Friday, March 16, 2007


The Ides of March have come . . . and gone. It's snowing here now, supposedly going to accumulate in the 6 to 10 inch range. We'll see. But that prediction, during Spring Break, causes me to pause a moment to reflect on the month of March. When all's said, it's probably one of my favorite months. October, in the northeast at least, wins out -- the colors, the temperatures, the air and light. But March is so unpredictable and changeable. Earlier in the week was a taste of Spring -- the favorable Spring, not the muggy, over-heated Spring that too often mars April. A good April is probably as good as it gets. But in my Connecticut years I've come to appreciate winter's last stand, and that usually occurs in March. It's got the Vernal Equinox, it sometimes has Easter, it's the month of my wedding anniversary (today) and my daughter's birth. At Yale, it also features a two week break. And it's the month of some notable births that I failed to note at the time:

March 1, 1917: Robert Lowell
A poet who meant a lot to me in my youth. What Lowell represented to me, c. 1981 when I read him consistently, was the poet who, coming immediately after that major generation that included Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams, et. al., tried to meet the challenge, and was poet enough -- in terms of talent and skill and original perspective -- to make a go of it. It always amazed me how he began with the trappings of Hart Crane (another major but flawed figure) and then moved toward the clarity, brio and subdued but trenchant diction of Life Studies and For the Union Dead. I still have the copy of those two, in one volume, that I bought back then. One of my favorite books of poems then and one that I still feel is often emulated but not surpassed by the so-called "confessional" mode of poets. And Lowell's craft is always crafty. Check out "Crossing the Alps."

March 2, 1942: Lou Reed
I wrote about Lou for his 1982 album The Blue Mask, so I needn't go on at length about him. He is one of the real rock'n'roll survivors and while he lacks the ability to completely reinvent himself that makes me prefer Dylan and Bowie, Lou is such an original I can't accord him enough respect. I consider him a songwriter of limited skills -- both lyrically and musically -- and with almost no range as a singer. Yet: look what he accomplished! Rock, as I experience it, would be unthinkable without the Velvet Underground, which was Lou's baby and which, for all its posteuring, strikes me as a genuine breakthrough in the possibilities of the rock song. And, as I already mentioned, his '80s output was quite good for about 3 albums and his surfacings since have continued to elicit some interest from me. 1996's Set the Twilight Reeling is a good example of the mature Lou. And his collaboration with John Cale on Songs for Drella (1990, in honor of Andy Warhol) might just be the greatest 'concept album' of them all. Then there's Berlin. Look on my works ye mighty and despair!

March 3, 1926: James Merrill
Let me appear here now in my philistine glory, insouciant even, as I confess that I haven't read James Merrill -- reason enough to be ignored in those hallowed realms where his words are ambrosia, his boyish smile the light of heaven. It may be, if I live long enough, that I will read him and become enamoured. I will say this: there's a period in one's life when one looks at poets hopefully, wanting to be seduced by them into states of awe and rapture and fascination. And that period passes with youth. There's also a side of youth that is skeptical, dismissive, hard-to-get. Merrill didn't seduce me back then because he seemed so terribly precious, so comfortably Edwardian somehow. Had I world-enough-in-time or dough-enough-in-bank, James! But I also think that, like Pound's Cantos which I resisted the blandishments of until I was old enough (past 30) not to be overwhelmed, Merrill's reach and grasp is so extensive, so "world unto itself" that the day I get more than a toe or a foot wet is the day I plunge in to experience the rapture of the deep, of the "over my head but it sure feels nice" surrender to . . . the greatest poet of his extraordinary generation?

March 6, 1928: Gabriel Garcia Márquez
It's a commonplace that the late '60s produced no great, enduring novel. TP's novels of the earlier '60s, V. and Lot 49, are each in their own way great, but aren't the greatness that will emerge from him in '73. And The French Lieutenant's Woman, entertaining and insightful as it is, occupies a kind of holding action, it doesn't surprise us as wholly original. Nabokov's Pale Fire is early '60s and not as great as Lolita, though more resolutely Nabokovian, and Ada (1969) is generally not well-regarded even by Nabokovistes. Mailer manages Armies of the Night which is a great '60s book, but not a great book. Gaddis doesn't even publish in that decade. Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo don't get into print until the early '70s. No, to find the great enduring work of the '60s you have to forget about the English language. Give up Britiain and the U.S. and, yes, even Ireland. One Hundred Years of Solitude is the real deal. It may be the greatest novel of the second half of the twentieth century if only because it's the one novel of that era that doesn't wear it's attenuated, postmodern, Baudrillardian surfeit of simulacra-ese on its sleeve. My personal favorite is, of course, Gravity's Rainbow but I recognize that there is something parochial about it -- no better place to find how "small town" U.S. aspirations to world dominance are! Márquez's novel is the real deal because it's "new world" without impoverishment when set against modernity. It's both pre- and post-modernist. And it's mythic in a way that was barely possible, in our world, for Melville at the time of Moby Dick. Hats off.

March 9, 1942: John Cale
Lou's sometime collaborator, sometime producer of Patti Smith and The Modern Lovers and Nico, sometime collaborator with Eno. Yeah, yeah. The usual bio of John Cale is fraught with better-known names so as to grant him some importance. But John Cale is so unique, so quirky and odd that it's a disservice to present him though such a lens. Cale is the man who wrote and recorded Vintage Violence in 1970, an album on which each song is a "mini-album" -- which is to say, each song seems to "belong" on a different record, each song has a fully distinct feel and sound. Sure, there are overlaps (my favorite songs -- "Charlemagne," "Please," "Big White Cloud' -- all clearly "go together"), but listening through it is to be transported song by song. And on the "follow-up," Paris 1919 (1973), that's even more the case. The songs seem much longer than they really are because they are so 'worked-up' somehow. I attribute the uniqueness of these two albums (and the first side of 1974's Fear) to a brilliance for arrangements that even the mercurial Eno couldn't come close to. It takes classical chops and Cale's got 'em. Then there's the Cale who gets dubbed "godfather of New Wave": the second half of Fear and the two albums of 1975: edgy, passionate, menacing, somewhat unhinged in their willingness to inhabit a dark conceit in which the singer is criminal, paranoid, and, now and then, serene as only the abuse of superior substances can make one. The '70s is the phase of Cale that I discovered c. 1977 and which dominated my listening throughout the following year. I saw him play live several times in March 1979 in Brooklyn, Philly, D.C., and NYC. I'm proud to say I shook his hand.

March 12, 1922: Jack Kerouac
Without any particular training or background, this patient, just prior to his enlistment, enthusiastically embarked upon the writing of novels. He sees nothing unusual in this activity.--from the Navy's file on Kerouac while enlisted. The entire document is a sketch of Kerouac: nutty, grandiose, anti-social, self-involved, haunted. I never subscribed to the awed admiration of Jack that animated many would-be writers of my acquaintance, and in teaching On the Road in my "GR in context" course ("a book I still believe is one of the great American novels," TP sez) I'm always a bit apologetic. There's something so non-literary about Kerouac, which is what I admire as his strength, his sincerity, but it also causes me to wince a bit the way some truly musical people wince when they hear Dylan sing. The self-invention of Bobby and Jack (no, not the Kennedys) is much to the point: they arrived at a performance of themselves. We identify with a version of them that they created for us. What it would take me much longer to work out is why the personae they arrived at are so intrinsic to so many people of a certain bent. The DIY ethic, the "from down-and-out to supreme seer" mystique, the self-made man, hip-Horatio Alger thing, the enfant terrible, the great unwashed, Huck Finn makes good, the barbaric yawp gone mainstream, sorta. All that. And then the "voice of the generation" thing. Kerouac's On the Road, with Naked Lunch and "Howl," are the documents of the Beats that deserve to live on, and do. Required reading for '50s, '60s America, and for so much that came after. Did you never let Jack Kerouac wash over you in waves?--Richard Thompson.

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