April 2012


The "I" of a Storm


Having been chided over the years for using the editorial "we" in "our" writing, and taking a cue from a line in the Gettysburg Address— The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here—we are giving up the ghost on the first person plural, and going with "I." Let the chips fall where they may.


My reticence in using "I" (and other singular personal pronouns), comes in part from three lines of Walt Whitman's poem Song of Myself.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,?
And what I assume you shall assume,?
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.




It takes an ego the size of the Titanic (next piece) to be so presumptuous. Though the "I" used in this poem has been interpreted by literary critics to mean, a concept of self that is both individual and universal. In other words, Whitman uses "I" to mean "we." Whereas I have been using "we" to mean "I." This is not to imply that I merit any serious parallel comparison with a literary giant…just an observation on syntax.


This concern over "I" is particularly magnified in a world so interconnected, wherein everyone seems to have a POV on everything, or an agenda to advance. This dynamic results in infinitely more writers than readers. A problem that just used to exist in the world of poetry.


There were over 150,000,000 blogs in existence the last time I checked. It isn't easy to be an "I" of that kind of storm. Though I refrain from using the B-word in connection with what I try to do, because I don't think it applies. Besides, I think the word "blog" itself is ugly sounding, and suggestive of something that might come out of one's nose. In actuality, it is derived from combing the words web log and then shortening it.


I tend to think of my output more as a column or a magazine piece than a blog. One that just happens to be on line rather than in print. (Remember print?). But these distinctions suggest a whole other discussion best suited for another time. Then again, maybe not. As the great acting teacher Constantin Stanislavsky used to say, or shout —

"Show me, don't tell me!"

He also said, presumably in a lower tone of voice...

"The greatest wisdom is to realize one's lack of it."

This seems particularly apropos as to the purpose of my writing these "Muse-Letters." And in this manner, "I" will press on.






Poetic License in a Lesson of the Titanic



April 14th will mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic hitting that iceberg. It is a story that will never die. Those that offer some great life lesson, especially in the loss of many lives, never do. Though the moral of the Titanic story may not be so easy to nail down, or "rivet down" as may be the case, as will be explained shortly.


Certainly, it might be one of hubris. The White Star Line in competition with its main rival, the Cunard Line…

"…preferred to compete on size rather than speed, and proposed to commission a new class of liners that would be bigger than anything that had gone before, as well as being the last word in comfort and luxury." (Wikipedia)

It was said at the time, that no expense was spared in achieving that goal.


Has "Bigger than Ever" or "More is Better," not been the eternal quest? Have we not seen it throughout history, in the erection of the biggest structures the world has ever known? ("Mine's Bigger Than Yours" FEBRUARY, 2010 MUSE-LETTER). Ultimately, to what purpose one might ask.


The causes and magnitude of the Titanic's doom, have been much studied and debated these past hundred years. But one theory that caught my eye a few years ago, did have to do with expenses being spared after all. In a piece from The New York Times headlined "In Weak Rivets, a Possible Key to Titanic's Doom," it stated that two scientists in rummaging through the builders own archives, found evidence of:

"…a deadly mix of low quality rivets and lofty ambition as the builder labored to construct the three biggest ships in the world at once—the Titanic and two sisters, the Olympic and the Britannic."

This article resulted in my writing a cautionary poem, while teaching poetry to a middle school class of foster care and abused children, at the Hillsides School in Pasadena. I used it to illustrate how the idea for a poem can come from anywhere. Even a headline in a morning paper. Even an event that happened a hundred years ago.

Don't Skimp on Rivets

"In Weak Rivets, a Possible Key to Titanic's Doom"

The New York Times: April 15, 2008


Reverse it and rivet on skimping, if you must.
For the art of saving could use our attention.
Though a penny today is worth less than rust;
Thin copper-plated and hardly worth mention.


Nickels, with no irony, are made mostly of copper—
For coins are no longer what once minted to be.
And with the level of zinc in our oceans improper,
Skimp on shrimp or other food from the sea.


But don't skimp on rivets. Cheap rivets could mean
A greater disaster in a ship's collision.
In the same way our soul could come apart at the seams
And hit rock bottom in a bad life's decision.

                                            —Ron Vazzano

The kids would then go off to write their own poems, far better than the above example they were provided. Unsurprisingly, many were about the disasters in their own lives, brought on by the negligence of parents and family— the skimping on love and caring.





Quote of the Month













April 15th is a date usually associated with tax filing (extended to the 17th this year). But it is also the day on which, in 1947, Jack Roosevelt Robinson "broke the color line."

"As the first black man to play in the major leagues since the 1880s, he was instrumental in bringing an end to racial segregation in professional baseball, which had relegated black players to the Negro leagues for six decades." (Wikipedia)

So while Jackie Robinson, technically was not the first African-American in the major leagues, his impact was such that he holds an esteemed place in America history. (By the way, should this come up at your next cocktail party, Moses Fleetwood Walker of the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 was the first. Soon after, African-American players were banned from major league baseball altogether.).


While sixty-five years may seem like ancient history to some, it is about the age of the first wave of baby boomers. (Medicare anyone?). In that context, it is a bit startling to realize that it has only been in my lifetime, that such a highly visible racial barrier has fallen.


In commemoration of the 50th anniversary in 1997 of that day, there was a conference at Long Island University entitled: “Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, and the American Dream.” A poem I wrote and submitted at the time, was accepted and read at that conference. (I was unable to attend).


It is short and bittersweet, and I reprise it here as it appears in Shots from a Passing Car.








Upon Coming Upon a Bus Shelter Poster




If you were to take all that I know about opera and put it into a peanut shell…it would rattle.


Like many, I am familiar with the legendary names of Caruso, Merrill, Tucker, Sills, Sutherland, Callas, Horne and of course The Three Tenors —Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. Not to mention contemporary superstar Renee Fleming, who has had many "crossover" ventures such as an album of pop music, a reading with Alec Baldwin last fall of the popular theater piece Letters, and an appearance coming up on Law & Order. And my music collection does include a CD or two, of arias from some of the world's most renowned operas.


Yet none of this has ever sent me scurrying to buy a ticket. The main reason perhaps being, that I have always perceived it to be a somewhat ponderous art form, expressed in an equally ponderous production, that lasts an eternity, during which a lot of people die, and sing while doing so. Arias that sum up the irony of the situation, rather than calling out for help so desperately needed: "Telefonare nove uno uno! Rapido!" Yes, I have been a Philistine in this arena.


Then one night last summer, I came upon a bus shelter poster. One that was so visceral in its imagery, so captivating in its boast, that it sent a chill through the body on a sweltering night.




Who is this woman who reeks such defiance, in that robust body, so bold of dress and tilt of head, bound and being led away by what appear to be two smug gendarmes?


I know the potential power of advertising. I toiled in the vineyards of that field for thirty years. I just never have quite seen that sort of power harnessed through one of the most mundane of advertising media—a bus shelter. And though the message is absent any details or tangible payoff, it elicits an immediate call to action all the same.


Unlike those Calvin Klein billboards the size of Rhode Island, which are selling jeans, The Met is selling a moment! And all I know is, that if this is opera, and that woman is in it, I'm going!


With a little probing, I learn that this scene is from an "opéra comique" in five acts (of course), entitled Manon (ma-'nawn). It was written by someone named Jules Massenet, and first performed in Paris in 1884.


Further, I am told by Wikipedia, …it is the quintessential example of the charm and vitality of the music and culture, of the Parisian Belle Époque…it is frequently performed today—19 countries presenting a total of nearly 300 performances of 67 productions, just from 2009 to 2011 alone." Who knew?


And the woman?


Oh, she just turns out to be someone who has been called things like a genuine superstar and reigning diva for the 21st century. Time magazine placed her on their annual list of the most influential people in the world in 2007. She has been profiled in vehicles as diverse and far reaching as Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Financial Times of London, 60 Minutes, to name a few. And she's won awards too numerous to mention; the most recent being a Gramophone Award in 2011, often referred to as the Oscar for classical music. That's all.


As pictured here from her website, she is Russian born, Anna Netrebko.





As it turned out, Manon was not scheduled to open until the back end of the Met's current season, meaning a long eight months following that first poster encounter. In the interim, I have seen Don Carlo on a big outdoor screen at Lincoln Center (yes it ran 3 1/2 hours and with a ton of dying—but wonderful), and a concert at Carnegie Hall, of a little known opera Notre Dame (as in Hunchback of) and I've gone back to listening to those aforementioned CD's. This by way of getting some operatic water wings before taking the plunge.


Unfortunately, for numerous reasons, I did miss Ms. Netrebko's bravura performance in the title role of Anna Bolena, earlier in the season. But finally, at the end of this month, I will get to see my first live opera production.


For now, as Mark Twain once said, "the poetry is all in the anticipation." Though he depressingly concluded "…for there is none in the reality." I hope that he is proven wrong and that there is after all, truth in advertising. And If I might indulge in a quote of my own making: "At any age, you can Come of Age."






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