Shel Silverstein: the Little Library Where the Sidewalk Ends and Jennifer Johnson

A few years ago, in an attempt to be a cutting-edge, high-tech institution, the powers-that-be decided that the school I teach in didn’t need a library. The library is superfluous, they claimed. Students have all the information they need on their phones in their hands. (As if information was all that students need.) And so, quickly, the library was gutted, the librarian dismissed, and the books were donated, destroyed, or “disappeared,” From its ashes rose a Maker-Space and a Learning Commons. (If you are not currently involved in modern education, don’t ask.)

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“The Library Where the Sidewalk Ends” on Valentine’s Day

A few colleagues and I couldn’t imagine a school without a library, so we built our own. A “little library” it was, and ones like it appear in neighborhoods, towns and cities throughout the U.S. (I once was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for such a library on the porch of a bar in Key West, although it was much more of a Key West celebration than a library opening.)

Anyway, the library thrived with people taking and leaving a variety of books, CDs, and even art works.

The library itself was located in an odd place in the middle of campus. There was a cement sidewalk that jutted into a swatch of grass and then just ended. When I would announce new additions to the library, I would refer to it as “the library WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS.”

where the sidewalk endsAnd every student and every adult knew what I was referring to: the delightful first collection of poems by Shel Silverstein that every student had loved as a child and every adult of a certain age remembered reading to his or her own. The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends are silly, irreverent, charming, and knowing. It’s the silly irreverence that children most love: as if the adult Silverstein—unlike other adults in their world— was clued into the fears, the joys, the silliness, the incomprehension, the absurdity with which they view the world.

Yet, Silverstein was more than a children’s poet. He began as a cartoonist, and a successful one. It was his cartoons that prompted his publisher to suggest a book of poems. He was also a playwright–David Mamet called him his best friend–with over 100 one-act plays under his belt.

And he was a prolific songwriter. He had a number of hits with what could be called novelty

Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

songs: “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and the “Unicorn” song ( you know,           “green alligators and long necked geese… .”) But he also had a solid stable of songs recorded by a slew of people: Dr. Hook and his Medicine Show, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Belinda Carlisle, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Marianne Faithful, Johnny Cash among others. I remember the first Judy Collins’ album I ever bought featured a rousing protest song called “Hey Nelly Nelly.” I didn’t recognize the name at the time, but it was written by someone named Shel Silverstein.

And so it comes to a song I have recently rediscovered. I was buying tickets to see Todd Snider in concert and was looking for the one Todd Snider album I own. I couldn’t find it. So instead I pulled out a Robert Earl Keen album West Textures which features a charming Shel Silverstein song, “Jennifer Johnson and Me.” (Snider mentions a Robert Earl Keen song in one of his own songs which is what originally had driven me to this album.)

Anyway, the song tells the story of a man who finds in an old suit jacket pocket a black-and-white photo (‘three for a quarter”) from an arcade photo booth. The picture is of him and an old girlfriend, Jennifer Johnson. The singer is well into adulthood now, and the photo is of him when he was in late adolescence, sitting with Jennifer Johnson.There is a sweet nostalgia in his memories of their innocence, their hope, and the belief in “forever.”

It’s a sweet song, and I opened up with it on Saturday. I think I will keep it in my set list. Here’s the tune, by Robert Earl Keen:

Seeing Things and then “Seeing Things”

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“Fish” by jpbohannon, 2017

One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation.  His career was built on seeing and noticing things.

Seeing Things

Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,”  comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.

The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.

But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.

And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.

I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while.  And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.

The poem goes like this:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
  
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
  
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.

(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)

And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.

I used the word “vision” purposefully,  for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.”  For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.

Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne.  That’s beside the point!)

Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us.  But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives.  If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.

As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.

Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore.  Give it a listen…

Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker

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RIP: Leonard Cohen (illustration 2016 by jpbohannon)

About a month ago, a coworker sent me a YouTube link of the title track of Leonard Cohen’s upcoming album, You Want It Darker. She wanted me both to hear it and to help her make sense of it.

And it was dark. It was almost a challenge to a god that has allowed humanity to do what it has in the course of human history. It was punctuated by the opening prayer of Rosh Hashana, “Hineni, Hineni.” (Here I am, Lord).  And then it was followed by Cohen’s line: “I am ready, Lord.”

(Perhaps, Cohen shouldn’t have issued the challenge when he did. For in the week that he died, the world indeed became darker in many ways for many of us.)

There have been many wonderful obituaries written over the past week, articles that celebrated his music, his poetry, his novels, obits that detailed his fully-lived life, both the loves and the disappointments, the treacheries and the successes. (Here is The London Times’ obituary.)

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Cohen in London in 1978 (SIPA PRESS/REX/Shutterstock)

And, of course, there were the inevitable comparisons to Dylan. Over the past several weeks, both have been rightly acclaimed as momentous poets of  our times–death and international prizes undoubtedly will do that–but too many of the commentators positioned it as some sort  a race, a competition.

It isn’t. It never is.

Certainly, they were both poets, but they are greatly different. Dylan’s words, he claims, come easy; Cohen struggled long and hard on his. (He claims that “Hallelujah” took him five years to write.) But they both brought to their work an elevated sense of language and imagery, a modern sensibility far removed from the insipid themes of most popular music of the time.

I learned about both of them when I was a very, young boy. When I was eleven, my eighteen-year old cousin and I both got guitars for Christmas. So we learned together, except he was 18 and much more part of the world and the emerging folk scene. Consequently, what I first learned on guitar was the Dylan songbook and the folk music published in SingOut magazine.

My first songs were Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” (one chord, E-minor, throughout) and “To Romana” (two chords, C and G). Before too long I moved on to Cohen’s “Suzanne.” In the small and insulated world of folk music, the song “Suzanne” was everywhere, as everyone it seemed was covering it. ( I mainly knew Judy Collins’ version. I can’t imagine my cracking adolescent voice trying to imitate her beautiful soprano. But oh well, …)

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Milton Glaser’s iconic poster of Bob Dylan

My fascination with Cohen, however, came much later. Dylan was Dylan and, if I had a musical idol, it was certainly he. For most of my adult life. But as I grew older, Cohen seemed to speak to me more readily. Oddly, Dylan’s writing began to seem overly specific, whereas Cohen was speaking to me individually and universally.

And as I grew older, his disappointments were more understandable. In a October 17, 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Cohen stated that “I am ready to die.”

I have been thinking about my own death a lot recently. One learns only gradually that one is not immortal, or at least the understanding of that comes on gradually. Cohen knew that, but he still kept creating;  at 82, two weeks before he died, he put out this last album.

It is serious and resigned and thoughtful.

It is beautiful. And sometimes funny.

And it is wonderful to listen to.

 

 

Quote #66: “Yes to dance beneath a diamond sky…” Bob Dylan

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“Bob Dylan” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”

Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner
“Mr. Tambourine Man”

Quote #58: “After silence… .” Aldous Huxley

  
“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

                                                                         Aldous Huxley, “The Rest is Silence”

                                                                          (As cited on BrainPickings)

words and pictures (part 2) …and the power of MUSIC

Music...Art...Literature Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Music…Art…Literature
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the film Words and Music, a sweet romance about a battle between an Art teacher and an English teacher. The film had interesting examples about the power of words and magnificent examples of the power of “pictures.”  But what I forgot about was the part that held it together and in a way redeemed it:

The Power of Music

In the film. after the male protagonist has made a bollocks of things and the female protagonist has had enough of his destructive behavior, it is music that is the most evocative, most informative, most powerful…and most healing.

Scene after scene the male (Jack Marcus) tries to contact the female (Dina Delsanto) to apologize for the drunken mess he made of her art. Scene after scene we see her aggressively stop his attempts or stoically ignore them. Until the moment, when she opens an e-mail and there is an audio attachment.  The piece–written for the film by Paul Grabowsky—is a chamber piece for piano, cello and clarinet entitled “I am a Small Poem.”  (This is also the name of the poem that Markus steals from his son.)  It is rich and resonant and connects with Delsanto more than any words or pictures could.

It is what saves their seemingly destroyed relationship.

I wish I could embed the music that was played when Delsanto opened her e-mail. but I can’t.  It isn’t available yet.  So instead, I will give you this: an extraordiary piece by Fauvre. It is what I often listen to when I am writing:

A while back, a music teacher (Manny DelPizzo), an art teacher (Jackie White) and I got together to make plans for a large project. (The educators call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”)  I was going to get my Creative Writing Students to submit their best work and the art teacher and music teacher would each have their students interpret it and we would have a performance.  Our ambitions were high–this seemed like the best outlet for student creativity– but the realities of schedules and time and curricula put many roadblocks in our way and we let it fizzle out.

The “performance” that the fictional students in Words and Pictures was much like what we were hoping for, minus the music. Our music component would have made it better.

A new school term is starting in a couple of weeks. I am newly energized (though not as drunken as Jack Marcus) and am excited about trying this for real. It doesn’t have to be a battle–as it was in the film–but a really cool examination of the power of words, of art, and of music–a real exercise in Creativity

Mother’s advice: “if you have nothing nice to say…”

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I went to the movies on Monday afternoon to see a film that I had been wanting to see for the past month or so. But I left the theater greatly disappointed. And as I walked up 3rd street, I thought to myself, I am not even going to write about this one.

And I think I am right.

I am not a critic–of film, books or music–I simply enjoy these things. And I enjoy writing about them and sharing my enthusiasms about them. But, I don’t feel comfortable bad-mouthing the ones I don’t like. On Wednesday I posted a piece about a book I didn’t like and I feel more than a little discomforted about it.

In this vast “blogosphere” where everyone so easily can send out his or her opinions, I want to rein myself in. Of course, BAD ART exists–there are books that are dreadful, movies that are deadening, music that irks me, but they will find their own levels of acceptance, they will find their own audiences (or not) without my weighing in.

And besides, I don’t have the time to waste on negativity.

After all, all creativity is risk…risk of missing the mark, of being misunderstood, of being ripped apart. But one has to put it out there and let it find its own life. (As Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”)

coffeeshopSo, I’m sitting in a shop having a coffee after the movie and am asked what I thought. “I didn’t like it,” I say, and I give my reasons, listen to counter-positions, discuss the pluses and minuses. This is good, this is what Art should engender–conversation, dialogue, thought, and, yes, even judgment.

But is there really a need for me to blast it on the internet? I’m not so sure, but I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong; I will point out inconsistencies in the things that I like, choices and perspectives I disagree with, differences and surprises that throw me, things I see as flaws or would have wished the artist had done differently.

But with things that I don’t like…?  Well, as my mother would say, “if I have NOTHING nice to say, I’m not going to say it.”

Thursday Music Review: Great music and then musings on greatness.

I went to see a band tonight down at a local pub, The Dark Horse, known more for soccer clubs and televised soccer games than for music. But some friends of mine are in this band and I had to see them.

The Dark Horse Pub, Philadelphia, PA

I have played with two of the members before in an Irish band, but this new band, The Flashbacks, is just that …a flashback to several decades earlier.  The band started out as a Beatles cover band, but then expanded with a lot of Steely Dan, Yardbirds, Stones, Kinks, before settling into CSNY, Beach Boys, the Dead, Eagles, etc. (They tout themselves as the second British Invasion, but they cover a fair amount of  American bands as well.)

And the reason they can cover this music is that they are DAMN GOOD!  The harmonies are precise–three-part most of the time–and the musicianship is impeccable.  They are seasoned players who have, for the most part, known each other for a very long time and they play to each others’ strengths and build on it. The youngest member–Joe Manning–is just a pup compared to the others, (he wasn’t born when these guys first started playing together) but he is one of those wunderkinder who can play anything and play it with perfect beauty, wit and definition. If he had been alive forty-five years ago, they would have called him a god.

And so this got me to thinking….

There are an awful lot of very talented people out there. I could go see scores of really talented bands or individuals every night of the week in my city alone.  Multiply that by every other city, burg, town. How many great musicians are there in Dublin? Edinburgh? Berlin? London? Madrid? Cairo?  Innumerable.

I know very talented artists, amazing writers, magical poets, extraordinary designers who day in and day out work at their craft (or because of the ways of the world, work at their “day-job” and then work at their craft) and create wonderful pieces. I am sure you know similar people in your parts of the world. What separates these artists from those who’ve become household names?

Luck, certainly plays a role, but a very minimum one.  Being at the right place at the right time, meeting someone who can truly help, etc. are all fortunate but are not the thing that separates the very good from the great.  And mere technique is not sufficient–there are thousands of technically gifted people.

I believe it is focus, focus on one’s calling at the expense of all else.

Picasso and Bardot. How great is that?
re-posted from http://weekendspast.com

I remember having a discussion with my father once. He was bemoaning the way that Picasso treated women, discarding them indiscriminately whenever it suited him. I argued that it was a symptom of his genius. (He challenged my assumption that Picasso was a genius.)  Genius, I said, uses everything it comes across. There is nothing else that matters but his or her art, his or her genius–other people and other people’s emotions included.

The conversation came up again this week, when someone remarked on seeing the television movie Hemingway and Gellhorn on what an unlikeable cad Hemingway actually was.  Again, it is all ego wrapped around his art…or maybe the opposite, all his art is wrapped around his ego.

The attitude can be summed up in the clichéd saying “It’s his (her) world, we’re just living in it.”

Hemingway and Gellhorn in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Who else has stepped on everyone to further their art–or in the furtherance of their art?  We could cite both Shelley and Byron, who stepped on and used everyone in their belief in their own genius and the entitlements it should deserve.

But this is not only in the arts.  Steve Jobs may have been a genius but he was hardly a likeable person. And Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player ever, became more than simply an egocentric genius. He became a misanthropic, hate monger.

Mozart–a man who could create entire operas in his head without touching an instrument–was certainly egocentric, almost to an infantile degree.

So what about all your acquaintances who are truly talented, gifted people? Is it that they are decent human beings whose company you enjoy, whose interest in you and others around them is obvious, that keeps them from reaching the pantheon of genius.

And would you have it any other way?  I know I wouldn’t!  I too much enjoy the people who are creating wonderful, beautiful things–like the middle-aged Flashbacks at The Dark Horse pub–and who are still wonderful human beings, interested in the world and the people around them.

The etymology of the word “amateur” comes from the word Latin word “amat” –to love. Whether one is paid or nor, celebrated or not, it is the love of doing, making, performing something that is good and beautiful that makes for a better world.

I’ll go see the Flashbacks, the next time they play!