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A Walk in the Park with Brooke, Sassoon, Beethoven, and My Current Orthopedist

Early this morning Elliot and I took a walk through Lake Park here in Milwaukee. One of the great things about this park is that each of the benches has a plaque with a poem about nature, chosen by whoever paid for the privilege. Much of it is doggerel (pun intended), but I have always loved the first one Elliot and I usually reach—the first two lines of Rupert Brooke’s “The Hill” (1910):

Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
   Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.

These are two lines of poetry I wish I had written (lacking that, I've memorized them). They are so lush and musical on the tongue—they are a pleasure to say aloud. I love them not only for their sound, however, but for the sensuousness of the image which sparks a similar youthful memory of my own (as it probably does for most readers). Here is the rest of the poem:

Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
    Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.
   You said, "Through glory and ecstasy we pass;
Wind, sun, and earth remain, the birds sing still,
When we are old, are old...." "And when we die
   All's over that is ours; and life burns on
Through other lovers, other lips," said I,
-- "Heart of my heart, our heaven is now, is won!"

"We are Earth's best, that learnt her lesson here.
    Life is our cry. We have kept the faith!" we said;
    "We shall go down with unreluctant tread
 Rose-crowned into the darkness!"... Proud we were,
And laughed, that had such brave true things to say.

 -- And then you suddenly cried, and turned away.

I love this poem's  counter-movement: rising to meet the expected sentimentality and bravura of the young man, comes the silent sorrow of his companion (male? or female?).

Just as I was thinking about my sister’s early death in Monday's post, Brooke's poem also contemplates the tragedy of early death. Brooke wrote it when he was just 23 and going off to World War I (he was about the age of my father's father, who farmed and was thus exempt).  And Brooke did die, not in a battle as most think, but of blood poisoning caused by a small cut. Heroic?


Siegfreed Sassoon’s war notebooks were recently digitized and put online. You can read his handwritten poem “Memory” (1918) here.  Unlike Brooke, he lived to experience the horrors of World War I (his nickname was "Mad Jack" because of his recklessness and bravery) and did not die until 1967, the same year I was graduated from college.  The first verse of his poem (click link above) recalls joyful summers similar to Brooke’s (they both came from innocent and privileged backgrounds), but ends by asking for darkness and for the memory of past joys to dim. He says, “I am rich in all that I have lost” (another wonderful counter-image).

Yes, we survivors are all rich in what we have lost, but also in what remains.

Born to a violent, alcoholic father who reportedly dragged him from sleep to play for his drinking buddies, Beethoven enjoyed early success as a musician and composer. However, he started to become deaf when he was 28, and was profoundly deaf twenty years later in 1820 when he composed the late sonata, opus 109, that I hope to prepare for recital next year.  

Joseph Straus, author of Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (2011), writes of Beethoven:

If the deafness had any impact at all, it was liberatory, freeing him up to move beyond common compositional conventions of his day. He was no longer able to do practical music-making, such as performing as a pianist, and conducting, and life naturally became more self-contained, hermetic, and isolated. That clearly has an impact on the kind of music he wrote.

So lack of human connection (and certainly also age and illness) actually freed him creatively, to some extent, though it also caused him (reportedly) great suffering and sadness.

Shortly after the time he wrote op. 109, he was asked by Louis Schlosser, a young musician, through writing in his “conversation book,” where his ideas came from. He answered:

You will ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot tell you with certainty; they come unsummoned, directly, indirectly,—I could seize them with my hands,—out in the open air; in the woods; while walking; in the silence of the nights; early in the morning; incited by moods, which are translated by the poet into words, by me into tones that sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.

I carry my thoughts about me for a long time, often a very long time, before I write them down; meanwhile my memory is so faithful that I am sure never to forget, not even in years, a theme that has once occurred to me. I change many things, discard, and try again until I am satisfied. Then, however, there begins in my head the development in every direction, and, in as much as I know exactly what I want, the fundamental idea never deserts me,—it arises before me, grows,—I see and hear the picture in all its extent and dimensions stand before my mind like a cast, and there remains for me nothing but the labor of writing it down, which is quickly accomplished when I have the time, for I sometimes take up other work, but never to the confusion of one with the other.

He also wrote, about this time, that the best way to deal with adversity was to work (again, a necessary counter-movement).

And so: I thought of Brooke, Sassoon, and Beethoven after my visit today to the third orthopedist I have seen in a year—this time, once more, for my shoulder that hurts when I play piano. I would love to forget it at the piano—in “work” (play)—but for now I must spend only short hours there.  

Professional athletes must also learn, as youthful Brewers pitcher Matt Garza said recently in an interview, “when not to push and when you can push” in order not to suffer a setback after an injury. We all, sooner or later, come face-to-face with the limitations of physical life, either temporarily or permanently.

In my case, something has indeed been lost (diagnosis: "age-related rotator cuff tendonitis") but something remains as well.

For those of us who do survive early death, this seems to be one of the lessons--the necessary counter-movement to loss. Make something of what remains.


Starlings, bowerbirds, and the "purpose" of art

An exercise in waiting: the morning glories I started from seed indoors in April and moved outside in May have finally bloomed. At most they will have two months before frost sets in, but it is still worth it.

And the straggly “weeds” –goldenrod and wild aster--whose ungainly stalks I have put up with in my garden since June are just now providing nectar for bees and butterflies.

On this 62nd anniversary of the death of my sister Marilyn at the age of 16 from polio I turn to the natural world. Late August is so filled with beauty.  In just two days we will celebrate the birth of our first daughter 37 years ago. It seems to be a time for me when death and birth are closer together than usual.

I have just finished the thought-provoking book The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human by Noah Strycker.  Although he writes about the intelligences of birds like pigeons, turkey vultures, snowy owls, hummingbirds, penguins, parrots, chickens, nutcrackers, magpies, fairy wrens, and the albatross, I was most taken with his discussion of starlings and bowerbirds.

I already knew that starlings together create “murmurations” but did not know that physicists such as Andrea Cavagna have studied the mesmerizing movements of murmurations and linked them to other “swarming” or collective behaviors, including that of humans.  The mathematician John Conway linked the murmurations to a grid/game called the Game of Life.   Strycker writes: “Cavagna’s group found that starlings avoid collisions, stay at least a wing’s length away from one another, and seldom stray far enough from one another to break up the flock—just as the models assumed. Starlings also align with one another, but not quite in the way that flocking models traditionally predicted: Instead of basing directional decisions on birds within a certain distance, each starling uses its nearest seven neighbors to decide which direction to fly in, no matter how far away they are.”

So is such beautiful creativity “simply” a matter of physical and mathematical laws? Strycker writes, “I like to think that life defies physics, and that the beauty of a cartwheeling flock of starlings originates with the birds themselves rather than in a universal law—in the same way that a Renaissance masterpiece may follow specific rules but still takes a real master to produce.” 

But I have said that I do not believe in “mastery.”  I do, however, believe in play and fun, which my sister was the first to encourage. Could it be that the starlings are having the same “fun” as we do when we create flash mobs, as in this example in a Dutch mall last year?  I know the sense of joy that comes when one is part of something that is being created by a group: a chorus, for instance (which is why I think it interesting that the videos of murmurations are often accompanied by orchestral music).

The other example from Strycker’s book that I want to offer is the artistic creations of the bowerbird. (Please note that, in reference to this video, it was his brother Richard, not the naturalist, David, Attenborough who died yesterday.)

Strycker writes: “It does seem a stretch to suggest that bowerbirds consider themselves artists the way we do, given their overt and overwhelming motivation of seduction; the birds’ attention is probably directed more at passing females than creative immortality.[…]They probably don’t see art as some higher discipline. But until very recently, neither did we.[…]It’s only within the past four hundred years or so that art has begun to stand for something other than straightforward craftsmanship. Throughout most of history, people valued art because it was useful[…].”

I find that statement extremely interesting. Is poetry “useful” by today’s standards? Is music? To be “useful” does "art" require an audience? Do the 2,283,184 “views” of Sophie Windsor Clive's and Liberty Smith’s “official” video make it more “useful” than the murmuration itself would have been? And for whom?

The bowerbird’s “bowers” are “useful” apparently to the bird if his creativity and inventiveness gains him the sexual “attentions” of a female. Is then art linked somehow (through its audience) to “immortality”? Who wants that? Or is it just connection--period--that we seek?

I like to think that bowerbirds are having fun arranging their bowers in the same way that I have fun arranging the lines in a poem, and that all the “revisions” of “drafts” that we see the bird going through in the video are just as satisfying to him as my revisions are to me. And if he gets to mate as a result of it, so much the better!  But though that was perhaps the initial impulse, I like to think that the act of art takes on a purpose and satisfaction of its own to the maker, though audiences and connection are indeed important (please comment!).

The thunderstorm is just about over now, so Elliot and I will soon head out for our walk.

A character in Lee Smith’s wonderful novel Oral History affirms, “Nothing is ever over, nothing is ever ended, and worlds open up within the world we know.”


"Death Happy"

I practiced today with the aid of the shoulder belt but decided that I need to see my “shoulder doctor” who treated it last summer. I’m not the first to be frustrated by physical limitations, but it is hard not to be frustrated. I did read that up to 50% of people have tears in their rotator cuff by the time they are “elderly.” Many, however, never cause pain, and most that do can be treated short of surgery by physical therapy and, if necessary, cortisone shots. I don’t want to do either, particularly, but will do whatever’s needed to avoid surgery and to be able to return to the pool and the piano without pain.

First, I’d like to respond to two comments in response to the blog’s Aug. 18 entry. Jack Davis, the author whose blog is at, writes:

I am more familiar with visual creativity than the kind involved in poetry. I imagine that it is more of an auditory experience (hearing the sound of the words, which generates the next bit of sound in the form of spoken word). There is probably a musical connection for you, since you are a pianist.
At the core of creativity is inspiration. Everything follows from that initial spark.

Thanks for the comment, Jack. You are probably right about the musical connection with words.  And what sometimes happens is that I allow the sound-play to take over the meaning of the words: something that, thankfully, my poetry group frequently calls me on so that I can revise for that necessary balance.  I also love the sound play of Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll, etc., but often need to rein that in when I write.

Yes, inspiration as the “spark”—and yes, often, for me it is a sound or a “musical phrase” in language. But to make something out of it, I do need to sit with it and to revise for an audience (that leads me to the thought of what is, to some, the “strange” sounds of contemporary classical music, but I will save that for another day).

Larry, a teaching colleague and long-ago student, catches me on a typo in the Aug. 18 post, where I write:

As I said in my first post, everyone has a story, and mine has to do with the early knowledge that death can happy at any time—quickly and irrevocably—and so one had better make good use of one’s time. 

Actually, I did catch what Larry calls my “Freudian slip” and thought that I had corrected it. But apparently not. And since it led to the following thoughts (please see Larry's original post from Aug. 20), I’m going to let it stand:

I'll take the opportunity for some free-flow improvisational thinking on death happy and realize I no longer fear my own death; only the loss of those dear to me. Perhaps death is only one of many fears that distract and impede our creativity.

As a basement guitarist (I play for myself; rarely for others) there was a time that I blamed my lack of practice opportunity on others. Certain that my chance to play would be quickly interrupted by my family, I seldom began. Someone would holler “Hey Dad” and my joy would be over before it began. One day that changed. I left my guitar case opened and decided that interruption would be acceptable. The remarkable did happen. The expected mere 3 minutes frequently became 20. One riff became multiple songs. I began to hear songs emerging from the instrument I never expected to be able to implement; all made possible by a redefinition of cause.

The Death happens/Death happy conversion experience banishing of fears may fuel experimental improvisation. Where does an attempt to replicate perfection in performing pieces made famous by others, shift into an interpretive release from precise duplication and allow exploration of phrases? As students certainly the requisite repetition of practice is skill-building, but perhaps practice shifts into play shortly after we reach some level of mastery. I always wanted the ability to play without the practice that builds mastery….

We do not always engage improvisation in the same media. Kathleen you obviously improvise when you write, explore Kandinsky, or experiment with technology. You chose to practice piano. As a poet you have achieved mastery, as a pianist perhaps you define mastery more broadly. What context difference shifts us between practice and improvisation?

Wow—thank you, Larry!  First, I too have had that “conversion” about one’s own death that apparently comes to many as they age. All the former “ideas” about my own death have fallen or are falling away. As Joseph Campbell said in an interview shortly before his death, however, I still have projects that I want to complete and ideas for more (as I have noted in this blog).  Campbell writes,

The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life's joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life, but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death. The conquest of fear yields the courage of life. That is the cardinal initiation of every heroic adventure--fearlessness and achievement.

I think in the narrative of your experience with the guitar, Larry, you are also talking about the death of the ego—the same fight we all have. Will I be appreciated? Will I be interrupted? How “correct,” how “precise” do I have to be?  I love your concept of practice giving way to play, and that does happen, and you’re right—more easily, for me, in writing than at the piano.  See the “Home” page on this website for my poem "The Craft," which denies that, for me, there IS anything like “mastery.”   However, your last question is a real stumper for me: “What context difference shifts us between practice and improvisation?”  I think you’re on to something when you speak of “release from precise duplication”—those Czerny exercises, for instance, that I wrote about previously.  Perhaps it also has to do with physical agility vs. mental agility. The physical so often lags behind. The physical is now “holding me back,” though according to Campbell, it needn’t if we understand that aging is inevitable. The acceptance of limitation is the key—which is somehow harder, for me, than acceptance of death, which rarely seems imminent, especially if we are generally “healthy”—even as we age.


"Home" in August

Even though I’m not teaching in the fall, August still makes me anxious, as if I must take advantage of every little bit of time.  The wild flowers are lush--Queen Anne’s lace, chicory-- the scent of purple clover abounds. Redstarts and nuthatches called to Elliot and me on our noon walk.

Not being able to go directly to the piano after breakfast, I came up here to my office and started to link together some of the bits and pieces of images and words that have been floating around my mind for some time.  Like dolls, these elements are stiff, static, until limbered by attention and brought together by play. 

The “tail end” (no pun intended) that started me off today was our Elliot, who slept with his nose under his discarded rug last night, studiously ignoring the new bed I bought him yesterday.  The phrase “smells like home” occurred to me:

For seven years he’s slept on his puppy bed,

topped with a dingy, finally unwashable, rug.

The new bed rests where the old

one was, but he will not

set paw on its new-smelling

softness; instead, sticks his nose

under the old rug wadded for trash,

sighs for what still smells like home.


“Lay it on top of the new bed,” you

suggest, and I think about the few

sticks of your mother’s furniture we

crammed into her Alzheimer’s bleached,

air-freshened room that August.

Having lost both sense of smell

and her direction to the disease,

she’d plead, “I just want to go home.”

And again, over and over again,

“Please, let me go home.”


In my first sharp memory of August,

I am a child pestering my sister

on a hot, hazy, Kansas Friday

night. Our parents have gone out.

Home is being alone with her, how

easy we  are together, laughing, wrestling,

dabbing our sweaty wrists and necks with

“Evening in Paris.” Later, she complained

of headache, took two days to die from polio.


This is a kinder August, the heat less

brutal. That disease, at least, has been

vanquished, at least, for now. The locusts

sing a less terrifying song.

After years of a commuter marriage,

you are home. Our house has brightened;

fragrant red flowers bloom from our walls.


With luck, poems and their scents remain

while homes, while Augusts, come and go.


Like all drafts, it is unsatisfactory at first: circling yet again back to “my story” (see first blog entry).  But then it changes: bits of “my story” have to make accomodations as they fit together (in “reality” my sister and I never played with perfume, nor was Steve’s mother able to take any of her own furniture to the nursing home).  And even more accomodations (cuts of unnecessary words) come as I decide to write in pentameter. I consider trying for verse, but only internal rhymes suggest themselves. I consider another “Theme and Variations” poem, because it is, essentially, variations on the theme of “home,” but (today at least) it seems to call for something a bit more coherent.  Now the delightful problem is not making it too coherent.  The stanzas may want reordering. And so it goes. Revising is play, as far as I’m concerned.

But the piano still called. Knowing how easily musical pieces can slip away from idle fingers, I strapped my shoulder into a belt borrowed from my yoga instructor and played Beethoven for half an hour.  I remember that, when my shoulder first caused trouble, last year, I had to play in shorter chunks of twenty minutes, not the longer sessions I favor. I may have to do that again.

 The reference, in the poem draft, to polio’s being “vanquished, at least, for now” stems from the recent outbreaks of polio throughout the world. Yesterday’s news indicates that the virus might indeed have mutated, and this, just a few years after it was thought that the deadly disease that killed my sister was going the way of smallpox and whooping cough.  And It probably would have, save for fear and politics. I think of what that vaccine would have meant to the hundreds of thousands of (mainly) children infected in the last sixty years.  Please read about it here.  And please: vaccinate your children.


"Each moment offers a variant of the previous"

I am learning (slowly) to use Twitter, hopefully to connect with others out there interested in the creative process.  I feel somewhat overwhelmed at figuring out the art of Tweeting, but saw today that there is actually a #creative process, which led me to this:

I like the blog especially because the writer links his own art to science as well as to his own life experience. I love his exploration of the idea that the creative process in his art (one thing leads to the next) is the same as that of genes (nature). Surprise, surprise!

My thoughts turn to painting today, partly because of his blog entry and partly because of breakfast with my friend Cheryl, whose beautiful painting “Moon Phases/Summer Healing” I recently bought from her. She says that, somewhat like Kandinsky, whose process I wrote about recently, artistic ideas build up slowly in her head before she actually starts to paint.

This has never been the case for my poetry. I might start with a tag end of a phrase, but until I actually write it down (i.e. “Inspiration comes from work”),  I don’t know where it will go: how the words will play together; what other things they will suggest.  Picasso put it this way:  “If you know EXACTLY what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?  

I am frustrated with my current physical restrictions: the flare up of my rotator cuff that has kept me from the piano and the pool for two days now. But I am thankful for its sending me to the exercise bike where I can still keep up my cardiovascular work until I can swim again.  But I am frustrated by the apparent detour: i.e. I have a “plan” and I want it to play out as I have envisoned. As I said in my first post, everyone has a story, and mine has to do with the early knowledge that death can happy at any time—quickly and irrevocably—and so one had better make good use of one’s time.  However, such set requirements and “schedules” are the opposite of the creative process I just spoke of: NOT knowing exactly where the day, or week, or year will take you. Following tag ends of opportunities when they present themselves and seeing what they attract when attended to.  Being willing to follow detours and mutations. I do believe that life itself is such a creative process but sometimes lose center when the winds seem to be blowing me “off-course.”

Variations again—intended and unintended. I wrote about variations in one of the contest pieces (not yet submitted).  And a friend and former work colleague, Sara—now a retired Unitarian minister from Florida--writes:

Noticing natural variations is my practice.  My house in Tampa sits on a slight embankment about 10 feet from a large pond. A county park abuts the pond on the opposite side.  Every morning between 7 and 8 am, I am out on the porch where I meditate on and write about the variations in color and texture of the foliage of the scrub pines, crepe myrtles, and other plants growing nearby and on the far bank.  Every single thing visible in its variations offers double and sometimes third and fourth variations as it is reflected in the water.  Each moment offers a variant of the previous, as any breeze changes the movement of the water, as it does when a mullet jumps, or a heron leisurely wading by in the shallows spots me and takes off.  Cloud patterns determine the color of the water, and the water color changes moment to moment from gray to deep green to blue and pink.  In August, after 9:30 am, it's too hot to remain outside.  From the living room or bedroom I  observe variations at other times of the day.  Just now a kingfisher sits on the lowest branch of the crepe myrtle in the rain.  He waits for a fish to jump and then he dives head first into the water to grab it and sets off ripples that widen, creating patterns and...more variations. 

(Herons again--see previous post!)

I am struck by the visual changes that take place even as you write, Sara. The scene changes with the light, time of day, and in the watery reflections. Why are we so mesmerized by the dance? Like children listening to a story, do we just want to see what will play out next?