Music for a Day of Writing

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.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow

I read the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken when I was 13 years old. It is probably his best-known short story. I returned to it quite accidentally this past week though with thoughts of snow coming for this weekend and more than a slight identification with the story’s protagonist.

I see that the story is sometimes listed as psychological, fantasy or even as a horror story.

The boy in this story, 12-year-old Paul, is finding it hard and harder to focus on schoolwork. He is also feeling less connected to his family. Both those feelings were in me at 13.

He does more and more daydreaming and those daydreams are more and more about snow. One morning while still in bed he only hears silence from outside. It is the silence that happens when snow muffles sounds. But when he looks outside, there is no snow.

He sees secret snow that can surround you with a comforting silence and attachment from the world. His detachment is increasing. It’s hard to even get out of bed and get dressed.

I don’t think my parents had any sense of how I felt. Paul’s parents call in a doctor after telling the doctor about the secret snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do eventually call a physician, who makes a house call to examine Paul. After revealing that he likes to think about snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do with the doctor or his parents – or the world.

At 13, I don’t think I probably recognized any psychological symbolism in the story. Fantasy over reality and even isolation over social relationships didn’t seem to me to be wrong. They seemed reasonable responses to what was whirling around me that year.

I also didn’t fully recognize that Paul was slipping into depression or even sliding toward something that might be labeled schizophrenia at that time. The snow and the white noise of it become more powerful. “The hiss was now becoming a roar—the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” appeared in 1934. FDR was in his first term in office and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, while a fascist government was in power in Italy since 1922, another fascist government was established in Germany that year as the Nazis gained control of the country. It was certainly a time when escape from reality would be understandable.

It was also a time when the theories of Sigmund Freud were popular and began to be used to interpret literature. When the doctor asks Paul to read a passage from a book taken from a shelf in order to see if he has any eye problems, the book (which I only discovered through researching this essay) is Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. Is Aiken giving us a clue?

I also learned just this week that the Aiken family had a history of mental illness. When Aiken was eleven, his mentally ill father shot his mother, then himself. His sister later suffered serious mental issues and was hospitalized and Conrad worried about what might be hiding in his own mind.

Conrad Aiken wrote in several forms and genres, but preferred poetry and short stories. He wrote several novels which I found in my town library and I read Conversation because it seemed to be about people who were creative but I don’t recall liking (or understanding?) it.

Aiken also was a poet. He was a modernist and not what I was trying to write at that time or what I was reading, but I did get a book of his poems at the library. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and a National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953).

I read other stories by him, but it was this one story that has stayed with me.  I am not alone in having this story remain or perhaps haunt the memory. The story appears in many anthologies, and I found it online too.


The soundtrack for that part of my 13th year definitely included the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” the latter from the brilliant Pet Sounds album that came out that year and which I played over and over in my bedroom. I think Brain Wilson in the mid-1960s would have identified with Paul too.

Music Is History

After I watched the documentary Summer of Soul that was put together by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, I discovered a book he wrote called Music Is History. Both set me thinking about how music figures into our collective history but also how it chronicles our personal history.

You might know Questlove as the bandleader of The Roots which is the house band for The Tonight Show with Ju=imy Fallon. He is also a passionate collector of records and an encyclopedia of music.

I saw Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) at home (it is currently streaming on Hulu and Disney+) but it would have been even better on a big screen with an audience.

It is definitely a music film, but it is also a historical record about an event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. It was 1969 and another music festival north of Harlem called Woodstock overshadowed the Harlem Cultural Festival.

The footage was forgotten and when Questlove found it he realized that it was more than just a good concert film (though it is that) but a document about that important year in cultural history.  It is hard to imagine why the footage didn’t emerge earlier because it has performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and other major artists.


Watching the documentary got me digging and I found Questlove’s book Music Is History.  He covers 1971 (the year he was born; the year I started college) to the present. This is his personal history of 50 years of music and cultural history.

His musical choices are understandably around Black identity and we don’t overlap much in our musical histories. But that’s fine because pivotal songs are pivotal even if you didn’t buy the album or turn it up on your stereo or cr radion when it was played. I knew about a lot of this music from the more obscure Sun Ra (though not his opus “Nuclear War”) to the more familiar Police and Tears for Fears tracks.

All of us should be able to write a kind of personal music history that probably also tells some larger history. My own from around that early time would include things like my memories of listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (who I knew from their earlier bands – The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Hollies) and hearing their quickly produced and released “Ohio.”  That song came out of a day in 1970 when Neil Young was inspired by the horror of the Kent State shootings.

OhioTin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio…
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

As a kid entering his senior year in high school and being in the draft that might send him and his friends to Vietnam, the song was a lot more than a good song. I immediately bought the 45 rpm single (it wasn’t on an album for quite a while) The B side was “Find the Cost of Freedom” whose lyrics were also something that were on the minds of myself and my classmates and some of our parents that year.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground,
Mother Earth will swallow you,
Lay your body down.

On the good times’ side of the record, I strongly remember driving to the Jersey Shore with my girlfriend, who would be my wife in two years, to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It seemed that everyone owned that album and it was all over the radio. The songs “Go Your Own Way”, “Dreams”, “Don’t Stop”, and “You Make Loving Fun” were all top 10 singles.

I Went Down to the Crossroads

crossroads

The song “Crossroads” as recorded by Cream popped up on my Spotify playlist today. It reminded me 1) of high school and 2) of a college literature class where we got into a discussion of crossroads in mythology.

In myth and magic, crossroads often represent a place between the worlds. It is a place where supernatural spirits can be contacted and paranormal events can take place. As a symbol, it sometimes is a place where two realms touch and therefore is neither here nor there, or “betwixt and between.”

The song was written around 1936 by Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. The lyrics tell of a man kneeling at a crossroads to ask God’s mercy. Johnson had said it was inspired by not being able to hitch a ride into town at a crossroads. The blues mythology has said that the crossroads is where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical talents. The lyrics do not support that interpretation but the myth continued.

Crossroads go back to Greek mythology where they were associated with Hermes and Hecate and shrines and ceremonies often were set at a crossroad. Hermes was connected to travelers, but Hecate’s connection to crossroads was ritualistic. “Suppers of Hecate” were offerings left for her at crossroads at each New Moon.

I have read that in the UK crossroad rituals date back to Anglo-Saxon times and continued until being the early 1800ss. Criminals and suicides were often buried at the crossroads. (Suicide was a crime.) This may have been simply because crossroads usually were outside the boundaries of the town and those people were to be kept apart. Criminals were sometimes punished and executed by gibbet or dule tree at a crossroad.

In Western folk mythology, a crossroads can be used to summon a demon or devil in order to make a deal. The 1587 Historia von D. Johann Fausten describes the character Faust inscribing magic circles at a crossroads and offering a copper coin in order to summon the devil.

Crossroads also appear in hoodoo, a form of African American magical spirituality, and Brazilian mythology.

The myth has been perpetuated in fiction, movies and TV. The U.S. television show. Supernatural, used crossroads demons in a number of episodes. In the Coen Brothers comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the character Tommy Johnson says that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar skills, an obvious allusion to the legend of Robert Johnson.

Birthday Buddies

me in my Yankees uniform

Today is my birthday.

Like many of you, at some times in my life, I have looked up who else shares my birthday.

The names you find online are, of course, famous folks.  A part of me must have once believed that by some astrological magic we would share some characteristics.

Today is also the birthday of NY Yankee great Mickey Mantle.  I may have worn #7 as a young baseball player (everyone wanted that jersey but a kind-hearted coach let me have it because of the birthday connection) and I did usually get put into the outfield like Mickey, but I was no Bronx Bomber at the plate.  (More of a Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto.)

I do have a bad knee and back like Mickey, but luckily no drinking or liver problems.

NY Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez not only shares October 20 with me but was born the same year!

I was not a good first baseman, but my older son was a great one. Are there astrological genes? As a lifelong NY Yankees fan, it was impossible for me to be a Mets fan. Though they never posed a threat to the Yanks, they were in the local news and on TV all through my New Jersey childhood.

I did love Keith’s appearances on Seinfeld as himself. “I’m Keith Hernandez!” he declares after a moment of self-doubt.

Viggo/Aragorn
Viggo as Aragorn

I don’t see myself as all that similar to Viggo Mortensen who is an actor, author, musician, photographer, poet, and painter. Although in my own small ways I do work in all those fields.

I’m certainly not like his Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. But I do like many of his films, most recently two that he got Academy Award nominations for in Captain Fantastic (2016) and Green Book (2018).

Viggo founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. Maybe I should contact my birthday buddy about my poetry manuscript. Unfortunately, they are not accepting submissions right now. Okay, I’m patient. I do like the name of his press. Perceval was the original hero in the Grail quest tales, before being “replaced” in later English and French literature by Galahad.

Sir Christopher Wren, portrait c.1690 by John Closterman

As a young teen, I wanted to be an architect in the Frank Lloyd Wright style. I did some reading and came across Sir Christopher Wren who was born on October 20 way back in 1632.

He was an English anatomist, astronomer, geometer, and mathematician-physicist, but is best known as an architect.

He was responsible for rebuilding 52 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666. His masterpiece is  St. Paul’s Cathedral, on Ludgate Hill, completed in 1710. He caught a chill on a trip to London in February 1723 and died a few days later.

His remains were placed in the southeast corner of the crypt of St Paul’s. There is a plain stone plaque marking his resting place. But the inscription is also found on a circle of black marble on the main floor beneath the center of the dome. It reads:
“SUBTUS CONDITUR HUIUS ECCLESIÆ ET VRBIS CONDITOR CHRISTOPHORUS WREN, QUI VIXIT ANNOS ULTRA NONAGINTA, NON SIBI SED BONO PUBLICO. LECTOR SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE Obijt XXV Feb: An°: MDCCXXIII Æt: XCI. ”

I wouldn’t mind such a tribute after I am gone, though I’ll pass on it being the Latin. Wren’s translates as “Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723, age 91.”

In high school, I discovered that I shared a birthday with the composer Charles Ives. I had never heard of him and was not much of a classical music listener, but I borrowed a few records of his music from the library. His modernist compositions were not what I though of as being “classical” music. It was all a bit too challenging for a 15-year-old kid listening to rock music.

An easier musical connection was to Tom Petty. He was a great singer, songwriter, and guitarist who shares my birthday and was only a few years older than me. I do play guitar (though I often refer to myself as a “guitar owner” rather than as a “guitarist”) but not at a level anywhere near Tom. But I do like Tom Petty’s music.

I was pleased when I went off to college and got more serious about writing to discover that there were some poets who were birthday buddies.

Robert Pinsky was Poet Laureate of the U.S. (1997-2000) and is not only also a Jersey kid like me but also attended Rutgers as I did.

He’s a Jersey Shore kid (Long Branch) and I read his poetry before I knew that we shared a birthday. He is 13 years my senior, but I found some connections to my own life and work in his writing.

The first time I met him, I mentioned our shared birthday and he said, “And Mickey Mantle and Rimbaud!”

Rimbaud at 17

The French poet Arthur Rimbaud (who I later discovered is pronounced ram-bo)  was a libertine, restless soul, who had an at-times-violent romantic relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine.

As a poet, he was known as a Symbolist. His most famous work is A Season in Hell, which I bought and read, but didn’t really connect with as a young poet.

I read recently that Rimbaud has become the “Jim Morrison of poets” due to fans visiting his grave in a little cemetery in northern France and making it a kind of shrine (as fans have done with rock singer/poet Morrison in Paris).

Sadly, what appealed to me more about Rimbaud in those college days was that he seemed to be alone and unhappy, which was a periodic state for me back then. Unfortunately, I misunderstood that as being literary and Romantic states of being.

I’m sure it would really piss off Arthur to know that near his grave you can buy Rimbaud plates, mugs, Rimbaud’s terrine, honey and confit, Arthur’s vintage craft beer cider, juice, lemonade or cola. You can even stay at the Best Western Hôtel Littéraire Arthur Rimbaud and get a room with a framed poem in your room. Truly a season in Hell.

Rimbaud’s affair with Verlaine ended after Paul left his wife and child for Rimbaud and then shot Arthur (not fatally) when he tried to end their affair. Rimbaud left for Paris then traveled the world, fought as a mercenary on Java (now Indonesia), worked as an explorer and trader in Ethiopia and Yemen, and finally returned to France when he was struck by cancer that took his left leg and his life. He died at the age of 37 with only his sister at his side.

If you do a search for October 20 or your birthday on Wikipedia, you will turn up a long list of people that share your birthday and also events in history. Unless you are a believer in astrology, I don’t think you’ll find answers to your life’s mission by finding out who shares your birthday. I hand-picked ones from the long list that I felt some kinship with, but there are many more that I feel no connection to via our shared day of birth. Still, it was a fun journey.

The Lightning Moon of August

Though the Moon will be “fullest” in Paradelle at 01:56:12 pm today, I will (like most of us) be looking up at it tonight.

One neo-pagan name for this August Full Moon is the Lightning Moon, and around Paradelle there has been a lot of thunder, lightning and rain.

This August Full Moon is also known as the Sturgeon Moon, since that large fish of the Great Lakes and other major bodies of water were most readily caught during this month. It may be called the Red Moon because, as the Moon rises, it appears reddish through any sultry haze.

The video visualization that tops this post tries to capture the mood of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (moonlight in French) from 1905 with images from NASA of the Moon built from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. “Clair de Lune” is the third of four movements in his Suite Bergamasque, but this section is quiet, contemplative, and melancholy. It feels right for solitary gazing at the Moon, full or not, inside or outside.

Maybe you can combine the video and music with one of these relaxation techniques tonight and ease yourself into a gentler new week ahead.