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Voices, Visions, And The Duke

June 2024
6min read

In his 1844 essay “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson called upon American poets to fashion a distinctive art from the facts of American life. “Banks and tariffs,” he wrote, “the newspaper and Caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi, and are as swiftly passing away. … Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.”

“Voices and Visions,” a new weekly television series beginning this month on PBS, shows how right Emerson was. Thirteen of America’s most important poets are given an hour each: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath. I have seen six of the programs, and if the rest are anywhere near as good, they constitute one of the finest, most imaginative series ever mounted.

Poetry seems at first an implausible subject for television. At least in our time it has become a mostly private art. (I know one poet who actually stopped giving readings because he could not stand to hear the special, self-satisfied tone that inevitably crept into his voice.)

The easy way to have done this series would have been to concentrate on biography—and the facts of each poet’s life are indeed laid out unsparingly—but its central concern remains poetry , not poets. The viewer comes away from each program with a new sense of what it means to struggle with the sound and sense of words, and admiration for the audacity with which the most ambitious among these poets sought to produce what Crane called a “mystical synthesis of America” in a country growing too fast to pay much attention.

Eyewitnesses to their struggles have their say: William Eric Williams, the doctor son of Dr. William Carlos Williams, takes us through the poet’s attic studio, its wall still spotted with brittle, yellowed clippings that intrigued his father; Malcolm Cowley remembers suspecting that his friend Hart Crane was in love with him, while the late Peggy Cowley, with whom Crane surely was in love, recalls the poet’s suicide. Critics speak too: Richard Poirier travels to the places in Old England where Robert Frost’s New England voice was first heard: Richard Sewall suggests the impact upon Emily Dickinson of inhabiting a bedroom that overlooked the cemetery in which five of her girlhood friends were buried in a single year.

But most indelible is the infectious enthusiasm of living practitioners for the work of their forebears: Galway Kinnell lends Whitman’s work a special clarity through the understatement of his reading; Derek Walcott demonstrates the astonishing number of things conveyed by a single six-word line from Crane.

This is challenging, energetic television, adult in the best sense. Very little is oversimplified. While Harold Bloom quietly suggests that Whitman may never actually have expressed physically the sexual feelings about which he was so bravely ardent on paper, for example, Allen Ginsberg cheerfully claims to have slept with a man who slept with a man who slept with a man who slept with Whitman.

Frost’s harrowing poetic dialogue “Home Burial” and a scene from one of Hughes’s charming “Simple” stories are unobtrusively acted out. Costumed actors walk through scenes from the lives of those poets who lived in periods too early to have yielded up authentic footage—Crane picks up sailors in a bar, Emily Dickinson gazes perhaps a few too many times through her Amherst windowpane—but such scenes are mercifully silent; invented historical dialogue, the curse of television documentaries, is scrupulously avoided.

Virtually every technique of razzle-dazzle known to MTV is employed, always in the service of language: a Crane poem is elegantly animated; a Hughes poem is read to percussive riffs by the great jazz drummer Max Roach; the words are seen as well as heard, floating above landscapes or superimposed over historical images.

This series, as adventurous in its way as the poets it celebrates, demands—and rewards—close attention.

Like Emerson, and like Whitman and Williams, Hughes and Crane, and a good many other all-American visionaries, Duke Ellington really believed his art could sum up the experiences of a whole people, could tell us “all of the good things about ourselves.” as he used to say before launching into one of his best extended works, “A Tone Parallel to Harlem.” And as Duke Ellington , a new biography by James Lincoln Collier (Oxford University Press), makes clear, he worked at that art, night after night for nearly sixty years, under conditions different from, but no less difficult than, those endured by any poet.

One small example not in the book: Sometime during the mid-1950s the Ellington Orchestra was invited to Oberlin College to give a concert in Finney Chapel, the big, pseudo-Romanesque church dedicated to the memory of the school’s early abolitionist president, the Reverend Charles Grandison Finney. The band bus arrived in the early afternoon, and a quick rehearsal went well enough—or so Jazz Club veterans who had managed to slip inside to listen told me when I was a freshman in 1958—but when Ellington arrived at the chapel for the concert that evening, the gleaming grand piano traditionally used by visiting concert artists was gone, replaced by a smaller, scarred-up instrument. Where was the good piano? the embarrassed president of the club asked. Back in storage, a custodian explained. The conservatory had a standing rule: jazz musicians were not to play the good pianos; they might hurt them. Ellington smiled pleasantly, showing not even a flicker of annoyance, strode onstage, and seated himself at the battered piano to play the first, familiar chords of “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Collier argues that it was Ellington’s unique “character” rather than his talent that allowed him routinely to soar above that sort of annoyance, and he traces the formation of that character back to the determinedly middle-class Washington home where he was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1899 and was first taught the rudiments of music by a piano teacher with the euphonious name of Mrs. Marietta Clinkscales. Above all, Collier argues, the single-minded devotion of Ellington’s mother, Daisy, was central to his success. “You are blessed,” she told him often enough for it to become an article of his own faith; even as a small boy he was encouraged to stand on his front steps and insist that his smaller cousins bow and curtsy to him, while he piped, “I am the grand, noble duke; crowds will be running to me!” Crowds did eventually come running, and, as Collier writes, the notion that he was somebody special inculated in him by his mother helped account for “his refusal to scuffle in the muck with lesser men, even when they had badly wronged him; his ability to accept even the most fulsome praise without a blush; his willingness to aspire to anything without fear; his commanding presence and his ability to rule wherever he went.”

The dignity he prized so highly was hard to maintain in the seamy show business world in which jazz was nurtured. He won his first real fame as a purveyor of “jungle music,” after all, and although by 1930 Ellington had recorded “Black Beauty,” “Creole Love Call,” “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” “The Mooche,” and “Black and Tan Fantasy,” all now considered jazz classics, the Broadway critic Brooks Atkinson was still dismissing him as the “djinn of din,” capable only of “elaborate devices for making noise.” When he and his band appeared on screen for the first time that same year, two of the lighter-skinned members of the band had to cork up so that no one could accuse Ellington of assuming to integrate his orchestra.

The show employs every technique of razzle-dazzle known to MTV, but always in the service of language.

After a promising, perceptive start, Collier’s new book disappoints. Part of the problem lies with Ellington himself. No one was ever allowed to get too close; his own 1973 autobiography, Music Is My Mistress , is remarkable chiefly for its florid opacity; only the most decorous members of his orchestra were ever invited into his home; and he was rarely guilty of humility. A magnet to women all his life, he made it a condition of his prematurely gray-haired son Mercer’s joining his trumpet section that he never call him “Pop” in public for fear it would frighten off the women who crowded his dressing room; later, the highest praise he could marshal for his son was that he was “dedicated to maintaining the luster of his father’s image.”

But the biographer must shoulder his share of the blame. Ellington too often gets lost, crowded out by mini-biographies of band members and critiques of individual performances. Perhaps understandably frustrated by his inability to dig very far beneath his subject’s glossy surface, Collier seems at first oddly out of sympathy with his subject, then patronizing. Ellington had “no discernible gift,” he says, was without “sound piano technique,” and is faulted as “portentous” for daring to delve into areas—notably the long, programmatic pieces that preoccupied him during his last years—that, Collier assures us, he simply was not equipped to handle. He is probably correct that Ellington was less a formal composer than a brilliant improvising jazz musician whose “instrument” happened to be his orchestra, comprised of unique soloists—Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Cootie Williams, Bubber Miley, and all the rest. But even the least successful of his more ambitious pieces are filled with unforgettable passages, and it seems downright perverse for Collier to call an artist who managed to complete two thousand compositions somehow lacking in “self-discipline.”

Despite his latest biographer’s impatient efforts to pin him down, the authentic Ellington remains as elusive as ever, and those of us lucky enough to have seen and heard him in person are left again with our memories of his onstage presence: smiling, impossibly elegant, pumping away at whatever keyboard was handy, urging his musicians on, making sublime music.

It is a long way from Emily Dickinson to Sylvia Plath, longer still from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Duke Ellington, but all in their different ways, and influenced by the different times in which they lived, managed to distill art from America’s ample geography.

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