A Gift from Leonard Cohen on His 80th Birthday!

Happy 80th Birthday to Leonard Cohen! If you click here today, you’ll be able to preview some songs from his new album, Popular Problems, due out Sept. 23. One of my favorites is the last track: “You Got Me Singing.” And if you buy the album through this NPR site, you’ll benefit NPR as well.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Cohen says,

“A lot of young writers ask me for advice – mistakenly, because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated," he explained. "The only thing I can say is, a song will yield if you stick with it long enough. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. Sometimes a song [like “Born in Chains”] has to hang around for a decade or two before it finds its expression."

"By contrast, the songs "You Got Me Singing" and "Did I Ever Love You" were written "very quickly," he said. . . . .

"Some of them came together with shockingly alarming speed," said Cohen, who recorded many of the songs at his home studio. "Usually, I take a long, long time – partly because of an addiction to perfection, partly just sheer laziness."

In today’s New York Times Review section, Jason Karlawish, professor of medical ethics, in his article “Too Young to Die, Too Old to Worry,” discusses Cohen’s announcement that he will resume smoking at age 80, which Cohen says is “the right age to recommence.”  Karlawish says, “Our culture of aging is one of extremes. You are either healthy and executing vigorous efforts to build your health account, or you are dying. And yet, as we start to ‘ache in the places where [we] used to play,’ as one of Mr. Cohen’s songs puts it, we want to focus on the present.” At some point, he implies, though disagreeing with Mr. Cohen’s choice, “you have to start indulging in the pleasures of the present.”

Cohen, whom Steve and I saw here last year in Milwaukee, inspires me with the free gift he offers (see link above) on his 80th birthday. As I said at the beginning of this blog, I am preparing the “gift” of a recital and hopefully a new book on my 70th birthday next year. Hopefully they will all bring pleasure.

And Cohen is correct in that sometimes creative work “hangs around” for years before it “finds its expression.”  Never throw anything out.  Don’t give up on any draft.  And enjoy the rejuvenation.

Speaking of which, here is a just-quickly-revised poem that has been “hanging around” for quite a few years, never published--until now. I never saw the metaphorical connection between the plant in the poem and the draft of a poem until now.


Bringing in a Plant in the Fall


New leaves

for less light

will come.


As you carry your lush

plant inside,

out of the cold,

continue to water it


while it releases

old leaves.


Allow it to be

empty for a while.


Allow it to be

ugly for a while.


Allow it to be sad

for a while.


As the plant's

leaves wither,

drop, leaving bare

wooden stalks,


do not throw it away.

do not buy another.


New leaves

for less light

will come.


Fall Equinox

Thank you to Larry, Alice, and Mary Lou who have responded to recent posts. Larry, I appreciate your feelings about having to attend so many funerals/wakes recently: one for the father of children who are now about the age you were when your father died—eight. How difficult it is to lose someone at an age when you can’t really process what is happening. I was seven when my only sister died. I like your idea of writing something that they can read later, or perhaps just to indicate your willingness to talk with them when the time comes. I wish someone had done that for me. As you say, Alice, “Open sharing like this seem to offer release into a bigger picture, easing the way to letting go.”

It is good to know that someone else has survived what you are going through now. Again, as you say, Alice, “These entries are a great reminder of human community and the possibilities of beauty in experience.” 

Mary Lou writes about the “buffer of time” that also helps—not only to soften loss, but also to provide a necessary space between idea and realization. How awful it would be, in spite of our cultural impatience, to have every thought manifest as soon as it is thought! We need time, as you point out, to “get it right” through, perhaps, practice.

Maybe it’s the shortening days that bring such reflections. Fall arrives on Monday, with a nearly new moon: the emphasis on balance and new beginnings.


I go to the piano for 20 minutes and then take a break, pulling my shoulders down and turning my palms outward. It’s hard to break when I’m involved in the music but I have found, as some have noted, that short work periods are often just as productive as longer ones, and sometimes more so.


I got my physical therapist’s ok to start swimming again, but only for 15 minutes. It felt great, and the shoulder was fine as long as I maintained the correct form. I’ve also started using machine weights to strengthen my back. The balance of cross-training feels right.

Larry, a part of your poem also speaks to me of balance:

Breathing curtails
the wince of loss
Inhale to bring them near
Pause to hear them
Exhale and let them go


I’ll close tonight with two poems about fall, geese, and breath: one familiar, and another that might be new to you. It was to me.

First, from Mary Oliver, who just celebrated her 79th birthday:

reading "Wild Geese"


Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver


You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.




 by Michael Shorb

Just north of Valley Falls
  rust mustard hue of
  fading autumn
                chills the marsh
  last storm of
    Canadian geese
  stuns the flyway

      imprinted engines of feathers and cries.

      I wonder how they'll
    thread their way
  how instincts born of spanning
  northern frosts and raw
  walnut air
            navigate interstate
  haze to pinpoints in
  South American distance
  zeroing back with
  each unerring swoop
  to splashdown
                on a mountain lake
  where reeds bend
  mirrored in watery
              of their own swaying

    they and the vanishing geese
  a single string
            neutron dance
          branches of the actual
  surrounding me like
    breath returning
  when everything else
                        is gone.


image by Kevin Kane


Finding the Words

I have just negotiated the date of my recital in 2015 for Saturday afternoon, May 30! As always, it seems quite far away—over eight months—but I know from experience that I will need every one of those days to prepare the five works I hope to play. My plan now is to start with the Beata Golec’s Toccata followed by Bach’s Toccata in E minor and Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens. Then, after intermission, the variations: Beethoven’s in op. 109 and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli.

I am itching to get back to the piano. I have been out of town for five days in the past week—first at American Players Theater for a couple of days where we saw Chekov’s The Seagull and Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma with family and friends—and now at Clarke University in Dubuque where Steve is finishing up some work.

I love being on a small college campus in the fall. It brings back such wonderful memories of my college years at Ohio Wesleyan University: the fresh start, the new friendships, and the amazing professors who first introduced me to Whitman, Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, and the great Russian writers. I did not take many piano lessons in college because my English classes drew me so forcefully. But staying in a dorm again even for a few days, and reading/writing in the college library bring back so many great pleasures.

Yesterday in the Clarke library, I sat down and read straight through Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel. Wow.

I urge you to buy the book and read it—even if you have never lost a child. If you are a parent, read it. And if not, at least read Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker Aug. 4 review of Gabriel, excellent discussion of elegies, and interview with Hirsch called “Finding the Words: A Masterpiece of Sorrow.”

In it, Hirsch says,

I used to believe in poetry in a way that I don’t now. I used to feel that poetry would save us. When I was writing ‘Gabriel,’ even the painful things were consoling, but I’m aware when I’m outside the poem that the poem doesn’t give me my son back. Art can’t give him back to me. It comforts you some, better than almost anything else can, but you’re still left with your losses.

Yes. That’s true. What the Hirsch’s poem does do, however, is to link his loss with the many other similar losses by other poets throughout the ages: poets who have lost children to scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, smallpox.

He writes of Yamanoue no Okura, Japanese poet of the seventh century:


Yamanoue worried that his son’s soul

Would not know the right road

To take in the underworld


And so he offered to pay the fee

Of the courier from the realms below

to carry Furuhi on his back


A father broods that his son

Is wandering on the wrong road

Lost in the otherworld without a coat


In this last stanza, Hirsch makes the connection between Yamanoue’s son and his own.

According to Pema Chödrön and Alice Walker’s conversation, “Good Medicine for This World,” from the January, 1999, issue of Shambala Sun, connection is the way out of suffering. Chödrön says, “I have found that it’s less overwhelming if you start with your own experience of suffering and then generalize to all the other people who are feeling what you do. That gives you a way to work with your pain: instead of feeling like you’re increasing your suffering, you’re making it meaningful.”

Maybe. I have always admired and tried to emulate that aspect of Buddhism. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is much “easier” just to blame God, even if you do not believe in him. Hirsch writes, in Gabriel:



You’ve already broken my heart


I will not forgive you

Sun of emptiness

Sky of blank clouds


I will not forgive you

Indifferent God

Until you give me back my son

My mother was a very devout Christian.  The night after my sister died of polio, my mother was wild with fear that my sister would “wake up” on the “other side,” alone, calling for her, not knowing where she was. The thought tortured her until, she said, she heard “a voice” saying simply, “Marilyn is all right.” From that point on, my mother was calmed.  Sad to say, my father never validated her experience, and even I, in my determined atheistic twenties, scoffed.  My father told me never to speak of my sister because it “hurt” my mother. Because I obeyed him out of my own fear of my mother’s overwhelming sorrow, I have paid the price of forgetting much about my sister. As Hirsch writes,


I’m scared of rounding him up

And turning him into a story


God of Scribbles and Erasures

I hope he shines through

Like a Giacometti portrait


I keep scraping the canvas

And painting him over again

But he keeps slipping away


But though he also writes--


Poet who labored so hard at your craft

On a scarred wooden desk

It is late now


It is time

To turn off the lamp

And come down from your study--


he keeps on writing an unpunctuated  narrative (as if to keep it from ending) about his difficult but beloved son. As long as his grief survives, so does his son.

I, too, keep “scraping the canvas” of my many poems about my sister in order to paint her over and over again. 

Chödrön says, in a different Shambala Sun article, September 1998,  

There is nothing wrong with negativity per se; the problem is that we never see it, we never honor it, we never look into its heart. We don't taste our negativity, smell it, get to know it. Instead, we are always trying to get rid of it by punching someone in the face, by slandering someone, by punishing ourselves, or by repressing our feelings. In between repression and acting out, however, there is something wise and profound and timeless.

If we just try to get rid of negative feelings, we don't realize that those feelings are our wisdom. The transmutation comes from the willingness to hold our seat with the feeling, to let the words go, to let the justification go. We don't have to have resolution. We can live with a dissonant note; we don't have to play the next key to end the tune.

I love Chödrön’s musical image about living with dissonant notes and not needing resolution. I’m not so sure about letting the words go.






Digital Art: Borrowing, Recycling, Cannibalizing?

Thanks again to Harvey Taylor for his comments on and examples of improvisation, including this example of “sound collage” between "laptop" and his own trumpet improvisation: Miss You, Kauai.  

I am grateful for his introducing me to an example of digital art with which I was unfamiliar.


According to Wikipedia,

The origin of sound collage can be traced back to the works of Biber's programmatic sonata Battalia (1673) and Mozart's Don Giovanni (1789), and some critics have described certain passages in Mahler symphonies as collage, but the first fully developed collages occur in a few works by Charles Ives. Earlier traditional forms and procedures such as the quodlibet, medley, potpourri, and centonization differ from collage in that the various elements in them are made to fit smoothly together, whereas in a collage clashes of key, timbre, texture, meter, tempo, or other discrepancies are important in helping to preserve the individuality of the constituent elements and to convey the impression of a heterogeneous assemblage.[2] What made their technique true collage, however, was the juxtaposition of quotations and unrelated melodies, either by layering them or by moving between them in quick succession, as in a film montage sequence.

Although the technique of collage is generally associated with painting, the use of collage in music by Biber, Mozart, Mahler, and Ives actually predates the use of collage in painting by artists like Picasso and Braque, who are generally credited with creating the first collage paintings around 1912. Ives, on the other hand, in his piece Central Park in the Dark, composed in 1906, creates the feeling of a walk in the city by layering several distinct melodies and quotations on top of each other.

Today, however, it is to the genre of rap that we owe thanks for bringing to our attention this “borrowing” of the old for the creation of the new.  And I had no idea that the laptop could be an instrument!

Of course, there are current legal issues out there with the “borrowing” or “recycling” or “cannibalizing” (choose your word) of older works to create new ones. Generally, I am all for it, having loved the idea of collage from the time I learned to cut and paste. I love seeing how things change being put in new relationship to something else. Both elements are then free to “speak” in new ways.  I actually used a lot of passages of a famous writer, whose name you can probably guess, (without permission—it not yet being in the “public domain”) in a poem called “Unframed Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman,” published by the Beloit Poetry Journal a decade ago.  The BPJ did it, knowing that they might easily be sued by the descendents of that “famous” writer. And I have always been grateful, but wary of republishing that poem.

Nevertheless, as the above passage from Wikipedia notes, “quotations” have long been embedded in all kinds of music, including, of course, jazz, as tributes to the original composer.  But in writing it is called “plagiarism.”  That Shakespeare “borrowed” almost all of his plots (and perhaps even some of the language) is generally ignored.

I believe that the Internet is, or already has been,  loosening the idea of artistic “ownership,” which I realize can and does have unfortunate results, as when an artist’s work is downloaded illegally, depriving her/him of livelihood. But if “livelihood” is not the issue, then why not?  I would be interested in hearing comments about this.

 Harvey says that he began learning music on the piano, but then shifted to the guitar and trumpet (much more portable instruments), returning to the trumpet as an adult. He shares this poem about having to heft his piano whenever he moved, which I found amusing, since I had written a similar poem decades ago.  Here are both—Harvey’s first:


Beloved Behemoth


I got an elephant a long time ago,

a spinet piano three of us somehow

muscled up three flights of stairs to my attic.


I loved that elephant, played it non-stop for years

while studying composition and theory, then

returned to guitar and songwriting, and

my beloved behemoth adjusted to retirement,

with more and more stuff piled on it, and around it,

in front of it, and behind it, taking up

precious room in a small area, until

today, when three stalwart movers

delicately eased it back down all those stairs,

around all those corners, with the turn

from the attic to the second floor allowing

about half an inch to negotiate—whew!

finally out the door, onto a trailer, and

across the river to a friend who I hope

will also fall in love with my ex,

though I’m certain that the movers loved

its new home being on the ground floor.


Beloved Behemoth, I already miss you…

and I’m glad you’re gone




Things That Must Always Accompany You                                     


The cripple on the tricycle,

the idiot brother who drools

but who your mother says

must tag along.


The make-do furniture you chose

in a hurry at a second

hand store with your long-gone lover

who didn't give a damn.


A wolf baring its teeth,

gulping its food:

your failure to curb

your temper, your greed.


Scars given and borne,

the raised pale trails of sharpness

snaking over your body.


The box of family pictures

turning powdery with mildew,

carted from home after home

as you left each behind.


The neglected piano too,

scratched mahogany,

hefted stiffly and laboriously after

you as you climbed the stairs

into each new home.


They won't go away.


All these and more

lumber after you, sit and wait

in the edges

there in the corners for

your attention,

for the unlikely

miracle of your love.


Like despised

ignored dwarves

in a fairy tale, they grow

as you age,

looming toward the center,

an unexpected bridge

to wholeness.


Turn, touch,


your finger along

their sharp curves, smooth

edges, dulled surfaces.


Wash them with your tears,

rub them with sweet-smelling oil,

dry them with your hair.


You are their last

chance for redemption

and they, yours.


So: what do you think about “borrowing,” “quoting,” or “recycling” the music/art/writing of others? (How) has the Internet changed things in this regard?


Poetry in E-Book Format? 

Recently the New York Times featured a front-page article about poetry called “Line by Line, E-Books Turn Poet-Friendly.”  It is unusual enough to worth noting that the NYT considers poetry important enough to be a front-page topic; however, the impetus was the digitization of John Ashbery’s 17 previous books of poetry:

The poetry of Mr. Ashbery, who often writes in long, Walt Whitmanesque lines and uses complex indentations, was difficult to digitize. “Many of my poems have lines that are very long, and it’s important to me that they be accurately reproduced on the page,” he said. “The impact of a poem very often comes down to line breaks, which publishers of poetry often don’t seem to find as important as the people who write the poems.”

After his first misadventure, Mr. Ashbery was reluctant to sell his e-book rights again. But then two years ago, his literary agent met with Jane Friedman, Open Road’s chief executive, who was interested in publishing digital versions of Mr. Ashbery’s work. She assured Mr. Ashbery and his agent that the e-book formatting would preserve his lines.

After a courtship that stretched on for about a year, Mr. Ashbery agreed to sign over digital rights for 17 collections.

Apparently, some poets are still not happy with the results even though many publishers have gone to the extra added expense of having the poems hand-coded.  For instance, Billy Collins has added a disclaimer to his poems published as e-books

after seeing how changing the font size on an e-reader “threw the poem out of kilter,” as he put it. His e-books now carry a warning that certain functions of an e-reader can change the “physical integrity of the poem.”

“The first impression you have of a poem is looking at the shape on a page,” Mr. Collins said. “A poem has a sculptural integrity that is not registered on any e-reader.”

I have had some limited experience with this phenomenon as an author publishing online. Most journals are careful to preserve the original spacing, but others are not as careful (or perhaps knowledgeable), and the visual result has been disappointing and distracting.

In any case, online publishing is becoming a viable alternative to print publishing for poets. Most poets, as the article goes on to say, me included, prefer to hold a slim volume of poetry in the hand, with a pencil to mark passages and pages to be dog-eared. However, as broached in my last entry, publishing poetry, especially in print, is becoming more and more competitive, with all kinds of ramifications and implications. There is still, I think, a belief that being published “in print” somehow reflects the value of the work better than “online.”  Perhaps it comes back to the relative abundance of paper/ink vs. pages of the internet. There are certainly more online journals today than paper ones, with lots more room to publish as much as they wish. But even then they have to think about the limits of their readers and their own standards of what  “good” poetry is.

I have indicated, early on, that I would like to give away my work “for free”—that solution in the recent movie Begin Again resonating with me.  And it is possible to do this. But would it be as valuable a gift as if it were in print form? And if it were in print format, could I afford to do it?  I think we are talking, among other things, about “presentation.” And unless you have access to a good web designer, which does not come cheap, the “presentation” of a digital e-book of poetry is just not as attractive (at least to me) as a print book (aside from the physical limitations mentioned above).

I confess that I have recently simultaneously submitted a long poetry manuscript to two publishers who still publish in paper form without asking the author to bear some of the cost. But such places are increasingly rare. And I am not particularly optimistic.

I would be interested in comments from others about this dilemma and how they are working within it. Is it a generational thing? Or are young people also more impressed with print volumes of poetry? Or having realized how competitive it is to have a book published—even self-published (not as looked-down-upon these days)—are they exploring other ways to share their work online in an aesthetically pleasing form?