Thank You, Virgil Thomson

One of the pleasures of reading is the discovery of a superior voice, one you’ve been waiting for even if you’d no idea you’d been anticipating it. In my case the aesthetic affirmation comes from Virgil Thomson who’s polemical essays on music and everything else are original and beautifully “unlike” as the best writing should be. Consider this little nugget from his essay 
“Our Island Home, or What It Feels Like to be a Musician”:

“Among the great techniques, music is all by itself, an auditory thing, the only purely auditory thing there is. It is comprehensible only to persons who can remember sounds. Trained or untrained in the practice of the art, these persons are correctly called “musical.” And their common faculty gives them access to a secret civilization completely impenetrable by outsiders.

The professional caste that administers this civilization is proud, dogmatic, insular. It divides up the rest of the world into possible customers and non-customers, or rather into two kinds of customers, the music-employers and the music-consumers, beyond whom lies a no man’s land wherein dwells everyone else. In no man’s land takes place one’s private life with friends and lovers, relatives, neighbors. Here live your childhood playmates, your enemies of the classroom, the soldiers of your regiment, your chums, girl-friends, wives, throw-aways, and the horrid little family next door.”

This is, if not sidesplittingly funny, arresting enough and if you, like me, labor at a university (or any other professionalized but provincial arena) you know all about the dogmatics of professionals and the “everyone else community” or no man’s (or woman’s) land of private life.
If you don’t buy records or books, you are, according to the professional caste, just another prole. Reader: I went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and all I can say is this is spot on. As for the horrid little family next door it’s probably safe to say everybody hates them.

What’s delightful about Thomson is his candor about the no man’s land. Musicians and composers can make perfect art if they don’t tire of their trades. But then:

“Private life, on the other hand, is beset by a thousand insoluble crises, from unrequited love to colds in the head. Nobody, literally nobody, knows how to avoid any of them. The Christian religion itself can only counsel patience and long-suffering. It is like a nightmare of being forced to execute at sight a score much too difficult for one’s training on an instrument nobody knows how to tune and before a public that isn’t listening anyway.”

Mark Twain couldn’t say it better. (See Twain’s vision of heaven where no angel can play its instrument….)

That’s a delicious pronoun reference—“it is like a nightmare” points of course to private life but it picks up magnet-like, the almost witless patience of the church.

The poet in me loves the following:

“Everything the poet does is desperate and excessive. He eats like a pig; he starves like a professional beauty; he tramps; he bums; he gets arrested; he steals; he absconds; he blackmails; he dopes; he acquires every known vice and incurable disease, not the least common of which is solitary dipsomania.

All this after twenty-five, to be sure. Up to that age he is learning his art. There is available a certain amount of disinterested subsidy for expansive lyrical poetry, the poetry of adolescence and early manhood. But nobody can make a grown-up career out of a facility for lyrical expansiveness. That kind of effusion is too intense, too intermittent. The mature nervous system won’t stand it. At about twenty-six, the poets start looking around for some subject-matter outside themselves, something that will justify sustained execution while deploying to advantage all their linguistic virtuosity.”

Thank you Virgil Thomson. Thank you!

I have indeed however tried to make a grown up career out of a facility for lyrical expansiveness. As for solitary dipsomania, well….

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Goodbye, Bird That Shat On Me

My mother was an alcoholic and not a functional one. Her life was marked by drawn curtains, broken fingers, phantom pains and prescription drugs which, mixed with scotch tended to make her psychotic. When I was a college freshman and no longer living at home she stalked my younger sister around the house clutching a knife. My sister took refuge in a locked bathroom and waited it out. By dawn our mother was asleep on the living room floor in a tangle of shoes and bottles. This story is in no way singular—my sister and I are just tiny dots in the ocean of abused children. The story of my adult life has been the relentless pursuit of self-acceptance, forgiveness, emotional intelligence, and compassion. I think forgiveness and compassion are different as forgiveness can be merely political and compassion is more concerned with lovingkindness.

I work with people who don’t necessarily like me. Chances are good you do too. You may be tougher than I. You might not care about the ghosting malevolence of the workplace, the soiled superegos of competitively unhappy souls who turn up in every meeting, warehouse, classroom—or for that matter even in leisure spaces. Me? I tend to care too much about the opinions of others. This is because the long emotional after effects of my upbringing make me prone to a knee jerk impulse to fix things. If people are ugly I think it’s my job to improve them.

That’s of course its own addiction. I’ll solve your problem. Get you another drink so you won’t hit me. Disguise the damage to the best of my ability. I’ll make excuses for you. I’ll imagine your unhappiness is my fault.

Until one day I don’t. One day after attending Al Anon and undergoing some excellent therapy I decided my mother was on her own.

Nowadays I attend to my own esteem though not without set backs. There’s a senior professor at the university where I work who went out of his way to sabotage me behind my back—an ableist, smug, privileged “shyte” as the Irish would say. I don’t think I can forgive him and I certainly can’t imagine offering lovingkindness.

I know this is what I should do.

I’m a lefty Episcopalian.

Then it dawns on me: I can let him go like a pigeon one has restored to health. Out the window he goes with a spark of feathers. He soars through tangled clothes lines. I shut the window. Turn up Mozart on the radio.

Lovingkindness can in fact be letting the bird who once shat on you find his own way.

On Disability Poetics: Essay Five, or, Falling in Love with the Great Caruso

I fell in love with “The Great Caruso” because I was a lonely kid and that’s how many of us find art. If you’re blind and you’ve an attic and a Victrola you’ve everything you need. Soon I was haunting the local library, asking for any books I could get my little hands on. And with my one working eye I held a picture book an inch from my face to see photos of my private tenor. There he was with Helen Keller, gently holding her hands to his throat as he sang. My Caruso was a kind man. I thought of Keller’s finger tips pressed against a living hive of musical notes. On the next page Caruso was dressed like an ancient Egyptian. Though his pose was supposed to suggest fierceness he looked like he knew a private joke. You bet I was in love.

Soon I graduated from listening to Caruso in the attic to bringing home long playing records from the library’s collection. This way I could hear several arias at once. If I knew next to nothing about the operas from which the songs were taken I knew the sound of milk and iodine, the suffocations and gasps of life, the magnificence of a heart beat that won’t be ignored. If I was disabled and reviled by the children in my age bracket, well, I had what I’d discover later is known as enantiodromia—the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time—a Jungian concept—it occurs really as a fixative from underneath, just when you’re hopeless you become powerful on the inside.

Snick of the needle in a groove. Caruso in La Boheme. What did I know about love? I understood how it could fill a room.

Good, Old Walter Pater

Oh Walter Pater for a Renaissance scholar you had charm. You’ve haunted me for years with your childhood portraits. Unlike Montaigne your utopia was less a matter of craft and more of memory. Once, to shock an academic questioner I said creative nonfiction was Pater’s invention. I’m still not certain I’m wrong. If its honesty you’re after Pater’s your man.

Who was it I was reading last week–who said he was a possibility-ist rather than an optimist. I read a lot and can’t remember. He was one of those data-utopians. The planet will sustain us; we won’t actually slaughter each other. That’s when Pater jumped up. “The way to perfection is through a series of disgusts.” Data is a clean sport and that’s all there is to it. If you want to know about the heart I’ll go with the Renaissance.

The Planet That Would Have Me

It was Auden broke my heart then put it back together. Caruso followed with a love song from Naples. By the age of 8 I could read poems and listen alone to gramophone records. Blind I’d little street life though I pretended I belonged well enough in open air. Like most people who come from provinces I was happiest in my privacies, my attic with scratchy records and grey books. Though I could scarcely read that’s the world that would have me.

The ugliness of school was both a matter of being bullied for my disability and a curricular austerity. School never let me share what I was learning while alone. As a university professor these past thirty years I think of this. What do the students before me bring to the room? What can provinces teach us?

Provincial culture means the one we must create. Yeats couldn’t be Tennyson and though there were Irish poets before him, he had to be both cognizant of his inner life and the outward world. If he was going to be Irish-provincial he’d have to do it in a dual way. Its a matter of accomplishment that Yeats doesn’t quite fit anywhere. His planet doesn’t exist. Yet its apparent.

Is it a bit silly to invoke Yeats next to a kid with a large print book and a Victrola? I don’t think so. The inner life is Romanticism and strength of mind and each must find it in her or his way. You don’t have to be a poet to need your planet. More and more contemporary fiction and memoirs seek to find planets that will have us. Everyone hails from some version of my childhood attic.

I’m guilty of reductionism here. What I’m after is emergence not life alone with some arias. The planet that will have us is a made place and not granted. What is it made of? Yeats wrote:

By the help of an image
I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.

The planet that will have you won’t look like you. Yeats knew and if we’re lucky we also learn it.

Yes when I go walking the world does not resemble my stride, my frame, nor, despite my yearnings for mysticism does the world answer my longings. The world simply is and not what I say of it.

Mozart’s Piano

It’s raining in Syracuse, New York where I make my living teaching university courses about disability and the arts. Later today the rain will turn to snow. Of the grayness I’m fond of saying I’m a Finn and it can’t phase me. Yet these last few weeks have opened a portal and the grayness is seeping in. This is the gray stain where a portrait once hung; the lithic gray of the imagination trying to picture the future. Poetry is helpful. Mozart piano sonatas are good. I admire Mozart’s speed and cheer in the face of death which was everywhere in his world.

Speed and cheer.

Now you’re getting somewhere Kuusisto.

Cheer is a funny word. It comes to English via old French chiere which meant face. It’s a mask, a disguise, a pose. In a very real sense cheer is stoicism. The British stiff upper lip.

But if that was all there was to it cheer would be a social lie and of course it isn’t.

Cheer is motion. It is “going further” than wasting one’s time talking to sinister capitalists.

It’s knowing you’ll derive from this planet something something you needed to take with you on your way.

That is why Mozart’s piano fast or slow is so tender.

A Short Essay on Nostalgia

I was born in 1955 when monoaural long playing records were in fashion and people still listened to jazz. As a little boy I loved Dave Brubeck and I often pressed my blind eyes to the thin fabric of the speaker as if I might get inside the record player. Somehow over the past few days that child has come back—he’s insisted I listen to those early records and I’ve acceded to his wish. I’ve listened to albums that were brand new in the mid 1950’s and while I’m generally immune to nostalgia I’ve been experiencing something like it—a fancy that times were more joyous and elegant back in the day. Foolish I know. I’m a disabled man who recognizes all too well what a horror show America was back then for every conceivable outlier group and I’m not liable to forget it. But Brubeck….

And Chet Baker by god! “My Funny Valentine” crackles from my old stereo speakers. Snow falling and jazz and coffee and wistfulness in what’s otherwise a dark time in our nation.

**

I went furniture shopping yesterday with my wife Connie. After we’d visited a couple of stores I turned to her and said: “These places give me the willies.” I’m not sure I can explain it but the oversized fluorescent cluttered showrooms with sofas and arm chairs made me feel like Pablo Neruda who saw intestines hanging from balconies and bones flying out the windows of hospitals. Furniture stores cause me to think of the dead. All those fiendish arm chairs.

**

When I was in my twenties studying poetry writing I didn’t have much nostalgia. When you’re young you’re too busy thinking about how to live and what do do. In my case I was fearful since being blind I had great difficulty conceiving of how to make a living. All disabled folks experience this though many are better at confronting it than I was. Essentially I was a poetry writing wretch. What use nostalgia?

**

Of course not everything has a use. Even Carl Jung thought so. The psyche has many mansions and some lack utility. If nostalgia has a sibling it is avoidance from which we derive the arts. It is the half grown sister of imagination. Yes its childish. Funny how children don’t experience it—they have only envy. A kid can be homesick but not nostalgic.

You can say, and you’d be right, that nostalgia doesn’t exist without an object. It should reference something lost and which has come to be an illusion. You’re nostalgic for that baseball glove with its smell of leather; for that 1962 black Rambler station wagon, Elvis Presley on the radio. By illusion I mean you’ll think all was better and one could argue this has a use but for something to be useful it should advance the cause and squishy remembrance is only useful if it keeps you from pain and of course it can’t. Nostalgia gives way to regret.

**

The salesmen in furniture stores didn’t study enough to become funeral directors.

**

Dave Brubeck: “In Your Own Sweet Way” Newport Jazz Festival, July 6, 1956

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger