Manon Lescaut. Nice. Great aria for the tenor straight off. Love those kinds of operas where the male lead has to sing his lungs out in the first twenty minutes. Aida is the same. Many a tenor has fallen in the opening acts. Which puts me in mind of poetry, how this isn’t a problem for poets. When you fail you do so privately. The man from Porlock comes to the door and Kubla Khan is never finished and maybe a handful of your moist and ironical friends think this is amusing—they tell you to publish it “as is” because why not? Can you imagine Jussi Bjorling singing a third of an aria then stopping, saying: “Well that’s damn good, you know?” No you can’t imagine this. There’s an expectation, a contract, whether it’s opera or a string quartet. You’re going to get the whole enchilada. There’s no man from Porlock in Puccini! Unless of course you want to argue for tuberculosis. You can always kill off your heroine with bacilli. But at least it’s part of the plot and all the cash paying customers know it.
When I was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Donald Justice, esteemed poet-teacher threw a literary magazine in the trash in front of a room full of aspiring poets saying: “This is the latest issue of Seneca Review devoted to the “long poem”—I hate long poems…” Imagine Jussi Bjorling singing a third of an aria. Think of Eliot stopping the “Wasteland” on page one. It would end here:
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
It doesn’t matter if you know Eliot’s canonical poem. Let’s say the poem ends here. One must be so careful these days. Perfect. It’s all about your subjective horoscope. Personal pan pizza. Lyric me-self. Ah but the poem, on page two:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frère!”
Sing the opera to the end and it’s about something extensively dramatic. The first world war is over and the survivors are collectively afflicted by PTSD and trying rather desperately to rejoin the workaday world which won’t—can’t—sustain them. This is far better stuff than “one must be so careful these days…”
Even short poems must give you the opera entire.
Why am I bothering with this, just now, early, over coffee, the day not yet a day?
I had a dream last night. I was in a great hotel. With people I’d never met in my waking life. We were eating while floating in a fountain. Little cakes.
When I woke I understood it was a long long dream, a ribbon of psyche’s sparks, and I’ll never get to the end of it. Even when I return to the stars.
I want page two of that dream.
I want Jussi Bjorling at the victory celebration after I’ve figured it out.
And just now I realize “Dear Mrs. Equitone” sounds like a brand name for Victrolas.
Damn modernity with its neologisms and shrinking spirits.