Joni Mitchell’s Openhearted Heroism

She made the best music of her generation by falling in love, over and over, while defending her sense of self.

By Dan Chiasson

Joni Mitchell_s Openhearted HeroismIn 1969, Cary Raditz, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, quit his job in advertising and headed to Europe to bum around with his girlfriend. They ended up in Matala, on the island of Crete, where they found a bunch of hippies living in a network of caves. Raditz soon decamped for Afghanistan in a VW bus; when he returned, his girlfriend had bailed, but there was word that a new girl was headed to Matala. Raditz didn’t know much about Joni Mitchell, but “there was buzz” among the hippies, and, soon enough, he found himself watching the sunset with one of the most extraordinary people alive. Raditz and Mitchell shared a cave for a couple of months, travelled around Greece together, and parted ways. That’s where you and I come in, because Mitchell wrote two songs, among her greatest works, about her “redneck on a Grecian isle”: “California” and “Carey.” I’ve been singing along to those songs, or trying to, since I was fifteen. I learned from them what you learn from all of Mitchell’s music, that love is a form of reciprocity, at times even a barter economy: “He gave me back my smile / but he kept my camera to sell.” Mitchell’s songs were the final, clinching trade.
Joni Mitchell’s gift was so enormous that it remade the social space around her. As David Yaffe’s new biography, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (Sarah Crichton Books), suggests, it is no small burden to possess something as valuable as Mitchell’s talent, and it meant that this girl from the Canadian prairie would be in the world, whether she liked it or not. All she needed was her lyrics, preternaturally analytic, wry, and shrewd; her chords, largely self-invented, a kind of calligraphy of the moods; and her voice, which modulates from patter to rue to rhapsody in a single phrase. In concert, she sometimes trained her attention on a single listener in the front row, casting the stranger as the vivid “you” of a song who in real life may have been Sam Shepard, James Taylor, or Leonard Cohen. The best pop music is often preening and shamanic. Mitchell’s is almost always about what two articulate adults mean, or once meant, to each other.

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A selection of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics will be included in our study of “The Poetry in Popular Music” on October 26.


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On Rabindranath Tagore, the actual first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature

By Angad Roy

TagoreA few months ago, my neighbour asked me, ‘Do you have beds in India?’ Last week, a white friend asked me, albeit jokingly and drunk, ‘Did you have some spicy curry for dinner before you came?’ Do these two examples, among many, reveal a symptomatic Western perception of India as defined by its extremities – poverty, spicy food, idolatry of cricket heroes? Is cultural India merely a frenzied collection of colours and Bollywood melodrama? Does there remain a colonial hangover demarcating India as an exotic populace of the enchanting and far-away East? Is this why in October 2016, a Bengali writer as significant to literature as Joyce, Eliot or Proust, was forgotten by the New York Times and the Guardian, when they described Bob Dylan as the ‘first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature’?
Rabindranath Tagore is the anti-colonialist in question, reverently coined by his devotees and by my Bengali family as the ‘Bard of Bengal’. He was the first non-European to win the prize in 1913, for his collection of poems in Gitanjali and, as such, he possesses an elevated status in my country. Walking down the bustling streets of Kolkata, you hear his poetry blaring from major traffic intersections and pandals which dot the metro landscape during the festive season. You can see his face and words printed on posters behind street-hawkers selling fake Nike clothes and in most Bengali households, where his portrait sits alongside statues of Ganesha and Shiva in the omnipresent puja room.

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Read “My song has put off her adornments” from Tagore’s Gitanjali: My song has put off her adornments
We will be reading and discussing “The Poetry in Popular Music” on October 26. Please bring your own favourite examples and post them first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

See the SCHEDULE PAGE for submissions to-date.

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Boundary Conditions: Adrienne Rich’s collected poems

By Dan Chiasson

Boundary Conditions“One rainy day in the spring of 1960, the San Francisco poet Robert Duncan arrived at my door,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her essay “A Communal Poetry.” Duncan was a daemonic bard with a Homeric attitude, who often wore a black cape and a broad-brimmed hat. Rich made him tea while trying to comfort her sick son, who moved between the high chair and her lap; Duncan, whom Rich cautiously admired, “began speaking almost as soon as he entered the house” and “never ceased.” Later, driving him to Boston in the rain, Rich realized that her car was on empty and pulled into a gas station. Throughout it all, Duncan, the oracle, was still talking about “poetry, the role of the poet, myth.” Apparently, Rich’s “role” was to make tea for him, and to keep things like sick children and empty gas tanks from interrupting the great man’s groove. Rich concluded, generously, that Duncan’s “deep attachment to a mythological Feminine” made it hard for him to manage “so unarchetypal a person as an actual struggling woman caring for a sick child.”
Rich, who died in 2012, had these kinds of run-ins with literary men throughout her life. Her father was an eminent doctor and a professor at the Johns Hopkins medical school, who made her copy out verses from Blake and Keats from an early age, and graded the results; her mother, who had studied in Vienna to be a concert pianist and a composer, put aside her art to raise the family. Rich’s sense that she was the benefactor of her mother’s sacrifice and the object of her father’s fixations never left her. (Her mother died in 2000, at the age of a hundred and three.) Rich’s first book—“A Change of Life” (1951)—was published when she was just out of Radcliffe. It was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets prize by W. H. Auden, who contributed a slightly creepy foreword: the poems are, he said, “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” Rich’s three children were born within a four-year span in the late fifties; in those days, she wrote, “women and poetry were being redomesticated.” Even Randall Jarrell, the best poetry critic of the era, proclaimed her work to be “sweet,” and wrote that Rich seemed “to us” to resemble “a princess in a fairy tale.” An unidentified poet friend, visiting her in the nineteen-eighties for the first time in years, expressed the abandonment felt by many male poets and critics, first-string bonhommes who had admired her early work and had counted on her to add some depth to the literary bench. “You disappeared!” her friend said. “You simply disappeared.” Women could also be unkind. Elizabeth Hardwick, a formidable feminist in a different key, declared, “I don’t know what happened. She got swept too far. She deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.”

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R. S. Thomas

AimI resent the question

yet murmur it to myself:

The magic, where has it gone?
Is age good for nothing

but with its arthritic breath

to dry up the dew
on the poem’s petals? Who

would have thought language

with nowhere to go could
have become tired? Vocabulary

abhors a vacuum but why

from verbal ranks
do I force the same adjectives

to volunteer? The muse laughs

at my medals, signalling the one
over my shoulder, whose aim

is his youth, she has the whole

dictionary as ammunition.

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What Do We Look For In A Literary Icon?

By Nichole LeFebvre

A TALE OF TWO SYLVIASSylvia Plath has been on my mind all summer. I first hear about the October publication of never-before-seen Letters of Sylvia Plath (1940-1956) while visiting my hometown in Western Massachusetts and wandering around Smith College. I head to their Special Collections Library and am disappointed to learn it’s closed, for renovations.
Instead I thumb through my dog-eared Unabridged Journals, focusing on her first years at Smith: social anxiety around other women in her dorm; rigorous goals for publications and straight A’s; fears about losing her mind. I return to my own journals from this age and wince. Ambition coupled with strict standards. Self-punishment at any hint of failure. Plath dates often, with confidence in her beauty and anger at society’s double-standards: “hate, hate, hate the boys who can dispel sexual hunger freely, without misgiving, and be whole, while I drag out from date to date in soggy desire, always unfulfilled” (August 1950). A few days later, she writes, and Plath fans know this quote intimately: “If only I can find him . . . the man who will be intelligent, yet physically magnetic and personable. If I can offer that combination, why shouldn’t I expect it in a man?”

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Even the Gods

By Nicole Sealey

Even the gods misuse the unfolding blue. Even the gods misread the wind flower’s nod toward sunlight as consent to consume. Still,you envy the horse that draws their chariot. Bone of their bone.The wilting mash of air alone keeps you from scaling Olympus with gifts of dead or dying things dangling from your mouth —your breath, like the sea, inching away. It is rumored gods grow where the blood of a hanged man drips. You insist on being this man. The gods abuse your grace. Still, you’d rather live among the clear, cloudless white, enjoying what is left of their ambrosia.Who should be happy this time? Who brings cake to whom? Pray the gods do not misquote your covetous pulse for chaos,the black from which they were conceived. Even the eyes of gods must adjust to light. Even gods have gods.
Even the GodsNicole Sealey is the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation. Her full-length debut collection, Ordinary Beast, was published this month by Ecco.

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Idiopathic Illness

By Meghan O’Rourke

Idiopathic IllnessI threw hollowed self at your robust,

went for IV drips, mercury detoxes, cilantro smoothies.

I pressed my lips to you, fed you kale, spooned down coconut oil.

I fasted for blood sugar, underboomed the carbs,

chased ketosis, urine-stripped and slip-checked.

Baked raw cocoa & mint & masticated pig thyroids.

You were contemporary, toxic, I can’t remember what you were,

you’re in my brain, inflaming it, using up the glutathione.

I read about you on the Internet & my doctor agreed.

Just take more he urged & more.

You slipped into each cell. I went after you with a sinking inside

and medical mushrooms for maximum oom, I plumbed

you without getting to nevermore. O doom.

You were a disease without name, I was a body gone flame,

together, we twitched, and the acupuncturist said, it looks difficult,

stay calmish. What can be said? I came w/o a warranty.

Stripped of me—or me-ish-ness—

I was a will in a subpar body.

I waxed toward all that waned inside.

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Frank Bidart’s Mirror


Frank Bidart's MirrorHalf-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016

Frank Bidart

Searching for a metaphysic in a fallen, libidinal world, Frank Bidart has, by necessity, made one. His oeuvre, ten books now gathered in one 718-page volume, provides an incisive index of the latter half of the twentieth century, a startlingly truthful mirror of its myths and multiplicities.  His characters—dramatic personae, epic subjects, and lyric I’s—live hard up against the realities of empire and domination; the ligatures of filial piety, queerness, and modern marriage; the scandal machines of politics and religion; and the inescapable cruxes of desire. With one ear tuned to Marcus Aurelius, another to Augustus Hare, Bidart’s music of voices weaves allusive echoes and refrains, attending to “something crowded / inside us always craving to become something / glistening outside us.”
Articulating that “something crowded / inside us” has been Bidart’s cynosure from the beginning. In 1971, he wrote a telling letter to his friend Elizabeth Bishop, praising her poem “In the Waiting Room,” which had been published in that week’s New Yorker. The poem describes a six-year-old’s revelations about living in the world as a girl, “an Elizabeth” who is inherently connected to the people sitting with her in a dentist’s waiting room, to the people in Africa she reads about in a National Geographic magazine, and to “the War” raging in Europe in 1918. A heady rush of realizations—“I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was”—leaves the child utterly changed in her sense of the world and her place in it.

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Bill Evans: “Alone”

By Jan Zwicky

Bill Evans AloneSound that makes night fall around it

Like the glow from a reading lamp.
Rain on the roof, straight down.

The name of your name

Spoken without another’s.
Rubato is a hand

You thought indifferent

Laid, briefest of moments,

On your sleeve.
It walks away, then,

That sound, without looking back.

Lights up a Lucky. Says
We hadn’t the ghost of a chance, says never

Let me go.
Listen to the complete Bill Evans album, “Alone”
Please note that we have tentatively scheduled musically inspired “Ekphrastic” poetry for June 28, 2018.
On October 26th, 2017 from 5:00 PM  – 6:30 PM, at the Coach House, Green College, UBC, 6201 Cecil Green Park Road, Vancouver, Jan Zwicky and her husband, Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst, will present THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD: POETRY AND ECOLOGY.  See the EVENTS PAGE for details.

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Today’s Birthday: Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate from 1897 to 1900. He planned to travel to Paris as a writer, but after a working briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Times, he decided to study law. He graduated with a degree from New York Law School in 1903 and was admitted to the U.S. Bar in 1904. He practiced law in New York City until 1916.
Though he had serious determination to become a successful lawyer, Stevens had several friends among the New York writers and painters in Greenwich Village, including the poets William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings.
In 1914, under the pseudonym “Peter Parasol,” he sent a group of poems under the title “Phases” to Harriet Monroe for a war poem competition for Poetry magazine. Stevens did not win the prize, but his work was published by Monroe in November of that year.
Anecdote of the Jar


I placed a jar in Tennessee,   

And round it was, upon a hill.   

It made the slovenly wilderness   

Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild.   

The jar was round upon the ground   

And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.   

The jar was gray and bare.

It did not give of bird or bush,   

Like nothing else in Tennessee.
This poem first appeared in:

Today's Birthday Wallace Stevens

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