Autumnal Fallout

Oh Brian:

How exciting for me finally to hear your voice! You have a wonderfully rich and resonant voice. I wasn’t expecting it to be on the deeper end of tonality. Somehow I was expecting to be let down like some actors were disappointing when the transition was made from silent movies to talkies. Your voice, however, matches up very well with the kind of thought and imagery you conjure. I don’t feel let down or disappointed at all.

On the contrary! You should record more readings of your work. Through the medium of your voice worked for its musicality, its good natural tone, the experience of your words is definitely enhanced.

You may feel this reading is far from ideal, no doubt the perfectionist in you shall hound you to the end of your days, but to me it’s still a very good reading and recording. I could hear and understand every word.

The imagery generated by the controlled but sudden shifts between incredible mind-blowing magnitude and the minuscule and nearly imperceptible, between the ancient past and more recent times, are surprising and moving. A mournfulness is carried in the weight of your lines and how you read or recite them, and the cumulative effect is dirge-like, which definitely suits the main theme. But it’s not only that. You are oracular and incantatory too in your poetic concision. Hearing you audibly read this rather than just reading it silently to myself has a powerful effect on me. Lines come more alive.

Interesting how you chose to minimize expressivity or more colorful animation in your voice and go with a more level intonation, reading at a slow and measured pace, really enunciating every word and allowing each word to be heard, and giving each line enough time to breathe and sink in. The effect works, but it doesn’t transport one in the same way an orator or preacher would. Thank goodness for that. No need for embellishments or rhetorical flourishes. You read in such a way that the words themselves do the speaking through you, and you do your very best not to intrude or get in their way!

P.S. You might find this amusing. I spent the morning and early afternoon with my parents. I had my iPad mini with me, and the first time I listened to this recording of you reading your piece was after I departed, outside, sitting by myself on a bench. Still listening with my iPad mini up to my ear, not much pedestrian traffic around, I got up, and walking in a sort of trance I headed downtown, which is only about a half a mile. I had to take a whizz, so I stopped into a Men’s room in a building in the financial district. I stopped the recording, but started it again at the beginning as I rode an elevator down to the level where the restroom was. No one was in the restroom, so I turned up the volume and continued listening, and it got to the part: “I vividly remember grammar school nuclear holocaust drills in the early 1960s. ‘Get under your desk, put your head down on your knees, and put your hands on your head.’ Yes, that should work, much as closing your eyes would make you invisible to the rest of the human race.” Listening closely and mesmerized by your voice, I wasn’t really paying attention to my immediate surroundings. You could say I would’ve completely forgotten myself if my bladder wasn’t about to burst. Caught between having to take a whizz and where to leave off listening so I could do so, I suddenly turned klutz, lost my grip on my iPad and dropped it (of course with a protective cover on it), and making a quick move to catch it before it hit the ground, I only knocked it forward and it came to a stop under a urinal. “Shit!” I exclaimed, and your voice then said from the little speaker of my iPad now sitting in dried up spots of piss: “The mind boggles at such unintended comedy.”

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OMG, I’m belly laughing.

Well, thank you, @JDockus, for the comedy…as well as for the Nuclear Explosion recording you suggested to Brian, which he shared with me. I did not have the time to get it into the original recording, but I woke up spontaneously extra early this morning and felt inspired to do a remix, so here you go. I personally like it!

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Now that’s an intro that starts with much more than a bang! I love it. You tapered it off perfectly for the set up of Brian announcing the title of his piece. That’s exactly what I had in mind in use of that sound effect, Marco. Thank you so much for doing that, so we can hear how it sounds.

I also had the idea of that wind sound after the nuclear explosion carrying through the entire piece, Brian’s voice imagined to be riding on its waves, the wind sound emerging subtly (not too loudly) and then tapering back off to silence, for instance, in the pause before the paragraph starting, “Sides have been chosen, an age ago." The tone of the piece shifts somewhat back down to earth at that paragraph.

The paragraph beginning "We were fetal nebulae” has a paper shuffling sound, and a couple word stammers. It would be great if Brian could record a reading of that paragraph over, and feather it in. Or I wonder if the wind sound effect might be used around there, whipping up suddenly out of the background, so as to give the impression that it is what has caused the paper to shuffle, and then whirling off and all returning to silence, the reading continuing. (That would probably come off as some sly comedy.)

I’m really excited about the possibilities of recordings of Brian’s work, how sound effects might be tastefully incorporated, and even static or moving visuals in presentation, now that I’ve heard his marvelous voice.

Ha, well, I imagined something like that too…some subtle (non-interfering, evocative) soundscape in the background.

It’s just a matter of finding the right sounds and editing them in. I’m not a pro sound designer, but I like to play with possibilities and hope to develop my skills.

I may not have the time to work with the track in the next few days, due to other committments, but we’ll see how things go. I’m also happy to provide a link to the uncompressed/raw files for anyone who wants to work with the material, assuming Brian is OK with that.

We’re certainly working with some natural talent in Brian’s voice! I would love to help bring it forth in richer arrangements.

Hi John,

Many thanks for your comments on the recording of “Autumnal Fallout.” I am not a natural performer and have never gone in for archly poetic, beat, or poetry slam styles of presentation. Come to think of it, I don’t tend to like classical conductors who are overly theatrical in their effects. Pierre Boulez is one of my favorites. His style does not suite every composer, but, when he is at his best, his approach lets the music speak for itself. As you have mentioned, I tend to take a similar approach. I seldom shout or emote or em-pha-size ev-er-y syl-la- ble to give importance to even the most commonplace of lines they way far too many poets do. Even before the advent of poetry slams, the substitution of presentation for poetic inspiration was all too common. After much trial and error and many creative detours, I think that the kind of visionary energy with which I have been wrestling is now embodied in the text, and, under the right conditions, I can manage to project some part of it in a live performance or recording. I hope to do more of both of these in the near future. (Pat Madigan, the sound tech for this recording, was great to work with and has offered to help with other projects.)

Before doing this recording of “Autumnal Fallout,” I had not recorded any of my poetry for several years, and I was not quite sure of how to connect with a recording device. The results are similar to the way I would read a piece to myself when I am in the process of writing. For a long time, when I was in the process of defining my creative methods, I found it virtually impossible to write without reading the piece out loud to myself, over and over, as I tested out various phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. (This could be quite embarrassing when at work or on a bus!) People often think of writing as a means of conveying information, and this has become steadily truer as people do a larger and larger percentage of their reading online. For someone reading in this fashion, the text lacks more than a single layer of meaning, and the ciphers that denote this meaning are more or less disposable. A few days later, much of whatever meaning has been grasped may also disappear, for it has never been adequately weighed in the hand or sounded by the psyche or driven to a depth where abstract knowledge and personal experience are fused. For me, though, both writing and reading are profoundly physical acts. The body of a piece of writing is an actual body, with a life and an energy system of its own.

I think that I first became aware of the energetic possibilities of a reading in 1973, when I heard Robert Bly read at the Worcester Public Library. It was not that I hadn’t heard any other writers who were skilled at presenting their own work. Doherty High, the school from which I had just graduated, was part of a program called “Writers in the Schools.” Encountering writers in the flesh rather than in books had an enormous impact on me, at a crucial stage in my development. The Worcester County Poetry Association, of which I was a member, brought many nationally known poets to the city, and many of them impressed me, but Bly was the first writer I had heard who conceived of his poems as yogic vehicles, as only partially verbal structures that were capable of taking the listener on a voyage and that were able to communicate on a mysterious, bone-deep level. This was the “Teeth Mother Naked at Last” version of Robert Bly who had just become a translator of Rumi and Kabir, and not the key figure in the “Men’s Movement” or the complacent celebrator of the already-way-too-famous that he would later on become. Dressed in a serape, he would dance with small steps back and forth as he read. Waves of ecstatic energy would spill from him, spread through the audience, and then crash against the rear wall of the auditorium. I had never seen anything like it. This experience lodged itself, like a seed, in my subconscious.

I do not have anything like Bly’s natural instincts as a performer, or his capacity to remember large amounts of material, or his capacity to turn himself on and off at will, and no one ever made the mistake of thinking that I could dance. I do, however, share his sense that the spoken word—even if this word is sounded only in the head—can function as a kind of yogic vehicle. There are times when the text and the reader and the space and the audience and the moment come together, and the resulting sense of transport can take all involved by surprise. Many years ago, when I first met Sterling B., one of the two people who later introduced me to my wife, Deni, she came up to me after a reading that I gave at a very loud and chaotic event at an artist’s loft. She shouted in my ear, “We could use you as a substitute for drugs!” I thought that she had said, “Do you do drugs?” I answered, “No, not for a long time.” She looked confused, and then repeated her original statement.

In a good reading, if the writer is centered and the audience is open, if the performer allows himself to be lifted by his words, if the audience catches and grounds his energy so that it circles rather than dissipates, a space prompted by their collaboration can suddenly open up, beyond which much can happen. And if we were to take the Dervish Sema Ceremony as a model, whatever entertainment we experienced would be no more than a means; the goal would be extinction. (In our case, of course, this suspension of perspective would be a small and very temporary foretaste of extinction.) How odd it is that at the end of such an event the participants may be massively present even as large portions of their beings have spun off, and the singing of the floors and walls may be stronger than their own.


Hi Brian: Back in March of 2015, you introduced me to the wonderful Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert by sending to me the following poem he wrote in 1973 which has been translated as “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”, but this short film is entitled “Last message from Mr. Cogito”. It’s fitting to link up this high quality presentation here, not only because on some level there seems to be a relation in content, some shared resonance of tone, between your piece here and Herbert’s poem, but also because it points to possibilities, what might be done to enhance the recording of a reading with skillfully and tastefully used audiovisuals. In the film there’s a recording of Zbigniew Herbert himself reading his poem in Polish, with english subtitles printed with tactful plainness at the bottom of the screen. This entire presentation is extraordinarily beautiful and moving.

I love Herbert’s voice. It cuts straight to heart and bone. It’s a good and wise, husky, lived in voice, expressive in the nuances of each line, with passionate emphasis in places, elevated and inspired but still under control and flowing naturally, not too far removed one feels from his everyday speaking voice. Like you’ve written of yourself and your own experience of words, of reading your own creations, you can tell Herbert himself felt every word, every line he wrote physically, down in every fiber of his being.

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Hi John,

So you’re saying that I should take up smoking and find myself a brilliant Polish videographer? I am not inclined to do the first and the second may be difficult! This video of Herbert reading is incredibly moving, and I have a hard time not choking up when I listen. Herbert is one of my favorite poets and this is perhaps my favorite poem by him. This translation was a surprise. I am used to reading the poem in a translation by Bogdana and John Carpenter. This version is quite different, and it opens up a whole alternate range of meanings. So much of the original can be lost in even the best translation. On the plus side, there are usually any number of alternatives, and it is a lot of fun to see what different translators do with the same piece.

I would list Herbert as an influence except that my style and concept of the poet’s role was already fully formed by the time that I discovered him in 1998. My father had just died, and I walked into Borders and pulled Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito” from the stacks. I had never heard of him before. The book fell open to the page “Remembering my Father.” I used this poem at the beginning of the eulogy that I was writing and that I presented a few days later at my father’s funeral. Rather than linear influence, I would say that there is a peculiar kind of resonance between our visions.

“In Poland," Herbert writes, “we think of the poet as prophet; he is not merely a maker of verbal forms or an imitator of reality. The poet expresses the deepest feelings and the widest awareness of people. . .The language of poetry differs from the language of politics. And, after all, poetry lives longer than any conceivable political crisis. The poet looks over a broad terrain and over vast stretches of time. He makes observations on the problems of his own time, to be sure, but he is a partisan only in the sense that he is a partisan of the truth. He arouses doubts and uncertainties and brings everything into question.” At the same time, “It is vanity to think that one can influence the course of history by writing poetry. It is not the barometer that changes the weather.”

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A note on October 28th: This is an email that I sent to Marco Morelli when we were deciding when to post “Autumnal Fallout.” My memory of childhood events is generally hit or miss, and I am always curious to discover why certain events are so much more vivid than others. Why can I return to some as though they were still happening while others are now totally obscure? I wrote:

I was just looking at the dates for the Cuban Missile Crisis, which began on October 14th and ended on October 28th of 1962. (Others date it from the 15th or 16th to the 27th.) What I had not really thought about before was the length of the crisis, which was roughly two weeks, in relation to my somewhat peculiar psychology as an eight-year-old. Like many kids with the beginnings of an artistic orientation, I was what you would describe as “over-imaginative,” although I don’t know that this really describes my degree of suggestibility and my sense that physical reality was not a closed system.

For example, that same year, I had an odd experience with my friend Francis S. (Francis was three years older than I was, and he would later go on to become a career criminal.) One day, at around 3:00 PM, Francis and I were climbing a long cement stairway with several landings that wound up a hillside behind a neighbor’s house. Halfway up, Francis grabbed my arm, stared into my eyes, and announced that I would never be allowed to leave the landing where we stood. “If you ever take even one step off this landing,” he said, “you will be immediately cut to pieces by ghosts.” I have no idea why I would have believed him, but I stayed on the landing for about two and one half hours. Hunger finally got the better of me, and I summoned up the courage to head home for supper.

Given my sometimes dangerous naiveté, I can only imagine the effect that the threat of imminent planetary destruction might have had on me. Even at the beginning of the crisis, my experience of this threat was visceral, and my sense of its full reality then had two weeks to sink in. I suspect, as I say at the beginning of the piece, that this experience changed my whole way of looking at the world. The two-week time period also gave me an adequate chance to visualize and process the possibility of my own death. The peaceful fall of the autumn leaves at the end of piece, which signals a kind of bittersweet embrace of the possibility of my own and the planet’s annihilation, now strikes me as even more of a literal memory than I had thought.

Hi Brian,

Dangerous naïveté in one realm is sensitive openness and sense of wonder in another.

Back when you first introduced me to Zbigniew Herbert, I immediately ordered the John and Bogdana Carpenter translation of “Mr. Cogito” and I also have Alissa Valles’ translation of Herbert’s Collected Poems, 1956 - 1998. I noticed too the differences in translation of “The envoy of Mr. Cogito.” The translation in the video is more sparse. For instance, “golden fleece of nothingness” at the beginning is pared down, “golden fleece" eliminated, and so is “sister Scorn” midway through the poem. In the John and Bogdana Carpenter translation it’s “let your sister Scorn not leave you/ for the informers executioners cowards - they will win”. I like the paring down in the video. I think it’s effective and doesn’t do any grave injustice to Herbert’s spirit as a poet. Herbert himself was given less to excess and exploring all variations than to cutting back and sticking to the elemental, being more understated and plain. (You more than he follow William Blake’s maxim: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”.)

As Herbert wrote in an earlier collection of poems, Hermes, Dog, and Star (1957), in a poem entitled, “A Knocker”:

"There are those who grow
gardens in their heads. . .

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down. . .

my imagination is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem."

One thing a little off, not totally satisfactory to me in the video, is the line: ‘Look at the clown in the mirror, repeat: “I had to go, why not better than me?"’ That’s a little too thinly phrased. In the John and Bogdana Carpenter translation it’s: “beware however of unnecessary pride/ keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror/ repeat: I was called - weren’t there better ones than I” - That’s much better. However, I see the challenge the filmmaker had in synching up the imagery and recorded reading by Herbert, the english subtitle translation, and the music, all into one poignant and moving whole.

I absolutely love the video and have watched it many times now. It moves me on more than one level. It moves me because of the importance of you and your work to me, and you introduced Herbert to me and shared his remarkably powerful poem with me, but hearing Herbert’s voice and him speaking in that native tongue, it also stirs my Polish and Lithuanian roots. It stirs the ancestors in me. When I was a boy and my family visited my maternal Grandparents in Chicago, my great Grandma Mary (mother of my maternal Grandpa John) could only speak in very broken English, with a thick accent. She was full of character, seemingly larger than her 4’ 8” size. I include three photos of her here. In her facial features, she looks like some descendent of Pan to me, or some character out of a fairytale. In the photo on the right, that’s my great Grandma Mary dancing with my dear Grandma Lillian. Looking at the center photo of her dancing, both of my parents agreed: “That captures her spirit alright.” My Mom told me with a laugh that she doctored all her papers, and had written there that she’s 5’ 6”, when so obviously she was not, and she changed her birthday to that of Abraham Lincoln’s, February 12th. I asked, “Why Lincoln? Was it random? What’s the logic?” My Mom replied, laughing again, that’s just how she was. It was just out of the blue. My Mom added that she never knew how old my great Grandma Mary really was. My Dad told me she was robust and tough for her little size, and could be quite a handful. He laughed that she’d come up to him with a mischievous sparkle in her eye, and ask in the morning of all times, when you’d least expect it, "Hey Al, you vant some viskey?” As a boy I was incredibly shy around her, even fearful and hiding, because she was mysterious to me in her foreignness. She mainly spoke Lithuanian, but learned Polish, and often had conversations in Polish with my Grandma Lillian when they were alive. In her teens my great Grandma Mary left Lithuania all by herself to come to America, and met her future husband on the boat over to Ellis Island; and from there, along with many other Lithuanians, they made their way to the south side of Chicago, to live near the old stockyards which are featured in Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel The Jungle. I recall as a boy conversations in Polish and Lithuanian going on during family visits to my grandparents in Chicago, not understanding a word of it. Hearing Herbert’s voice speaking in native tongue brings me back in touch with that old world.

The voice in Herbert’s poem nourishes, even consoles, because of its composure in the face of the hardest truths of all - the irrationality and cruelty in the universe, and the oblivion in store for each of us, no guarantee of reward for good conduct, in fact the opposite likely happening. He doesn’t preach idealism or utopianism or Progress of Man in some hyped mystic sense, or Afterlife, or escape into dreams; he hasn’t been infected by ideology. “Be courageous when the mind deceives you/ in the end, only this will count”. It seems in the last lines of the poem is concentrated all the suffering and fight of his life to remain sober and clear-headed. "your ancestors: Gilgamesh, Hector, Roland/ guards of the kingdom without limits/ and the city of ashes”. How Herbert says those last lines, with a roar out of a voice growing hoarse, are as if his wounds have been salted, or a knife has pierced his side, and he winces but doesn’t buckle, maintaining his composure, denying the pain from becoming corrosive to human dignity.

It’s notable with the sense of resilience generated out of catastrophe, a beauty appearing even in the midst of horror, that Herbert’s poem nears its end with “and the city of ashes”, and your Autumnal Fallout piece ends: “It was the 14th of October, 1962, and the Doomsday Clock was reading at 12 minutes before 12:00. As we made our way to school, with our book bags on our shoulders, we could hear the newly fallen leaves crunch underfoot, like the bones of ancient warriors, like the husks of derelict gods, and we were struck dumb by the wonderful stillness of the moment. The beauty of the flame-like foliage was a harbinger of the descent of actual flame; the gentle falling of the leaves was perhaps a prelude to the imminent vaporization of our bodies, and to the gentle descent of our ashes through the air.”

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Hi John,

Listening to poetry in a foreign language can certainly be moving, but it is tricky to figure out just what qualities are producing the effect. With someone like Herbert, the force of his presence jumps across the language barrier. Let me comment more generally on the emotions, if this is the correct word, which this reading perhaps stirs up for you. On one level, there are the childhood memories of your grandmother and great grandmother speaking. I think that there is something more mysterious, though, that begins just beyond this, where childhood memories or ethnic sentiments dissolve into ancestral echoes, into past life memories perhaps, and into some deeper form of memory that seems to be encoded in both our energy bodies and our cells. This is one thing that good poetry can do particularly well.

One quality that comes through strongly in Herbert’s reading is an incredible sense of endurance, of persistence against all odds. I tend to think of this, again, as something that exists on almost a cellular level for people with Polish roots. (This is a ridiculous generalization, I am sure, but please bear with me.) “Life is brutal, and full of traps.” I have always gotten a kick out of the sheer grimness of this Polish proverb. In its blunt fatalism, it is similar to the Norse “Praise no day until it is done.” In both traditions there is an understanding that even the most elaborate of defenses will not make the world any safer. Along with this innate sense of the tragic, Herbert had the burden—and perhaps the highly problematic privilege—of coming of age at a near apocalyptic moment, when events forced writers to abandon the majority of their illusions. Herbert began to write at in 1941, at the age of 17, and found his voice in the decades after the Second World War and the Holocaust, when literature was at first thought to be an insult to the dead, a crime against the inexpressible. As Theodor Adorno wrote in his 1949 essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter…To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Curiously, Adorno does not claim that writing theoretical essays is forbidden!

Herbert and others of his generation were to prove just how essential poetry was, and they would do this under the gaze of the Soviet state, while surrounded by careerist functionaries. Herbert very consciously embraced this historical moment without being narrowly defined by it. Like many other Eastern European writers of his generation, Herbert was determined to probe both the limits and the untapped possibilities of speech, and to somehow realize the one through the other. His ability to be both playful and ferocious, tactile and philosophical, absurd and tragic, skeptical and cosmic, and current and sweepingly historical were very idiosyncratically his own. Although I came of age in a much more comfortable period, under far less traumatic conditions, I have also long been aware that we are moving into a time of converging crises, and I am equally concerned with testing the boundaries of the expressible.

Lately, I have been thinking about one of my best friends in high school, Peter Lisisky, whose family lived through the Nazi occupation in Poland. During a period in which I was prone to teenage grandiosity and bouts of anxiety and self-pity, Peter was pretty much merciless. Even if I was upset about some actual issue, he would always be incredulous. “What the hell is wrong with you? You think that’s a problem? Stop being such a baby!” Unlike Herbert, though, Peter was not ironic. He would usually take my statement at face value if I indulged in any type of irony, and this presented certain problems. My use of irony during this period was probably not very sophisticated. It is a bit more so now. Peter’s refusal to take even the biggest of problems or challenges seriously was itself, perhaps, a kind of deadpan irony, if of an instinctive sort; it was a way of making the heavy light, of seeing from an alternate angle, of looking at life sideways while facing it head on, of always imaging how much worse the present situation could be. I may be stretching the meaning of irony here, but let me call this “the irony of the Archaic smile.” It was only in retrospect that I realized how important an influence he was.

If you were to compare Herbert’s work to mine, they might not seem to match up, but our use of irony is similar. (Since our structures are so different, you would have to compare individual lines.) Such irony is not the mechanical post-modern irony that was critiqued by David Foster Wallace, in which air-quotes can be put around any statement. Rather, it is a means of speaking truth to power, the slingshot that takes down Goliath, a way of expressing the inexpressible, a technique for posing questions that are not meant to be answered so much as driven into the deeper strata of the mind, a method of tentatively coming to terms with impossible contradictions. Irony used in this fashion is not really a literary device; rather, it is one alchemical means out of many for navigating through the shoals of paradox.

Your grandmother does look like Pan, by the way. If only changing your height was as easy as changing your location!

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I have been deliberating in listening to Brian’s extraordinary voice and how it changes the text; enriches it certainly, but much more than that, makes it somehow evolve inevitably. So one cannot imagine changing a word, which must be the ultimate test of poetry, but poetic prose, equally. This conversation focuses on my need imminently to record, and for the mention of the roughening up of tobacco, I have that in full measure! No help at all, so Brian can put away fingering that pipe!

I must confess a huge envy of the male voice. It is the sole reason (Warning: This content is inflammatory…) I do not approve the ordination in the Christian Church of women! There! It’s out. Never to be amended. The familiarity of biblical texts ( and most of Shakespeare too) are distorted in women’s tonality, drop that essential resonance in which the ‘harmonics’ enrich the marvellous language we have perfected, and seem debilitated. The conductor Celibidache was unique in his emphasis on the ‘ground’ of orchestral structure as emanating from the basses, and all other instruments were tuned to them; so too I feel familiar works should be.

I had assumed my own poetic text would be read by a man and this very week must set that aside and do my best. THis recording has only clarified why I shrivel. Maybe I really am a man? JD has suggested that a couple of times. I did have a few trials with good professional actors ( with good Shakespearean experience) but one sight of a short line and they assume I wanted T.S.Eliot’s dryness, or Shakespeare’s reverence; neither of which are appropriate!

What I marveled at in this recording of Brian’s was the seeming absence of conflict between the emphasis on meaning and the sonority of the words. That, I feel sure, was because of the richness of the voice. I don’t have that to sooth the listener, but must somehow keep him/her interested nevertheless. So a certain variety must be woven in, which seems arbitrary only because the philosophical and argumentative, and moments of cynicism can be read so many ways. Oh hell.(aside)

I though the siren and nuclear wind as introduction enhanced but I did not feel that the filmic images incorporated for the Herbert added anything- rather distracted. Maybe if I was to win a lottery Brian could read my work too!


Hi Philippa,

You wrote, “The familiarity of biblical texts ( and most of Shakespeare too) are distorted in women’s tonality, drop that essential resonance in which the ‘harmonics’ enrich the marvellous language we have perfected, and seem debilitated. The conductor Celibidache was unique in his emphasis on the ‘ground’ of orchestral structure as emanating from the basses, and all other instruments were tuned to them; so too I feel familiar works should be.”

Around 20 years back, when I first started to collect CDs, I bought a recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Bernstein conducting the Weiner Philharmonic. A tenor, James King, and a baritone, Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, were the used instead of the usual alto and tenor. I have mixed feelings about Bernstein’s Mahler—it is sometimes overblown—but this performance has a rare intensity and is pretty close to perfect. I would actually prefer an alto in place of a tenor, however, and for years I have been trying to find a version with a female singer that I like as well as this one. I have perhaps ten recordings of the piece. My current favorite is with Phillipe Herreweghe conducting the Ensemble Musique Oblique, with alto Birgit Remmert. This is the Schoenberg chamber version, however. This performance is quite strong, but I am still searching for one with the full orchestra. I have often wondered why I am so weirdly perfectionistic about this piece. I have multiple recordings of many other pieces of music and have never felt the need to choose between them. I have long suspected that this Bernstein version burned itself into my memory and has somehow distorted my perception, so that all later pieces seem mysteriously inadequate.

As to your feeling nervous about recording your work, please don’t. If you remember, I first reached out to you about three years back after listening to the two interviews that you did on SkyBlue Symposia, which included sections with you reading from Involution. I was very impressed by both the interviews and the readings. Even if you could find a famous Shakespearean actor or whatever, I doubt that he would read your work nearly as well as you do, even with extensive coaching, because he would not have your intimate understanding of the meaning of the words. When I first moved to Boston in the mid-1970s to go to art school, the Copley Square Library had an extensive spoken word collection, with recordings of most major 20th Century poets reading from their works. There were also recordings of works from earlier periods, read either by actors or by their translators. Some poets, like Dylan Thomas, were theatrical, some, like John Ashbery, sounded like accountants reading quarterly reports, some, like William Carlos Williams, sounded like squeaky eighth-grade boys giving book reports, some, like Yeats, sounded like occultists leading rituals, and some, like TS Eliot, sounded like undertakers. (Curiously, Jack Kerouac sounded like a drunken Charles Bronson pretending to be Jack Kerouac.) In spite of any verbal shortcomings, I just about always preferred to hear poems performed by the people who wrote them rather than by actors.

One comparison comes immediately to mind. There was a recording of Homer’s Odyssey by British actor Anthony Quayle and a recording of Dante’s Inferno by American poet and translator John Ciardi. Quayle certainly had the better voice and was way more varied and dynamic. I really wanted to like the reading, but something important was missing. Ciardi was fairly flat and monotonous, and yet he possessed a much deeper feel for the bones and muscles and sinews of the language, of how the stanzas moved and how they were put together. Quayle just zipped through the Odyssey—in the excellent translation by Robert Fitzgerald—as though he were hamming up a movie script, with no appreciation for the rhythmic or imaginative spine of the poetry. Those who know what they are reading will just about always come out ahead.

Plus, you are a terrific reader, so all of this is pretty much irrelevant!


Always a friend when you need him! Thanks Brian. I AM nervous for all sorts of reasons. Re Poets v Actors, I am sure you are right yet on many occasions I have regretted listening to some poets reading ( Eliot is one) because the words on the page seemed so much subtler, richer, nuanced than the voice or the flow. That’s partly my reason for apprehension, but having recorded a few attempts, each, though different, had merits and choosing between them will cease when recording begins, as it must.

I have a good story re Bernstein. Not sure it’s wise but what the hell. I think I am among friends. A friend of mine had led an orchestra under his baton years before I met him (the friend). He came to us for Christmas with a new wife, and there was an exchange of presents extracted from under the tree. The largest was for them. I had found in a good antique junk yard a couple of Victorian loo seats, mahogany, beautifully shaped, polished it, and wrapped one for them for their new house.

On seeing what it was and holding it at arm’s length he said ‘Now I have found the perfect frame for my autographed picture of my least favourite conductor! I shall give him pride of place by our front door.’

I also relate to some recordings being seminal. For me Glen Gould’s Goldberg Variation(the original) was one.I am sure purists would find faults with it but it was my introduction to Bach’s perfection. musical and mathematical, and no other quite matches it because it was the discovery of myself in a new dimension at about 17. Other recordings of Italian solos and simple songs by Gigli still linger in the memory, though they are long gone and unobtainable.

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Hi Philippa,

I do agree with you about Eliot’s reading, which is the reason that I compared him to an undertaker. While it can still be very educational to hear him read, a great deal of the richness of his poetry ends up being lost. I remember being surprised and disappointed when I first heard him. I think that part of the problem is that Eliot was emotionally very guarded, and he tended to hide behind his persona. He was a deeply introverted person who was leading a public life. The person who read the works was not the person who created them. To enter into his reading style, it is probably best to put aside any desire to be entertained and instead approach the flatness of his voice as a mystery to be probed.

When I had access to a large selection of spoken word materials, the preference that I described for poets over actors was nonetheless generally true. Even when a poet is not especially gifted as a reader, you can hear certain subtleties of grammar and rhythm and implication that actors will often miss. If I had to point out a few common flaws of actors reading poetry, I would say that they too often feel that the poetry is not sufficently interesting, in and of itself; they want to infuse it with personality and drama, rather than letting the drama emerge out of the language. Also, they can be deaf to the very subtle differences between poetry and prose, giving either too much or too little emphasis to line breaks and not sinking to the depth at which the skeletal structure of the poem becomes visible. Ideally, I guess, we should have access to a range of interpretations, each of which would bring out different elements in the work.

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Hi Brian:

I add a couple things here just for contemplation in relation to your Autumnal Fallout piece. This conversation needs to continue, especially now, with Trump recently tweeting: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” (What the fuck!)

A few weeks ago I went to an excellent retrospective of artist Bruce Conner at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art. (He was born on November 18, 1933, and died on July 7, 2008.) Quirkily anti-establishment, refusing to be pinned down or defined by any one style, his dark and irreverent sense of humor, with a deeper underlying anxiety and seriousness in his searching and experimentalism, really appeals to me. He was obsessed with the nuclear bomb. One of his film pieces (maybe you know of it) is entitled “Crossroads” (1976), of high quality black and white footage he spliced together of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, with effectively eerie and haunting addition of sound. At the museum I saw it at, the screen this film was projected on was gigantic. I sat mesmerized watching it.

The first article I posted here, from Vogue of all places, has at the end of it an excerpt from the film. (If like me you don’t have top-of-the-line internet service, by clicking on “HD” of the viewing frame you can reduce the bit-rate for easier viewing.) Just imagine the film blown up and filling an entire museum gallery wall, from floor to ceiling. That’s how I saw it at the SF MOMA. Incredibly powerful, and strangely meditative. One gets seriously conflicted feelings watching the detonation of such a bomb. It has immense beauty, but the thing itself is a weapon of mass destruction. The article following the first one I posted here, from the Guardian, has a good description of the film, and its effect on the viewer. I don’t think I could give a better description.

“Bombhead”, by Bruce Conner

Next, here’s an interesting and informative blog I stumbled on a couple days ago, entitled “Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog”, by a man named Alex Wallerstein, who is a serious historian of the science of the bomb. I like the tenor and tone of his mind, the apparent thoroughness of his consideration of the subject matter. I haven’t read much of his blog yet, but I did read his two most recent posts, “The President and the Bomb: Redux” and “The President and the Bomb”. I stumbled on this while trying to find some concrete information on what protocol and procedure would be followed for Trump to order a nuclear strike somewhere, and to have it actually carried out. I know it’s not as simple as just pressing a red button.

Linked to Alex Wallerstein’s blog is the following simulator he created called “Nukemap". You can click on the city you live in, choose a specific location, choose a “yield” or bomb that exists or has existed, and get an approximation of the damage it would do and number of casualties.

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