm sure we could survive without opera, poetry, abstract art, theatre-of-the-absurd, public sculpture, film and many other "luxuries" and "entertainments" we take for granted or don't take at all. But why would we choose to?

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