Summer II




The End of It    Annie Lennox “Summertime”

It’s a couple of days after Winter Solstice. What sun there is, comes cold, strained, and weak. Christmas feasting is over; I’m tired of liking FB pictures of other people’s children holding toys. There’s low grade despair on the streets as shoppers exchange gifts for bargains. Nobody really wants another cookie, but another one gets eaten. There’s no miracle to believe in or reason for wonder or song. In another age, I’d have been tending toward Romantic melancholy, now I’ll have to content myself with Seasonal Affect Disorder or a call to my Health Care Provider’s Call-In Advisor. Today was the day I found Annie Lennox superb version of “Summertime” and the conclusion to this piece I’d been searching for since the summer ended.
“Summertime” being farthest away seemingly brings it closer, makes it precious in its absence.

Beyond her evocative voice, Ms. Lennox has a pulse of zeitgeist that has kept her a successful pop star (over 85 million records sold), in her various public avatars for nearly three decades. She seems to know in detail what she’s voicing, and is able to sense what her audience is searching for, perhaps before they know it themselves. She remains one of the consummate rock/video artist from the brief golden age of that art form. Each of her video productions displayed her ability to interpret collaborative images into collective portraits that are both emotionally expressive and wryly self-conscious. “Nostalgia” and this version of “Summertime” won’t diminish that oeuvre. Ms. Lennox remains one of the most intelligent and creative of the vocal artists to undertake “Summertime” and this rendition on her recently released “Nostalgia” possesses that mélange of memory and expression that has made faux memoir the form of our current age.

The version I’ve been listening to in a cold room is a pristine emulation of a Blue Note recording from the period of the early sixties. Mid-century style being just beyond the cusp of its current trend, “Nostalgia” comes as a slightly askew interpretation of standards from that period. I doubt this recording will either increase or diminish her stature. It is pleasing and smart, but not overly ambitious. It speaks more to utilizing talents in an interior mode than exploiting them to the pop audience she has attracted in earlier years. She lends her intelligence to “Summertime” and a personal taste in interpretation that has a feeling of historical fiction. She recorded it at the legendary Blue Note Studios and engineered it for a vinyl recording.

This is the only version of “Summertime” from this century I’ve reviewed. I had considered including the pleasant enough Nora Jones/Marian McPartland version, but there seemed more etude than interpretation for my taste… at least not enough to bring me back from my autumn stasis. The Annie Lennox version revived my “Summertime” thought with its subtle invocation of the tradition of “Summertime” as a vehicle, sometimes awkward and other times inspired to carry a complicated cultural sensibility. In some still moments afterwards I can hear the conflicted spirituality of the original George Gershwin /Abbie Mitchell recording. In her singing I heard hints of Miles Davis, and Billy Stewart mixed with a smoky Rudy Van Gelder living room intimacy, longing for a past that could have, but never quite existed.

Perhaps there is a fundamental artificiality in “Summertime” that shivering, bleak weather brings clearer. I’ve been wandering holiday airport lounges. I overheard a stranger’s unexpected intimate confession to a child. I walk my daughter’s dog as frigid evenings empty another day after the holiday’s passing…it’s that long night when summer is a luxurious memory rather than a relentless presence.

Creating both “Summertime” the LP itself, required creating a sophisticated illusion to make the interpretation a real space for the listener. Its tone reminds me of the more intimate Frank Sinatra of “In the Wee Small Hours” (which included “Mood Indigo”, also on “Nostalgia”). Lennox’s version of “Summertime” is a song hinting at a cabaret license, cigarette smoke and violins, serious cynical drinking and a slow, beautiful exposition populated with loss. Like other pop, and rhythm and blues singers such as Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, or Diana Washington, Ms. Lennox has found a mature interest in visiting “The Great American Songbook”.

“The Great American Songbook” is the traditional canon of Broadway and Movie tunes from the turn of the Twentieth Century Tin Pan Alley and ended in the1960s in the Brill Building (or with the invention of Bob Dylan). My travels with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” have deepened my familiarity with many of the Songbook songs, singers and styles that I had regarded as items folded in my mother’s bureau. They are songs that are easily memorable, relatively easy to sing (badly), and capable of enduring interpretation from a wide variety of styles, as my extravagant “Summertime” exercise has demonstrated. However they are mostly adult songs, complicated by experience and reflection. To interpret one, not merely musically correctly, but personally is what provides the challenge for the performer. Recalling Julie Andrews’ “Favorite Things” and John Coltrane’s interpretation provide examples of how much interpretation one of these standards could endure without losing its character. They are a treasury of two generation’s dreams and loss.

However, in the Twenty-first Century a standard like “Summertime” exists in a simultaneous multiplicity of interpretations. Annie Lennox in discussing her preparation for recording “Nostalgia” cites YouTube as a major resource. Ms. Lennox and I shared the kind of sonic research that began this essay six months ago that requires only an Internet connection, headphones and obsessive curiosity. The Internet is a portable research library, with semi-anonymous suggestions, hints, and wild hare tracks to follow. In the realm of language and opinion, the Internet has both sharpened and blurred the differences between academic and amateur scholarship. What were once Reviews of Literature, or anthologies, are now almost impossible to accurately compile because of the constant revision, insertion and invention of information on any given subject. In an area like criticism algorithms rule taste.

In the early eighties I recall purchasing a cassette tape of The Eurhythmics, “Be Yourself Tonight”, from a Boots Drug Store in London; they were breaking out of the hip dance club circuit and becoming MTV stars. Evenings after returning in rainy walks from the tube station I listened to it on a hand held tape recorder. Those nights harkened to the days when as a child I would listen to rock, girl talk, and rockabilly on a pocket sized transistor radio I kept hidden beneath my pillow. Both were relatively the same size, and just a little thicker than the phone I carry around now. The songs played over and over as I puzzled out meanings and nuance quite literally as if I were receiving personal coded messages from nearby space. Now they come to me as lullabies releasing scents of a Proustian memory.

I doubt the androgynous masked Annie Lennox of “Sweet Dreams” would have envisioned such a project as “Nostalgia”; still experience teaches the limitations and adjustments our talents. Ms. Lennox’s chosen repertoire has supported her voice with amplified inflection, style, and gesture. Regardless of her work’s high art aspiration, she’s in show business, in direct descent from the line of chanteuses, who have as Gershwin would have requested, can “put over” a song. What has made the difference is experience has deepened her emotional pallet, and created spaces for her share the spotlight with a song. My supposition is the intention wasn’t to possess “Summertime” the way her persona inhabits songs like “Why” or “Walking On Broken Glass”, rather something else more personally reflective and self-satisfying. It’s the accumulation of loss and disappointment, of age and maturity that makes this “Summertime” an interesting interpretation. It embraces the deep artificiality of the song’s original operatic premise as part of the broader reality of its interpretations.

Eighty-one summertimes have arrived and dissipated since George Gershwin adapted a spiritual fragment into a minor key blues lullaby. Only the song has remained constant in its dreamy dynamic of post card weather, someone else’s hope, and underwritten despair. It hasn’t brought anyone fortune. An almost incomprehensible 25,000 voices have waded in to record its melody and search for a way to negotiate its personal and cultural currents. Like a Christmas tree at the curb, or the string of lights outlining an RV window, an imaginary authenticity brings us past the original meaning, past decoration, to a strange, dark place, not without its agency of beauty.


Iconography @ Starbucks


Dogg @ Starbuck’s brunch

“Summertime/Doin’ Time” was a vague adaptation of the Gershwin song, but apparently enough to warrant legal credit. It appears on the album entitled “Sublime” which sold over two million copies and was certified double platinum. Their interpretation opens with a rough choral singing of the first line of the original; it wasn’t sampled and mixed in. Sublime’s use of “Summertime” was literally a cover for “Doin’ Time”. In 1997, Bradley Nowell, the band’s guitarist and founding member, died of a heroin overdose. The band had already been under increasing contractual pressure to tone down their anti-social activities, although it was the same behavior had made their reputation as a live act and sold recordings. That same story has been nearly a trope for bands and musicians in the rock, hip hop, gangsta, bad boy industry.

Also during 1997, rapper, Snoop Dogg, was acquitted of a murder charge, nearly instantly he become nearly omnipresent on recordings and videos. Although Timothy McVey was the genuine face of terrorism, magazine covers showing Tupac Shakur’s “Thug Life” tattoo terrified parents even posthumously. Loose Dickies, cornrows and bandanas became chic, gang tags appeared on shopping malls. There were heartfelt televised discussions of casual misuse of the “N-word”, while white America fumed both oblivious and outraged by athletes and entertainers surreptitiously flashing gang signs and colors on network television. The ironic phenomenon of suburban and mainstream co-opting urban gang culture became a burgeoning industry. Notorious B.I.G. was shot in a drve by shooting and Strom Thurmon became the longest serving Senator in US history. Into that pre-Millennial incarnation of Catfish Row the Sublime interpretation of “Summertime” was released in three different versions, and a fourth version I have chosen was unreleased except on the Internet.

In all four of the Sublime interpretations, “Summertime” appears first as a syllabic substitute for the words, doing time, then fragments of the melody blend ironically into the atmosphere of exhaustion and excess. It uses the feeling, first line and musical refrain of Gershwin, then inserts a secondary lyric describing constriction in a relationship with a philandering woman in prison terms. In spite of the heavy-handed metaphor, the song maintains a summery pop feel. Like much of the work of Sublime, the song asks little of its listener and borrows melodies and styles from other genres. At best it’s a pleasant pastiche for beer buzzed fantasies of rebellion, at worst it’s three chubby party boys usurping musical styles and masquerading as criminals. That’s been the business of rock and roll since its inception.

In spite of, or perhaps because of its shortcomings, unfinished qualities, limited invention and technological theft, this version of “Summertime” is intriguing to me, at least for dissection. The seventy-odd years from the first Gershwin recording to Sublime may appear much greater than three generations, but it’s a period not much different from that separating the Emancipation Proclamation from that same recording. It does seem too far of a distance to recall Al Jolson’s contemporaneous black-faced 1927 performance in “The Jazz Singer” was widely regarded not as minstrelsy, but as an assault on racism and prejudice. In some readings of that performance Jolson’s character finds his true identity by changing his name and singing in blackface. In the film, as the character , Jack Robbins, (formerly Jackie Rabinowitz) Jolson produces a heart breaking “Mammy” sung in blackface to his mother as an explanation of refusing the constraints of his Jewish roots. . In spite of ts cultural impropriety, Mr. Jolson knowingly employed a racial mask, not to diminish cultural conflict, but to express it.

Sublime has no similar context to mitigate their cultural investment in “Summertime”. Instead of a sophisticated sentiment, Sublime produces a sluggish melange of complaint and then embroiders it with Snoop Dogg’s rap. A rap intended to lend a depth of street credibility “wickedness” and represent “The strong beach, the wrong beach, the L.B.C.”. Mr. Broadus rented his reputation as a Death Row “G” in the attempt give the song depth by making it appear dangerous. Sublime became guys pretending to be in the same barroom as Stagger Lee. It is a peculiar artistic choice for either a pop version of “Summertime” or a lover’s complaint. Unlike Jolson’s complicated adoption of a temporary race, Sublime chooses a convenient mask to hide behind for commercial advantage and intoxicated bravado.

Crown, from Porgy and “Porgy and Bess” was Dubose Heyward’s Doppelganger, a shadow symbol to wrestle with Porgy in Heyward’s struggle to resolve his own identity issues. As a stereotype, Crown, was a mask for racist fears and African Americans sense of powerlessness. To accomplish these ends, regardless of their ethical values, Crown has to be dark, fearless, savage and violent, a character incapable of change. Crown is always a manifestation. Nearly all of the racial stereotypes from the Jazz Age persist nearly a century later. The Mammy, Jezebel, Magic Negro, Sambo and Mandingo Savage continue to function as roles in artistic media shorthand. Al Jolson attempted to re-interpret the blackface mask outside of the realm of stereotype. Sublime made the artistic choice to draw on a diminished, but still corrupting image, Crown as criminality. Crown, who from “Birth of a Nation” on, must be subjected to extra legal control.

Our culture continues to profit from and manipulate these images, in some ways they are more sensitive, subtle and thoughtful depictions. If anything, in the current information age stereotypes are more vital to emotionally support talking points, substitute anecdotes for facts and swell emotions and fears. The tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin rests, in part, with the superimposed residual image of “Crown”. It was the image George Zimmerman shot at; it was a seventeen year old student he killed.The current controversy and discussion regarding Kara Walker’s installation of “A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby,..” is acerbically insightful in revealing how much race does still matter in stereotypical imagery. I would ask you not only to read the article, but the pursuant comments for a sense of the depth of feeling. Yet in spite of academic discussion or subtle artistic changes, African American stereotypes remain vital in mass and social media.

The super-imposition of the Savage onto the faces of young African American men has been a contributing factor to abnormally high rate of arrest and imprisonment of African American youth. And perhaps even more corrosive are the residual complications from the internalization of that image withn those young people. Regardless of its value as a shorthand to sort groups or entertain, it’s both dehumanizing and inaccurate. A believed stereotype feeds in the invisible realms of ignorance and insecurity until it’s strong enough to force its way into the physical world.



It has been part of my good fortune to have taught English in an alternative school (State mandated alternative to expulsion) in Galveston, TX in the late 1990’s, in the midst of a gang war fought in two square miles. Students were quite kind to me in spite of the fact that I’m obviously obsessive, long-winded and dry. It was a small population, we enjoyed lunch together, students brought what effort they had to class and we enjoyed the work, projects and growth. We all made the school a safe place. Still they were routinely tried as adults,  rousted by police, beaten going home across the crazy quilt of gang sets and territories and in one year particularly horrific school term they murdered four of their classmates. All this was described as the price of “being too deep in the game”. They taught me how to read gang signs, tags and the alternative street map of G-town. They were victims, but not innocent. In writing they often perseverated on 2Pac’s death the same as other generations collectively mourned the loss of their idols with that mixture of shared fantasy and sudden vulnerability. Although violence and shootings were nearly commonplace in their neighborhoods, the death of a media deity meant something more to them. He was a stereotype they believed; he was “real”. The intensity of the internal beliefs they attached to this shadow figure I only guessed by topic frequency and their willingness to revise.  Mr. Shakur was shot in Las Vegas following a Mike Tyson fight. (Mr. Tyson was another human being who had to grow up and live inside the “Crown” stereotype). Also wounded in the shootout was “Suge” Knight the CEO of Death Row Records, the recording label of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. Mr. Shakur, like Mr. Broadus and Mr. Tyson made substantial sums of money allowing themselves to be manipulated as stereotypical African American thugs. Like the seventy year old image of Crown they were portrayed as powerful, violent, criminally out of control and lacking interiority. They were paid to carry racial fears and prejudice into public arenas of resolution.




The life of a psychopomp brings visions that few other humans have to experience: the daily realities of their business are exaggerated illusions. We ask pop artists to act out our stereotypes without disturbing our sense of personal responsibility. As the media world has evolved since the Jazz Age the demands of creation, performance and marketing have both increased the sizes of audiences and the nuances of intimate manipulation. As an industry, music finds continually newer, more malleable replacements. Each artist struggles to both create and emotionally survive in a cynical industry. Not infrequently they disguise themselves; they wear masks, it is an act fundamental to performance. The danger comes as my Jungian friend pointed out in underestimating the power of shadows and types like Crown. Even though the song was a faded echo of “Summertime”, barely recognizable, the images it invoked were still potent enough to take the life of Mr. Nowell.

Sublime (altered)

Sublime (altered)

A Jungian analyst friend warned me more than once about underestimating the danger of shadows and types. There is a specific version of stereotype involved in the invention and production of “Porgy and Bess” that was problematic at the time, and continues to be a complicated projection, the monstrous attraction of the “Negro Savage” or “bully”. The plot of “Porgy and Bess” begins with a murderous fight following a dice game between the bully, Crown, and a Catfish Row local, Robbins. It is a conflict that alludes to the legendary battle between Stagger Lee and Billy Lyon. In his folklore studies DuBose Heyward would have heard versions of the tale and adapted it in part to “Porgy and Bess”. According to St. Louis Globe that particular barroom brawl between Mr. Lee Shelton and Mr. Billy Lyons took place on Christmas Night, 1895 at Tom Turpin’s Rose Bud Saloon.

Lee Shelton, reinvented as Stack-o-Lee has been by versions been a levee worker, a bully, a “maquereau”, a brute, but always a he possesses a .44 and a Stetson hat. Billy Lyons is variously an affable pimp, a dice cheat, a family man, who always fatally underestimates the savagery of his opponent. By the 1920s the story of their brawl was known in African American communities all over the Mississippi River and Delta, and east to the Carolinas and Atlantic. Currently as a song “Stagger Lee” has nearly 500 recorded versions (not counting YouTube). Older versions of “Stagger Lee” took the forms of field hollers, ballads, blues, jazz, coon hollers (song sung by whites in blackface), and commonly toasts. Toasts were traditionally male rhyming conversations generally boastful, insulting, scatological, and competitive, commonly their topics involved sex, drinking and fighting. The genesis and the popularity of this murder ballad remain a Jungian shadow singing about masculinity and its shadow fears. Similar shadow songs still flourish today in forms including corridos, country, rock, folk ballads, blues, and most recently rap.

These mythic caricatures engage the singer/song/listener in an iconic relationship formalized to exert some cultural control over dangerous disenfranchised males. They have existed in the Western musical tradition of romanticizing murder, adultery and theft that dates since beyond the chansons of minstrels of the Middle Ages. Their character is essentially rebellious, sexy and willing to operate outside of legal and moral arenas regardless of restrictions of culture, poverty and race. By depicting transgressive figures with formal attention they are subsequently subject to manipulation within the parameters of those forms, i.e., detail, context, and consequence. They can be exaggerated, situationally interpreted and punished. There are traditional examples of songs enduring as poetry, “Don Juan”, “Beowulf”, the “Nibelung Saga”, or even tales of the rounder Odysseus. But by and large they are sung songs existing in the mouths of the singer and the air that holds them. As imagery their popularity depends on predicating events, personal needs and cultural situations, but always they contain an underlying cautionary tone.

I grew up in a small city once called “Murdertown, USA”. It was also home to all the Italian gangster stereotypes epitomized in films like “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas”, sharkskin suits, gambling, flamboyant floral displays at funerals, smoky backroom offices above bars, and a cohort of bookies and prison hardened men with names like “Louis Bad Eye” and “Cadillac Charlie”. The criminals in my hometown were real, people were killed, and violence was part of the day to day relations with gangsters. They did as they pleased with relative impunity and regarded legality as an interference to business, but little more. We learned to recognize their cars, homes, tables at restaurants and lounges, and accepted criminality as commonplace and endemic. They were corrupting and ruinous, but I also developed a subconscious personal utility for these criminals. My genetic bond to the power of their criminality brought me a certain level of cultural respect, or at least prevented open disrespect.

Italians, as well as other ethnic groups, had been victims of discrimination since their arrival in America. There was a language of epithets, jokes, caricatures and a full history of media exaggerations. Since the Depression there had been a steady supply of gangster stories that were staples in the film and media industries. On the other hand, briefly consider “Chico” Marx, of the Marx Brothers. His movie dialog was a conglomeration of dialect jokes, he carried around salamis, was constantly larcenous, and clownishly dressed. Leonard Marx developed that character and employed it on stage and screen to international popularity and fortune. Although I still maintain affection for Marx Brothers films, “Chico” remains an embarrassing depiction created at the expense of my grandfather’s generation. In my youth I learned to endure similar “dago” jokes as one more indignity in the dominant culture’s imaginary rite of assimilation. At least in daydreams mobsters were something like shadow heroes for the more primal energies that I was forced to either deny or repress. Even if I didn’t want to wear suede and knit cardigans, or cream loafers I shared some pride in their refusal to obey, in their capacity to thrive as outliers. The same distortions that bound me to Chico Marx’s family, also bound me to the brutal Trafficante Family. So it has been with Stagger Lee, Crown and the gangster rap stars who continue that tradition.

In his essay “The American Negro in Art” DuBose Heyward describes the genesis of the character Porgy as a newspaper article describing the arrest of Samuel Smalls, a Charleston beggar arrested for aggravated assault. It was his second arrest for shooting someone. Although Porgy is the nominal hero of the opera, he arrives in a goat drawn wagon congenitally injured. He represents what is dependent, abused and tamed. In Porgy Heyward describes him “with totally inadequate nether extremities” and”black with the almost purple blackness of unadulterated Congo blood.” He possesses “like a stagnant pool of flame… an atavistic calm. And would doze lightly under the terrific heat, as only a full blooded Negro can.” His pleasure comes from listening in the late afternoon to the piano playing of a white woman in a white-clad gown as her music drifts down from a second story window. His single vice is gambling. Heyward could have been describing a neutered tomcat.

Crown, by contrast, is described during the fight following a dice game “Miraculously the tawny, rigid bodies tore through the thin coverings. Bronze ropes and bars slid and wove over great shoulders. Bright, ruddy planes leaped out on backs in the fire flare, then were gulped by sliding shadows. A heady, bestial stench absorbed all other odors.” Moments later as Crown kills Robbins after holding him with “one mighty arm” then “…he dropped his victim, and swaggered drunkenly toward the street.” Crown is a dimensionless stereotype of the savage “buck”, preternaturally strong, ignorant and instinctively impulsive. Like a lower evolution of Caliban he proudly battles God and both the natural and human worlds.

Later Porgy kills Crown with the “prodigious strength he has gathered from being a beggar”, yet he becomes disconsolate and even more subservient. His inability to negotiate a path outside of the law costs him the titular relationship with Bess. By contrast Crown lives and acts in a transgressive world. He abuses Bess to his own ends. He’s free, empowered and untroubled by conscience or consequence. DuBose Heyward set those social-psychological forces in motion in both the novel and libretto. He had a rich subconscious bank to draw upon to set up that dynamic.

The Heyward family descended from one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence; they were slave owners who in a few generations of landed aristocracy had fallen to ‘decay’. He was a writer who earned his living in insurance. DuBose Heyward had a lifelong affection for African American music, language and the life he observed in Charleston and the Gullah communities. Like any artist he was an alien intimate in both the worlds he observed and created. He had also endured bouts of polio and debilitating illness. Regardless of the exaggeration in the depictions of his male characters, he was capable of interacting with manifestations as if they were genuine emotion and part of a common reality. Like other white artists during the period Langston Hughes referred to as “…when the Negro was in vogue” Mr. Heywood, Eugene O’Neil, or Vachel Lindsay successfully wrote to the market for racial stereotypes, but perhaps with less malicious “racist” intent than some. Their work would have been shelved and reviewed alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jean Toomer’s Cane , or James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones.

Shadow types like Crown and Stagger Lee, continue to give rise to hundreds of rap figures characterized by street names like Master, Ice, Big, Boyz, Gangsta, Young, Lil’, who understand the attraction of the appearance of criminality. They utilize AKAs as DBAs to allow their artistry to try wearing Stagger Lee’s infamous $5 Stetson Hat. A rap persona who could be easily cast in “Porgy and Bess” with minimal transformation, might be the persona created by Calvin Broadus, “Snoop Dogg”. In a YouTube selection he’s mixed into “Summertime/Doin’ Time” recorded by the ska, punk, hip hop, party band, Sublime. [ ]

PART SIX The Bird That Caged Herself

Summertime reversed.bmp
It seems there must be some monsters in any “Summertime” discussion; they are unavoidable. There are so many masks in the creation, production and interpretation of this lullaby based in lost racial caricature that there will always be distortions to amuse, distract, and not infrequently offend someone. Most disturbing versions in my personal survey are the “Summertime” recordings of Janis Joplin. .
Since 1968-69 time hasn’t been kind to Ms. Joplin, particularly with her two recordings of “Summertime”. The lens of fifty years has magnified their flaws and diminished their contextual meaning. That doesn’t mean that they are somehow dishonest, but rather that like many recordings from that period of experimentation and excess, they have difficulty escaping being classified only as artifacts. It requires effort to review these recordings. In spite of the fond memories they contain for me personally, if I weren’t writing this essay I don’t think I would choose to listen to them, as opposed to others I’ve already discussed.

In 1968, when I was seventeen, I saw Ms. Joplin perform with Big Brother and the Holding Company in a half filled Public Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. They were touring in support of “Cheap Thrills”, the album containing “Summertime”. Apart from seeing “The Executioners” at a school dance, I’d never seen a rock and roll act in person. Even today I recall her performance as loud, hypnotic and vaguely desperate. We met her on stage briefly afterwards and she put a string of beads around the neck of my friend Anne. She seemed small, alone and kind. I felt oddly pleased that she had an acne eruption. Janis Joplin represented any shunned teenager’s fantasy to become suddenly charismatic, discovered and recognized as the voice their generation’s rebellion. In 1968 that was Ms. Joplin’s actual reality.

She was both fortunate and fatally inopportune to inhabit a musical era that prized ecstatic improvisation over formal training. That period of popular music was defined by a synergistic combination of burgeoning Boomer/Hippie audiences, the expansion of rock and roll from an intimate club acts to commercialized stadium productions, and the widespread availability and near mandatory use of all manner of dangerous drugs. The Dionysian mood of the times produced, idolized and devoured dozens of artists like Janis Joplin. Even while she was alive she was an artist whose recordings were primarily memorabilia of her performances. What was fundamental to her career was the myth of overpowering genius, that she had magically escaped a restrictive world (and high school in 1960s Port Arthur, Texas was undoubtedly constraining) and been daemonically remade into some kind of elemental voice singing outside the limitations of ordinary lives. It wasn’t talent; it was the spectacle of inspiration crowds came to witness. The promise of her show was hip fun, catharsis and relatively safe proximity to unfettered rebellion.

What she presented to me that night in Cleveland was far removed from any record she produced in her career. It was similar to the difference between seeing a tightrope walker in a circus tent, or on television; the value diminishes in relation to the immediate proximity of disaster. Technically she was untrained, and like many of the Blues and Rhythm & Blues singers she emulated, she prematurely ruined her instrument by the demands of over-performance. However “Summertime” was recorded in 1968 and Ms. Joplin largely directed the production of the entire “Cheap Thrills” recording, and at twenty-five, was in her best form. It isn’t unreasonable to assume the recording is what she intended. Films of her in the studio during those recording sessions reveal her to be intelligent, determined and a skillful manager of the people and the task and before her.

She released a live version from her performance at the Woodstock Music Festival and included “Summertime” as a staple of her concerts. Her interpretation was a rock and roll version of blues. Ms. Joplin’s emotive rock and roll vocals were genuine in her ability to integrate traditional African American musical forms into the eidetic shapes of the improvisations of acid rock. On the other hand, Big Brother and the Holding Company were (and remained) a terribly inadequate backup band. Even in a time when no guitar solo was too shapeless, too distorted, or was required to adhere to any tempo, they struggled. I charitably assume it was drugs in excess, or the demands of maintaining the psychedelic blues music style.

Blues was a favored as a form because it was fundamentally simple to play, but allowed for improvisation and personalization. Blues also contained an emotional authority that rock and roll didn’t; you believed Robert Johnson, you pretended to believe Chuck Berry. Generally white musicians in the sixties employed a musical style that tended to imitate and re-inhabit existing blues forms with combinations of technical virtuosity, improvisation and emotional excess in a quest for a type of “authenticity” that overcame the limitations of not being “black”. It was part of the same long, angry conversation that extended from Stephen Foster, minstrelsy and colored “Porgy and Bess” from its initial productions through today. In the late 1960’s there were particularly virulent debates about the qualities and degree of “blackness” in popular music and art. Many African American artists like Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), took realistic offense at the historic exploitation of “black music” by “white” artists. In the late sixties and early seventies, that conversation, like much of the heated rhetoric of those days,became virulent, accusatory and simultaneously productive and counter-productive.

In the less than ten years since the last surge of recordings of “Summertime”, Louis Armstrong was abused for Uncle Tom-ism, John Coltrane was dead and cannonizied, and the Protean Miles Davis was abandoning post-bop jazz quartets for free form funk ensembles. There was deserved criticism for groups and white musicians who even refused to acknowledge their musical sources. And there was the de facto financial re-segregation of traditional rhythm and blues by British musicians and blue eyed soul singers. Historical accuracy and financial responsibility notwithstanding, that debate was and continues to be genuine in that it struggles with, privilege, integration and identity. Janis Joplin’s interpretation of “Summertime” speaks to those issues although somewhat obliquely.

In 1968 “Summertime” appeared on “Cheap Thrills” which was the Billboard number one album for eight weeks, and sold over a million copies in its first month of release. The album cover featured illustrations by the underground comic artist, Art Crumb, who depicted the singer of “Summertime” in an exaggerated racial caricature of a kerchief wearing ‘mammy’ holding a white baby. It was (and is) a disturbing reference. The only way the image could have been more offensive would for it to have been to be larger. Originally it was intended to be the back liner notes, but Ms. Joplin lobbied to have it become the cover. The iconoclastic Mr. Crumb aside, there is a solipsistic entitlement that pervades this recording. From this vantage nearly fifty years later I could charitably call this expression adolescent, new found powers to shock or contest authority. Adolescent rebellion acting out. Charitably it speaks of the naiveté, rebellion and poor judgment of intoxicated youth. It’s same formula that continues to produce unfortunate wardrobe choices, regrettable sexting, sad tattoos, vandalism, and tens of thousands of car wrecks. It’s that initial flush of liberty that seems invigorating, irresponsible, and addictive.

But any parent can tell you adolescent acting out isn’t without consequences for someone. Willie Mae ”Big Mama” Thornton ten years previously had her R&B hit “Hound Dog” re-recorded by the young, white, Elvis Presley. Ten years later had her hit song, ”Ball & Chain”, re-recorded by the young, white, Janis Joplin. Both of the re-recordings were so successful that they transformed white trash singers into single name identities, Elvis and Janis. Ms. Thornton wrote “Ball &Chain”, but received no royalty payments, only the snide credit buried in the illustration of the “Cheap Thrills” album cover. Although Ms. Thornton wasn’t alone as an African-American musician in being cheated out of publishing rights and royalties by predatory record deals, it must have been bitter to have it happen on such a scale twice. It wasn’t just the songs, Ms. Thornton had her act appropriated as if it were public property, translated into a “whitened” version delivered by over sexualized delinquents, and had seen both thieves rewarded with unimagined sums of money and international fame. However she did outlive them both.

Artistic rebellion, zeitgeist, countercultural movements, and frozen adolescence aside, Ms. Joplin was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She died of a heroin overdose in October of 1970. Her entire career was a little less than five years long. Without judging her life and personal struggles, it’s difficult to overlook the influences of the harsh realities of that lifestyle on her music.

It would also be unfair to characterize Ms. Joplin as “trapped in adolescence” without mentioning that there were seventy-six million other people approximately her age who owned a pair of bell bottomed pants. The entire country was quite literally trapped in adolescence. It was an enormous audience and market for music and fashion, but it was also a collective mirror for the unmodulated hormones, de rigueur creativity, and rebelliousness that marked both that period of life and those moments in time. For a brief time, Ms. Joplin was merely first citizen among millions of women with long frazzled hair, flowing blouses and a tangle of necklaces. At the same time in the background of every dinner conversation was a war drafting and sending home thousands of casualties, riots and assassinations.

Listening to the “Cheap Thrills” rendition of “Summertime” it’s difficult for me to imagine to whom this song is directed. There is little of a lullaby sounding in this arrangement, unless it is it is the sound of a trapped woman singing to try to soothe her inner child. (Not an altogether inaccurate definition of rock and roll as an art form.) There’s no summer and no musical allusions to the Catfish Row of “Porgy and Bess”. Sam Andrew III is credited for having arranged the guitar figures that interpret the song. He employs the stylistic minor key noodling raga that was the beginning of many pop songs from that period and then extends it into searching motif. Ultimately it finds Ms. Joplin’s voice imposing the lyric and melody over two guitar parts that ramble around in distortion and distress until converging at a sonic mutual climax, and then trundle off again in what appears to a cyclical repetition,It was a formula used by hundreds of bands forconcert and extended versions of songs. Apart from tribute bands, this “Summertime” doesn’t strike me as an interpretation that might want to be repeated. However Ms. Joplin’s vocalizing comes across as brutally intimate, and carries the burden through the nebulous guitars, and that amalgam is, in its way, surprisingly honest and beautiful.

What Ms. Joplin required herself to do spiritually and physically to produce those recordings was authentic art in spite of my reservations of taste, racial sensitivity, or the ethics of its cost. The “Cheap Thrills” recording nods faintly to an imagined world of “Porgy and Bess” (Mr. Crumb had seen to that) but primarily it re-imagines the song as a cathartic expression of privileged intimacy with the music of dark summer spirits. The voice of Janis Joplin tears at itself to imitate a séance with the legendary curses, haunts, and superstitions that populate the shadows of classic blues. The seemingly intoxicated guitars might describe the sonic landscape of the Catfish Row Ms. Joplin knew. A street scene also replete with drug dealers, bullies, shade tree picnics, con games, untrustworthy friends and philanderers. Onto that cheap thrill surface she projects her inner doubts and losses with no more protection than a string of beads. She inhabits both the memory of the 1935 song and her Orphic need to sing. In her versions of “Summertime” there is a sense of fracture, of tumbling, and surrounding menace. She creates the appearance of being possessed by a voice that the singer can neither stop, nor escape until the song is over.

The qualities we expect from a performer are ones that the audience generally prefers to have concealed. We don’t care to view the practice required to develop those exact notes subtly inflected or extended, we just expect the anticipated sonic image each night in Monterrey, Woodstock, or Cleveland. That kind of consistent vocal presence comes through a lifetime of training and tedious hours of discipline that are generally known only to professional musicians and their families. That training also develops the ability to put on and take off the mask of performance. Ms. Joplin had none of that and what audiences demanded of Ms. Joplin was different and more.

In an age of celebrated for care-free life style, Janis Joplin was expected to suffer, ritually and gracelessly. Her public suffering relieved part of the collective guilt of her intoxicated generation by her willing exhibitions of pain. Within that dynamic the cultura land racial stylistic notions of “authenticity” or “real” become more tragic. That self- immolation comes through in the 1969 live recording of “Summertime” at Woodstock. She is abandoned in the lyrics to trance-like syllabic stammering, a different dialect from the one Abbie Lincoln sang in 1935. Neither is it the world weary complaint of Bessie Smith, or the sly wisdom of Willie Mae Thornton. It was toxic suffering, not blues. Ms. Joplin’s “Summertime” had no tight orchestrated revue, or slick showmanship. Her audience, her addiction, wanted to experience how close she would come to dying. Nina Simone (who also recorded “Summertime”) discussing Janis Joplin remarked bitterly “…she worked so hard, and she sang for corpses.” Those corpses were a young, white, stoned, barely conscious mob screaming and laughing. Her addiction was to same people she could never leave in Port Arthur. They came to watch the show, for the festival, it was summertime.

PART FOUR Let Some Caterwauling Commence

In 1966 along with Donavon’s “Sunshine Superman” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Billy Stewart had a hit with “Summertime” . It reached 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually became the biggest selling single for both Mr. Stewart and “Summertime”. It joined the legion of warm weather choruses that casually accompany vacations, graduation and summer romances like best friends. The Beach Boys and other surf bands, The Drifters, and Nat King Cole were all part of the transistor radio soundtrack that for three months accompanied Bermuda shorts, burnt hot dogs and the peculiar scent of Coppertone. Generally there was a song rotation of 2’30” songs lauding the bright brief season of navel gazing, and hopefully not only at one’s own.


Like secular Christmas carols, summer songs possessed shared cultural pleasures, magical optimism, and the promise of emotional acceptance. When the Summer of Love came along its musical precedence was well established. With that “Why not?” spirit “Summertime” has been recorded with, Theremins, twin guitars, twangy guitars, reggae skanks, jazz orchestras with strings, Hammond B-3 organs, angry pianos, every type of wind instrument from pan pipes to gold inlaid flutes and vocals ranging from smokey to saccharine. Many were experiments that for the promised eternity of the Internet might have found a quiet oblivion. Each interpretation brings its special palette, but perhaps not as much in the way of enlightenment.

In the legion of questionable recordings of “Summertime” here are some of the more eccentric starting with Clara Rockmore’s Theremin version and ending with the esteemed, but angry, Duke Ellington. Some “Summertime”:  Clara Rockmore, Santo & Johnny, The Ventures, Herbie Mann, Charlie Parker, Ricky Nelson, Billy Preston, Eumir Deodato, The Zombies, Lloyd Clarke, Johnny G Watson, Friends of Dean Martinez, The Walker Brothers, Booker T & the MGs, Lawrence Welk, and Duke Ellington.


I’m indebted to John Tangari for his research on variant versions of “Summertime”. If you find you’d like more “Summertime” variations I suggest you visit his site, after that seek your own salvation diligently. .

PART THREE Revisions and Reclamations

American movies have a knack for homogenizing issues into forms you can watch while you eat Goobers. “Porgy and Bess” didn’t have that kind of fortune. It was the last film produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The set and costumes were burned on the first day of rehearsals, rumors circulated that it was arson. Midway through production Otto Preminger took over as director and there was a lawsuit filed by the Director’s Guild. Harry Belafonte refused the role of Porgy, he was replaced by Sidney Poitier and the role was sung by Robert McFerrin. Sammy Davis Jr., the only performer who actually wanted to be in this production, played Sportin’Life . This only after Frank Sinatra pressured Goldwyn to cast him in spite of rumored racial slurs from the Gershwin family. Ultimately his vocals were replaced by Cab Calloway due to a recording contract dispute. The completed film has remained in litigation between factions of the Gershwin Estate and MGM who both continue contesting ownership rights. There hasn’t been a redeeming review of the film and the soundtrack was removed from distribution; that either was completed was a fruitless miracle. In many ways it typified the changing subtext of “Summertime”.

In anticipation of the film’s release and publicity several musicians produced interpretations of “Porgy & Bess”.


Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald 1957:
In 1957 Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald produced a critically celebrated jazz version of selections from “Porgy and Bess”. Although it received a Grammy in 2001 to mark its historic significance, it seems a translation of a strange “as if “Summertime. It begins with the horn that Billie Holiday’s arrangement alluded to twenty years earlier, Louis Armstrong Hot Five. But here its tone is far from the insouciant genius of Storyville. In this recording he seems to be merely playing notes, more like an audition than an interpretation. The agile voice of Ms. Fitzgerald, sounds more like an ersatz Dinah Shore than Bess, and both Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald seem to casually walk away from the tune and lyrics. Ultimately they drift into scat vamps, mostly as decorations on no theme except pointless cheerfulness. It seems as removed from interpreting the possibilities of “Summertime” as television in 1957 was from interpreting life. It has replaced one set of racial stereotypes for a newer, emptier one.(Ten years later in 1968 Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Summertime” again with the Tee Carson trio. . She seems to have reconsidered and produced a spare, more personal, emotionally felt rendering.) In spite of its apparent carelessness, this version has moved its interpretation of the original song into the milieu of popular culture.


That both artists publicly chose to make it seem nonchalant and workmanlike should not be undervalued. Racial segregation was an unresolved entity in America. That year Federal Troops were required to quell riots in Little Rock in an attempt to stop African-American students from entering high schools. In 41 states inter-racial marriage was illegal. Racial violence was organized and genuine. Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald were able to provide a coded message with the kind of disingenuousness people used to working and appearing cheerful may have understood. In my interpretation this was “Summertime” for showing up, doing the job, and getting paid. In 1958 my father, and millions of other Americans, had settled into jobs that featured long, boring shifts, managers in short sleeve white shirts, Labor Day off, and decades of cheerless smiles. They could have understood the constriction, perhaps appreciated the rebellion in performing a task correctly with complete artificiality and unspoken anger.


Less than a year after Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in 1958, “Summertime” was also interpreted by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on the album “Porgy and Bess”: .


In the Miles Davis interpretation old stereotypes were scraped away and its musical dialect was abandoned. The story remains, although retold from a different point of view. Miles Davis and Gil Evans reinvented “Porgy and Bess” from the inside out as “cool”.


In 1924 DuBose Heyward published a volume of poetry Jazbo Brown and Selected Poems. Jazbo is an amalgam figure based on itinerant Delta Bluesmen legends. He is the character playing a slow blues as the curtain rises on “Porgy and Bess” and his playing morphs into “Summertime”. In the Davis/Evans version the musical arrangement is reduced to echoing four bar phrase that resembles twelve bar blues. However, where Mr. Armstrong’s horn searched for a safe purchase, Mr. Davis examines the same melody as his possession.
He uses muted language as a code that sings in the double language of race, but not for protection, but celebratory display. Miles Davis took the chords, changes and melodies and voiced them into a sophisticated and aesthetically intellectual production.


In some sense he re-gifted “Porgy and Bess” to its African American community. Gone are what Duke Elington referred to as “troubling Negroisms”, no embarrassing sentimentality for segregation, no dropped -ings, apostophied elisions, no fumbling over Mammy/ Mama/ Mother. His interpretation reverses the setting and sense, where once “Porgy and Bess” was an awkward and pathos ridden opera of condescension to the lives of the ‘colored’, now “Summertime” is cool, hip, the object of envy, not pity. Neither does this interpretation dismiss the intimacy to drugs, pimps, prostitution and the underworld. Where the Armstrong/Fitzgerald version appeared audience friendly and nonchalant, the Davis/Evans version is intensely self-aware, disengaged and sophisticated.


If Mahalia Jackson’s spiritual lesson of racism was “in this world anything can be taken”, Mr. Davis understood that message as a secular lesson; he found himself capable of taking anything as well. Porgy has gone from walking on his knees to wearing Italian loafers. The muted notes imply that in his wry horn it can be transformed into the kind of cool Gershwin couldn’t imagine existed. It has transformed Catfish Row from a world white people believed they owned into a world they’re afraid they wouldn’t be hip enough to enter.


John Coltrane 1961:


If Miles Davis “Summertime” was change by urban renewal, this is metamorphosis. The classic 1961 John Coltrane Quartet brought the same musical competence that von Karajan’s orchestra employed, but employed their virtuosity to repurpose “Summertime” into a vehicle of reflection and refraction. In this arrangement “Summertime” isn’t a lullaby about easy living in the big house. It becomes a series of extrapolations on the prepositional life near a house. Each improvisation comes close enough to acknowledge fragments of the familiar buried in a different conversations. It removes the languid time signatures, removes the fictive structures of the ionic scale and replaces them with modal short stories.


With John Coltrane’s interpretation the listener must imagine “Summertime” as jazz musicians do. It’s not a dialect, libretto or chord progression they’re changing, but the expectation of music.
The listener is the one who must generate the standard “Summertime” and in doing so the performed music becomes more apt, intimate and beautiful. The quartet assumes the person listening is participating at the core of the song. Try this experiment, Google lyrics for “Summertime”, start the John Coltrane recording and silently sing along. The unheard song you are singing becomes a foundation, while the sounded music of the quartet counterpoints the interior voicing. Once you understand that the actual “Summertime” requires you to participate, this interpretation comes clearer. The quartet follows a subliminal “Summertime” that acts as a conductor might. Like that conductor you must pay strict attention not only to the produced music, but also the music you must hear internally to bring about the next phrase.


By the time of this recording listeners had heard “Summertime” enough that it was in the bones of American culture.  In 1961 “Summertime” was presented not for the drowsy baby doing nothing but being lulled by tones, but an energetic prophetic ear. It is interpreted for someone who has the awareness and energy to go through the imaginary fourth wall. Punctuated by Elvin Jones percussion and McCoy Tyner’s left hand chording “Summertime” strides along extrapolating phrases, but it refuses to resolve them other than musically. There is no significant attempt to interpret the underlying fiction of “Porgy and Bess”.
At some moments Mr. Coltrane’s tone hearkens back to the Sidney Bechet recording in its open, realized virtuosity, but doesn’t attempt a closer connection with the spirit of the opera, since by 1961, it couldn’t be the same story. Suspension of disbelief was no longer possible, the tale of Porgy, the legless beggar and Bess, the beguiled victim, was symbolically nearly impossible to interpret without the overlay of race becoming more powerful than the dynamics of the rise and fall of any part of the libretto.

Let Porgy stand for the rising sense of power of African Americans, let Bess be white America. It could be true, but wouldn’t matter. Any musical expression would be juxtaposed next to Strom Thurman’s 24 hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate against the Civil Rights Act, or Governor Fabus, or Sheriff Bull Connor. In spite of the genius of Miles Davis revision just three years earlier, “Porgy and Bess” was a diminished language for discussing race.


“Summertime” had evolved into a musical prompt about describing intimacy and the tentative identity of relationships.
What John Coltrane’s interpretation of “Summertime” understood, opened, and expressed was essential to the American race dialog. The dialog Mr. Coltrane and the Quartet engage in is nearly pure music in a baroque sensibility, it’s variations on a given theme. Although it’s not without emotion, it’s largely without depiction. It’s an inner dialog focused on an internal mathematics. In an ironic sense it returned “Porgy and Bess” to the operatic warehouse where it could languish in obscure respectability.



PART TWO  “Summertime”  Without Gershwin

The 1940 original cast recording was directed by Alexander Smallens and recorded during the period “Porgy and Bess” was in flux.


Gershwin died in 1937.  “Porgy and Bess” closed after 142 performances in 1935, then wandered in sporadic repertoire until it was revived in 1940, the year of DuBose Heyward’s death. This recording is sung by Anne Brown who did not sing in the production, but was chosen for the recording. It’s clean, professional and pretty, but speaks more to New York than South Carolina. By this time of his death Gershwin was widely discussed as a significant composer. In Paris he had met, Poulenc, Ravel, Weil, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. His correspondence shows he was interested in Virgil Thompson, Alban Berg, Charles Ives, Edgar Varese, and Aaron Copland.  He had subscribed to and read Henry Cowell’s New Music Quarterly. He studied musical notation with Arthur Schillinger. When he died, Gershwin was an active, ambitious intellectual; however these posthumous bona fides sometimes bring an artifice of austerity that this version of “Summertime” struggles to carry.

The sonic arrangement of the Decca 78rpm record emphasizes the orchestration and diminishes the tonal flexiblity of the voice compared to the 1935 Gershwin trial recording. The 1940 version is under the direction of Alexander Smallens, who had been Gershwin’s personal choice since he heard him direct “Four Saints in Three Acts” by Virgil Thompson. Based on their relationship and Smallens long dedication to performing the work, I assume that this arrangement and the choice of Ms. Brown in large measure reflect his sense of the musical intentions of George Gershwin, an opera in the European tradition depicting American ambitions.

Interestingly, in the 1940 revival, the part of Bess was performed by Julliard trained, Metropolitan Opera soprano, Leontyne Price. Later she recorded a version of “Summertime” in Germany under the baton of Herbert Von Karajan in 1960 at the Fledermaus Gala of Prince Orlofsky. I would establish it as a gold standard in terms of following the score with absolute obedience. If any recording could achieve a flawless, note for note rendition, this would be as close as possible. Ms. Price was both in full voice and intimate with performing the song. Herbert von Karan, as the premier 20th Century conductor of Beethoven, was a legendary musical tyrant. It seems a marriage made for fidelity.


This rendition has some sense of ethereal weather, but expresses little feeling of belief. In spite of the complete control of the score, a legendary orchestra and Ms. Price’s astonishing voice, strangely it doesn’t reflect summer or a sleeping baby. It seems to have no geographical context. Listening to it, it could as easily be a woman imprisoned in a Schwartz Walden castle as Catfish Row. Being correct is only so valuable. Taking the music to its European limit didn’t seem to have produced a finer form of expression.

That same year Mahalia Jackson also recorded an interpretation of “Summertime” that seems incendiary:


Here is a hearkening to the original voice, song and fundamental sentiment that attracted Gershwin, one that Billie Holiday had immediately understood. This voice understands the nuances of the gospel spirituals. It holds what is precious, closer. The naked piano has moved the music to near complete interiority. The child becomes the sense of self in a wretched world. Ms. Jackson seamlessly moves into “Motherless Child” in an organic reflection of the chord progression, but also as a protest. Not that Gershwin has appropriated the tune, but a song that has its roots much deeper than Tin Pan Alley. In “Motherless Child” it’s not “nothing can harm you”, but nothing can rescue you. The person who sings this “Summertime” imbues it with the contradiction that a rich daddy and good looking mama are no genuine protection from harm. Everything can be taken by this world; loss is the foundation of any spiritual before the first hands clap.

IMG_20140308_141334025 Summertime


It is, as some say on the Gulf Coast, “hotting up”. Not quite change your shirt twice a day hot, but already stay in the shade hot. Among other things hot weather is good for ripening tomatoes, iced coffee and arguments over small things. My college roommate and I have been arguing out the fine points of topics like Victorian adversaries for decades. Over time we’ve become familiar with one another’s tastes, beliefs and exaggerations. Not long ago, quite unexpectedly he proclaimed an affection for Julie Andrews, Broadway musicals, professionally trained voices and proscribed all else to the exile of “caterwauling”. Late in ones’ life I expect a certain amount religious retrenchment, dietary conversions, even divorces, but a Pauline conversion to musical theater surprised me. Broadway repertoire has charms, but deleting the astonishing range of 20th Century recordings we had shared for years set me wondering.


In my life I’ve enjoyed friends who could sing long selections of musicals a cappella, who were dogmatic collectors of recordings of chanteuses, and others who had framed “Playbills” on their walls. I admire obsession. I get it, at the same time I confess too much of my childhood was tortured by overexposure to “The Sound of Music”. Julie Andrews did nothing culpable: she remains Maria Rainer. Her soprano was lovely and expressive; whatever problems I have with the singing are mine. So I did find myself taking less exception to the canonization of Broadway, but more the loss of so much music to the lesser realm of caterwaul.


To my ear, the rigid tonal structures of western music, while pleasing, seem an artifact of a lost age I often appreciate as a tourist. It requires little from me but a credit card, suspension of disbelief and a cultural predisposition to sit still for three acts. That’s not derogatory; it’s in the nature of Western art forms. “The Sound of Music” is entertaining. It pits romance and the diatonic scale against Nazis and monastic vows. While reinterpreting history is one of the basic mythic devices of western theater, the more complex differentiation isn’t about historical melodrama and artistic interpretation, but between attractive and beautiful. Attractive has a broader range, or conversely beautiful has a deeper, narrower range. Both are noble human endeavors. What is easy or pretty draws us away from the unpleasantness of our lives; what is demanding and transformative takes us back to something that may be less pleasing, but more a more demanding useful truth.


I have lived in a fortuitously peculiar period. The sonic variety of our collective musical mind has been infected by recordings. People like me, born in the 1950s, have heard more different types of music than perhaps any other generation before us. We have heard it and responded to it, but been physically present for proportionally very few actual performances. Radios, records, CDs, tapes, television, movies, MTV, iPods, download and YouTube provide a constantly changing kaleidoscopic soundscape possessing both novelty and historical delicacy. As with most things, we know more than we have experienced. The Nazis came and went before I was born. Race, jazz, poverty and class struggle have remained part of the conversation of my lifetime; I’d like to consider “Summertime” from America’s first major opera “Porgy and Bess” and the notion of expressive caterwauling.
Like the performance of most operas, a performance of “Porgy and Bess remains precious. More people have seen Lady Gaga perform “Monster Ball” in its two years of touring than the combined audiences for every performance of “Porgy and Bess”. “Porgy and Bess” is another of America’s awkward masterpieces. It has an unaccountably erratic history of productions, enjoying limited runs in 1935, 1942, 1952 and notably 1976 as a revival by Houston Grand Opera. The 1959 film version was a production melodrama nearly more dramatic than the script. It too is assumed to be well known, but also seldom seen. The film was never given wide theatrical release and was shown only once on network television in 1967. Like many, I claim to having seen it and recall scenes and songs, including “Summertime”.


Most operas exist in the repertoire of storage. They are an antithesis of ‘popular’ music, to most people there are musical fragments or costumes that are almost recognizable. Mel Blanc may probably be the most recognized voice of the Valkyrie for the overwhelming majority of Americans. By nature opera is caricature; in America opera is an intellectual cartoon. It represents pure music with extensively trained performers and a demand for educated attention that is expensive in many ways audiences are not often willing to purchase. Nonetheless Americans assume operas will exist whether or not they like them, understand them, or attend their performances. As an opera George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has struggled to find an audience identity outside of its composer’s roots in Tin Pan Alley, the Jazz Age and Broadway shows.


George Gershwin published his first hit song at seventeen. He had some classical piano lessons and positive experiences in that realm, but found his immediate future and fortune in popular music. He wrote Al Jolson’s black face signature “Sewanee” in 1917. He wrote songs for theatrical productions that were primarily musical reviews, song and dance, chorus, comics and hits. He understood his audience, the task of the song, and wrote to its commercial potential. The term “selling a song” came from this Tin Pan Alley period.


The piano industry reached its peak in the 1920s then declined with the Great Depression. Until the crash, pianos were the most common ‘must have’ item for every household, school and public business. Even today, a hundred years later, that prevalence of pianos remains part of our cultural memory. We aren’t surprised if a piano player appears in Western movie, in fact they’re cliché. Nor does it strain our imaginations when the Little Rascals rescue someone from piano practice to play football, when Mickey Rooney sits down to write the show to put on, or in the background music for tenement scene, dive bars, or cocktail parties comes as the trebly sound of a nearby piano player. We not surprised to find a piano anywhere. Legendarily in the 1920’s there were so many composers sitting at pianos picking out so many different songs at the same time on West 28th Street that it sounded like beating tin pans as opposed to music, Tin Pan Alley. Pianos and sheet music were a profitable industry, those without a trainable daughter or son purchased player pianos. Gershwin both wrote songs families could sing around a piano and arranged songs for piano rolls. He was extraordinarily successful at it.


Like all people of ambition he aspired to something more without the knowledge of what shape that would take. Like many from immigrant families, he recognized it would demand acculturation, invention and energy. He flourished with the jazz age, studied in Paris, and saw his “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” performed at Carnegie Hall. The music he composed for “Porgy and Bess” was in some aspects the culmination of his successes. It possessed sweeping themes and singable tunes. Gershwin’s seasonal “Summertime” was composed for “Porgy and Bess”.


“Summertime” was originally set to a poem by DuBose Heyward from the novel Porgy by Mr. Heyward.” “Porgy and Bess” was initially described by George Gershwin as a “folk opera”, that is, inspired by common songs and rhythms and interpreted in classical musical form. No different from works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok, or Aaron Copeland all contemporaries of Gershwin. It’s generally assumed “Porgy and Bess” drew melodies from spirituals and other tunes Gershwin heard traveling in the South. In preparing the music he made an extended visit to a North Carolina barrier island. (There is an alternative interpretation asserting that “Summertime” is based on Yiddish and Ukrainian lullaby melodies.) The style of symphonic composing that was Gershwin’s forte was a style of musical interpretation and invention with a long history in Western classical music dating from Bach and certainly Beethoven. It was, as Ezra Pound wrote “…what the age demanded.” [Hugh Selywn Mauberley]. The age demanded overblown nationalistic symphonic music for growing radio audiences, American music sanitized from the jazz of the Jazz Age. Unquestionably the most popular and resonant song from Gershwin’s American opera was “Summertime”.


Many summers ago I was driving in Austin and a local disc jockey spent a silly and obsessive two hours playing nothing but different renditions of “Summertime”. I was fortunate to have escaped that easily; there are between 25,000 and 30,000 recorded versions. But I did came away wondering what “Summertime” could mean, even to me. Today Catfish Row is like the village Pagliacci’s wagon arrives in. The Harlem Renaissance is archived, along with Vachel Lindsey’s “Congo”, the St. James Infirmary and the Cotton Club. The roar of the twenties retains perhaps an academic allure, but in its moments it was quite the wild party. Stocks soared, religion was booming business, evolution was on trial, people seemed blissfully surrounded by a bubble of debt too big to burst, and sex, race, gangsters and music met for cocktails in glamorous lounges. It was summertime as the Depression arrived in its own wagon.

Here is the first recording of “Summertime” Abbie Mitchell sings and George Gershwin plays the piano and conducts:
Why this version is heard so seldom surprises me. It’s gorgeous, and not just for 1935. It feels both human and ethereal. It seems to speak in an almost ambient religious tone. However this is not the version that Gershwin decided to finally employ. Perhaps it was too ethereal to attract investors, or not in the swing fashion. He continued re-working the setting as he worked on “Porgy and Bess” making adjustments, although he clearly was pleased with the basic “Summertime” as a piece and employed it three times in the opera.


The next oldest recording I could locate of “Summertime” was recorded in 1936 by Billie Holiday about seven months after the show opened in New York. http:// . There are echoes of tawdry jazz age colors in the introduction. Then Billie Holiday’s vocal moves the song from a lullaby into an ironic despair tinged view of life and the false oblivion of childhood. The insistent tom toms and Artie Shaw’s clarinet bring a kind of faux jungle decadence that speaks to both the Porgy story and the political oblivion of the times, simultaneously containing the guarded slumber of a child and the monsters of Jim Crow and worse. By comparison to the 1935 recording this isn’t as fully realized, but it possesses qualities of expression that allow the singer and song to engage. The band allows itself to become an shorthand of clichés and within the vocal I sense a hesitancy and inexperience, which lend to the recording’s the overall effect of singing to an infant amid jostling. If that was the intended effect or not, I can’t exactly determine. The band was between styles, the singer young, but already abused, and the recording hurried in order to take advantage of what publicity there was surrounding the opening of” Porgy and Bess”. It arrives more as an etude for something larger and later, which is how the song is initially employed in the opera.

Sidney Bechet recorded “Summertime” June 8, 1939 with Teddy Bunn on guitar. Summer is the character; there may be a baby and it may or may not be sleeping. Mr. Bechet’s interpretive soprano voices some sense of an alley between Montmartre and Basin Street as the afternoon’s heat is abating. Mr.Bunn’s blues-influenced guitar counterpoints the free musical extrapolation with a feeling of languor and restraint. Already the song has traveled some distance away from Gershwin into the hands of the interpreter, and Sidney Bechet was seldom shy about taking possession of a song. “Summertime” was well on its way home from the opera.

End of Part One

Two Minute Hustle

February 17, 2014

2013-10-20 18.03.06 Acetelene in Wilderness (2)

Poetry often begins with some event a poet wants to remember, but frequently develops into events the poet can’t seem to forget. So it is with two terrifying volumes I read this Valentine’s weekend, Hustle by David Tomas Martinez and Two Minutes of Light by Nancy K. Pearson. They are both declarations of the humanity, severity and intelligence in worlds we generally struggle to culturally and physically erase, gangs, violence, illegal drugs, and personality disorders.

In 1994 I was between personas and took a job in Galveston, TX at an alternative school. I did my lesson plans for classes des Refuses taught in T-buildings in what I quickly came to know as G-Town ISD. I had a curriculum, but I was nowhere near prepared. No one was prepared. Thug Life was as ascendant as an epidemic on an island roughly the size of Manhattan. After school the student’s walk home was divided like a layer cake between sets of Bloods and Crips. Depending what you claimed, every three or four blocks you either held up your pants and ran like a bitch, or slow strolled with your cuz, or folkz, or dogz. The school was cobbled together and run by an extraordinary man, Lawrence Thomas. For G’s old, young or wannbe, that school became the safest place on the island. For six and a half school hours there was a truce that included a hot lunch and PE. That’s not to say there wasn’t occasional violence, but it was a mistake or highly ritualized. Even from this vantage it’s impossible to convey what was accepted as day to day reality, for example according to school district policy gunshot wounds were regarded as an unexcused absence. We held class in a collective trauma somewhere between Tupac and Dickens. Lil Twin, Pookie, Pyroo, Big Baby, and Junior were names “the game” gave to children who were murdered, others graduated high school, matriculated to prison, most disappeared. Every day we began again, taking out our journals amid constant violence, drugs and common homework of criminality. I bargained Homer for Master P. Classroom discussions of the battles in The Odyssey, or my overambitious staging of the fights in “Romeo & Juliet” were barely figurative. I was an adult. 1,500 miles away David Tomas Martinez was in training to become a “no limits” soldier in San Diego.

Hustle, (2014, Sarabande Books) is the first volume of poetry by David Tomas Martinez and leans heavily on the unspoken spiritual precepts of growing up within the sphere of gangs, abusive machismo and a culture of abandonment. The poems of Hustle wander the territory of transgression, but not in exploitative dramatics, or as a vernacular persona such as rap boasts, but use that background as a philosophical shorthand of macho noir.

In the eleven sectioned opening poem “Calaveras” (skeletons) the poet focuses lyric gifts on animating the bones of a failed revenge murder. Like any skeleton, it is incomplete, macabrely detailed and still containing some truth for the living.  It investigates the catastrophe within a near catastrophe. Section 7 “Tonight I can write the most violent lines.”  echoes Neruda’s XX of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair  [Tonight I can write the saddest lines] or “the art of shame so short and healing so long” [Calaveras 7,line 21] [Love is so short, forgetting is so long]. Martinez investigates, as did Neruda, the limitations of the healing power of poetry, but also investigates the poetic capacity to create emotional distance enough for survival. In a 11/10/2010 version of “Calaveras” I found on YouTube [ ], the poem is literally confessional, more directly bound to explain in narrative form the act of not committing murder as an event of redemption, which of course it is.  Many of the poems of this volume struggle within that dialectical distance to remake memory into a more tolerable form of song. As in the elegy “Forgetting Willie James Jones”, “Shed” or the prose poem “Motion and Rest” Mr. Martinez sets in motion a complicated mobile of memory, guilt, nostalgia and escape and allows the reader to watch the interactions shift.

The main commodity of the working classes, Latino, white, male or female is bodies. Bodies are the currency traded, or withheld, the transient repository of skill and injuries. There are few career paths to ascend, there is only physical desire put out in the street, “hustle”. Workers appear, they’re called by gestures, whistles, misnomer, nick names, but rarely they names they’re called at home. In the poem “Innominatus” the poem investigates responses to the sense of cultural anonymity of existing without a linguistic archaeology, of being a body merely deposited in chaos. ”Silence makes us explain ourselves” he writes in a poem wavering between disgust at male dominance and his inability to speak to his mother’s drunken oblivion on the couch.  In Hustle dozens of bodies are chest pounded, beaten, raped, invaded, traded.  However brutish and unrewarding there is always work to do. The dent puller in “Calaveras” is “from my grandfather’s tools”, the gang symbolic “bandana”, “the old man’s/shine box…”,. the tedium of putting in the work of criminal ascendency, the burnt crack pans, and plastic baggies of the dope trade, bodies incarcerated, abused, but mostly in the way…enduring the unenviable fortunes of surviving being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Themed poems like “California Penal Code 266”, pimping, “In Chicano Park” ,gambling, “The Only Mexican” aging, are designed to be muscular and proud panoramas presenting instants of connection and satisfaction surrounded by diminution.  The speaker finds another moment of revelation from Lucy, a woman welder described in “Coveralls”. She rises amid “golden ashes/ dropping from/ a chariot/ of rusted pipe/ and planks.” The poet begins the long transformation of women as objects into equals.

Hustle’s focus on detail and poetic facility in manipulating its nuance against the daily unspoken expectations of a working life sharpens the edge a poet such as Mr. Martinez. He seems bound to simultaneously respect and be alienated from the physical consequences of the life he describes. This complicated dialectic can be in turns, immediate, sentimental and judgmentally distant from the people and events he chooses as subjects. At the same time he constructs translations of this friction into the ephemeral world of academic poetry. Denial and alienation are cultural and class dilemmas of this style of code switching. The capacity to travel between cultures is not the same as the capacity to participate. There is an ethos of betrayal that pervades the tone of these poems as a nearly nostalgic lingering that is neither memoir nor therapy. In the extended sequence “Forgetting Willie James Jones” a tableaux of murder, assassination, and violation ends with the speaker’s ironic epiphany stopping a rape while having sex. “How strong I felt in 94’, when the most chivalrous//thing I could do was block a door/stop a rape.” The speaker’s moment of heroism, holding back a small mob of rapists, is blurred into self-ironic alienation, a recognition that he’s there, but he doesn’t belong. Mr. Martinez poetry is consciously crafted to depict personal contact within intimate periphery of transgression, while proposing an identity driven by a larger sense of morality than the brute masculinity that has abused him, or the clans that would adopt him so roughly…even academia.  The volume moves its arc through unexpected moments of self-awareness as in “Rebecca’s Use”, “I was twenty-two and no longer news.”. Ultimately discovering the speaker is meant to be Homer, not Odysseus, his mythmaking will be created out of words not flesh.

This poetry chooses to carry the symbolic realities of its traumatic themes like emblematic tattoos it exposes, but refuses to explain. It is both protest and intimacy of violation, both accusatory and celebratory. Like a visit to a VFW where one drinks in the thin careful conversation of living with past trauma as signals of how the evening may disintegrate or progress, reading Hustle, might require a smoke filled hours and a few bottled Buds to fully appreciate the need to repeat these war stories Mr. Martinez choses to carry out of the bar.

Ms. Pearson finds another path down a similarly dangerous, distressing, yet more intimately ephemeral road in Two Minutes of Light. She pursues the merciless lyric of a world of genuine zombies. The volume is narrated by a speaker who uses the flat intonation our time has become familiar with as the voice of dissociative personality.  It is a flat voice attentive to detail and consequence, but without empathy, rather a voice that invokes an ironic, distant self-reference. There are unspoken understandings, too obvious, too tedious to discuss, but like the brutish lives of the workers who fabricate our cell phones they precede every conversation.  This voice allows the poems in Two Minutes of Light to be capable of anything.

The opening poem “Cyclic” shifts from a romanticized scene of family fishing to self-harm with only a stanza break’s pause, “reeling in small loaves/ of sunlight, before winter//I began slicing my wrists like fruit,/ before I spent my Medicaid checks on crack,”. At the end of that jarring stanza calmly returns to “My father baits our hooks, forgetting his own.” Something has been revealed that didn’t name itself, but needed to escape.  The poet in “Shucking “describes loosing teeth in an accident while fishing, but the difference between incident and accident, coincidence and complicity is seldom clean in Ms. Pearson’s volume. “From The Motel-By-Hour” presents a series of vignettes of life as a crack addict that are debasingly confessional, but not contrite. “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” alternates between naturalist diary and recollection of a friend who on a drunken wager has fallen from a statue, become comatose and then removed from life support. The extraordinary “Two Worlds” begins with a historical epigram regarding the reduction of carbon monoxide in English public gas and the reduction of suicides in women and then explores the deadly attraction of leaping from The Golden Gate Bridge.  Through these poems we’re exploring The Myth of Sisyphus without Camus’ philosophical moral assumptions. There seems to be no purposeful act to supersede the dark pulling instinct down the slough of self-destruction.  Near the end of this lyrical fugue on suicide the poet intrudes a declamatory voice asking the rhetorical question “By what small margins do we survive?”  The speaker is only halfway to hell; once again something invisible has happened.

Following with the poem “Every Knee Bends” the speaker then embarks climbing the random toeholds of healing. Poems reflect an upward religious arc as inexplicable as the downward spiral that preceded it. She revisits her past from helpless distance of “My Namesake Is Dying” a poem,  by contrast, affected by an emotional relationship with death, conscience and regret.  Death has become less of a casual traveling co-conspirator and more of a thief. This is followed by a bucolic meditation on loss in “Laws of Gravity”.  The speaker’s redemption is cataloged by a complicated coalescence of repetitions and parallel anniversaries as in the closing of “Chasing After the Wind”, “It is your birthday/ says a word on your palm/ this is living Pile the wood.” or “Lucky Stars” a hymn to survival echoing “Track Star” a poem of disintegration, earlier in the volume. There is a steady stagger to integration. The By-the-Hour Motel, is transposed with hospital stays, “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” is balanced with “My Namesake Is Dying”. The volume continues employing this construct “Shucking” becomes “To a Clam”, “Pomace” reflects the opening “Cyclic”. Two Minutes of Light ends with the expository “Consider the Lilies of the Field” where the poet ambitiously attempts to bring many of the events of the volume a sense of closure in sixteen lines. It achieves something more of a stasis than a proclamation of redemption, or sense of cure.

There are epidemiological estimates that occurrences of dissociative disorders range from 2-10% of the adult population in the US (3-30 million people). As a human phenomenon it surpasses gang activity (an estimated 1-2 million people). It’s nine times more likely to occur in women, while gang activity is nine times more likely to occur in males. In both groups there is an onset in early adolescence and statistically some type of institutional intervention in their early twenties. To put those numbers in perspective Poetry Magazine has a total circulation of 30,000. All of this makes both of these volumes rarified and valuable. They provide a lyric intimacy into experiences that too easily are dismissed to type and cultural marginality.

What salvation frequently means is not arriving, but continuing. In a literary world filled with memoirs about becoming writers, Hustle and Two Minutes of Light present us two volumes of song about constructing personality. Most of us don’t have to think about consciously assembling a personality; we are given one with the same combination of random selection, DNA and environment that buys F-150s or wants us to join games on Facebook.  It was once a common belief, if you turned in your homework, didn’t get arrested, kept tidy and managed credit card debt, you would be allowed to tithe with the majority reality. That majority page writ large is shrinking, but its margins attract astonishing illustrations. Increasingly in our hyper self-reflection the differences between personality difference and disorder, criminality and conviction are blurred. The Harris poll estimated one in five people have a tattoo, Grand Theft Auto series franchise sold over 100 million units for on-line play, and there were nearly three million prescriptions for Abilify or Cymbalta filled in the period between October 2013 and January 2014, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar celebrated 50 years of publication with four new biographies, two films and major retrospectives in both the UK and US. Although Ms. Pearson and M. Martinez are genuinely brave and have endured much on their pilgrimages, wherever they are traveling they will not be traveling alone.


Literary tourists visit Keats’ Wentworth House, claustrophobically duck turning down the cellar stairwell, peripherally glance out the garden door, or turn up the wooded path towards Hampstead High Street with a sense that the “there” they inhabit isn’t solely the location beneath their feet. They are equivalently bound by gravity and by reckoning fragments of Keats’ poetry; they have entered the experiential realm of poetry. Poetry supposes a geography of context, that there is an antecedent cosmology surrounding the poetic locus a voice both inspired and discovered.  A terrain regardless of how fictive or surreal that will lend sensuality and order to the dynamic progression of thought. It’s a place as real as our childhood home, and like our childhood we are only permitted to understand its old patterns and edges.

“Ever since school and even before

I have run my fingers along

the borders on maps. To look at a river

made of time and water is to see

[Without Steel or Fire]

Leslie Ullman in Progress on the Subject of Immensity develops poems as a poetic event of remaining in the border zone between heightened experiences and formally recognizing that experience. These poems don’t provide a series of loosely related vignettes or variations on a form or voice, but instead the poetic experience itself. Although they are mature poems in her career, she brings an intimate energy of the act of poetry that surpasses the weaker ars poetica common among flailing and fading poets. While these poems aren’t ars poetica, they are committed to exploring what a poem is (or might be) without depending on the intrusions of interpretation or formal closure. They are poeticum actus, acts of poetry. But in tonal sense they inflect the traditional forms of inspiration; they’re voiced from what the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar refers to as Ordinary Time, the day to day, morning and evening of religion, the world that wakes up at dawn and continues on towards dusk.

Ms. Ullman is a founding faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, El Paso after twenty five years in that Bi Lingual Creative Writing Program. This is her fourth volume of poetry. Along with other writers of her generation, she invented the MFA creative writing culture we currently enjoy. When VCFA was initially formed in 1981, there were no more than ten recognized MFA writing programs, now there are well over 400. AWP conventions boast ten to twelve thousand participants.  MFA Instructor has become its own vocation. It allows both student and instructor time to write, at least that was the initial concept.  Unlike the prior Ph.D. in English model, the primary emphasis isn’t to survey literary periods, or reinforcing literary theories by nuance in research stacks. Rather there would be a continuing interchange with professional writers corresponding with other writers of varying stature and fashion. It is a university concept built around apprenticeship instead of adding to the cannon of literary research.

In addition VCFA, as many low residency institutions do, draws from writers with a range of experience broader than academic matriculation. The skill sets of these writers bring are different than an ability to organize and interpret the Cannon of Literature. With due deference to survey research, the skills and curriculum in a Creative Writing MFA are different but equally sophisticated and complex. Literary disciplines might apply a literary criticism to the work of a published writer as if they were present; MFAs must apply them to the writer actually present and at the same time encourage them to continue. It’s both traditionally pedantic and in many ways as intimately demanding as psychological analysis. Imagine a university level course where a student has to be taught to read the text they are writing. Novice writers present a wild abundance of issues that are both writing craft and internal exploration; it’s an easy world to dismiss, but a difficult world in which to maneuver.  That creativity can be taught or fostered is a questionable feat; that it can be quashed is sadly evident in our schoolchildren.

As an academic and teacher of Creative Writing for thirty years Ms. Ullman has intimately overseen the prodigious labor and minor triumphs of this modern scriptorium, as well as a besieged canonical library. She has entered, and worked in the inspired and mundane poetic worlds of thousands of burgeoning poems. On a daily basis she has found poems that were lost, rescued lines from poems that otherwise should be lost, illuminated dreams, loss and ecstasies and converted all that and more into ‘craft’. In her teaching position she has questioned, advised revisions, workshopped, re-revised with extent and deleted versions, assembled, cut, added, acted as midwife or stood by the burial of perhaps 30,000 legitimate poems, none of them her own. She has been relentlessly engaged in exploring the essence and manipulating the form of these poems. This experience I believe is at least tangentially reflected in her own poetry.

Nearly every poet, real or imagined, has had to deal with the awkward compliment of being presented with a sheaf of hand written dreadful poems. Dealing with poor poems was once believed to be like playing with a lower ranked tennis player, it would diminish e quality of one’s own game. That may not be the circumstance of the poems currently incubating in MFA programs. Although poetry publishing and national sales flirt with extinction, small publications and electronic poetry are flourishing. There are unprecedented numbers of poems being written.  This poetry represents the Renaissance in American writing that has occurred in the past thirty years. MFA programs have, to a great part, driven this surge to turn 21st century technology to include traditional forms. There may be an easy tendency to dismiss the quality of these mentored poems as callow, narrow, or novice.  If they become poetry of academic substance seems secondary to the size of the enterprise of navigating this swelling sea of poetry; most are generally good, earnest poems searching to move from impetus to form. Compared with the level of conversation in the day to day lounges, tweets, posts, e-mail, groceries, and workplaces these are quite consistently distilled interactions about emotionally important subjects. All of that combined extrapolates into Ms. Ullman embarking on a Darwinian odyssey through an unexplored ocean of green poems.

Teaching is a dangerous sea for a poet to traverse while carrying her own poetry back to Ithaca, but one Ms. Ullman has traversed with an intact tale to tell. The nuanced interrelation of forgetting one poem and becoming present to the next with its emotional center and the psychological archeology of previous versions, within the delicate discipline of the semesters of an MFA program, is a complicated and sensitive discipline. Ms. Ullman’s excursion hasn’t been in a world of Keatsean odes, but in a sudden, unfinished sometimes precarious country. It’s not the perfected forms and rhythms she dances with, rather she is dragged forward, back or diplomatically hobbled trying to anticipate the movement of an unskilled dance partner. But a poor dance is still a dance. An inadequately finished poem is still speaks from human consciousness that deserves attention.  What drives a person to write a poem and the skill to raise it to high art may seem different in the humbling hothouse of literary criticism.  However nearly everyone will attempt to compose a poem, or step to a dance, or launch their voice in song at least once in their life. They’re just different denominations of one eternal currency of consciousness.

Ms. Ullman has labored within that delicate space of human inspiration partially within the academic clerical bond of confession, copyright, and partially conversing within myriad of unconscious spiritualities. Creative Writing is to literature as religion is to theology; it is the writing of the world in which we actually practice. Obviously in poetry writers think about object or ideas that are out of the ordinary, but for Ms. Ullman that randomly changing sacred space is where she has resided and worked throughout most her adult life.

She has returned from this long, literal poetic travel like a pilgrim, chastened, but assured.

Ms. Ullman’s poetic universe in ‘Immensity’ is traversed by a beatific voyeur constantly moving in and out of  the edges of apprehension, the ends of false starts, or interpreting lone awakenings. There’s a world constantly appearing for acknowledgement, or a fragment of identification as it swims past in humane relativity.

“The hole in her mind,

like the mind of everyone,

a necessary blindness

[Hole in the Mind Filling with the Present]

Yet her poems are voices are set amid an austere, yet nearly Romantic Nature as they struggle with motion, with exhaustions, and the consensual betrayals of common relativities to a recognition of a state of consciousness that is both beautiful and intuitively instructive. In Ms. Ullman’s carefully observed lyrics, the reader is seldom left at ease with context or focus of attention, since the poems consciously reflect the space and physics of flux. Rather she presents poem after poem within the naked interior of poetry; religious chamber poetry she refuses to resolve, either for the writer or the reader. These poems feel like a section of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” revised in a poetry workshop and then fractally spun in the ambience of Beethoven’s late quartets.

“of memory that is less event

than atmosphere—the alertness

a pastel wash with bold strokes

of umber when love first arrives,

and the greater alertness—burnished

[Ice Apples]

The poems in Progress on the Subject of Immensity are neither breathless nor ironic; they are mature meditations on the experience and value of consciously refusing to impose formal meanings on heightened events yet simultaneously exploring them as metaphysical and meaningful. Like agnostic hymns constantly moving in restless intimacy, they are deliberate, slow and nearly shimmering, not with the neo-Rilkean delicacy that trembled en vogue through the last two decades of the twentieth century; rather, these poems arrive less fueled with angelic anxiety than a transient paradise grounded in the happenstance of common random activities, rock, rooms, desire, sand, and desert spaces. In “Mind Returns to Find Itself Absent,” for example, the speaker describes the object in her own rooms “as though they were sugar dissolving into the night— /spines of books, lamplight, kilim blues and maroons— / a history that happened to be mine /”. The poems work through the natural world, but only as an existential relativity. As the shapes in a painting calculate their own geometry, here too we operate within angles of constructed, but undeniable detail. Progress of the Subject of Immensity praises both the uncertainty and inexplicable continuity of experience, and venerates the forms of that dialectic. Within those forms is a waiting station for poets, a mental locale of distance that poets use like an umbrella— a heightened, but only slightly removed passage that allows enough narcotic to transform personal event into art. As an experience it is transitory real estate, a temporary sacred space like a playing field or bedroom; it continues in both variation and stasis. The egalitarian value of this poetic impulse is its capacity to translate the divine into the context of the beautiful.

When I was married my father, who was neither a poet nor an academic, composed a prayer for our nondenominational ceremony. He read it just once off of the back of a creased shopping list, and then he refolded it into his pocket. It might have disappeared there (the physical script did) but its benison remained spinning out in memory. Those who were at the service remember the experience with considerable variation of its actual language, but without variation in the transcendent beauty in the experience of its recitation. By a lovely instinct my father (who read some and wrote less) connected his language to a larger language than the one he spoke. In religious writing there is a tendency to treat this type of transcendence as a dynamic of initiation to be followed by interpretation. That the single experience of ecstatic loss of self will give way to some organized notions of understanding the universe as a prophetic part to reveal the whole. Such experiences of inter-relativity are often derided as the sophomore philosophical drunk night of the soul, diminished as jejune, lucky finds, or not yet matured into the experience of dogma. Ms. Ullman’s poems treat that initial disorientation as a fundamental experience.

De-assuming conventional mythology Ms. Ullman presents poems that celebrate inter-connectedness without a specific god, the implication being that the experience of writing a poem and the experience of writing a prayer are consonant. These moments of impulse are driven by similar internal mechanisms of human expression originating in domestic households, not in the Houses of the Holy. In a recent article in “Writers Chronicle” Ms. Ullman discusses the concept of formalization of this experience in terms of the Pythagoeran “golden ratio” [1.618], the Fibonacci sequence and “golden spirals”. She describes with a jeweler’s fascination the structure of an ammonite:

“More exciting to me, however, was my subsequent discovery that an ammonite not only snuggles right up against each side of a golden rectangle, but each new rotation of the spiral, starting at the smallest point of origin, fits inside its own golden rectangle.”

This is an observation she extends to creativity and poetry,

…A swirl of motion that occurs continually within us and outside us, a blueprint that gives rise to, even as it is enlarged by, our instinct to beauty. To contemplate all this is to feel some of the old promise return, that state of the beginner’s mind that allowed many of us, before we got serious, how fine it felt to arrange and rearrange words, to handle and be handled by them, to fashion out our first poems and stories pleasure by pleasure.”

The genesis of a poem comes from an internal interrelation extending instinctively outward like the ammonite, the nautilus, the rhinoceros horn or the sunflower seed pattern. The emotional and energetic vortex of a poem directs the development of a poem with a kind of mystic mechanics that is both irrational and observable.

“yet again, innocence and experience

etching those repetitions that keep us

from becoming, even briefly, truly fallow

as the pull of what could be coming next

keeps undoing the seams between

grey spirit and gravity. In this, our

hibernation is uniquely human.

Few would call it a journey. Few

would say that at such times

we are accompanied, losing a self

in inner rooms that keep expanding.”

[Ice Apples]

Not uncommonly Western poetry structures lyric forms to closure, the worn clicking lid by which a poem transforms experience into an event revised into an elegant revelation. The closing is designed to reform the prior lines into a lyric meant to be understood as surprising the limitation of experience of reading. “They also serve who stand and wait” [John Milton, “On My Blindness”] is the ultimate line in the sonnet that directs its reader into an universe organized, if only by implication of closure, into command and rank. Milton’s sonnet  calculates the experience of blindness and balances loss of potential with Divine obedience. The order provided by the sonnet’s rhyme and structure of the poem similarly demands the reader’s similar subordination to the poem.

Consider this partial list of Ms. Ullman’s final lines:

”so fiercely beneath me.,

how deep it will be until we are in it.,

suspended between us perfectly cherished.,

knowable earth.,

coming back in.,

everywhere at once.,

of possibilities ,

to set on the bright cloth.,


sway all night in their plumage,

in their drinking songs.,

o happy sweat drying under sequins.,

even when standing still.,

at the moment could be more desired.,

A turned field.,

who, in his lifetime, would not see the cathedral finished.,

down further.,

what terms we could find for perfection.,

is altered by our presence in it.,

found themselves alongside me.,

the felt landscape of fresh,

unbidden thought.,

filling my mind. ,

Luminous. ,

Parachute of blue.”.

What the reader may expect by way of an ultimate direction becomes a subtle spiraling vortex of experience, not a summary directive. As readers we are left to observe the pattern and continue it, or like finding a shell on the shore admire it and toss it back to the waves. It is an invitation to be accepted, not a command to follow. In an ontological sense it presents options to the reader in a more feminine anima, not less powerful, rather like an emotion or stellar pattern less directive, but equally powerful in its referents.  The gigantic ammonites that ruled the planet of seas have left us only chelated patterns, not immediate commandments. They all followed the Fibonacci numbers into oblivion 400 million years ago, as, if I read my current cosmologies correctly, will all the galaxies, stars and planets in gorgeous patterns spiral out towards what we assume will be a new form multiplying toward a new nothingness. And at the center of this intergalactic array are Ms. Ullman’s Ice Apples. Simple, brilliant and human and being engaged in the process of defining is nature by creating within its forms…like hurricanes, cacti, or the human ear.

“The Writer’s Chronicle” Vol.46, Number 2, October/November 2013pp.29-36

Leslie Ullman , Progress on the Subject of Immensity  (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2013)