Like the proverbial schoolboy with his nose pressed up against the glass of the candy display, I can’t seem to get enough of the various on-line and free classes offered over the edX educational program conceived of by a couple of Harvard professors just a few years ago. This fall I’ve perhaps bitten off more than a full plate by registering for six different classes. They range from the Greek epics to Chinese history to current events in the Middle East. I’m also reading Dante as well as five Shakespearean plays. Makes for a busy day, week, next several months.
But today I want to share with you my first day in a Poetry class taught out of Boston College by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. His video discussions have been fun as well as informative. But he’s a taskmaster and in his chats with students gathered around him on a stage, he presents a way of reading poetry that challenges you to get into the “difficulty” of sticking with a poet who does not always give you a clear and precise poem that you can comprehend and understand from an initial reading.
At the end of a series of modules walking us through his ideas of how to read poetry, he asks:
“What’s the most difficult poem you’ve ever read that still compelled your interest? Why did you like it, despite the difficulty? Same question for a piece of music or visual art.”
Nothing like a simple writing assignment on the first day of class. Earlier we had had examples of difficult poets when we were asked to parse of couple of poems by Marianne Moore and William Butler Yeats. Now we had to come up with our own example. I chose Wallace Stevens, a man I was first introduced to in undergraduate school way back in the 1960s. I wrestled with some of his poetry then and I find that I still am.
So the challenge was laid down. And I chose to combine a poem with a difficult piece of music that also was at first beyond my skill level to play. The poem was The Emperor of Ice Cream and the music The Black Cat Rag, an early twentieth-century syncopated composition that provided me and my alto sax a couple of solo parts.
Here is the poem in its entirety:
“Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
“Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”
In forming my thoughts, I told Mr Pinsky of my choice and why I thought these two methods of expression shared something in common. To begin first with the music, I explained that I had come back to playing an instrument as an adult after putting my horn down for many years. The challenge at times was overwhelming and I frequently considered giving up, since at my age I was supposed to be decreasing rather than increasing stress in my life. In addition to relearning a lot of complex music theory, I had the herculean task of catching up to the performance level of my fellow musicians. We all play in a small concert band at James Madison University under the aegis of the New Horizons concept which aims to reawaken in us the love of playing music which we had not done since high school or college. Needless to say, the process is ongoing, although it’s become a tad less difficult, although by no means necessarily easier, over the six years I’ve been playing.
In the same way, I’ve been reading and dabbling in poetry all my life. Like everyone, I know poetry can also be “difficult” since it can be so demanding of our time if we are to take it all in, from interpretation, to understanding references, to appreciation of the techniques used to frame it. In the case of music, I thought I would never be able to play The Black Cat Rag, just as I thought I would never be able to understand what Wallace Stevens was trying to say in The Emperor of Ice Cream.
One thing in common to the poem and the music that I used as a starting point was the sound of the music and the sound of the poem when played or read aloud. The famous line “let be be the finale of seem” stayed with me over the years and I used to say it without really understanding what it actually meant simply because I just liked the way it sounded. Never mind what it meant and why it appeared in the poem. Although the music requires a different approach from the poem in ways of understanding or appreciating it, it does have an “interpretation” in how it is played as well as listened to. As is in the first part of the poem, there is a light touch that gives its arpeggio speed a soaring and airy effect. It also has complexity of phrasing as well as challenge in subtleties in its repetition and variations of certain measures. And it certainly builds to a dramatic and emotion-laden ending.
The poem also incorporates many of the same kinds of challenges that are in the music, but in different ways. The Emperor is such an elliptical poem that it can easily defy understanding, let alone interpretation. First, its rich contrasting imagery can put you into a serious tail spin of sensory overload. From the hot sexy party atmosphere in the kitchen where the emphasis is on the pleasures of this life to the cold austerity of the room where the corpse is laid out, you feel as though a tsunami of emotion has flooded over you. It goes from the very sensual and specific “concupiscent” to the lustful “muscular” to paint the first scene. Then we come to the break of the abstract line “Let be be the finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” Its sound is so arresting, especially in this venue, but what the hell does it mean?
Confusion is the name of the game in this poem as we shift to the second part of it, the room where the corpse lies. And in the whirl of the noise and mayhem, who is the voice of the poem who seems to be shouting out commands as though he’s a master of ceremonies directing others in their duties? The poem, like The Black Cat Rag, is lean and compact. It adds to its mystery by only tossing out a few vague hints about the deceased. Stevens’ wording here can defy explication. Understanding and perhaps even meaning come only by seeing the poem as two distinct parts in marked contrast to one another. In one, you have a festive wake full of energy and flirtation. The concluding part, however, takes us to a different place, a room with the reality of death, the finale of what we “seem” to be in all our artifice and bustle. The corpse is no longer filtered through the distortion of high-flying language…she simply is there, a harsh reality of no longer being.
The why of an “emperor of ice cream” is ultimately the final difficulty for me. No easy way to compare/contrast it with the difficulty of keeping up with the speed and syncopation of The Black Cat. Yet, there are some associations I can use to get a clearer hold on both poem and music. We as people seem to need some form of difficulty in our lives to keep us beyond boredom and away from too much of the easy and simple. But we do not entirely define ourselves through our ability to accomplish difficult endeavors. We are still simply people who are here for the moment to make the most of it. When the end comes, it comes with the awakening that we are all fragile and temporary. In the meantime, let us continue the music and enjoy the ice cream while we can. And let the “emperors” of our life call out the tempo of our dance.
I look forward to more of the maze we call poetry as well as to the equally mysterious path of music. May the Muse be with us all.