Living the Non-Narrative Life with Nielsen, Ashbery, and Ives

Housatonic River at Bull's Bridge, Kent, Connecticut

Housatonic River at Bull’s Bridge, Kent, Connecticut

Where was I?
—John Ashbery (from The Skaters)

If you didn’t know what was going to happen next would you live your life any differently?
—Charles Bernstein (from The Meandering Yangtze)

At the New York Philharmonic concert of Carl Nielsen’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, conductor Alan Gilbert said, with palpable glee, that the symphonies were “like life.” Composer Daniel Felsenfeld, in his pre-concert talk, said something similar: that the symphonies convey what it means to be human. He went on to say, of the Sixth Symphony’s final movement, that the only composer it reminded him of was Charles Ives: “things come in and out and they don’t really jibe.”

As it happens, since being lured by the siren call of historical and literary associations like the one at this link, I’ve been listening to Ives’ Concord Sonata. Ives wrote of Emerson (the namesake for the first movement of the Concord), that

As thoughts surge to his mind, he fills the heavens with them, crowds them in, if necessary, but seldom arranges them, along the ground first. . . . His habit, often in lecturing, was to compile his ideas as they came to him on a general subject, in scattered notes, and when on the platform, to trust to the mood of the occasion, to assemble them.

One might say of Ives that he does much the same. In fact, as Kyle Gann has noted,

It need not surprise us too much that we learn more about Ives’s composing process from his Emerson essay than we do about Emerson. Emerson was a remarkably good fit for the self-image Ives wanted to project, but not a seamless one.

I’ve only begun with my Nielsen symphonies and Ives Concord listening tours, and I’ve a long way to go with each, but I do know what prepared my mental ground: John Ashbery’s poems.

PARIS REVIEW: What gets you started in writing a poem? Is it an idea, an image, a rhythm, a situation or event, a phrase, something else?

ASHBERY: Again, all of the above. An idea might occur to me, something very banal—for example, isn’t it strange that it is possible to both talk and think at the same time? . . . Or certain words or phrases might have come to my attention with a meaning I wasn’t aware of before. Also, I often put in things that I have overheard people say, on the street for instance. Suddenly something fixes itself in the flow that is going on around one and seems to have a significance. In fact, there is an example of that in this poem, “What Is Poetry” In a bookstore I overheard a boy saying to a girl this last line: “It might give us—what?—some flowers soon?” I have no idea what the context was, but it suddenly seemed the way to end my poem. I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.

This past, rainy week offered a welcome opportunity to go Ashberying once again, for ModPo (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) is in session, and the topic last week was the so-called New York School of Poets, of which Ashbery is a “member.” It all started innocently enough. I posted a link to the best essay on Ashbery I’ve ever read, The Meandering Yangtze by poet Charles Bernstein (the title is a phrase from Ashbery’s poem, Into the Dusk-Charged Air). Prompted by Eric Alan Weinstein’s suggestion that Bernstein on Ashbery would make a good topic for a discussion forum (or as we sometimes say, a thread), I followed up and started one. Well, it’s a good thing it was a rainy week.

As of Monday afternoon, the thread had garnered 270 posts, countless comments, and 815 views. Below are some glimpses of the effervescent and often hilarious conversation on the thread, accompanied, in the right-hand margin, by quotations from John Ashbery’s Into the Dusk-Charged Air. (Ashbery wrote the poem with the constraint of including the name of a river in every line, though Ashbery, being Ashbery, departed from the constraint from time to time.)

Kent Falls State Park, Kent, Connecticut

Kent Falls State Park, Kent, Connecticut

. . . You cannot like the Saskatchewan, nor refuse
The meandering Yangtze . . .

Mandana: “‘Into the Dusk Charged Air’ is one of my favorite Ashbery poems (not to say I’ve read them all). The meandering Yangtze DOES ultimately flow into the other rivers, and I like to think that in Ashbery’s world, there is a clearly personal topography that maps out his work and his connections . . . . We are asked to view different borders and boundaries, and make our own connections.

“More and more I don’t consider him offering us any ‘instruction manual’  – we write our own manual and though pieces of it – sometimes long and meandering pieces of it – relate to others, ultimately, like those trees, it is ours alone.”

. . . The Amstel flows slowly.
Leaves fall into the Connecticut as it passes
Underneath. . . .

Nathan Walker: “Rivers and Mountains Wind and Water and their courses and behaviors are some of the most frequent visitors to Ashbery Poems. They do not ‘mean’, they are. They move along and do things, and have form and a life-cycle, they stop and start. That is what Ashbery poems are too. . . . The poems are not descriptive of natural phenomena or features, they are natural phenomena, which move through and occur in the medium of the poet and flow out into the world.”

The Harlem flows amid factories
And buildings. The Nelson is in Canada,
Flowing. . . .

Eric Alan Weinstein: “Many of [Ashbery’s] poems lead me towards Levinas, via meandering paths of respectful engagement, recording, and play.

Near the Escaut the noise of factories echoes
And the sinuous Humboldt gurgles wildly.

REK“Ashbery is to Emerson as Emerson is to Thoreau as Thoreau is to shrubs. All natural all the time, like life and death playing without a net. And, just to clarify the water I just spilled, ‘Yes, S, I, too, love not mopping up. Could It be any clearer, but then why drink?’”

If the Rio Negro
Could abandon its song, and the Magdalena
The jungle flowers, the Tagus
Would still flow serenely . . .

T. De Los Reyes: “. . . another line that struck me in the Bernstein essay is ‘beholden to nothing and to no one, except perhaps the river at their feet’. He was speaking of the mountains, of course, but I also can’t help but think of readers. Not to say that we are towering creatures, but I quite like the idea of being beholden to something. Poems are rivers, and I can’t think of anything more wonderful to be beholden to.”

. . . The Theiss, stark mad, bubbled
In the windy evening. . . .

John Weems: “The man is one of the world’s great humorists. . . . I remember a great line in one of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet novels, ‘a little humor could have saved him.’ Ashbery was saved!”

The interminable Lena plods on

Susan Scheid: [about Ashbery’s poem Hotel Lautréamont] “Now, this is going to sound a bit earthbound . . . but I was (and am) fascinated by Ashbery’s choice of the pantoum form. What’s so amazing to me about this is that he’s working within a pre-determined constraint . . . . And yet, because of his choice of lines, the poem is quintessentially Ashberian in mode—he’s made the form work to his purposes, rather than the other way around.

. . . The Manzanares gushes free.
The Illinois darts through the sunny air again.
But the Dnieper is still ice-bound. . . .

Lowell Murphree: [about the Bernstein essay and Ashbery’s The Skaters] “. . . my initial impression is that the relationship between the analysis and the journey is that the journey embodies the ‘move through this as though you don’t know what is about to happen’ theme established in the first lines. We literally don’t know what is going to happen in the journey on the river just as we can’t know ‘Skaters’ as a predictable narrative.”

. . . The Madeira slavers
Across the thawing fields, and the Plata laughs.

Mary Manning: “Linear logic is no help here. It is the place where we got into trouble.”

The quotations from ModPo classmates may be found in the ModPo discussion forum entitled Charles Bernstein on John Ashbery (or, The River Makes Its Way Without Making Sense); with grateful thanks to each participant for granting permission to be quoted here. Anyone enrolled in ModPo has access to ModPo discussion forums. It’s easy to join, and it’s free. Click here for more information.

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Listening List

On Spotify:

Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840-60 (“Concord Sonata”) S. 88 (K. 3A2), (1911-1915)

Read Jeremy Denk on recording the Concord Sonata here, and on Charles Ives here.  More information on the Concord Sonata may be found here.

With thanks to Kyle Gann for setting me on the trail of the Concord Sonata.

Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 6 “Sinfonia semplice”, FS 116

Instrumentation/Orchestra: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in F, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum (finale only), xylophone (finale only), strings

Program notes on the Sixth Symphony are included here.

On YouTube:

Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata

Jeremy Denk plays “The Alcotts” from the Concord Sonata

The Jeremy Denk CD containing the Concord Sonata may be found here. The performance is stupendous, and the liner notes are stupendous, too.

Carl Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony (The fourth movement begins at 23:00.)

Information on the Gilbert/New York Philharmonic Nielsen Project may be found here.


Credits: All quotations may be found at the links indicated in the text. The photographs are mine, all taken on the covered bridges route in western Connecticut. The route follows the Housatonic River, also named in Into the Dusk-Charged Air (“Few ships navigate/On the Housatonic”).

Housatonic at West Cornwall, Connecticut

Housatonic at West Cornwall, Connecticut

12 thoughts on “Living the Non-Narrative Life with Nielsen, Ashbery, and Ives

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    Ives seems to have more than his fair share of detractors, but I always enjoy him and, coincidentally, I got to hear his ‘Central Park in the Dark’ live last night (along with Barber’s Violin Concerto, played by Jeff Multer, a great musician. A very enjoyable concert by the Florida Orchestra. They also played Elgar’s 1st Symphony, but I didn’t like that as much). Listening to his ‘Concord Sonata’ now and loving it.

    What popped into my mind most while reading the excerpts from the ModPo thread was the comment by Pollock when asked if he was inspired by nature: “I AM nature!”

    It’s not very important, but a source of mild curiosity to me, that when I compare Ashbery’s poetry to music, the most apt comparison to my mind is to the genre of “free” music. What Ashbery does–the more “non-linear”, especially–is closer, it seems to me, to spontaneous, non-idiomatic free improvisation than any other kind of music. Yet we know that Ashbery preferred composed orchestral music, as you do.

    By the way, it was Ashbery who introduced me to the pantoum. I think his ‘Hotel Lautreamont’ is well suited to that form because the repetitions are conducive to a certain meditative quality as well as a peculiar nostalgic quality. There’s an old yellowed Christmases past feeling about that poem even though, at the same time, it has that fresh-baked quality we might call “Ashberian”.

    I’m going to make a point of listening to Nielsen in the coming days….

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I envy you that concert, as I’ve yet to hear any Ives live. I’ll be looking for opportunities to correct that. So glad you’re enjoying the Concord.

      I always appreciate your insights about Ashbery, as I hope you know. The comparison to free improvisation is an interesting one, and makes sense to me. I was brought up with jazz, even tried a little improvisation myself, enough to know what skill and imagination on-the-spot it takes to do it well. Now that you’ve pointed this out to me, it’s clear to me that I admire Ashbery for many of the same traits. Your comments about Ashbery’s use of the pantoum form are also interesting, leading me to think about what he’s doing there in yet another way.

      Your comment on “composed” music is food for thought, too. I was listening not long ago to a contemporary classical piece which drew upon jazz quite a lot, and I did wonder why the composer hadn’t left space for free improvisation, which I think may have worked better than notating the solo passages throughout. Though I’m not at all versed about this, I think also of cadenzas in classical music. It seems quite often soloists do not improvise, but perform a cadenza that has been notated. I’d like to hear more improvised cadenzas.

      As for Ives, I think, as for Ashbery, one has to open one’s mind in a different way to let in what he is after. I’ve really struggled with the Concord; then, all at once, it wasn’t a struggle anymore. (That’s not to say I “get” it, but rather that I’m happy to be in it and go where it goes.) Though I agree with Gilbert’s view that Nielsen’s work is probably accessible on first hearing, while that was true for me, from listening to recordings, it took the live performances for me to begin to hear how much “there” was “there.” I’m glad, too, that my introduction was the Fifth and Sixth, rather than the earlier symphonies. The Sixth, in particular, is wonderfully out of “the norm.”

  2. angela

    Sue ~ I popped over here quickly to see if you’ve posted (I’ve not been keeping up on WP) – what a delight to read through this (shall revisit the music later in week – Denk, yeah!) BUT what was most lovely was reading your commentary and Mark’s on Ashbery. This time of year is when I enjoy reading poetry most – esp. Ashbery, whom (for me) words are a lovely mixture of nature and observation without apology for what may not seem clear to the other observer (his dear reader). I shall think of this post when IA enters into its first cold, dreary day and I reread an Ashbery fave so I may skate upon the river he creates without worry that I may get lost … cheers! (btw – your blog posts are always so lovely, they invoke such a mood – it is such a pleasure)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: Ah, how nice THIS is! “a lovely mixture of nature and observation without apology,” so beautifully stated. Our ModPo discussion has been really fun–what I have lifted up here is just a tiny glimpse. To have you and Mark here, too, well, what a pleasure THAT is. Let us all skate on, skate on!

  3. David N

    Love the connections, as always, though I haven’t gone Ashberying beyond what you’ve written about him. Ravel uses the pantoum, by the way, in the Piano Trio. So looking forward to hearing the Ives Concord Sonata live. We’ve had the Alcotts movement from Tilson Thomas in its rather good orchestration (I forget by whom). Lovely shots of the Housatonic – don’t know why but the name conjures up more of a placid big southern river (probably because it sounds like a paddle-steamer?)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: A pantoum in the piano trio, wow! I always enjoy that trio, but had not focused on the fact that there was a “pantoum” movement. I look forward to a listen for that. Is the Concord on your concert docket? If so, and if you’re reviewing it, I’d love to know. I was aware of the orchestration (Henry Brant, it seems to be) and glad to know it’s worth a listen, too. At the moment, I’m so caught up in Denk’s CD it’s hard to move on.

      Love your association of the Housatonic with a big placid big southern river and a paddle-steamer. It’s the poet in you, I want to say, but the music is there, for sure. Mississippi/Housatonic, both names with a Big Easy flow to them, aren’t they? Ashbery may actually stick to the facts, though, in his characterization. From wikipedia: “The Housatonic River is a popular whitewater paddling destination beginning at Falls Village, Connecticut and continuing to Gaylordsville. Most of the river is quickwater and Class I whitewater with long sections of Class II-III whitewater. A deadly and extreme Class VI resides at Great Falls in Canaan (Falls Village) and is most likely not able to be paddled. The most dangerous and difficult section that is navigable is by Bulls Bridge, with Class V whitewater.” I’m very happy just to watch from its banks!

  4. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for focussing my interest on John Ashbery again ! (I am sorry to say that a lot of his wonderful poems are already translated into German – for a publisher I have very good contacts to – would have enjoyed the work so much…).
    As to the quote of Charles Bernstein – “If you didn’t know what was going to happen next would you live your life any differently?” I can only answer: Who in the whole world knows what will happen next? I am very aware of that – so: my answer is a simple “No”. .

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: I would LOVE to see how you would translate an Ashbery poem (and curious to know whether you have a favorite or two). I hope you will do a translation of one sometime! Re the Bernstein quote, yes, exactly his point, I think. Our lives aren’t lived in pre-formed narrative arcs, so why, I think he would then say, should art have to do that?

  5. hilarymb

    Hi Sue – I love the photos .. and the name of the river Housatonic … and I’d love to travel its banks and bridges. Pantoum (deriving from a Malay verse form, I gather via Wiki) – interesting to learn about that form – poetic and musical … I went to an art-music talk … wherein we were shown how art was translated by the musicians …

    It’s great to read here and soon I’ll be up and running to listen to your suggestions … cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: You’re definitely getting to some interesting talks. Coincidentally, a cyber-friend alerted our online music discussion group of an interesting exhibition on at the Met Museum, including a whole room devoted to Braque’s musical instrument-inspired paintings. I hope I’ll be able to get to it. Here’s the link to the online exhibition:

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