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Unread 05-16-2022, 09:51 AM
Yves S L Yves S L is offline
Join Date: Jul 2020
Location: London
Posts: 572

Hello John,

From where I stand ,saying that one is listening to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier played by a particular player is not particularly "cultured", in the sense that it does not imply any more a sophistication than liking a specific version of a Jazz standard played by a specific player, or singling out the cover of a pop song by a specific pop artist. It is not particularly cultured since there are no fine distinctions being made, and the closest thing it would come across to me would be "name dropping": name dropping Bach and name dropping Richter :

As the rain beat outside my wonder,
I listened to Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto
Played by Vladimir Horowitz,
Backed by the London Symphony Orchestra,
With Simon Rattle at his imperious best,
And the opening melody played in octaves
Reminded me of architecture of Orthodox Russian churches
That I and my girlfriend spent a summer visiting,
While taking a break from Harvard:
How I miss her, how I miss the churches, how I miss Horowitz!
I do not miss Harvard.
etc, etc, etc.

It sorta like talking about wearing Versace: anyone who can afford the clothes can do it, and Versace deliberately makes clothes that many people can afford. This is not a criticism of name dropping, because it can add specificity and colour, as well as help describe the N and N's social milieu, state of mind, and so on, but name dropping has certain effects/affects, one of which is it might agitate someone's feeling of social hierarchy: "Who does this person think he is, talking about Bach and Richter in so comfortable and familiar a manner? Does the think he is better than me? Ba Humbug! I will show him."

And describing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as chords comes across to me more as a poetic convenience to get the poem started:

I’ve just been listening to the endless rain
of chords that constitute Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.
As it happens, it’s raining now

Sort of like, "Oh what a coincidence! I chose to describe Bach's piano music using rain, and Oh look it is raining right now as I begin the poem!". Such artifice is common in poems, but such bare artifice kinda grates against all the "look at all this humdrum as compared to the elevation of Bach" because it brings to mind that that contrast itself is a high artifice, a conventional way of constructing a poem, a conventional way of showing insight, depth, profundity, That is what concerns me rather than perhaps that the concept of thinking of music as blocks of chords, as I understand it, is a concept that came after Bach, which goes back to what I was saying originally: name dropping is name dropping.

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Unread 05-16-2022, 01:15 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 6,461

Hi Sarah-Jane, hi Yves,

And thank you both for stopping by.

Sarah-Jane: what a long comment! I shall try to do it justice. And it is full of concrete suggestions, which I appreciate. So: I like the idea that the nature of this piece is that of the prose poem. As I think you say, not that it isn't metrical, but that its narrative resembles more Baudelaire's Le Spleen de Paris (in prose) than his Les Fleurs du Mal (in verse). I think that is the case. Yves, my apologies, I am name-dropping again.

Ah, poets hero-ing themselves. It's a new word for me, and rather a nice one. Would that mean that my poems about, say, classic rock are un-heroing me? How very inconvenient! I must stop that at once. Personally, I don't see the difference, which makes it hard for me to care about it, but I see your point, I am not my readers and I can't predict their takeaway from what I put on the page. If I want the poem to work, perhaps Bach is a no-go and I shall simply have to shelve him. Now, it happens that Bach is in fact what I put on that evening, so I can't really replace him with something more appealing without lying about the evening, the opposite of my intended point. But I could indeed leave him out, and have just the gnats and the organic waste, which of course I am also name-dropping. All this to say, I don't see an easy solution that preserves the poem I wrote. Maybe I should leave out the gnats, though I did meet them in person, unlike Bach for whom I forked out maybe a tenner.

It is good to hear you find the opening balanced by my mundane details, Sarah-Jane. That is precisely my esthetic intent, and why the poem is called Unified Field. Gnat #38, and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Sviatoslav Richter, exist on a continuum. They lived out their lives, they did this and that, the poet encountered them as he encountered them and put that on the page of a rainy evening. It is, as I say, an inconvenience for the poet that his continuum overlaps poorly with the continuum readers inhabit, but there it is. I really don't want to remove Sviatoslav Richter, he has a splendid name and I consider him precisely the sort of dreary detail that this poem specializes in. It's rather Frank O'Hara-ish in that, to drop another name of someone I never met. I do agree with you, this poem is not really "about" the music, that is simply the backdrop to the narrator's evening, much as the swarm of gnats above the garbage is.

I am glad to hear you enjoyed some specific phrases in the piece, and you have selected details that I was happy to put on the page. I'd not call the client's decision a little story, though, I'd call it rather a big one: after all, she did not have infinite brothers to sever contact with. In that it differs from the rest of the poem, which is indeed mundane and petty, dreary even. But that was also my day.

I agree with you 100%, this piece feels formless and meandering, which is why I mention Frank O'Hara. Your concrete suggestion - to try out a series of formal choices for the piece - is I think fascinating, but better addressed to someone less lazy than myself. I think you and Fliss are right that it would make for an interesting sonnet. Stream-of-consciousness I'd say it already is, but couplets would be quite unexpected, and alliteration is always key for me. I further agree 100% that in each, readers would encounter a different place to visit. Many rainy days, just as you say. And you end with this - "I wonder what it’d be like in third person, too" - which again I find quite thought-provoking! I make extensive use of the third person in my religion MS., but almost never narrate in the third person elsewhere. That may be the actual solution to name-dropping, since it's obviously difficult for the poet to be hero-ing if someone else - a third party - is getting all the credit! An interesting approach!

Yves: another long comment to be addressed! Now, I think I've addressed a good deal of it just above in my response to Sarah-Jane, but I shall endeavor to focus on what is unique to you and unanswered above. So: I agree, it's not particularly "cultured" to say one is listening to Bach's WTC, in a version by Richter or anyone else for that matter, and luckily for me, I could give a crap about sounding cultured since I am what I am and am quite comfortable being that thing. I have another poem which begins

There comes a time when enough has happened to you
for you
to stop showing off.

So, I read that to my clients back in the day and they laughed out loud, it was a moment. You note that mentioning Bach is sorta like talking about wearing Versace. Now, I happen to despise Versace, and I forked out a massive ten bucks or so for my Bach, but let's go with your analogy here. If you had caught me dead in Versace, I could indeed have mentioned it in my record of my evening, since the piece is diaristic. At which point, I would say in my defense that I am simply recording a continuum, one where I met the gnats and did not meet Bach (or Versace) and that's what my evening looked like. I would find the request from readers to amputate Versace from my evening rather odd: why not amputate the gnats, which I am clearly name-dropping since I say I met them? You see my dilemma.
As you say, perhaps it all does comes down to "does the poet think he is better than me?" This is perhaps a fundamental question. In answer, I might say that I met those gnats whereas nobody else did, they lived out their brief lives in my kitchen and thus that brush with greatness was reserved for John Claiborne Isbell and nobody else. Too bad, folks. And I could say something analogous about my client, whose place here is prominent.
You raise an interesting point, Yves, as to chords. I am still hoping for Brian (or really any musician) to weigh in on the question of whether a sustain in the left hand and a melody in the right on the piano can be referred to as a series of chords. *Truth*, now, truth matters to me on the page, and if the term chords is wrong, I'd like to remove it. As to your second point, I come back to truth again. The rain that evening was no poetic convenience, it soaked the trash and dampened my hair as I ran the trash out. You are of course welcome to fill your poems with whatever conveniences you think best, but that is not my method here. Nor do I think my poem is built out of contrasts, as you intimate: it is instead a continuum, which I can only repeat a limited number of times, and as the title I would hope makes apparent. It is the sensory or experiential continuum of that rainy evening in which I took out the trash. Does it show insight, depth, profundity? It shows the contents of my mind at the time, no more insightful I think than anybody else and perhaps no more so than the gnats. As they say, everyone knows about the same total amount of information, it's just that the information we know differs. As to whether the concept of blocks of chords came after Bach, I shall have to leave that to musicians, who have information I do not.
So hey, I got through al that without mentioning Baudelaire again. But then, he would not really have been relevant.

Thank you both for nudging me to think. My apologies for this long response, it's midnight here and I am just typing away. It is a stream of consciousness.

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Unread 05-16-2022, 01:27 PM
David Callin David Callin is offline
Join Date: Jun 2014
Location: Ellan Vannin
Posts: 2,766

Hi John. I quite like the way you play off - contrapuntally? - the mundane detail and Bach in S1. But I agree with Brian that a divine rain of chords doesn't seem right for Bach here. And while I am in general in favour of an ambling and loose-limbed IP, I think you're pushing your luck - spectacularly - with that in L2.

In S2, the first five lines seem to me eminently droppable, but I like your ending.

You lost me with the unified field, I'm afraid, but I'm happy to attribute the failing there to me rather than you. But now you've got me listening to the Bach again, so thank you for that. (I have been trying for a long time to write a poem about the Goldberg Variations, but unsuccessfully so far.)


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Unread 05-16-2022, 01:37 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 6,461

Hi David,

And thank you!

How about "of counterpoint in Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier"? That may solve two problems at a blow!

I'll have to think about S2. There's a book out about The Goldberg Variations - I'm guessing you know the Glenn Gould version where we hear him humming, that seems to me a possible entry point for a poem. I likely lost myself with unified field, I'm no physicist, but the basic premise I think is clear: we exist in a continuum, not amid a jagged series of opposing forces. That I hope is my poem's world. Thanks also for the counterpoint analogy!

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Unread 05-16-2022, 05:05 PM
Jim Ramsey Jim Ramsey is offline
Join Date: Jan 2021
Location: Greensboro, NC
Posts: 150

Hi John,

I read this as an exploration of consciousness, an almost dreamy search by the mind back and forth throughout a day, the present and past tenses working in a complicated syntax of weaving thought and action into as much of a whole as the mind can find. If I have a nit, it's that I'd like some of the phrasings to be less mundane and common, to be poetized in some way, but without any showy ornamentation, if that makes sense.

All the best,
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Unread 05-16-2022, 07:16 PM
F.F. Teague's Avatar
F.F. Teague F.F. Teague is offline
Join Date: Jul 2017
Location: Gloucestershire, UK
Posts: 1,758

Originally Posted by John Isbell View Post
Fliss, I am still thinking about the sonnet option. I like what I have, but I do see the appeal of a shift or volta midway. For now, I think i want to let that steep.

Cheers, thank you[,]
You're welcome, John. Apologies; just another brief visit from me. If you like what you have, by all means retain it. I like your change to S1 L2; had you considered 'notes' at all, in some capacity? I'm sorry I didn't pick up on that last night, by the way; I think I was too busy appreciating the trash, lol.

BWV 846 was in my repertoire and a memory has been triggered, well worth a poem, so thank you for that

Best wishes,
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Unread 05-17-2022, 07:09 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 5,336

John, I think this is a good draft. The specifics of the garbage and the pacing work well. What I'm struggling with is precision. When you make Bach into a metaphor you have to be precise. I mean, what is more precise in art than Bach? I can't think of the sound of rain, even hard rain, matching the counterpoint of The Well-Tempered Clavier, which I think was written as exercises to match tuning? There may be a rhythm to falling rain that someone who is more knowledgeable of chaos theory than you and I could point out, but I feel certain it won't be found in Bach. I don't know if others have mentioned it, but it stops me in my tracks. (I'm dealing with precision in my current poem at non-met, btw.)

Would gnats stay in your line of vision as you take the trash out into a heavy rain?

Finally, you finish by saying you don't have words to describe the beauty of Bach but you started off comparing it to driving rain.

I hope this helps as you revise. Again, I like the direction and how it moves.
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Unread 05-17-2022, 08:12 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 192

Speaking of trash, here’s a gnatty nit for you. You’ve got wet trash on the sidewalk and then you remove the garbage bag. This is probably some sort of green waste collection that any responsible citizen will immediately recognize, but my distant experience as a kid hauling trash bags out to the curb doesn’t prepare me for it. You don’t live in India, do you? I remember asking my hosts when I was there where I could put out the trash. They said, “Oh, just outside the door.” I went out, looked around for a bin, but found nothing and took the bag back to my room. When I asked again later, they said, “Didn’t you see that mound of loose garbage in the middle of the street where the cows are grazing?”
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Unread 05-17-2022, 08:34 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 6,461

Hi Jim, Fliss, John, Carl,

And thank you for your visits.
Jim: I very much like your sense that there is something dreamlike and oneiric to this piece, in its weaving of the day's present and its past. I am very attached to dream - as are we all, I suppose - and I can't think of a better compliment. I think I hear you about my mundane phrasing - it lifts from time to time, but it's true that I am going for what Roger called dreariness in a bid to see that transformed into beauty through art. I will revisit the poem and try to work harder at that.
Fliss: I'm glad you approve of S1L2, given your background with the WTC, I find it reassuring. Certainly I could use notes and I think I am ready to take a look at a significant edit now, I feel I may have a handle on that. Glad to have brought back memories!
John: I'm glad you like the basic shape of the thing. You are quite right to focus on precision here. Bach means stream, of course, and it may be that the WTC is more like the sound of running, purling water than like the sound of rain - I was I think mostly picturing the endless succession of tiny hits the keyboard receives from Richter's fingers, tap tap tap. That was clearer with chords I think than with counterpoint, where my image is lost. Maybe FLiss's notes would do it. The gnats were in the kitchen so no, they vanished as I took out the trash - I'll think about that. And you are quite right, my end denies my beginning. That needs a look. Precision indeed! Romantic poets - Shelley, Byron - were reproached more than once with its lack. Oh hey - it wasn't driving rain, it was just steady and relentless. Not a downpour.
Carl: I've had another look at the gnats. Here's the sequence: I ran the trash out, and gnats rose up from it. As it got soaked outside, I returned indoors, where "and now they drift / across my field of vision" - I'm back in the house, the gnats still swarming. Now, question: did I put the trash in a trash can? You know, we had tags per bag, and it may be that my can was full. but we paid by the bag, not by the can. Thankfully we did not have heaps of trash in the middle of the street where the cows were grazing!

Anyway. I am now working on an edit. I've returned to S1L2, because I think the word counterpoint created John's problem there. The ending - the inexpressible - has got to go, as John indicates, but I don't yet have a fix. Here's hoping.

Cheers, thank you all for the nudges,

Update: edit to the close now posted. I now have two nine-line stanzas, somewhat neatly.

Last edited by John Isbell; 05-17-2022 at 08:41 AM.
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Unread 05-17-2022, 10:20 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 192

John, I’ve got it: you removed the bag from the house! Here I had you removing the wet bag from the trash to reveal the gnats. Sounded fishy, but for all I know, people may be reusing their bags to fight plastic bag pollution. Anyway, I’m straightened out now. Sorry.

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-17-2022 at 12:09 PM.
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