Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

September 10th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Following close on the death of John Hollander, the poetry world lost, on August 30, Seamus Heaney. I had no special connection with him, beyond admiring his work, and once obtaining permission to use his remarkable translation of Beowulf for a high school English Lit anthology I was editing (the venerable series it belonged to died soon after, victim of a corporate merger). The translation was originally commissioned by the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, one of whom, the medievalist Alfred David, served as Heaney’s main consultant in matters Anglo-Saxon. David (who as far as I know is still with us) is an admirable poet-translator himself; he translated the three lais by Marie de France in the Norton Anthology, one of which (Chevrefoil) I originally commissioned from him for our own (stillborn) anthology.

There is a lot of Heaney I have not yet read, notably his two adaptations from Sophocles. These are right up my alley, you might say, but my general skittishness about “adaptations” has so far made me hesitate.

John Hollander (1929-2013)

August 18th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Hollander was never less than a skilled poet, and at his best a very fine one. He also had intelligent things to say about the relation of poetry to music, among many other subjects. In the 80s he recommended some poems of mine to the late Ben Sonnenberg of Grand Street, resulting in my first published poems. I met him only once.

NY Times obituary

Oxford Translators’ Coven

August 11th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In June I attended the “translators’ coven” organized under the auspices of the Russkiy Mir Program of St Antony’s College at Oxford. There were about thirty short presentations by Russian-English literary translators, discussing recent or current work. Some 125 people attended the two-day event; many, both presenters and audience, were also in London at Pushkin House for a series of evening readings/discussions the following week.

My presentation was on “translating classic Russian verse drama for performance,” in which I discussed my approach to translating Pushkin and Griboyedov. With me on the drama panel, chaired by Sasha Dugdale, were Lisa Hayden and Noah Birksted-Breen. A full summary of the proceedings is here.

Presentations were mostly informal, with ample time allowed for open discussion. Being a very infrequent conference-goer, I don’t have much basis for comparison, but the general level seemed to me very high. Literary translation tends to be solitary, despite the obvious benefits of collaboration (a point that arose more than once in discussion), and the collegiality of the gathering felt quite remarkable. The socializing around the conference, including a restaurant dinner for about 40 the first night (and a bit of pub crawling afterwards) didn’t hurt, either.

I was only able to attend two of the Pushkin House events in Bloomsbury. The first was devoted to three recent winners of the Brodsky-Spender Prize, Irina Mashinski and Boris Dralyuk for their translation of Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Field Hospital” (First Prize), and Alexandra Berlina for her translation of Brodsky’s “You can’t tell a gnat” (Third Prize). The second night was devoted to Mandelstam. The panel, led by Robert Chandler, included Victor Sonkin, Irina Mashinski, Boris Dralyuk, Alexandra Berlina, and Peter France, several of whose very fine translations of Mandelstam were read alongside other versions for comparison.

Aside from all this, it was my first visit to London in about a decade. I stayed in the East End, in Stepney Green, an area I was not familiar with. The flat where I was staying looked out over St Dunstan’s churchyard (below). The church’s bells (“the bells of Stepney”) are among those mentioned in the “Oranges and Lemons” nursery rhyme about the bells of East London.

St Dunstan's, Stepney

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

March 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

It happens that I just recently received a newly issued CD from Nigerian-American baritone Odekhiren Amaize of a very fine work he commissioned and performed, based on Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart.

I have read little else of Achebe’s, apart from his infamous (as some would call it) essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but I well remember the impact the novel had on me when I read it some thirty years ago. The musical setting by Roger C. Vogel is of selected excerpts, chosen in a way that very effectively brought back the story, whose action I didn’t remember well. Highly recommended, as is the novel that inspired it.

A great loss to literature. NY Times obituary.

Two Old Hymns

August 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Having recently acquired a lute, I have been exploring some previously unknown (to me) corners of Elizabethan song, a very old interest of mine. When I was fifteen, two years into learning classical guitar, I spent the summer at a music professor’s house my parents had sublet in Berkeley. In the basement study I first came across the Davison/Apel Historical Anthology of Music, the Auden/Kallman Elizabethan Songbook, and other treasures, some of which I have to this day (not the professor’s copies, I hasten to add). I spent a good part of the summer sitting in that basement, copying out in pencil onto score paper the tablatures from a facsimile edition of Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons. Those copies (it was before photocopiers were everywhere) I still have too, or most of them.

The music I had some understanding of, having tried to play it on guitar, but the poetry was new to me. I’d had a little Shakespeare in school, but lyrics like “in darkness let me dwell” and “Flow not so fast, ye fountains” were more exciting than anything some English teacher was trying to spoon-feed me, and they came with music besides! Though it was years before I really started singing them.

By that time I was writing poetry myself, and knew enough about it to see that not all Elizabethan song texts were on such a high level. Still the overall level, compared to other periods of songwriting, was high indeed. Dowland has texts that sound like a pastiche of Donne or other well-known poets, and many have suspected that he wrote at least some of his lyrics himself. If so, he didn’t do too badly. What songwriter today would use such models? He may not have been a “real” poet like Campion, but he knew what poetry was.

Still, there’s always going to be a special interest in how lyrics by the top poets of the day were set, or at least you would think so. In fact, many of the extant settings are still surprisingly little known, even after a half-century of early-music revival (or in this case more than a century, since by 1912 Arnold Dolmetsch had already begun building his lutes and viols to explore this very repertoire).

The song I’m going to talk about now is perhaps not a “setting” at all. In fact the words are generally assumed to have been written to pre-existing music. I’m speaking of the so-called “four-note pavan” of Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger (1575-1628), written for viol consort but in recent years also very popular in arrangements for brass, woodwinds, recorders – any kind of ensemble in which a sonorous, closely woven polyphony sounds to advantage. But the song version, on a text by Ben Jonson, seems to have been made by the poet himself.

Here it is, beautifully sung by Jill Feldman (nice images too). I give the text of Jonson’s poem below:

Hear me, O God!
A broken heart
Is my best part.
Use still thy rod,
That I may prove
Therein thy Love.

If thou hadst not
Been stern to me,
But left me free,
I had forgot
Myself and thee.

For sin’s so sweet,
As minds ill-bent
Rarely repent,
Until they meet
Their punishment.

Who more can crave
Than thou hast done?
That gav’st a Son,
To free a slave,
First made of nought;
With all since bought.

Sin, Death, and Hell
His glorious name
Quite overcame,
Yet I rebel
And slight the same.

But I’ll come in
Before my loss
Me farther toss,
As sure to win
Under His cross.

The basis for assuming that Jonson wrote his poem to fit Ferrabosco’s already existing music seems to be the attribution from contemporary sources, presumably quoted or paraphrased in the words that overlay the beginning of the video (if anyone knows more about this, I would be glad to hear about it). But there are a number of intriguing features of both poem and music that suggest to me a closer collaboration between poet and composer. They were, after all, long-term collaborators on a number of masques that Jonson wrote for King James and his court. But I will post my thoughts on this question later. For now it may be of interest to compare this “Hymn to God the Father” with another, much better known one of the same title by John Donne, in a lovely setting by the short-lived Restoration composer Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674), sung here by the incomparable Alfred Deller. Here is the text, with minor textual variants following the sung version:

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I’ve won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)

May 18th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I heard him in Paris c. 1972, in his prime, singing the Dichterliebe. I first knew of him about a decade before that, when a record store owner convinced me to buy the Klemperer recording of the St. Matthew Passion, in which he sang the role of Jesus.

That was the only time his singing ever disappointed me. I had grown up on Mengelberg’s historic 1939 version, with the unearthly Willem Ravelli singing Jesus. It took some adjustment to accept Fischer-Dieskau’s more human, less mysterious approach, in that voice that Barthes would later stigmatize as too perfect. But I am not big on dichotomies. He soon became my favorite singer, and still in many ways is.

There was hardly any corner of German art song that he left unexplored. Here he is singing Eisler from the Hollywood Songbook, in a song made familiar by the usual Brechtian suspects in German and by Sting, among others, in English.

He treats it like any other German Lied, trying to give the poetry its due. Brecht might have hated it. Eisler, not so much.


Arlekin Players Theatre, “The Guest”

April 12th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Gene Ravvin and Igor Golyak in The Guest

This splendid little production, which premiered last December at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and had a brief run at the Marblehead Little Theatre this past weekend, is a creation of Igor Golyak, artistic director of the Arlekin Players, a Boston-area-based Russian-American troupe. It is performed in Russian.*

The piece is an adaptation of Pushkin’s “Scene from Faust” and “The Stone Guest.” Aside from Gretchen’s song, lifted from Goethe, the lines are all Pushkin’s. But as Golyak conceives it, Don Juan, the protagonist of “The Stone Guest,” becomes yet another incarnation of Faust. This works surprisingly well, or perhaps not so surprisingly – the two damned souls were often associated with each other in Goethe’s and Pushkin’s time, and have been many times since.

For those unfamiliar with Pushkin’s take on the story, his Faust suffers not so much from a thirst for knowledge and experience as from pure ennui, which Mephistopheles (the Demon) tries in vain to alleviate. In a few brief pages of verse, Pushkin creates a sort of negative image of Goethe’s Faust, a soul of frightening vacuity who can only rouse himself to enthusiasm by sentimentalizing his past, in particular his seduction of Gretchen. At the end of the scene, we see his boredom turn murderous.

Enter Don Juan, back from banishment, at the risk of his life, for killing the Commander in a duel. Why has he returned? Out of boredom. Northern women are “like waxen dolls.” He wants to revisit his Spanish haunts. He looks up Laura, his alter ego, and kills her current conquest in a duel, then fixates on Donna Anna, the widow (not the daughter) of the Commander. Disguised as a monk, he courts her at the monastery where she comes daily to pray at the statue that marks her husband’s grave. She permits him to call on her at home, and his conquest of her is imminent when the statue, responding to his invitation, appears at the door. In Arlekin’s production, things are rounded out with the re-appearance, at Juan’s demise, of the Demon from the Faust scene.

In his verve as a seducer, Pushkin’s character owes a lot to Mozart’s Don Giovanni; what Pushkin adds is a certain virtuosity. As many Russian critics have noted, his Juan is essentially an artist. His conquest of Donna Anna, in which, though completely gratuitous, it is essential to him that she know exactly who he is, becomes his masterpiece, and his swan song.

Virtuosity, it is true, doesn’t seem particularly characteristic of Pushkin’s Faust. But in their inner emptiness, the two characters connect well enough. We can believe that a Faust who can have anything he wants, and is still inclined to see love as a salvation, or at least the ultimate distraction, might choose to become this Don Juan. In any case, Pushkin’s verse is so laconic, so suggestive of hidden essences and possible connections between them, that the transformation feels perfectly plausible. And the Arlekin production, in a minimalist black box set with fluid, easily reconfigured elements, has an elegance to match the poetry.

The cast is uniformly excellent. The director plays the Demon (as well as Don Carlos), and Gene Ravvin plays both Faust and Don Juan.

The Guest will be performed again in New York on May 5 at JCC Manhattan, on June 28 at Chelmsford High School,  Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and on September 7 and 8 at the Moscow Art Theatre School in Moscow. Details at the Arlekin site.

*[The performance I attended had occasional English subtitles projected on a screen on stage, but not enough to make the dialogue, or even the gist of the story, clear to anyone who could not follow it aurally (except for Gretchen’s song, the subtitles were from my translations). Subtitles for spoken live theater, due to speed and variations in timing of delivery, are fiendishly difficult to do effectively. I don’t know if anything more extensive is planned along these lines for the remaining US performances. Those interested in attending them, if they don’t know Russian, would do well to read the plays in translation first.]


The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: a new translation

February 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink


I began this in the seventies, and just finished it last year. But there is still music to write for it; quite a lot, in fact. It won’t be an opera, though.

I plan to make it the third of three ebook releases, after the Little Tragedies and the second edition of The Woes of Wit. It may be a while before it’s out; I would still like to get more comments on it. I’ve put up a dedicated page in “writings” with more information and some background.

Pushkin, “Scene from Faust” (subtitled)

January 22nd, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

As promised
some time back. More on the scene here. Additions made by the filmmaker are noted in the clip description.

Icons of the Gowanus

January 19th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

Elizabeth O'Reilly, Smith and Ninth from Garnet, 2011. Oil on Panel, 12” X 22”

It’s been nearly four years since I left New York, after fifteen years in Manhattan and close to seven in Brooklyn. For the first year or so I was making monthly trips back, partly for work and partly to ease the pangs of withdrawal. On these trips I found, as other ex-New Yorkers have, that I made better use of the city, in many ways, than I had when I lived there.

My last neighborhood was Carroll Gardens. For several years, weather permitting, I had walked my son to his school on the edge of Park Slope, through Gowanus. We used to sometimes see a woman in a floppy hat standing by one of the bridges over the canal, painting at an easel. It was during the week, and she didn’t look like a Sunday painter anyway, nor were the banks of the Gowanus a place you would expect to find one.

One thing I had never done enough of, not since my early years in New York, was go to galleries. On my trips back I started doing that again. I became aware of a number of contemporary painters of a more or less realist bent, seriously devoted to plein air painting, cityscapes, and other such long-unfashionable pursuits. Many of them exhibited at George Billis in Chelsea. I got a sort of crash course in all this from Maureen Mullarkey, herself a fine painter, whose website Studio Matters introduced a handful of them to me, and who told me about the centrality in this connection of the Spanish painter Antonio López García, whom I had not heard of before.

So it was that I finally found out who the Gowanus painter was. It was Elizabeth O’Reilly, an Irish-born artist long resident in Brooklyn. I arranged to visit her studio, and was very much taken by everything I saw, from sketches and miniature collages to somewhat larger-scale watercolors and oils. The fact that many of the scenes she painted were so familiar – some of them literally “in my back yard” – didn’t hurt, but their appeal went beyond that (and she doesn’t only paint Brooklyn).

The twentieth-century obsession with abstraction is still very present in the new cityscape art. It’s not something these artists choose to ignore. Their art is not naïve, though in a certain sense – a good one – you might at times be tempted to call it that. The industrial wasteland, the old panorama of urban decay, can have a surprising freshness. O’Reilly goes pretty far in that direction, while at the same time being among the most abstract, with drastically simplified shapes and large blocks of color cunningly arranged to give the very minimum necessary for identifying a scene, an object, or a place. I was reminded of Milton Avery, whose work I especially sought out in galleries when I first moved to New York. O’Reilly seemed to acknowledge the connection. His work, like hers, had often been called “lovely,” and not always in a complimentary way.

One could certainly imagine that to the first Manhattan exiles, the homesteading hipsters who starting moving into the neighborhood in the seventies and eighties, not to mention to people born and bred there, these glowing, almost ethereal icons of their “mean streets,” the polluted waters and the decaying buildings, might seem a little unreal. But to one who lived in the neighborhood in the first decade of the twenty-first century, lived in it as it was then and not as it had been or as one remembered it, what they capture seems real enough. There was a kind of promise in the air, that had less to do with optimism or hopes for the future than with a simple recovery of the capacity to see. The old edge was not gone, but had receded a bit. Things didn’t look quite so stark or unequivocal. You were constantly being surprised with the wildest juxtapositions. It was no longer clear what era we were living in, or where it was all going. The flowers that peeked out from around rusting girders and crumbling concrete might carry a message of uplift, or they might have a more tangled meaning. Or none at all. On all such matters, O’Reilly’s art is endlessly suggestive, and perfectly laconic. And yes, it is lovely as well.

For current or upcoming exhibits of Elizabeth O’Reilly’s work, check George Billis Gallery or the artist’s own website.