As Daniel Brownlast year's winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize, not the author of The
Da Vinci Codetells it, he truly began to find his voice as a poet when he tried to tell his mother in a
poem that this wasn't an idle thing to be doing. For Brown, poems must have real subjects and say something that a
real person would want to hear. Taking his cue from Frost, he thinks that they should partake of colloquial speech
rhythms, and that it's all right if they're funny sometimes.
Arriving at that point of clarity about himself as a poet, however, took time. First there was an early passion
for classical music and the ambition of a career in composition to pursue. But after obtaining a Masters in musicology
at Cornell and work as a lecturer in music theory, history, and appreciation there and at Dartmouth, he left the
field in the late seventies. Yet the passion has endured, bearing ample fruit in
Why Bach?, his remarkable
online appreciation of the composer. In this e-book, which he refers to as his "epic poem," Brown uses the plainest
possible language to give even the most musically illiterate reader access to "Fortress Bach." Better yet, he clinches
his points by providing links to bits of music so that the neophyte can actually hear what the author is talking
Remarkably, Brown contends that there's no relation whatsoever between his background in music and his practice as a
poet. Yet everywhere in Taking the Occasion, the book of poems that won the New Criterion prize, there's evidence of
a subtle musical mind at work. In praising the poems, X.J. Kennedy called them "splendid demonstrations of the power
to be obtained by drawing the reins really tight." Although Brown most often works in traditional form, there's never
a strain or an archness about it. While his rhymes are often delightful ("It happened near Lascaux/Millions of dawns
ago," he writes in a moving poem, "The Birth of God"), they are never obtrusive. Perhaps that has something to do
with a deft touch in the use of common speech that his master Frost might have enjoyed.
During an interview in Manhattan on May 17, Brown, who lives in Baldwin, N.Y., discussed poetry's relationship to
music and religion, some fashions he considers questionable in the current poetry scene, and his development as a
poet. A boiled down version of those three hours of good talk follows.
DMK: Tell me the story of how you became a poet.
DB: Like a lot of kids I played around with writing: mainly stories, though every so often a poem. Also, I was always interested in comedy. I'm hardly alone in seeing a kinship between comedy and poetry (Howard Nemerov has a long essay about it); if stand-up turns out to have been among the principal poetries of our time, it wouldn't be the most surprising development.
But as I entered my teens, a love of classical music, which I'd always harbored, surged way up and swept away my interest in writing and comedy. All through high school and college my dream was to be a composer. I even undertook graduate study in composition. But around that time it came to my attention that I had no talent for composition, and so I gave it up.
It was on the rebound from composition that I came back to writing. At first I tried to write stories, but I immediately ran into a problem. I'd write a page in the morning, then chisel it down to where it was only a sentence or two by the afternoon. At this rate no stories were going to get written. Whereas a few lines a day of poetry might be a respectable rate of production. So I decided to give poetry a try. But that led to another problem, which was that I had a low opinion of poetry. I thoughtget thisthat writing poems was too easy: just a matter of making pretty pictures out of pretty words.
The pig-ignorance behind this opinion can't be overstated; I knew hardly any poems beyond the anthology pieces served up in high school. Nor did I care much for the poems I did know. I do remember loving Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning," but that poem is so good it doesn't even count as an exception.
So here I was, decidedly cool to poetry yet wanting to try to write some poems. I had a friend at the time who was an early appreciator of Ashbery. He showed me a couple of poems from
The Double Dream of Spring. Thinking that this must be what poetry was like these days, I tried some things along Ashberian lines. But I'd hardly started down this path when I had a fateful break: I stumbled on a book of Randall Jarrell's essays. Two of his pieces hit me especially hard: his appreciations of Whitman and Frost. These essays opened me up not only to the greatness of these poets, but to the greatness of poetry. The essay on Frost, in particular, got to me.
It wasn't long before the poems I was writing switched from imitating Ashbery to imitating Frost. Here's a sample:
By a Pond
Upon some fallen cloud a cloud's reflection
Is standing for a cloud. I'm standing by,
Intent on second sight by indirection.
Oh, what we know, there's only one for knowing:
The sky in ricochet is still the sky,
It always has the latest weather showing.
That morning, though, a sunny shower proved
The other side of seeing once removed
(As if it needed any demonstration),
When sense suspected it was being mocked
In pond at once sun-spangled, shower-pocked,
And wavered in the face of transformation.
I must have begun to find this imitativeness a bit much, because after a time I found myself writing poems that no longer sounded like Frost. Not that they sounded like what I now think of as me; it was more like they had no voice at all. Nor were they about the "country things" my Frostian poems had been about. Product of the New York 'burbs that I was, I really didn't know anything about the country.
I remember exactly when this lack of knowledge was brought home to me. A friend of mine from New Hampshire told me how people up there would go snowmobiling on frozen lakes. And how when they did, they knew not to go near where a creek came into a lake, because the incoming flow of water (apparently the creeks ran some even in winter) would prevent the lake from freezing thickly enough, and a snowmobile could fall through. Now there was the kind of thing Frost knew (and could easily have written a poem about). But it was the kind of thing I didn't begin to know.
Maybe that's why most of the poems of my nextcall it post-Frostphase have urban settings. Here's the opening of one, which I offer mainly to give you a sense of the voicelessness I mentioned:
Awake in bed, she had the bass alone
For company, filling the far wall
With veiled intimations of the rest:
Of lyrics, tunes . . . yet nothing manifest
Beyond the insinuating undertone
Of dawn-bent bacchanalia down the hall.
Already it wasn't any longer late,
But 15-C could at least be apprised
That 5:00 to 7:00 tossing and tantalized
Was nothing she would have to tolerate.
This was a step forward, or at least a step away from Frostbut then came a leap. I found myself trying to say something in a poem that I really wanted, forget poetry, to say: to look someone in the eye and just say. To be honest about it, the someone was my mother. And what I wanted to tell her was that all this time I seemed to be wasting wasn't wasted time. That somethingI didn't know whatwas preparing itself in me. And I started a poem that would say as much. I remember how it began: "What it never was was indolence, / Not for all the hours of idleness . . ." Which sounds a littlewhat: stentorian? Yeatsian? At any rate it felt false to the impulse behind it. And try as I might, I couldn't continue the poem. It was like I was pounding on a door that wouldn't open. And then, really in exhaustion, I fell forward into the doorbasically just gave up and said what I was trying to say the way I would actually say itand found that the door had opened: "Indolent I wouldn't know because/I never was that, forget how/It ever looked."
This sounds more . . . New York-ish? Yiddish-ish? Whatever you want to call this note, it was one in which I was able to complete the poem by continuing the third line and adding a fourth: "What I was was getting/Ready, and the getting's over now."
Indolent I wouldn't know because
I never was that, forget how
It ever looked. What I was was getting
Ready, and the getting's over now.
I immediately sensed a newness in the note of this poem. This new manner was driven by the matter: in trying, for the first time, to say something in a poem that I really wanted to say, I was driven to say it as I really would. I have to say that I was pretty excited about this development. I remember reading that Albert Pinkham Ryder literally whooped on completing the first painting he felt to be truly his; I confess to doing the same thing upon completing "Notice."
Since then, most of the poems I've written are poems I can imagine myself really saying to someone, poems that embody an anecdote, an idea, a joke . . . the kind of things people say to each other every day that they think are worth the other person's hearing just for the sheer pleasure of hearing it.
DMK: So you see the subject of the poemwhat the poet has to sayas crucial to both the poem and the poet?
DB: Absolutely. You know, we're in a period in poetry when subjects tend to be looked down upon. In some circlesmaybe the most influential onespoems are valued for an absence of subject: for capturing, rather, the flitting movement of the mind, or registering the facts of the multifarious world. By their nature, such poems will live, if they do, in the interest of their individual moments. But they risk sweating and straining to make every moment interesting in itself.
But a subjecta place or occasion, an argument if it's a train of thought, a plot if it's a storycan relieve the pressure on the individual moments of a poem to be interesting on their own. The subject is a kind of dynamo that sends a huge, thrumming power up into the poem's particulars.
DMK: Can you give an example of a poem in which the subject transmits such power?
DB: A great one is George Herbert's "The Collar." For all but the last four lines it's a rant by an aspiring libertine against the "collar" of religious stricture. It has the momentum of a fast freight train. And then:
But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wild
At every word
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child:
And I reply'd, My Lord.
All the rebellious momentum of the preceding lines piles into these last four, where it's "converted" into a momentous acquiescence to the will of God. Simple and beautiful as those closing lines are, they're not overwhelming in and of themselves. They get much of their power from all the "raving" that feeds into them. This power seems almost effortless. It's at the opposite extreme from the sweating and straining for power you often see in poems that don't have subjects.
DMK: That's a pretty strong claim you're making for subjects. I imagine you see them as essential to what you do.
DB: Very much so. I've been talking about how they serve as an underlying power source for a poem. A subject also helps a poem be distinctive. Every poem with a subject says something unique. At bottom, all subjectless poems seem to be saying the same thing, which is that there's nothing to say: no sight worth describing, no point worth making, no story worth telling . . . a nihilistic view. Or to put it in a positive light, call it a Buddhistic view: that everything is equally worth sayingwhich still means that nothing particularly is.
Poets who write those poems never get to engage with some of writing's most interesting problems: those of projecting a subject into a poetic architecture or form. If you're not giving sustained attention to a subject, you never get to tussle with the challenges of logic, suspense, ornament, digression. . . .
Nor do they get to decide which subjects are worth writing about in the first place. In my own case, I have a list of possible subjects for poems, or "poem ideas" as I think of them.
DMK: What's on that list?
DB: It's got, I don't know, 50 or so entries on it, each one anywhere from a couple of words to a couple of lines, even a paragraph. Many writers must have a similar list. I read somewhere that Hemingway had a list of story ideasand was saddened by the likelihood that he wouldn't get to realize them all.
DMK: I was going to say such premeditation sounds unusual for poetsexcept when you think about Yeats, who wrote prose paraphrases before putting them into verse.
DB: I do that myself sometimesand I take heart, and license, from his example. I suspect that approach would seem anathema to some poets. I've read quotes by a coupleJames Merrill, for oneto the effect that they wouldn't want to know in advance where their poem is going, because writing it would be too boring. I see their point, and you certainly wouldn't want working from a trot to be a mere versifying of something that already exists.
But it needn't be: there's plenty of room for surprises and swerves. It's kind of like walking a dog: the dog must be allowed to veer off and get its nose into things along the way, but you have it on a leash for a reason, and it isn't the master alone that's happier and better off getting home in the end.
DMK: How do you decide what's worth writing about?
DB: [Laughs] Now you're beginning to bleed out over the edges of art and into life, because the question of what's worth writing about becomes the question of what's worth saying to other people: What's meaningful? What's worth sharing? What matters?
I think it's Emerson who says that the writing of a poem can be a lever that lifts one to a higher plane of life. What Emerson is talking about happens with the poem that comes to grips with a subject that really matters.
I actually feel as though I've had an experience like this with a poem. After I finished "Notice," I knew what I wanted my next poem to be about: not to put too fine a point on it, my dread of death. It seemed that only after I'd done justice to this feeling would I be at liberty to write about anything else. So I set about to do soand promptly got stuck. And stayed stuckblockedfor around a year. The problem, I eventually realized, was that the fear of death didn't bother me quite as much as it once had. I'm not going to say I'd outgrown it, but apparently I'd grown at least somewhat out of it. It was like when a dentist gives you laughing gas before extracting a tooth: the pain is there but doesn't matter as much. What happened was, I tried to write about that, about the outgrowing. And this I found I could write about:
When I think about how
We deal with our mortality
I think about a sense in which it's like we
Deal with an injury.
About how, on first
Comprehending the ultimate
Hurt, we harrow it more nights than not:
This at the behest of that
To reckon at its maximally grave
Any injury we have.
How, years having passed,
We find ourselves assessing it
Far less frequently, and more by rote
Than necessity: our purpose not
To sound the wound so much as
To remind ourselves it's still there.
How one day we're suddenly aware
Of its no longer being there.
The process behind this poem called my attention to my "deliverance" from death-dread. I think it's an example of what Emerson might have meant when he said the writing of a poem can give you a purchase on life.
Well, if your idea of poetry is not to engage with matters of moment, but to simply be a tracker or a tracer or a cloud chamber that catches the world's particles emitting little flickers of light as they fly by, then it seems to me you can't win the kind of purchase Emerson was talking about. At least not in your practice as a poet.
DMK: And yet Emerson also spoke of the enlightened perceiver as a perfectly passive "transparent eyeball"just the kind of view you've been criticizing. Maybe he had more of a Buddhist side than you do. Speaking of religion, there's a wonderful religious poem in your book called "The Birth of God." What does it have to say about your view of religion, and the relationship between religion and poetry?
DB: You know, it's funny, but I think of that as a sacrilegious poem. It shows man making up God. Making Him up, furthermore, under the impetus of lust. Or more precisely, of lust's buddy, infatuation.
The Birth of God
It happened near Lascaux
Millions of dawns ago.
For dawn it was,
And cuing avians
The way it does,
That saw the two of them
(Odds are a her and him,
Though maybe not)
Emerging from the mouth
Of a cave a couple south
Of the one that's got
All that painted fauna
All but snorting on a
Wall. That is
To say, from the mouth of a cave
By the sighs and cries
Of the night just past. The pair
Has borne the bliss they share
Out into the bright.
Where silently they stand
Thanking, hand in hand
Before the light.
Their gratitude is truly
New beneath the duly
A gratitude that so
Wants a place to go
It authors one.
I was certainly infatuated with someone when the idea for this poem came to me. I remember thinking, I wish I believed in God so I would have something to thank adequately for what I'm feeling now. That was the germ, and it developed into the poem's little tableau.
DMK: And yet this is the kind of poem that could make a non-believer start to believe.
DB: You think so?
DMK: It has an overwhelming feeling of gratitude in it. And what is prayer but an expression of gratitude?
DB: I'm thinking you're onto something. The poem imagines humans at the point in their evolution where they start wanting to thank somebody for their hugest, or at least most intoxicating, pleasure. It wouldn't be the craziest thing if gratitude for this pleasure really did motivate, if not the birth of God, a quantum advance in our conception of God.
DMK: Let's move from religion to another small subject, music. And I'll just ask you the question posed by the title of your online book: Why Bach?
DB: Maybe seven or so years ago I got the urge to put some prose on paper about one of my favorite moments in Bach, a spot in Fugue 8 from Book I of The Well Tempered Clavier. I was happy with the way this discussion came out. After a time, I found myself thinking, let's see how I do with another spot in Bach. I thought that went decently too. And I began to imagine a more comprehensive treatment, a kind of guided tour of Bach's work organized around the ideas of melody, harmony, and counterpoint. I wrote some more discussions, and at some point realized I'd taken the plunge.
DMK: For how many years did you work on it?
DB: I'd say I worked on it in a sustained fashion for at least five years2002 to 2007. There were certainly several years when I worked on it to the exclusion of any other writing, poems included.
DMK: So the bulk of the poems in Taking the Occasion were written before?
DB: They were all written before. It's really just in the last year or so that I've started writing poetry again. After the Bach I needed some time to recuperate. Actually, I think of Why Bach? as my epic poem. It's in prose, but I really think it's as close as I'll ever come to writing an epic anything.
DMK: Why an online book? How did that come about?
DB: The book began as just a Word document. But it had to have notated musical examples in it. Because you can't talk about Bach's musicat least I can'twithout talking about specific musical events: notes, chords, figures. . . . Bach's music lives, even more than a lot of other great music, in the details. To talk intelligently and intelligibly about these details you have to call the reader's attention to them, and you can't do that without notated examples.
The problem, of course, is that most readerseven many music loverscan't read music. I was resigned to this state of affairs, but when I'd gotten a third or so through the book it occurred to me that maybe the Internet offered a way around this problem.
I looked into the possibilities, with some crucial encouragement from the great musicologist and music critic Joseph Kerman, and came up with an online format that combines a text with notated examples that play as a cursor follows along.
So far, so good for the non-music reader. But the real power of the method lies in a use of color to link comments in the text to particular moments in the music. I'd like to think this color-linking gives even the non-music reader a window into the inner workings of Bach's art.
DMK: As a certified non-music-reader myself, I can tell you that your method works: it's as though, for the time that I'm reading your book, I'm actually able to read music.
DB: Your experience reminds me of a Star Trek episode involving the Starship Enterprise's Doctor McCoy. In order to perform an impossibly difficult operationa brain reattachment, as I recallhe positions a domed gizmo like a dryer in a hair salon over his head. The device imparts the medical wisdom of an advanced, alien race to whoever "wears" itbut only for as long as he wears it. That's actually a good image for my fondest hope for the book: that during the time a non-music reader is reading it he becomes a music reader.
DMK: Let's try to bring the two halves together. What for you is the relationship between poetry and music?
DB: I find myself wanting to emphasize how little they have to do with each other. There's almost no overlap between what I bring to bear on the writing of poetry and what I brought to bear on the writing of music. There's also little overlap, for me, in the effects of these arts.
That said, I do think that, deep down, music and poetry converge. But when I say deep, I mean really deep. You know how the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom both descend from a common, ancestral type? Well that, to me, is like the commonality of poetry and music. They're as different from one another as plants are from animals, which is to say hugely differentand yet not totally different. If you go far enough down, way down to the realm of somatic impulses, the pleasure of repetitive rhythm, the pleasure of euphonythe realm of infant-pleasure, even foetal pleasureyou'll find some commonality.
But that commonality is so far down, it doesn't seem very interesting; there's not a lot to say about it beyond the fact that it exists. The more interesting things about both arts are higher up, more in the realm of their differentiation than their commonality. And maybe the most interesting things about both arts inhere in particular poems or pieceslike particular persons, in their individuation, are more interesting than "humanity."
So if you asked what I as a poet learned from my time in composition, my answer would be, essentially, nothing. I think I'm no different a poet than I would have been if I'd had no experience with music at all.
DMK: I'm surprised that you see the separation of poetry and music as so extreme. To take the most obvious point of contact between them, doesn't rhythm play a key role in both?
DB: Absolutely, on that deep level of commonality I was talking about. But at a higher, more differentiated level, the spheres of poetic and musical rhythm seem very distinct to me. Poetic rhythmwhich at its most vital is really speech rhythmhas subtleties that music can't touch, or more precisely, that can't be represented in musical notation, which is far too blunt an instrument for the purpose.
DMK: What kinds of subtleties?
DB: Minute gradations of stress, for one thing: gradations that a musical direction like sforzando, or an accent mark over a note, can't begin to capture. And just as important, minute subtleties in timing, like comedic timing. These can't be captured in the rhythmic "grid" of musical notation.
Music and poetry do intersect in the realm of meter: the recurring number of stresses in a metered line is a close cousin of the recurring number of beats in a musical measure. This kinship is actually closer than I think has been recognized. To take a simple example of what I'm talking about, consider the first stanza of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." This would be scanned in a stress-pattern of 4, 3, 4, 3:
Mary had a little lamb 4
Its fleece was white as snow, 3
And everywhere that Mary went 4
The lamb was sure to go. 3
But we don't hear it that way. We hear it entirely "in 4" (as a musician would say), by silently inserting a "rest" at the end of each trimeter line:
Mary had a little lamb 4
It's fleece was white as snow [rest] 4
And everywhere that Mary went 4
The lamb was sure to go. [rest] 4
If you don't believe me, try saying the stanza to yourself without the rests. It sounds odd or unbalanced. That's because we hear the first two lines as a unit, and the second two lines as another unitand without the rests, each of these units has seven (4 3) stresses. That's an "assymetrical" number that our symmetry-loving ear rounds up into eight (4 4) through those rests. As far as I know, the concept of a rest, a commonplace in music, is completely absent from traditional prosody.
DMK: But I think it's correct to say that as a poet, you have a distinctively musical ear. The stuff you write does not seem like "verse." It's not strained in that way. It comes across as conversational even though it's usually metrical. But maybe you'd say this sort capability has nothing to do with compositional ability.
DB: I would if you're talking about me! But yes, that's my point: that the capabilities are separate. That being said, I'm glad an unforced, conversational quality comes through the meter in my poems; that's certainly what I'm trying to do. I'd even be willing to call it a musical quality, in a verbally musical sense.
DMK: Your poem, "The Pass," expresses admiration for a bus driver's almost effortless craft as he passes other vehicles. Do you consider this poem a statement about your method?
DB: I wouldn't go so far as to say that the poem is an ars poetica, but it's on the road to one. Although it's not the main thing I'm saying in the poem, what I admire about the driver is the lack of strain, the ease, with which he passes cars on the highway. I like a similar lack of strain in poetry.
DMK: What is the main thing you're saying in the poem?
DB: You don't have to be an "artist" to want to create perfect things. I say that the driver's masterful passing is "clearly something learned," but that there's also something in him "natively unable to forbear / from working such perfections as he can."
DMK: Why did you decide to make "Taking the Occasion," the title for one of the poems in your book, the title for the book as a whole?
DB: I struggled to come up with a title for the book. Part of the problem was that I was partial to the title of my first, self-published book of poems, Matter. I really felt like I should just call my next book "More Matter," or "Matter II." And when I started conjuring with other possible titles, "Taking the Occasion" was, to put it mildly, one of the less arresting ones. But I've grown progressively happier with it, because I think the poem it's named after is an emblem for the method behind a number of poems in the book. Which is to take some occasionusually an event, sometimes a thoughtand try to make something of it. That's what my girlfriend does in the poem.
Taking the Occasion
As if her grace were not enough,
Her taking the occasion of
A trip across the kitchen floor
To lift into tiptoe-
And-pirouette: a prima mo-
DMK: Is she a dancer?
DB: No. But that only made her move more transformative. She took the humblest of occasions and did something with it, took it beyond itself.
David M. Katz's poems have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, Notre Dame Review, and Podium, the online publication of the 92nd Street Y. His first book of poems is The Warrior in the Forest (House of Keys, 1982). He lives in New York City and is Deputy Editor of CFO, which is part of The Economist magazine group.