Sunday, August 31, 2014

Poetry, Song, and Stone

The Grave of Irving Berlin
We are on an American adventure, and sometimes I turn to American songs for advice.  I am a codger, so I sometimes choose Rick Nelson.  One of the recurring themes of the Caravan of Wonder is “You can’t please everyone.”  On November 13, our last day parked in Jersey City, we followed the corollary to that rule:  “You’ve got to please yourself.”  So Knightsmama and I separated:  She and Dr. J went back into the city and used the remaining tickets of the “City Bundle” that we had purchased thinking it was a good deal.  I guess it was, if I had had the energy or time or focused energy or one extra day.  They went to The Guggenheim and The Natural History Museum.  I would have loved both, especially The Natural History Museum.  At one point in my life, I thought natural history and natural history writing was going to be my academic field.  In 1985, I applied to graduate schools in American Studies stating that I wanted to write a dissertation about John Burroughs.  No nibbles.  Alternative lives:  I wonder what my life would have been if I had been accepted somewhere.  We all have those moments of “could have been” and “might have been." 
Because I went my own way that day in November, I also missed the John Lennon “Imagine” memorial in Central Park.   Knightsmama and Dr. J. did not visit it, either.  But if I had gone to the city that day, I would have stood beside it, watched the pilgrims, joined the pilgrims, wondered with the pilgrims about what might have been if John had not been shot, and prayed with the pilgrims that John’s vision, our vision, of a world nurturing us all in peace and mutual love could someday blossom. 
William Carlos Williams Gravestone
            But that cold November day, I had other pilgrimages to make that required driving the Big Ass Truck, and Captain Crunch preferred a day in the front seat reading to a day walking through museums.  First stops were the grave and the house of William Carlos Williams in Patterson and Rutherford, New Jersey.  I experienced another of my lessons in trust your luck.  When we drove into the cemetery, I saw “Williams” on a ordinary tombstone, but dismissed it because I expected to see first names on the backside.  Eventually, I found the office for the cemetery and a nice lady gave me a map with her red circle identifying the correct location.  Ah, it was the gravestone I had seen earlier.  There beside his wife Flossie, he rested, one of the few poets to change the direction of American writing, the great grandfather of every contemporary free verse poet.  One might say all that free verse goes back to Whitman.  And it does.  But look at the line and stanza structure of most poets writing in free verse today.  I think there are more poems with the short lines and brief stanzas of Williams than the long lines and expansive stanzas of Whitman.  I mean, really, I am just guessing, making this up, but that is my hunch. 
            Everybody who takes a college lit class knows Williams’ poems that begin “This is just to say” and “So much depends upon.”   As the saying goes that higher education teaches one to know more and more about less and less, I often joke with a class that I can lecture an hour about these tiny poems.  However, I will spare you that joy.  But let me say that one of the qualities of Williams’ poems that I appreciate is that they are simple and direct, and in this way they are quintessential American poems.  Although literary history is complicated and fed by many streams, one quality that I appreciate in Williams’ work is its sincerity.  He is not sarcastic or stand-offish.  Nor is he awestruck and breathless.  He is not profound.  He sees something and he tells you about it.  It’s raining, there’s a chicken and a wheelbarrow.  Nothing could be simpler.  Maybe he adds a touch of irony, but I don’t think he puts much stock in it.  Of course, nothing really depends upon the chicken and rain and wheelbarrow.  But this morning, yes, it feels like everything does. 
William Carlos Williams' House and Office
            After taking a few photographs of the graves, the Captain and I ventured the short distance over to Rutherford, where I hopped out of the truck for a quick snap of what I assume to be Williams’ house. There it was on a little rise, right at the edge of the center of town, walking distance to everything.  On these occasions I try to be fast because the house is not an official tourist attraction.  People live there, and I am sure they are both proud and tired of the fact that they live in the home of a famous poet (well, as famous as poets get—which, mostly, is with other poets). 
            Next stop, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  For me, one of the great treats for this portion of the day was driving over The George Washington Bridge.  I need to do a little research to see if it was during this time that Christie’s team had deliberately mismanaged the traffic, but we made it over fairly easily.  Since I don’t remember much about this drive, I am assuming Seri got me there easily.  I do know that I entered at the exact opposite end from the main office, because I had a long drive through the cemetery to find the office.  Woodlawn Cemetery is one of those gigantic cemeteries that has become the last home to many rich and famous as well as ordinary citizens.  Although I am a distracted father, I am not a cruel one, so I tried to keep my pilgrimages to a minimum and focused.   The first stop, and the main reason we were there, was Herman Melville.  Like Williams’, Melville’s memorial is traditional and non-descript among the other stones.  I had some difficulty finding it, since his name is carved in small letters near the base and almost covered with ivy.  But there he is, with his blank page unfurling, actual and stone leaves climbing heavenward.  I was not the only recent visitor, as several small stones had been placed upon the top of the gravestone.  When I returned to the car, I could have begun expounding upon Melville’s courage and wisdom, his sense of adventure, his heartbreak as a writer, his devotion to poetry, which most people don’t know about because of the giant shadow that Moby Dick casts, and his affection for his family, but I spared the Captain.  The time will come when he will know Ahab and Ishmael or Billy Budd or Bartleby, and he will look through the album of photos from this trip and maybe remember this day.
Herman Melville Gravestone
            More likely he will remember the pond we stopped beside so that he could play at its edges.  This night had been very cold, cold enough to freeze much of the surface of the pond.  Being a boy from Central Texas, he was inexperienced with frozen ponds and one of his greatest ambitions for this trip was to experience cold and ice, and, most important, snow.  So we allotted some time to picking up small rocks and skipping them across the ice.  Then we found a few fist size stones and threw them in a high parabola so they would come jetting down and break the surface of the ice, or, in some cases, bounce upon the thick ice, merely bruising the surface. 
Great fun, and another reminded about why we are on this adventure:  to take the boys to experiences they wouldn’t have at home. 
            Before we left Memorial Cemetery, there were a few more graves it pleased me to visit.  First on the list was Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  We had previoulys visited the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first American meeting for women’s rights occurred.  Now we completed the journey for Mrs. Stanton, at least.  Since Stanton was married to a wealthy lawyer and politician, this memorial is large and situated among other monuments to the rich and famous. 
Next, was a section of the cemetery that has become home to several jazz greats.  First, Duke Ellington has a substantial triangle were two roads converge, with a large tree dropping its leaves upon simple ground level markers.  Nearby is the large memorial to “Sir Miles Davis.”  You will just have to forgive me, because there is just too much to say about Ellington and Davis, two very different approaches to jazz.  Both giants, gods really.  Each deserves his own blog post contemplating his contribution to the greatest American art form, jazz.  I will return to them, but not today.
Max Roach Gravestone
There was another marker for Jackie McLean, another for Jean-Baptist Illinois Jacquet.  Lionel Hampton is nearby, but I missed his marker.  But it was the grave of Max Roach that gave me pause, that stopped my wandering up and around the hillside.  We all, I hope, have musicians that we discover on our own.  I don’t remember how I discovered Roach.  But I suppose it was listening to records by Miles Davis and noticing something unusual and special, some little thing on the drums, and then reading the liner notes.  Next would follow other albums, such as those by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Mingus, then albums that he fronted, like Jazz in ¾ Time or his Double Quartet. More liner notes or articles followed, and slowly I became a fan of the not famous guy in the rhythm section, but, of course, Max Roach did become famous, did become a jazz star in his own right.  And there I was, in Woodlawn without plan, improvising in my own way, standing beside his grave.  Finally, with time running out and with a little trouble, I eventually found the low, modest flat gravestone of Irving Berlin, conspicuous in its modesty besides several stately mausoleums.  Maybe Irving Berlin is the greatest American songwriter.  “White Christmas,”  “Easter Parade,”  “Heat Wave,” “Blue Skies,”  “God Bless America,”  “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Always,” and perhaps my favorite, “What’ll I Do?”   On another side of the cemetery, I stopped briefly at the mausoleum of George M. Cohan. 

            I had hoped to end the day with a quick stop at Yankee Stadium, but by the time we got there the traffic had gotten heavy.  I was trying to be both navigator and driver, with marginal success at both.  I found the stadium and drove around it twice hoping to sight a few statues to stop by, wander around, think about the Glory of the Game, and take a few photos, as I had done in St. Louis and in Boston.  But no luck.  I hadn’t researched it enough to effect a precision strike.  So I let that one go, regrettably.   I did stop at a nearby elementary school park and let Captain Crunch loose for a few moments.  One of those city playgrounds with nary a sprig of grass.  Still, it seemed more appropriate to let him expend his energy in an urban playground than in a cemetery. 
Captain Crunch at Frozen Pond
We were entering late afternoon, in November in New York.  It was beginning to get colder, so after fifteen minutes I convinced the Captain to return to the truck.  We made our way back to The George Washington Bridge.  I punched around on the radio looking for a jazz station, without luck.  So I listened to “All Things Considered.  The Captain read his book.  And we drove south to Jersey City and back to the trailer.  After we had warmed up, and dark had descended completely, Knightsmama and Dr. J. returned.  Tomorrow, we would be heading to Pennsylvania.  If a few days, we would be visiting Gettysburg, of which Melville had written:

Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer

Have laid the stone, and every bone


Shall rest in honor there.   


Soundtrack.  Max Roach:  "Third Eye."
Frank Sinatra:  "What'll I Do."   

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