from The Salt Companion to John Matthias, ed. Joe Francis Doerr
As editor of Parnassus, I have published several of John Matthias' poems about music and musicians. The first goes back to 1998 when he made a well-received debut with "The Flagellant," a poem about the eccentric Australian composer Percy Grainger, whose radical innovations make Charles Ives and John Cage seem timid. Grainger devised weird meters such as 7/35 and 9/17; exploited player piano rolls before Conlon Noncarrow; pioneered pounding on the strings inside the pianos in search of unusual pings, and, wanting to free music from its bondage to intervals and what he called "harmonic morality," invented instruments like the "Melanette machine." He was almost Glenn Gould's equal in personal quirkiness, designing his own clothes (not to mention a sports bra for his Danish wife) and, while on tour, walking up to sixty miles to the next city on his concert itinerary. As if all this were not enough, he was also a phenomenal polyglot, with eleven languages at his command, and a dedicated Sado-masochist—his habit of whipping himself until he drew blood is the source of Matthias' title.
In "The Flagellant," Matthias certainly revels in Grainger's bizarre behavior and fashion sense. One of his costumes is described as follows: "He wore / a coat from which there dangled gewgaws & galoshes, / pencils, pens & manuscripts all tied on with little bits of string ... " And at one point we are encouraged to picture Grainger "naked on the lid of his piano / talking Maori Swedish German & Icelandic / all at once and lecturing the Frankfurt musicologists / on Kipling." But mostly Matthias zeroes in on Grainger's music, using his own keen ear for rhythmic angularity to create a soundscape that is both rugged and lucid. Let me illustrate. Because Grainger detested the Italian markings in musical scores (molto, allegretto, sforzando, etc.), he recast them into a spiky version of his mother tongue garnished with cockney palaver—a practice that Matthias evokes in the following lines:
Bundle it & jogtrot through these bars, he'd say:
Lower notes of woggle well to the fore.
Easy goes but cling it, louden lots!
Grainger's idiom mixes the outlandish, the high-flown, and the plain (he was an enthusiastic collector of folk songs). To capture it, Matthias plays levels of diction against each other, while at the same time often holding them together by means of consonance: thus in section 8 he piles up "Grieg," "Ellington," "Green," "guising," "geezer," "dangled gewgaws & galoshes," "string," "songs to greenwood gone," "Grettir," "Gershwin," "Mowgli" and "plagal": all in the key of G. (Some of the musical giants here mentioned, by the way, were friends or acquaintances of Grainger, who, somewhat surprisingly, was an amiable social animal and go-between—he introduced Duke Ellington to Delius and visited Grieg in Norway.)
In ending "The Flagellant," Matthias shuns chronology for "gists and piths." Here is the ninth and final section:
But how did one make sounds that were the sea?
In what key was a cloud? Did winds blow sharp or flat?
And when his lovers beat him with the whips
how was he to score his mother's lips?
Must he orchestrate an algolagnia for algophobes?
He'd grow all logarithmical
at loggerheads with Logos on the Loften Isles.
Blue-eyed English queried him—asked the why-grounds
for the hand-claps in the puzzle-wifty towns.
The questions of the first stanza perhaps reflect a listener's mild puzzlement at how Grainger could possibly realize his avowed goal to capture "the streaming, surging, seething forces of the non-human nature." (The fourth line, I believe, refers to unfounded—or at least unproven—rumors that Grainger had an incestuous relationship with his mother.) From line five to the end of the poem, the language appropriately fattens on polysyllables ("algolagnia" is an inkhorn term for Sado-masochism) and becomes almost Dr. Seussian in its droll alliterations. Matthias does not seek to pluck out Percy Grainger's mystery, but equably to sketch his tense, outsized contradictions.
Parnassus' publication of "The Flagellant" sparked a wonderful correspondence with John about many topics, our shared love of opera foremost among them. If I attended a performance of Hugo Weisgall's Esther or Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron, I would e-mail him a detailed report the next day, and if he went to Chicago Lyric to hear William Bolcom's A View from the Bridge or McTeague (John is remarkably open to contemporary music), I would soon find his dispatch in my in-box.
Anybody who has attended performances of warhorses like La Bohème knows that many fans treat opera as a spectator sport, booing the singers they loathe and roaring their approval of those they adore. But there are also opera devotees who read the libretto beforehand, follow the score, and flock to master classes (which the public is often allowed to audit) to learn more about the diabolical art of vocalism. In this venerable institution, such conservatories as Juilliard or Mannes will invite an acclaimed singer to teach a select group of promising vocal students. (Matthias draws on Lotte Lehmann's Eighteen Song Cycles: Studies in Their Interpretation, but the poem is a fictional sketch.) How the session is conducted depends on the veteran singer's temperament. In Matthias' poem "Master Class," the centerpiece of the lesson is Schubert's bleak song "Auf dem Flusse" ("At the River"), in which the forlorn hero of Die Winterreise describes a frozen stream that symbolizes his dead love. The only voice we hear in the poem is that of the teacher putting her young charge through his paces. The poem begins innocently enough with the isolated line "Well, then, one more time." The teacher is at first patient, pointing out technical missteps: "you / failed to emphasize the consonants enough / and your crescendo did not swell." These are not pedantic cavils: the emotional truth of Schubert's song depends on a precise understanding of the deeper meanings of words, which the student, however gifted vocally, has failed to plumb. So, with a tinge of sarcasm she explains them, answering her own questions:
Liegst kalt. It's icy, understand?
What does a heartbeat sound like under ice?
Like this like this.
Let yourself be overcome by grief.
A singer running a master class will sometimes demonstrate her point by sitting down at the piano and performing the passage herself. So to the student she illustrates what a heartbeat under ice sounds like, incidentally revealing how intimately she knows the subtext of "Auf dem Flusse" and how vividly she remembers singing the line and being transported out of herself, like a great actor inhabiting the role of Lear or Hedda Gabler.
But in the next stanza her pedagogy begins to change as she adopts a hands-on approach. Like a theater director, she suggests alternative line readings:
You can't? All right? Then let yourself
be overcome by joy.
Touch her and embrace her
as you did one summer on that river bank.
Unlace her bodice, then. Your hand.
Right here. Heart, your heart
must break must break
because you know that she will die.
For the moment, the teacher sets aside Schubert's notes and gives the student a necessary lesson about the life of the feelings. Her method is physical: she takes the young singer's hand and places it on his heart. The doubling of "must break must break" and the short sentences build intensity and hint at the devastating truth that the wanderer in Schubert's song must face: "you know the lover will die." Music, with due respect to Wallace Stevens in "Peter Quince at the Clavier," is feeling and sound.
This master class shines a light on the generational gap between the aged, wise opera singer and the young man whose self is a tabula rasa. His superficiality irks her: "You are young. You think these are clichés. / Your heart has never broken / but it will," she prophesies. That is a harsh lesson she learned from playing the young Isolde. "Tristan died for me. I died for him." "You think that life is only song," she rebukes him. As if to correct for the disquieting and awkward turn the lesson has taken, she says, "Begin again. Perhaps you favor French." But in a mingling of pride and pain she ruefully cries out, "I am so old so old / and yet I do remember every touch." Again she hurls a challenge at the student: "So touch me. Here." This demand is in turn immediately dropped as she returns to the suggestion that the student switch languages: "Begin again, in French," to which she adds, "I'll sing for you from Berlioz: / Ma belle amie est morte." But then she realizes that the student has probably never even heard of Gautier, whose poem lies behind Berlioz' song. In a melodramatic touch, learned on the opera stage, the diva offers "the poison and the glass" to the young man: "But if you care you'll die for me / you'll die you'll die." The repetition could have been lifted from a Verdi opera.
In the final stanza, the grande dame plays her role with imperious steeliness:
I am the mistress here, the maestro too.
This is my master class.
When you come, you'll sing it as I say.
You'll rhyme your do
with dildo if I like.
You'll sing it sweetly while I play.
Der du so Lustig rauschtest ...
You'll sing it for me every day.
The triple rhyme dictates the rules in a mocking singsong. There's no doubt who is the dominatrix and who is the obedient slave. Bringing back the line from "Auf dem Flusse" is an imaginative stroke on Matthias' part, as it smartly tempers the abrasive tone. At once accessible and subtle, Matthias' simulacrum of a master class exposes with serious charm the strenuous process of perfecting one's art. The poem has perfect pitch.
Though well versed in theory and the technical lexicon of music, Matthias rarely gets mired in jargon; he staves off even the possibility of dryness in his poems by introducing the kind of biographical anecdote that is likely to hook even the musically ignorant. In "A Note on Barber's Adagio," for example, the composer Samuel Barber is driving through Kansas on a November afternoon when he switches on the radio. To his bewilderment and dismay, every station is playing his most popular work, the "Adagio for Strings." Spooked, he steps out of the car and gazes toward the prairie horizon, pondering "why he should be responsible for such an ecstasy of grief." What he does not realize is that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas that morning, and that every radio station in the country has suspended its usual programming in favor of Barber's threnody, as being more suitable to the occasion. Despite the solemnity of his subject matter, Matthias sets down the poem with the light touch of a raconteur at a dinner party.
Or consider "That Music Is the Spur to All Licentiousness," in which Leos Janacek chooses Kamila Stessova, a young married woman, forty years his junior, as his muse: Laura to his Petrarch. This idolatry is doomed. As we know from countless operatic comedies—The Barber of Seville, Don Pasquale, L'Elisir d'Amore, to name only a few—such fantasies and May-to-November marriages and liaisons are to be regarded as ludicrously against nature; the older, usually wealthy lover is outwitted, then humiliated and forced to abandon his plan to marry his ward. Janacek's amorous yearning leads nowhere: "His love unconsummated he embraces / only sound. And it dissolves." But from his obsession comes a kind of consolation, since Kamila inspired three of his greatest operas: Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropolous Affair, as well as other late masterpieces. Matthias ends his poem, not with a harsh judgment of Janacek's touchingly foolish infatuation, but with a brief deathbed scene in which the composer, in his final words, does not betray his heterodox faith and integrity. The jagged lines of the poem closely reproduce the unique musical prosody of Janacek's operas and the tragic ambience of the stories he is drawn to.
There is a romantic strain in Matthias' poems about music that is not grandiose, but a kind of lyric reverie. All concertgoers know that sometimes it is impossible to keep the mind from drifting during a performance, as happens to Matthias in "The Lyric Suite: Aldeburgh Festival. Snape." Once again he introduces an unnerving theme in a minor key: "Consummate in sound, appassionato, / Alban Berg's unconsummated love for Werfel's sister!" Matthias knows that Berg has encrypted his initials and those of Hanna Fuchs-Robettin into the serial structure of The Lyric Suite and that 23 and 10, the couple's favorite numbers, were "locked to Schoenberg's mathematics." The verb "locked" performs double duty as a comment on Berg's musical and personal situation: the numbers determined the bar counts of the episodes and metronome markings of each movement, and Hanna, already married, was his mistress, so the secrecy further concealed their trysts and feelings. Notes in the score echo Tristan, Mahler's wayfaring youths, and the melancholy of "unfulfilled desire." What seizes the poet's ear in the "tranquil Suffolk" night, as he listens distractedly and with willed focus to a passage Berg marked desolato, is the feverish cantabile of the music, in which Berg's suffering is sublimated. Matthias measures Berg's devastation with compassion. The Lyric Suite's last movement quotes, to the initiated, Baudelaire's poem De Profundis Clamavi, in Stefan George's translation. In Berg's annotated copy of the score, he wrote in the words, which exemplify the anguish that suffuses Romantic lieder.
My cry arises from a landscape with no brook
Or tree, no field or flock, where air is lead and
Where in shadows terror looms...
The cold terror of this icy star ... and of this
Night ... So slowly does
The spindle of our time unwind ....
Although transported by the music's wayward moods—amoroso, misterioso, ecstatico—Matthias is not the Viennese composer's Doppelgänger. As The Lyric Suite ends, the poet slowly comes out of his trance—he had imagined himself Pierrot Lunaire—and wakens to his familiar world, in which the moonlight is no longer a stage setting or romantic emblem. He walks out of the concert hall with his wife Diana, who is decidedly not Berg's Hanna:
Beside me there is just one woman,
steady and serene—
and silent as the silent endless last indifferent sky.
Only the portentous last line preserves the lingering sorrow and ardor of Berg's music.
The intertwined hazards and creative breakthroughs of twentieth-century composers are of paramount interest to Matthias. The plight of Berg and Janacek was primarily erotic and psychological torment. But Matthias is also acutely sensitive to the consequences of the tectonic shifts in Europe that brought into power totalitarian regimes. One composer affected by those shifts was Paul Hindemith, who in 1938 fled Nazi Germany for Switzerland, then two years later joined the caravan of distinguished artists and intellectuals heading for America. This haven proved a mixed blessing for Hindemith; he had to learn a new language and find an outlet for his musical imagination in a culture mostly unschooled in—or indifferent to—the refinements of European high art.
Matthias illustrates Hindemith's dilemma in an elaborate (though unrhymed) double sonnet about the composer's 1934 symphony Matis der Maler, inspired by the life of Mathias Grunewald and the making of his masterful Isenheim altarpiece. (The symphony was turned into an opera the following year and premiered in Zurich in 1939.) Matthias links composer and painter across the centuries as heretical artists who lived by St. Paul's admonition "Go forth and create," despite being persecuted like Hindemith or dying in obscurity like Grunewald. Even though Hindemith does not seem to be a tragic figure to Matthias, perhaps because he lacked Grunewald's genius, Matthias' final verdict on Hindemith is poignant and admiring: he leaves us with an image of the composer "Contemplating cosmogonic harmonies with Kepler. / In oblivion with courage and acoustics." The poem's gravitas, the beat of its words heavy with dignified weariness, transcends the gebrauchtsmusik (utilitarian music) of the 1920s that had tarnished Hindemith's reputation and that he later renounced.
By contrast, "Diminished Third," Matthias' poem about Arnold Schoenberg, who also fled the Nazis for America, teems with ironies and absurdities that reflect on America's shallow music culture and Schoenberg's diminished status in exile. This most cerebral and revolutionary of twentieth-century composers finds himself in Los Angeles, the epicenter of kitsch and the home of the cinematic Golden Calf, unable to get his music performed (he's even rejected for a Guggenheim fellowship). Schoenberg's haughtiness is easy to mock, but Matthias mostly declines that gambit. He keeps Schoenberg's theoretical audacity and its pros and cons at the forefront of "Diminished Third." He cleverly brings into the poem Leverkuhn, the composer-protagonist of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus, who is modeled on Schoenberg. Leverkuhn sells his soul to the devil for twenty-four years of musical achievement and sexual abandon. For his barter he gets syphilis, and his serialism, as technically brilliant as the Latin palindrome he devises—Sator Arepo / tenet opera rotas—which reads the same left to right and up and down, verges on the incomprehensible, even for the connoisseur. This charge of aridity and airless intellectuality was leveled at Schoenberg for his atonal compositions. In his opera Moses and Aaron, the great leader of the Israelites, who alone is permitted to speak face-to-face with God, is ironically afflicted with a stammer, so he must rely on his brother Aaron to convey Yahweh's commands to the people. Frustrated, Moses exclaims "Ich will singen, / counting on his finger tips the laws." "This old dogmatic honky rapper," as Matthias affectionately and stingingly calls Schoenberg (Sprechstimme is presumably as unmelodious and relentless as rap), sees his ambitious imagination, boundless as the cosmos, foundering on the rock of New World inopportunity. He becomes friends with George Gershwin, beating him at "tennis, ping pong, chess," but these are pyrrhic victories; the fluent young American is no candidate to become protégé or heir to twelve-tone music. Schoenberg cannot adjust to the ethos of Hollywood. Gershwin resembles Aaron, not the impressive and austere Moses, and thus is susceptible to the tuneful seductions of the Golden Calf: Aaron's 'Ich will singen dinga dinga ding!" is a sardonic variant of Gershwin's "I got plenty o' nuttin."
Matthias respects Schoenberg's genius, intellect, and stubbornness in taking, as he puts it, "the line of most resistance, even in LA." But this restless, eloquent poem also expresses his misgivings about Schoenberg's unforgiving theoretical rigor, as if "the sower would sue for his tenet. In tenebrae." Schoenberg moves through the poem like a deposed God, one who views humans as a scruffy rabble, like the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf who Moses believed were not worthy of receiving the Ten Commandments. Schoenberg's high art was prized in Vienna by a cadre of musical rebels and a relatively small bur sophisticated audience willing to champion it against the conservative taste that derided it as a screeching travesty. America was not arable soil in which to transplant Schoenberg's twelve-tone rows. As an intellectual poet Matthias is no stranger to what Yeats aptly termed "the fascination of what's difficult," so he refrains from criticizing Schoenberg as a hermetic composer. But as an aficionado of jazz and American popular music, he appreciates their muscular and tricky rhythms and jaunty melodies, which he reproduces in parts of "Diminished Third" and which may explain why he does not condemn the democratic masses wholesale as a philistine mob (he is aware they are easily gulled by kitsch). The catchy tunes that they hum are, it is not far-fetched w say, probably like what their Israelite predecessors danced to in the foothills of Mount Sinai. What makes "Diminished Third" a characteristic Matthias biographical sketch in verse are its artful selection of anecdotal details—imagining Schoenberg on a tennis court takes him out of the ivory tower and humanizes him—its mobile shift of perspectives, and its adroit modulations from highbrow to slangy diction. While Matthias adopts a careful objectivity in his presentation of facts and stories and is au courant with the latest musicological scholarship, which persuades the reader he's a reliable narrator, he's not afraid of intruding a waggish opinion, thus leavening his poem with salt and yeast. Matthias portrays the clash of musical cultures by finding verbal and rhythmic equivalents for Schoenberg's atonality and Gershwin's melodic inventions and jazz syncopations.
In an interview with Joe Doerr, Matthias stated that he'd rather read biography than fiction. It follows, then, that one of the high points of Kedging should be a five-part sequence, "The Memoirists," which is roughly chronological, though the individual sections are not shackled to linear storytelling. The first of these short lives is devoted to Mozart's fabulous librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. Then follow Edward Trelawny, the mythomaniacal hanger-on of Byron and Shelley, the equally fraudulent Baron Corvo, and Céleste Alberet, Proust's housekeeper. The sequence concludes with "Epilogue: Four Seasons of Vladimir Dukelsky," the Russian wunderkind who changed his name to Vernon Duke and wrote hit songs. There is nothing arbitrary in Matthias' grouping; thematic motifs thread through all of the sketches. Those sitting for his portraits are not sorcerers themselves, but associates and assistants, who had the privilege or accidental good fortune (Trelawney aggresssively positioned himself as a kind of factotum to gain entrance to the poets' inner circle) of being intimate witnesses, if only for a few years, to the habits, creative processes, love affairs, illnesses, and death of a genius. Da Ponte, that rarity an amiable egotist, would vehemently protest being assigned a subordinate role. Matthias quotes him as boasting: "He [Mozart] was a genius, of course, but so was I, Lorenzo Da Ponte, poet. "
The poem devoted to Da Ponte is called "The Grocer," in reference to the fact that for a time Da Ponte ran a grocery store in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Da Ponte published his autobiography in 1823, obviously a source Matthias drew on for his verse portrait. In "The Grocer," Da Ponte stars as the raffish hero of a picaresque novel: he's a tomcat with more than nine lives whose sexual conquests would fill up a moderate-sized appendix in Leporello's catalogue. Like Benjamin Franklin, the aged Da Ponte savors reliving the exploits of his younger self, who rashly gets into scrapes and escapes by the exercise of his nimble wit, as Figaro did. Matthias ably conveys Da Ponte's many-sidedness and gusto, but also his practice, common to many memoirists, of deleting or revising episodes of his life that show him in a shady or compromised light—why he was expelled from Venice, for example—or embarrass him: his humble origins as a tanner's son, even the name Emmanuel. Matthias pays handsome tribute to Da Ponte's ingenuity and exuberant character, which he writes embodies the qualities of Italian opera: "gaiety, comedy, sprezzatura." Above all, as Matthias' poem makes clear, Da Ponte was a consummate man of the theatre with a fertile imagination for plots, a firm grasp of human motives and self-delusions—the strange unsettling mixture, in DaPonte's words, of "the limits of your love and the limits of forgiveness"—and an uncanny dramaturgical sense of what can work on stage. Matthias has the biographer's nose for the quotation that shines light on his subject's originality. Take Da Ponte's remarks about the function of a finale (doubtless he was recalling the extraordinary last scenes he wrote for Mozart's operas), in which the stage fills with "Noise with everything in uproar ... and excitement and intensity" until "the singers stop and it's the end. " Because mayhem, Da Ponte knows from his own worldly experience, mirrors the lovers' confused identities, it cannot be resolved simply. It can only stop and begin again.
"The Grocer," Matthias' sunniest poem about music, conceals his erudition beneath a genial, affectionate tone and a brio we can call Mozartean. Da Ponte, of course, is an irresistible subject and his life almost a ready-made libretto for an opera—or a biographical sketch in verse. Matthias' surefooted handling of rhythm and quicksilver verbal music convey the man's witty rascality, his shape-shifting personas, his ability to imagine characters—from the libertine Don Giovanni to the avenging Stone Guest to the peasant girl Zerlina—and his utterly unsentimental depiction of love and lust. But he also honors his poetic predecessor as a sorcerer of words. Expelled from Venice, and stealing away incognito, Da Ponte makes sure to pack in his luggage a poem for his friend Pisani and volumes of Dante, Horace, and Petrarch. Wherever he wandered, he carried in his head an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian ballads, epics, and poetic forms from terza rima and canzone to sonnets. When Da Ponte arrived in America his literary accomplishments were unknown to his neighbors. Forced to earn his bread through hard labor, he consoled himself by translating Tasso and Byron's Prophecy of Dante. The publication of his memoirs made him a celebrity, a Lazarus who rose from obscurity and became a man of letters—a quixotic profession in Young America—and a bibliophile, opening a bookshop and importing over 3000 Italian books. It is entirely fitting that he was crowned the first Professor of Italian at Columbia University. In "The Grocer," Matthias scatters the wild laurels on Da Ponte that the Italian rogue and bard believed he deserved.
"Epilogue: Four Seasons of Valdimir Dukelsky" serves as the delightful final portrait of Matthias' "The Memoirists." Two centuries after Da Ponte, another talented European artist is driven to seek sanctuary in America. The precocious young Russian composer, Vladimir Dukelsky, fled his homeland during the revolution and ended up in New York as a writer of popular musicals. Although Dukelsky flirted with serialism and his neo-classical scores for Diaghelev ballets in the 1920s earned him the praise of Stravinsky and Poulenc, he succumbed to the glamour of Broadway. His musical facility was legendary: he could pick up melodies from "KKK-K-Katy" to "Swanee" and "Hindustan" and improvise on them to please crowds, or play Rimsky-Korsakoff as the accompaniment to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. During periods of economic hardship this talent enabled him to eat and to put a roof over his head. And it suited his personality, which was that of a debonair chameleon. In many ways, Duke was the anti-Schoenberg. Exhibiting no signs of the neurotic or the snob, he heeded Gershwin's advice for getting ahead: ''Don't fear low brow, Kid. Tin Pan Alley is okay. If you haven't got a melody you ain't American. Heat me up / some ragtime. We'll change that longhair name to Vernon Duke." (Gershwin sounds like a cross between a shrewd impresario and an Ellis Island bureaucrat, but the vernacular is unmistakably American.) And so Duke refashioned himself as part of music theatre royalty (he wrote the great standard "April in Paris"), even as he set poems by Osip Mandelstam and Ogden Nash. Vernon Duke ousted Vladimir Dukelsky, but there was no dissonance between the two selves. As Matthias wryly notes, "Duke would dig Dukelsky from the rubble / of Depression" and win the respect of Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Thelonius Monk. He was not nostalgic for old Russia, nor did he berate himself for prostituting his talents, as Prokofiev had charged him with doing. (Ironically, in the 1930s Prokofiev was forced to obey the apparatchiks' orders to write potboiler scores for awful Soviet propaganda films.)
That Matthias is fond of Duke's adaptability and verve is evident in the buoyancy of his poem. The long lines never feel prosaic or unwieldy. Matthias' well-trained ear captures Duke's perky, jazz-inflected musical syntax, free to meander where it will and invent piquant harmonies. Much lowbrow music is mediocre because it is banal and formulaic, but Matthias stamps his feet to the rambunctious meters and bluesy cadences that Duke assimilated in his songs. "Epilogue" is a sort of poetic karaoke. It is certainly, for Matthias, a joyous holiday from the ordeals many modernist composers endured. Matthias narrates the details of Duke's colorful career at a brisk pace, and his cast of characters blends highbrows and lowbrows, Runyonesque hookers and Samuel Goldwyn, Cocteau, who challenged Dukelsky to a duel, respectfully declined by the affable Russian, Scriabin, and musicologists into a cocktail that leaves a pleasant buzz in the reader's head. Vernon Duke was not a thorny modernist giant or an embittered outsider and musical outlaw like Arnold Schoenberg; his life had rough patches, but he always landed on his feet. The grim, murderous history of Europe during two World Wars is the harrowing subject of Matthias' poem "Hess / Hess": it contrasts, in dense counterpoint, the pianist Dame Myra Hess playing Beethoven sonatas in the National Gallery during the Blitzkrieg with Rudolph Hess, the Nazi aviator and spy who parachuted into England on a mission of terror. But in "Epilogue," those events unreel in the background like blips on a radar screen; they do not impede the metamorphosis of Vladimir Dukelsky into Vernon Duke: a full-fledged American success story.
From time to time, American poets have written book-length biographical poems, like Robert Penn Warren's Audubon, that study representative men and women and conduct an autopsy of violent episodes in the country's past—the Civil War or the settlement of the West with its brutal campaigns against Indian tribes that uprooted them from their ancestral grounds and expropriated their land. Robert Lowell's History is an anguished meditation on the follies and occasionally the heroism of historical figures. In her last poems, Lorine Niedecker wrote condensed, yet nuanced biographical sketches, like revelatory x-ray images, of Thomas Jefferson, William Morris, and Charles Darwin. So Matthias' decision to write biographical poems about (mainly) modernist composers belongs to an important sub-genre of American poetry. These days, when the lyric of self-communion still sits on the throne, turning back all rivals, and the autobiographical poem, often gossipy and trivial, is cranked out, as if on an assembly line, it is a pleasure, indeed a relief, to read John Matthias' biographical poems. They do not seek to annex the domains of fiction—he has declared his preference for biography over novels—to storm the heavens, to editorialize, or to argue in polemics for a cause, an aesthetic idea, or a form. Nor does he grab a microphone and entertain the audience with his rendition of the great classics; many of his musical poems are elegies. And his biographical verse does not follow a grid; it detours and digresses because his subjects refuse to keep to a straight path, yet the poems seldom get lost in a labyrinth of fact, speculation, or verbiage.
Two artistic strengths endear Matthias' poems about composers and performers to me. First is his restoration of the music of words to its former prominence as an equal partner with the visual image. He is too savvy a poet to try laying Britten's or Janacek's distinctive sounds, asymmetrical rhythmic patterns, repetition, and clashing, mutating pitches and meters into the mosaic of a poem. That would lead to what William Carlos Williams warned against as mere copying, a leaden literalism, and derivative poems, rather than the challenging task of licensing the imagination to discover new connections, which Williams called imitating. Too much contemporary verse, whether formalistic or random, or speech-based is, in my opinion, woefully deficient in rich and varied musical textures. The result is poems notable for monotonous syntax and impoverished or over-familiar sounds. Carefully studying and reading aloud Matthias' poems about music would initiate poets of different agendas and ages into the mysteries and science of acoustics and the pleasures to ear and mind of what Ezra Pound called melopoeia. Matthias' poems about music are not five-finger exercises like Czerny's that aim to improve dexterity; they are freestanding works of art, like Chopin's Etudes.The Salt Companion to John Matthias, ed. Joe Francis Doerr