Monthly Archives: November 2011
A few years ago I heard from a composer who had picked up one of my books when he was in Charleston with the Westminster Choir during the Spoleto Festival. His name was Nathan Jones, and he was interested in composing music for my poem “Newlyweds.” He was good to his word. About a half a year later, the piece was performed by the Westminster Choir during Spoleto USA. I met Nathan at a rehearsal, and it was like meeting an old friend. Listening to the choral piece was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was like listening to angels, and I was moved to tears.
A bride beneath a backpack
bigger than her body, holds
a vase of red and yellow
roses in front of her heart.
The groom, dragging a suitcase
on wheels, hugs a shopping bag
stuffed with still-wrapped gifts,
wedding cake balanced on top.
They run through the airport,
ribbons spilling thin white streams
through the air behind them.
(Used with permission of the author, published in Despite Gravity, Poems by Marjory Heath Wentworth, Ninety-Six Press, Greenville, SC, 2007.)
Newlyweds (link to Westminster Choir Spoleto Performance)
|Performance Notes from the Poet:
“Newlyweds” is inspired by a young couple I met at an airport. They had been married in a small civil ceremony and were literally flying “home” to celebrate their wedding with friends and family. “Newlyweds” is written in the often overlooked Welsh poetic form called the cynhunned. It requires a seven syllable line and often yields an astonishing lyric intensity. The play within the line results in rich alliteration and attention to sound that creates a kind of echoing across the lines that Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins aptly described as “chiming.” I am thrilled that composer Nathan Jones has been inspired by this poem, and it is an honor to have the piece included in this year’s Westminster Choir concert during the Spoleto Festival.
Performance Notes from the Composer
“Newlyweds,” from Wentworth’s collection Despite Gravity, is a simple and elegant text, containing many wonderful images – including red and yellow roses clasped in front of a young bride’s heart and ribbons spilling out of bags of unopened gifts. Such depictions invoke for me the feeling of excited uncertainty at the beginning of a married couple’s journey. To reflect this excitement and sense of traveling forward, I have used a rising suspension chain that mimics the unraveling and spilling out of the streaming ribbons. To represent the security and comfort felt at the beginning of this new level of commitment in a relationship, I provided solid chords for the lower voices. The final words (“…as they travel home with all they think they will ever need.”) return us “home” to the voices and music used at the beginning of the piece. However, in a desire to portray the unknown final outcome of the couple’s relationship, the ending of the piece leaves the music unresolved, for this is only the beginning – they have yet to live their life, writing their own story together.
Performance Notes from the poet:
I am thrilled to report that Nathan has chosen one of my poems again – this time with a poem from my newest collection, The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle. This poem is the first poem in the book, which is structured around poems that ask questions at the beginning of each chapter. The book’s title comes from a line in the Orhan Pamuk novel, Snow, and I wanted the poems to celebrate the small miracles we experience every day – like watching the snow fall, or hearing an owl call through the night. It’s also about gratitude for the simplest things. We take far too much for granted. I am particularly curious about human behavior, in particular righteous behavior that often occurs against all odds. In the poem “What If” I explore the miracle of simple good luck and the notion that we need to always be grateful for good fortune while acknowledging the loss that comes from its opposite. Here’s what Nathan had to say about the experience of working with the students who performed it at Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory: “It was interesting to think about each ‘what if’ specifically as well as how they each would affect the other. Such a deep text and I know the kids in the choir felt the same way. There was one girl who had a good friend that had died in Iraq and was really touched by the ‘war was a memory’ portion…..”
the coin landed on heads instead of tails
wind blew in another direction
a boat landed here the storm turned north
the car stopped before the patch of black ice
fire never spread through the house
the bomb never dropped the bullet missed its mark
What if grass was worshipped and Bach prevailed
Bonhoeffer had succeeded Europeans
had revered the Indians angels were
visible war was a memory
everyone forgot what if the light
within us found a way to burn bright
(used with permission of the author, published in The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle, Poems by Marjory Heath Wentworth, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC, 2010.
What If (link to the YouTube video)
Performance Notes from the Composer:
“When Dirk contacted me in the summer of 2011 about a commission, his first words were, “My administration wants a flash-mob in reverse.” I wasn’t sure what I would write but I was excited for the opportunity to work with Dirk again. I visited him in June and we settled on the poem “What if” by Marjory Wentworth. I’ve used Marjory’s poems before and I love her use of language. This particular text is special because Marjory told me about it when I met her in Charleston the summer of 2010. She said that it was a new style for her that incorporated visual pauses. While Dirk and I were sitting outside talking about the poem, we could hear some birds calling to each other in a very musical way. I decided to use this motive and the thematic phrase “what if” from the poem to create an aleatoric “flash-mob” opening to the piece.”
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems to be dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
From the poem “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda
How we use our land and resources is one of the most important issues of our time. Hardly a day passes without a major news story about development and its impact on the low country landscape and waterways. At the national and international level, environmental issues are a subject of continual debate. What can poetry teach us about something as intractable and complex as the planet we inhabit and all the intricate systems that sustain life?
We have been reworking our relationship with nature as far back as the industrial revolution. English Poet William Wordsworth lamented at the time. “Little we see in nature that is ours.” Since then, science and technology have increased our mastery over nature, but with that mastery we have lost a spiritual and emotional connection with the natural world that we long for. Now, we’re confronting rising sea levels, a changing atmosphere, extinction of species, poison air and water, and diminishing supplies of nonrenewable resources. Poetry can help shape our cultural response to these enormous environmental changes.
Poets look to the natural world to find metaphors and meaning. Nature inspires intense feelings of awe and reverence. American poet Edward Hirsch wrote that this feeling of awe is the deepest spirit of poetry. Poets pay attention to details that others may not notice. These sensory details create a visceral sense of place that is vivid and intense. This reverent attention to nature started a very long time ago. Haiku poems, for example, originated in Japan in the Middle Ages. These poems were always located in the natural world, attentive to time and place (the season), and contained ideas about nature derived from the Zen Buddhist tradition. In other words, writing and reciting Haiku was a religious practice that responded to the environment. Language distilled the essence of an object or place, as in this poem by Haiku master Basho:
A crow settles on it-
The Haiku tradition carries on. America is blessed with numerous poets who write about the natural world. Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver are probably the most widely known nature poets, and there are many others whose poems overtly and directly teach us to cherish the world. This is not a complicated endeavor. It is a matter of simply slowing down and paying attention. It is what a poet does and has always done. Mary Oliver reminds us “Before we move from recklessness into responsibility, from selfishness to a decent happiness, we must want to save our world. And in order to save the world, we must learn to love it – and in order to love it we must become familiar with it again. This is where my work begins, and why I keep walking and looking.”
(Originally published by the Post and Courier)
I recently had the privilege of introducing my friend Atsuro Riley at the South Carolina Book Festival in Columbia, SC. As South Carolina’s Poet Laureate I was particularly pleased to be able to welcome him home. Atsuro lives in CA, but he was raised in the Lowcountry, which is readily apparent in his work. His mother seemed to always be in the kitchen baking biscuits or pickling okra – poem “Skin” Dawn is cracking, and Mama’s fingering flour in a bowl…..and his father was doing classic low country fatherly things, as in the poem “Map” Daddy goes./Trolling and trawling and crawfishing and crabbing and bass-boating …creek-shrimping and cooler- dragging and coon-chasing and dove dogging and so on…
The poems in his first collection Romey’s Order (just out with University of Chicago Press) are filled with black rivers, and all the creatures, plants and people that inhabit what he refers to as his “blood home.” The poem sequence told by a boy named Romey, is the most original collection of poems I have come across. Atsuro’s friend, US Poet Laureate said “When you put this book down, American poetry will be different than when you picked it up.”
There’s an epigraph by Seamus Heaney at the front of the collection, and there is much about this book that reminds me of Heaney’s work – the intense imagery and musical use of the vernacular that evoke a particular place, (Heaney’s Ireland, Riley’s Lowcountry – 2 very different places but each collection of poems equally and uniquely evocative of a place).
It is so rare that a poet is equally gifted in terms of imagery and musicality – almost unheard of actually. As Kay Ryan said – I don’t know how writing can be at the same time so visceral and so aesthetic. There is a density to these poems, a kind of clustering of objects and sounds so that the poems themselves seem like something pulled from the earth – like glitter filled rocks that have spent centuries being formed.
His work has appeared in Poetry, The Threepenny Review, and The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets. He has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and the Wood Prize from Poetry magazine. He just won a 2010 Witter Bynner Fellowship.