My birthday was this past week. It was a busy day. October 20 is also the National Day of Writing. It is usually the first day – Teacher Day – of the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. Of course, I find both of these things very fitting celebrations of my birthday.
I have been attending the Dodge Poetry Festivals since 1986. The Festival is considered to be the largest poetry event in North America. For four days, poets both famous and emerging meet with teachers, students, and a public that loves poetry and perhaps writes poetry too.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has designated October 20 as the National Day on Writing™. I worked for NCTE for some years and so I usually was involved in the day on my birthday.
I don’t need a special day to write, but many people do need to be reminded. It is a very unthreatening day of writing for students and the public. Yes, it can be a poem, story, essay, or the start of a novel. It can also be a thoughtful social media post. It is more about writing consciously. People often share ideas and their writing online and use the theme and hashtag #WhyIWrite.
I wrote on the 20th but it was a busy day and this weekend is also busy with another festival, the Montclair Film Festival. I work and volunteer with that organization and so it was just this morning that I had time to write this after doing some meditation while my wife did her yoga, and then consciously sitting down to write some poetry.
One of the “birthday buddies” that share my birthdate and I mentioned in a post a few years ago is the composer Charles Ives. I discovered we shared a birthday when I was 15. That was a difficult year in my life and I went to my town library to see if they had records of his music. I borrowed three records and took them home that summer to listen to hoping to make some cosmic connection with this American modernist composer of experimental music.
It was beyond my ken. I read the liner notes (these were vinyl records with lots of writing on the covers) and was puzzled by polytonality, tone clusters, and quarter tones. It was not the “classical music” I knew via my parents’ records or what teachers played for us in music classes.
Years later in college, I came back to Ives’ music. And this morning, I listened to some of his music while I wrote.
My favorite Ives back then was “Central Park in the Dark.” and “The Unanswered Question.” They are both mostly quiet pieces. I also found them a bit creepy. I thought they might work as soundtracks for a suspense or horror film. My earliest actual times of being in Central park in the dark were kind of creepy, so it fit.
His original title of the Central Park at night composition was “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in ‘The Good Old Summer Time'” This was written in 1906. Both of these compositions are tone poems. At 15, the idea of a tone “poem” was appealing. I wrote some quite pretentious poetry based on his Ives’ music.
The more I have read about his music, the deeper I go in understanding it nas also not understanding it. I find that “The Unanswered Question” has a background of slow, quiet strings that he wanted to represent “The Silence of the Druids.” A solo trumpet poses “The Perennial Question of Existence” and a woodwind quartet of “Fighting Answerers” tries to provide an answer. But they can’t and they grow more frustrated and dissonant. Finally, they give up. The question remains unanswered. In live performances, the three groups of instruments perform in independent tempos and are placed separately on the stage. The strings are meant to be offstage.
Though Ives never meant his four “holiday” symphonic poems to be played together, I found a recording that groups them together. As that album’s liner notes says, his piece “The Fourth of July” ” is one of his complex and crazy pieces. “Central Park in the Dark” is also often paired with “The Unanswered Question” as part of “Two Contemplations” and with his “Hallowe’en” and “The Pond” in “Three Outdoor Scenes.” We love to see connections. We want to make connections – with people and things – even if it is across years and miles.
You can find Charles Ives’ recordings on Amazon, or listen on Spotify or Pandora. I’ll embed here two that I have mentioned.