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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: All Kinds of Poetry

June 8, 2012 | by

Iris DeMent

When Anthony Heilbut isn’t producing beautiful gospel, he tends to be writingslowlyeither about German modernism or else about the music and musicians he loves. The Fan Who Knew Too Much is the book Heilbut's gospel fans have been waiting for since The Gospel Sound (1972). In this connection, I can’t resist quoting our Southern editor right off the back cover: “Nothing new in the last year gave me as much pure reading pleasure as pages of this book. Heilbut ranges over the culture like a madman, but with a fierce sanity in his eye, debunking myths and erecting new ones. I finished The Fan Who Knew Too Much wondering how, without it, I’d ever thought I understood a thing about America in the twentieth century. Let me ask: Are you familiar with the history of gays in gospel? Or with the early, radio roots of soap operas? Then you too are similarly benighted. Get with this.” Amen. —Lorin Stein

A friend sent me Sara Teasdale’s “There will come soft rains”—a wee poem of six rhyming couplets that is sprightly and joyous (and makes me think of this Joe Brainard collage), until the fourth stanza, when Teasdale subtly introduces a supreme darkness.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire.

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly.

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

She prefigures the advent of nuclear war by twenty-five years, and the poem exists a perfect dollop of science fiction. Ray Bradbury thought so, too. He borrowed the first line in 1950 for the title of a short story, a tale that teases out the hint of ruin and death in the poem but manages to preserve its quiet, beautiful horror. —Nicole Rudick

If you ever feel that you have a difficult job, take a look at this excerpt from Working Man's Death about a Nigerian meat market, and you might just reconsider your grievances. Michael Glawogger’s 2005 documentary offers a stunning and poignant portrait of hard manual labor in the modern era. Most people in the world still earn their living by physical exertion; we just don’t see them or hear about them very much. Sitting at a desk in an office, it’s easy to forget that in so many jobs, the body itself is the machine. Here’s an opportunity to be reminded. —Arthur Holland Michel

Few of the great New York poets—for me, this means Whitman, Crane, O’Hara, and Seidel—were natives of the city. This isn’t surprising; it's the immigrants who bring new eyes to old places. Bronx-born Rowan Ricardo Phillips is an exception. His first book of poems, The Ground, isn’t only about New York—it’s also about myth and translation and how to be a troubadour in the twenty-first century—but it has made me look at the city with renewed wonder and excitement:

Those kids on a New Deal rooftop
Staring at the wonders of Moses,
Who with a wave split the Bronx asunder

And dropped the Cross Bronx
Down in his wake,
May they know this map of the world

As only a map of the world.
One of many that will lead them
To and from their doors.

—Robyn Creswell

What is it about contemporary country music that makes almost all self-respecting music lovers north of the Mason-Dixon Line squirm with discomfort? With the exception of Johnny Cash, perhaps, country remains for many the untouched genre, and it’s a shame indeed, for it seems to me that one can find in the “white man’s blues”—when it’s done right—a certain subtle yet unabashed yearning, an unassuming boldness that lifts the spirit and grips the heart. Before you roll your eyes, give Iris Dement’s 1993 album Infamous Angel an open-minded listen. The unpolished, back-country twang that is her charm is perhaps not for everybody, but it gives way to a gorgeous soaring that’ll stick with you (it’s one of those “when you get it, you really get it” type of situations). With titles like “Hotter Than Mojave In My Heart” and lines like “”He was the tender and I ordered a beer / It’s been forty years and I’m still sitting here,” Dement’s songs have nothing if not character, but it’s the jaunty and flawless “Let the Mystery Be,” a song about humility in the face of the unknown, that I love the most. Hokey? Not a chance. —Anna Hadfield

3 COMMENTS

3 Comments

  1. Tom May | June 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks for your heartfelt comments, Anna Hadfield. But I can’t help but wonder if The Review isn’t just patronizing you? After all, these are just publishing people you are dealing with, and that means market share. What would their estimable Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan have to say about Iris Dement? Don’t buy, Anna.

  2. Aretha | June 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Anna, I think it’s great that you found a good album, from whatever year, and I encourage you to dig deeper into the treasure trove of country music’s past — for instance, to Lefty Frizzell, who influenced Dement’s phrasing, or Merle Haggard, whose “Big City” she covered, or to the powerful often overlooked women she is reminiscent of, such as Jean Shepard or Hazel Dickens — but I also want to suggest that good music needs no apology.

  3. Anna Hadfield | June 9, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Tom, I’m not totally sure what you’re implying about either myself or TPR, but I can assure you that those “publishing people” had nothing to do with the topic of my staff pick, nor its content.

    Aretha, thank you very much for the music suggestions. If I seemed apologetic in my post it was only because I have learned, from experience, that this particular album is not always well-received when I’ve shared it with friends. But you’re right to remind me nonetheless that there is no need to apologize for good music, even if others don’t take to it as we do!

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