01 February 2005

Satchmo and that Shakespeherian Rag

I have one of those "Poetry Speaks" page-a-day calendars (given to me by the lovely Sarah Jane) on the kitchen (card)table. Although the selections are hit-or-miss, it's good to peer at this little square block of printed words while I blearily pull on my Docs every morning before heading out the door.

In preparation for Langston Hughes' birthday today, yesterday's bit was a few words on Hughes by Al Young:

While recordings of poets reading their work were not widely available, my classmates and I understood that poems did not live on the page; they only camped there.... We knew poems lived in the body.... First-rate composers--Anton Dvorak, Bela Bartok, Cole Porter, Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, and Thelonius Monk come to mind--build their music from everything they hear going on around them, from the formalized to the vernacular and the colloquial ... the poetry of Langston Hughes, alive with clues to the origins of the blues, continues to quiver....

This reminded me of Ralph Ellison's vibrant comparison of T.S. Eliot to Louis Armstrong in "Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer's Experience in the United States" (from Shadow and Act), which recounts his foray into literature while studying music:

Wuthering Heights had caused me an agony of unexpressible emotion and the same was true of Jude the Obscure, but The Waste Land seized my mind. I was intrigued by its power to move me while eluding my understanding. Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even though I could not understand then, its range of allusion was as mixed and as varied as that of Louis Armstrong. Yet there were its discontinuities, its changes of pace and its hidden system of organization which escaped me.

There was nothing to do but look up the references in the footnotes to the poem, and thus began my conscious education in literature.

Critics and theorists can wrangle over meaning all they want. Give me that unspeakable sense of ineffable thought resting beneath printed verse that leads God knows where.

("O O O O...")


Amardeep said...

I prefer effable thoughts, myself.

It's only right that language (literature) leads to more language (reading, interpretation, conversation, analysis). Is it not?

Some critics do murder to dissect, certainly. But even the example you give -- Ralph Ellison on the Waste Land -- points to a use of literature that is fairly pedantic (TWL is a poem that has its own footnotes... can't get more pedantic than that!).

And aren't you making a reference here to G.V. Desani? Props, if so. (Props to me also for spotting it, perhaps)

Anonymous said...

Oh, wait, I forgot. That is first and foremost a reference to the Waste Land.

Desani riffs on it in "All About H. Hatterr."

My bad.

amcorrea said...

Full disclosure:

I'm the one in the kiddie pool wearing floaters, watching the rest of you swim the English Channel. It was only yesterday that I found myself on Dan Green's site (my subsequent private freak-out session was appropriate to the occasion).

I've been following real litbloggers (such as yourself) for about a year now. On a whim, I decided to start one of my own. I'm in the process of applying to graduate school and am mired in lots of questions regarding where this love of books should take me. I am considering the possibility of teaching, but am very wary of the hazards of academia (it's taken me two years to arrive at the decision to even apply).

Yet every day I read and love and resonate with books. (As an undergrad, I actually took twice as many lit classes as I needed.) I think there are worthy reasons for choosing to teach literature, but I'm carefully examining my motives. (Also, I've really appreciated the discussion you've been having regarding the current state of the field and the whys and wherefores.)

All that to say that I started this as a way to let a few friends in on the fantastic litblogs out there, and all of the great discussions that are going on. I've learned so much...but am not sure how ready I am to be taken seriously. I'm a work in progress, continually hashing out the suppositions behind what I think.

So, yes. Effable thoughts are great too! I tend to react against the idea that The Waste Land was primarily Pound's baby and that Eliot wasn't really saying anything. There is a (*deep breath*) transcendent beauty to it that undermines harsh critical treatment.

I guess I just love Ellison's riff on it, and the fact that it opened up a whole world for him (and even reminded him of Armstrong!). Yes, this can be pedantic, but I suppose I view literary references as trails to follow...a process of discovery. (I had a lot of fun following Eliot's footnotes.)

And yes, it is right that language leads to more language. I couldn't deny that if I tried with both hands... (Plus, my reckless decision to create a quiet little corner in cyberspace where I can babble about books as much as I want is pretty solid proof.)

All that to say, thank you for your patience. :)

(P.S. I hadn't heard of Desani--thank you for the reference! I'm sure there are even more appalling gaps in my education.)

amcorrea said...
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amcorrea said...
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amcorrea said...

(And yes, this is me accidentally posting duplicate comments to my own blog. Sheesh!)

molrendiel said...

Geez, amc, if you're wearing waders in the kiddie pool, I must be the kid stuck and drowning on the bottom of the pool, struggling against the suction of the pool drain, but I nonetheless dare to post my thoughts:

I think I understand the tension that's being expressed here: there needs to be critical assessment of literature, but there also needs to be enjoyment and realization of the simple pleasures reading should bring us. My limited experience in literary criticism (one class in college) exposed me to reader response criticism, which is the closest I ever saw academics get to a balance between pedantic buntificating and pure appreciation. As to something out there in modern book sales that gets at this, I have always appreciated the Norton Critical Editions and wondered why places like Borders didn't sell more of them. They present the novel, but with some added goodies that the reader can get into later, if they want, or ignore entirely. The reader can enjoy, but with an extra kick in a certain direction. As to education, I think real love of literature is born from finding a balance. There is power in simply loving a book till the cover falls off, but there is also power in being able to love it while giving it a critical glance.