Noise, Voice, and the T. S. Eliot Society

Last week, on the night of my birthday, I dreamed that my father phoned from the afterlife. The strangeness of hearing his voice made me think, the next morning, of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s elegies for the voices of lost loved ones: photographs were common then but since audio recordings were very rare, a person’s timbre and accent really did fall silent forever. It wasn’t clear, in my dream, that my father knew he’d died, but I did, and even asleep I was amazed at how he sounded perfectly like himself. I’ve looked at lots of pictures of my father since his death but, although there are probably recordings of his Brooklyn vowels somewhere, I’m unlikely to hunt them down and listen. Even for twenty-first-century me, voice remains more ephemeral than image.

That strange dream-signal was part of the noise I brought to the T. S. Eliot Society’s annual meeting in St. Louis this weekend. Michael Coyle invited me to lead a seminar on sound in Eliot’s verse, which turned out to be pretty fabulous. Members of this small group had prepared papers on Eliot’s poems, criticism, and plays in print and in performance: John Melillo, who wrote an honors thesis for me at W&L ten years ago, now listens for the shifting relations of voice and noise in “The Waste Land,” with Dada playing in the background; Elizabeth Micaković had fascinating things to say about Eliot’s relationship to elocution (I’d forgotten that Emily Hale taught speech!); Fabio Vericat took on Eliot’s shifting relationship to poetic genres as he became more involved in BBC broadcasting; Julia Daniel discussed a recorded performance of Murder in the Cathedral, particularly how Eliot developed the chorus with help from a celebrated expert in choral verse speaking; and actor Michael Rogalski described his work on a performance of Four Quartets. This was an auspiciously noisy seminar: conversation began on the shuttle bus and stayed lively straight through the session and lunch after. We agreed that it had been the best seminar in recorded history and it’s a shame all of you other human beings missed it.

On the second day of the conference, Mike performed Four Quartets. His production-in-progress is fairly spare: a white screen, four white blocks he shifts around, and one actor in a gray suit. The setting, in contrast, was the posh St. Louis Women’s Club, where we had just been served a fancy lunch with monogrammed silver: a large chandelier glittered over Mike’s head as he spoke, white columns framed the space, and he paced on a dark green carpet patterned with vines and roses. Sometimes I was aware of Mike interpreting the poem; sometimes I fell unselfconsciously into the flow of language. The experience reminded me of another lost person, my dissertation adviser and a distinguished scholar of modernism, Walt Litz. I had confessed to Walt that I loved “The Waste Land” but couldn’t get excited about the repetitious, recursive self-corrections of Four Quartets. Walt chuckled at twenty-five-year-old me and reassured me it was a poem for middle-aged people. Well, here I am, getting older, and yes, Eliot’s disclosure of the “gifts reserved for age” is powerful now. So, though, is the noise, in this case the distant kitchen clatter of mostly African-American women doing the luncheon dishes and laughing, as the mostly white audience sat respectfully hushed. That counterpoint seemed important to me.

The “compound ghost” of Walt and my father—I have always associated them with one another, both men paternal to me, and drinkers, and more smart than honest—materialized again during the conference’s Saturday night festivities. While several scholars sang show tunes over a grand piano and others danced barefoot, I talked with a Washington University professor who had helped Walt during his crisis years just before retirement in the early 90s, when I was one of Walt’s final protégés. It turns out that my dissertation adviser, who was good to me but so destructive in other ways, who seemed almost to fall off the face of the earth, is still alive in a Princeton nursing home. If I can find out which, I can still contact him. I’m not sure if he remembers me, though—if I left an impression at all commensurate with his echo in me. He liked me and helped me land a job at Washington and Lee, but whatever I am now, I wasn’t a star then. It came back to me later (through Walt himself? through my eventual colleagues? I can’t remember) that he had called my interviewers, then a department full of men who’d had trouble hiring and tenuring women, and told them that I was “easy to get along with, but no doormat.”

Over the dream-telephone last week, my father said hello and apologized for not calling sooner, mumbling angrily about the doctors who had screwed things up. He also said, “It’s snowing here,” before the line was cut. So much of what we would say to people gets fuzzed out, lost in the snow. Sometimes the message would be so painful that memory’s degradation is a good thing. And sometimes it’s also good, as my own long-ago student so wisely does, to attend to the noise just as closely as the voices.

Conversations and mixtapes

Around the time I started reading Ginsberg and Keats, enraptured by anaphora and alliteration, I was also spending all my babysitting dollars on record albums by David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop—and when the money ran out, checking beat-up Janis Joplin LPs out of our town’s tiny cedar-shake library, a repurposed chapel. All this art addressed the same longing: I was lonely and bored in my single-sex Catholic high school. I had too few friends who cared about books and music. The time I spent plugged into a Walkman, or lying on the floor next to speakers at the softest possible volume (audible music irritated my parents), didn’t seem all that different from the hours poring over City Lights paperbacks. It was all about tuning into those anguished, sympathetic voices however I could.

I still read and write poetry when I’m lonely. I know it’s perverse to open a book when you want conversation but, off campus, it’s often hard to get down to serious talk: the intellectual, emotional, shockingly impolite high-stakes stuff good books are full of. I bring this need to music much less often than I used to, partly because poetry occupies center stage—but also, ridiculously, because my eyes went bad. I lost the argument about keeping LPs downstairs (I’m re-waging the war this summer); Chris insists on stacking the CDs in a dark corner where I can’t read the spines; from the beginning I found the celebrated tininess of iPods just irritating. And while I can’t read music or carry a tune, my spouse and daughter are musicians with strong opinions, and so far teenage eye-rolling has thwarted my desire to get to know old-time music better. In the eternal spousal divide-and-conquer allotment of skills, commitments, and obsessions, I just threw up my hands: OK, Chris, music is yours.

I’ve been thinking, though, that I need to bring music back into my classrooms, beyond the occasional illustrative track for a class on blues or jazz poetry. My colleague Gordon Ball at VMI has been talking about an undergraduate poetry and music symposium in 2013 and I’m having fantasies of a Claudia Emerson/ Kent Ippolito concert. I just taught “Introduction to Poetry” again for the first time in years—it used to be my big major-recruiting class, sacrificed during my stint as department head—and I don’t know why I let slip that little unit on poetry and music I always closed with. There are certain students who will follow you to the ends of the earth if you let them write a paper on their favorite Bob Dylan song; it’s a good thing to snag those kids early. A lot of my very best students came to poetry through music. John Melillo of Algae and Tentacles, for example, is now an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at the University of Arizona and basically specializes in noise. The day he recited “Howl” to my class through a voice changing device, I laughed so hard I achieved a sort of anoxic nirvana.

When I started teaching, students would sometimes make me those labor-intensive mixtapes, involving hours of recording vinyl to cassette. The mixers were almost always male, the memorable exception being the always exceptional Jeanne, who offered up a compilation of lesbian folk singers. Listen to this, they’d urge, pressing the Maxell tape or, later, CD into my hands, because that’s how boys tell girls what they’re thinking about. I studied James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” with Brandon, knowing it would take root it him, and he insisted I study The Decemberists, knowing those songs would take root in me. Lately, it hasn’t been music, but the impulse is the same: Marino emailed me links to his favorite spoken word tracks on YouTube and Drew to podcasts from The Moth. Drew muttered that I needed a better phone for listening to them, too, as he programmed his number in; I complained I can’t see all those tiny little buttons but I expect he’s right. It’s good to listen to, for, with each other. To stay in the conversation, I probably need to make friends with machines smaller than microwave ovens.

More immediately, though, I’m reading student portfolios for a Poetic Forms workshop, arguing with sleep-deprived Tal about whether he needs an article before “pose” (I’m right, but he doesn’t believe me), and writing back and forth to Annie, who reports having a hard time chatting about her poems but, in poetry’s sacred space, is honest about the very hardest subjects. Max surprised me with a poem that talks back to my own “Horror Stories,” which responds to Frost’s “Out, Out–,” which itself cites Shakespeare—that’s a discussion with some legs (audio of my poem is allegedly here, although I can never bear recordings of myself so can’t check). As I listen to them all, my window’s open to pelting rain and cardinals chip-chip-chipping in the maple. Some neighbor’s playing Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” And I’m thinking I need to make copies of “Boy Breaking Glass” for Jack and “Southern History” for Amy, unless they’re reading this, I guess. You never know who’s going to pay attention, or when.