Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Chuck Berry – All Things Shall Pass Away

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

One of America’s greatest songwriters and poets, Chuck Berry, has died at age 90.

Chuck Berry, one of the originators of Rock and Roll along with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and other great R&B artists, has passed away at age 90, apparently as a result of natural causes. Through a long and turbulent life, Berry remained insanely prolific, and for many years criss-crossed the country doing a seemingly endless series of one night gigs with pickup bands at local clubs, after his peak commercial years passed in the early 1960s.

But though he went through many hard times, Berry was above all a survivor, and a poet, hardened by years on the road, someone who realized that he had to take care of himself first  - that no one else could be relied upon, and that, as he often reflected, “all things shall pass away” – that fame, fortune, and even difficult times are all transitory. Something new will happen every day which can change one’s fortunes, one’s life, one’s outlook.

In 1987, longtime fan Keith Richards arranged for Berry to celebrate his life and work on the occasion of his 60th birthday in the film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (directed by Taylor Hackford), during which Berry, ever the perfectionist when it came to his work, proved uncompromising and even difficult during filming, insisting that everything had to be just right. The film is an amazing and surprisingly unvarnished look at the entire process of making music.

During the filming, Hackford captured Chuck Berry reciting the poem “All Things Shall Pass Away” by Theodore Tilton, as Robbie Robertson gently accompanies him on acoustic guitar. The poem had been taught to Berry by his father, and in this clip, which you can see by clicking here or on the image above, Berry recites the poem from memory, in a deeply moving performance. For someone who had seen so much change during his lifetime, so many people come and go in the rock & roll world, it certainly has a great deal of resonance.

Once in Persia reigned a king,
Who upon his signet ring
Graved a maxim true and wise,
Which, if held before his eyes,
Gave him counsel at a glance
Fit for every change and chance.
Solemn words, and these are they;
“Even this shall pass away.”

Trains of camels through the sand
Brought him gems from Samarcand;
Fleets of galleys through the seas
Brought him pearls to match with these;
But he counted not his gain
Treasures of the mine or main;
“What is wealth?” the king would say;
“Even this shall pass away.”

‘Mid the revels of his court,
At the zenith of his sport,
When the palms of all his guests
Burned with clapping at his jests,
He, amid his figs and wine,
Cried, “O loving friends of mine;
Pleasures come, but do not stay;
‘Even this shall pass away.’”

Lady, fairest ever seen,
Was the bride he crowned the queen.
Pillowed on his marriage bed,
Softly to his soul he said:
“Though no bridegroom ever pressed
Fairer bossom to his breast,
Mortal flesh must come to clay –
Even this shall pass away.”

Fighting on a furious field,
Once a javelin pierced his shield;
Soldiers, with a loud lament,
Bore him bleeding to his tent.
Groaning from his tortured side,
“Pain is hard to bear,” he cried;
“But with patience, day by day,
Even this shall pass away.”

Towering in the public square,
Twenty cubits in the air,
Rose his statue, carved in stone.
Then the king, disguised, unknown,
Stood before his sculptured name,
Musing meekly: “What is fame?
Fame is but a slow decay;
Even this shall pass away.”

Struck with palsy, sore and old,
Waiting at the Gates of Gold,
Said he with his dying breath,
“Life is done, but what is Death?”
Then, in answer to the king,
Fell a sunbeam on his ring,
Showing by a heavenly ray,
“Even this shall pass away.”

–Theodore Tilton

It’s a great way to remember Chuck Berry – an American original, a true artist of rock & roll.

Jean Cocteau in 1963: “I Hope You Have Not Become Robots”

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

In August 1963, just a few months before his death, Jean Cocteau recorded a message for the year 2000.

As Josh Jones perceptively writes in Open Culture, “Jean Cocteau was a great many things to a great many people—writer, filmmaker, painter, friend, and lover. In the latter two categories he could count among his acquaintances such modernist giants as Pablo Picasso, Kenneth Anger, Erik Satie, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Jean Marais, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and a number of other famous names . . .

As you’ll see in the short film above, Cocteau Addresses the Year 2000, the great 20th century artist considered the many awards bestowed upon him naught but ‘transcendent punishment.’ What Cocteau cared for most was poetry; for him it was the ‘basis of all art, a religion without hope.’

Cocteau began his career as a poet, publishing his first collection, Aladdin’s Lamp, at the age of 19. By 1963, at the age of 73, he had lived one of the richest artistic lives imaginable [though he was materially poor, and relied upon the generosity of others for his daily needs], transforming every genre he touched.

Deciding to leave one last artifact to posterity, Cocteau sat down and recorded the film above, a message to the year 2000, intending it as a time capsule only to be opened in that year (though it was discovered, and viewed a few years earlier). Biographer James S. Williams describes the documentary testament as ‘Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings.’

He reiterates some of his long-standing artistic themes and principles: death is a form of life; poetry is beyond time and a kind of superior mathematics; we are all a procession of others who inhabit us; errors are the true expression of an individual, and so on. The tone is at once speculative and uncompromising…

Portraying himself as ‘a living anachronism’ in a ‘phantom-like state,’ Cocteau, seated before his own artwork, quotes St. Augustine, makes parables of events in his life, and addresses, primarily, the youth of the future.

The uses and misuses of technology comprise a central theme of his discourse: ‘I certainly hope that you have not become robots,’ Cocteau says, ‘but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.’ The people of his time, he claims, ‘remain apprentice robots.’

Among Cocteau’s concerns is the dominance of an ‘architectural Esperanto, which remains our time’s great mistake.’ By this phrase he means that ‘the same house is being built everywhere and no attention is paid to climate, atmospherical conditions or landscape.’

Whether we take this as a literal statement or a metaphor for social engineering, or both, Cocteau sees the condition as one in which these monotonous repeating houses are ‘prisons which lock you up or barracks which fence you in.’ The modern condition, as he frames it, is one ’straddling contradictions’ between humanity and machinery. Nonetheless, he is impressed with scientific advancement, a realm of ‘men who do extraordinary things.’

And yet, ‘the real man of genius,’ for Cocteau, is the poet, and he hopes for us that the genius of poetry ‘hasn’t become something like a shameful and contagious sickness against which you wish to be immunized.’ He has very much more of interest to communicate, about his own time, and his hopes for ours.

Cocteau recorded this transmission from the past in August of 1963. On October 11 of that same year, he died of a heart attack, supposedly shocked to death by news of his friend Edith Piaf’s death that same day in the same manner.

His final film, and final communication to a public yet to be born, accords with one of the great themes of his life’s work—’the tug of war between the old and the new and the paradoxical disparities that surface because of that tension.’

Should we attend to his messages to our time, we may find that he anticipated many of our 21st century dilemmas between technology and humanity, and between history and myth. It’s interesting to imagine how we might describe our own age to a later generation, and, like Cocteau, what we might hope for them.”

It’s also remarkable that even in his last months, Cocteau remained dedicated to the future of humanity, and the humanities, and the need for poetry in the modern world, and that he created this last film entirely extemporaneously, speaking from the heart without notes or preparation, with a desperate urgency to communicate one last time with the youth of the future – albeit from beyond the grave. On his tomb, it says simply “I stay with you,” and so he does, more important now than ever, as one of the foremost humanists of the modern era.

This is an invaluable document; a real call for humanity to a future that desperately needs it.

Listen to Piero Heliczer Read His Poems

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

Listen to Piero Heliczer read his poems; London, 1960, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show (1959)

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

In 1959, writer Jack Kerouac and musician Steve Allen cut a record, Poetry for the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouac has long been one of my favorite American novelists, whose importance and value has only become more apparent with each passing decade. We also share the same birthday, which has always pleased me, and like many young people, when I was in college, I devoured Kerouac’s work, most especially his epic novel Desolation Angels, which was written in the early to mid 1950s, but only published in 1965, after the enormous success of his most popular novel, On The Road (1957).

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to dismiss Kerouac’s work, the bulk of which was written long before it appeared in print, “published [only] in heaven” as Allen Ginsberg put it – and then, in the aftermath of On The Road, publishers were suddenly eager to print everything he’d written up until then – thank goodness. And so the work of a lifetime came tumbling out.

One of the most quoted jibes of Kerouac’s work comes from Truman Capote, who famously remarked of the non-stop writing blast that produced On The Road, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It’s a clever riposte, but it seems to me that in the end, Capote’s claim to lasting literary value lies only with a few books, in particular the “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood, whereas Kerouac’s vision, which literally encompassed all of American culture, is a sprawling, multi-layered, deeply penetrating look at the society, and the values of the era he lived in.

Kerouac’s style – pure bop writing – is heavily indebted to the art of jazz riffing. Sometimes he’s simply writing to fill up the page, but the best of Kerouac’s work – On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, and Visions of Cody – repays repeated readings, and stands as a monument to Kerouac’s passion and restless intensity, which did not mix well with the pressures of overnight fame. Becoming a heavy drinker as he coped with instant celebrity, Kerouac died at the age of 47, yet still managed to leave behind a unique, and utterly compelling body of work.

So it’s nice to see this archival clip from The Steve Allen Show in 1959, in which a visibly nervous Kerouac recites some of his poetry as Allen accompanies him on piano – telling a few jokes along the way in an attempt to ease his guest’s palpable uneasiness – which is some of the only footage of Kerouac reciting his work in existence. Allen, a gifted musician and television personality of the era, made it his business to showcase rising talent – Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa come immediately to mind – and the album that resulted from their collaboration (now available on CD) is a vital and impressive piece of work – and here’s the proof.

Indeed, Kerouac is, for me, sort of an “acid test” of someone’s reaction to American writing – he comes from the tradition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe and other authentic visionaries (as he makes clear to Allen in this clip) – and Kerouac is simply driven to put down on paper the experiences of his life, and has no time for traditional prose forms. His work flows from one sentence to the next in a sweep of nearly inexhaustible improvisation, and thus he leaves himself open to rather ordinary criticism – “not enough discipline,” “dashed off,” “free form” and the like.

But that’s just the point – Kerouac is clearly working out of a driving need to create, over which he almost has no control – he was compelled to put his life down on paper. As he famously wrote in On The Road, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” adding later that “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.”

So here it is – Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen – a transcendent moment in American culture.

Lou Reed Reads Delmore Schwartz

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Delmore Schwartz was a brilliant, if tragic American poet; Lou Reed was, at one time, his student.

As Josh Jones writes in the web journal Open Culture, “in a galloping vignette in Tablet, writer Lee Smith manages to evoke the essences of both sentimental tough guy Lou Reed and his literary mentor and hero, ‘Brooklyn Jewish Troubadour’ Delmore Schwartz. Although Schwartz’s ‘poetry is his real legacy,’ Smith writes, that rich body of work is often obscured by the fact that ‘his most famous work is a short story,’ the much-anthologized In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1935).

It’s a story written in prose as lyrical as can be—with sentences one wants to pause and linger over, reading again and again, out loud if possible. It’s also a story in which we see ‘a direct line… between Schwartz and Reed,’ whose song Perfect Day performs a similar kind of magical cataloguing of urban impermanence. For Reed, onetime student of Schwartz at Syracuse University, ‘Delmore Schwartz is everything.’

Reed dedicated the last song, European Son, on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and wrote an eloquent forward to a reissue of Schwartz’s first collection of stories and poems, also titled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. And just above, you can hear Reed himself read the story aloud, savoring those lyrical sentences in his Brooklyn deadpan. It’s easy to imagine Reed writing many of these sentences, such was Schwartz’s influence on him.

They shared not only common origins, but also a common sensibility; in Reed’s songs we hear the echo of Schwartz’s voice, the satirical world-weariness and the lyricism and longing. In the biographical documentary Rock and Roll Heart, Reed says that Schwartz showed him how, ‘with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights.’ Reading, and listening to Schwartz’s astonishing In Dreams Begin Responsibilities may help you understand just what he meant.”

I’ve always loved Schwarz’s poetry and prose, and here, Lou Reed gives an excellent reading of his work.

Juan Felipe Herrera Named U.S. Poet Laureate

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Juan Felipe Herrera teaching a poetry workshop in 2010.

As Carolyn Kellogg reports in The Los Angeles Times, “on Wednesday, the Library of Congress named [Herrera] U.S. poet laureate. When he begins his tenure in September, he’ll be the first-ever Chicano poet laureate, writing and speaking in both English and Spanish. Herrera’s parents, both migrant farm workers, came to California from Mexico in the early part of the 20th century.

[Herrera] traveled up and down the state as a child and attended UCLA with the help of the Educational Opportunity Program for disadvantaged students. Although he got a master’s degree at Stanford in the 1970s in social anthropology, what he really wanted to do was write. In 1988 he went to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a master of fine arts in poetry.

Now 66, Herrera is a master of many forms: long lines, litanies, protest poems, sonnets, plays, books for children and young adults, works that combine verse and other forms. Lately he has turned his gaze outward, with 2013’s collection, Senegal Taxi, focusing on Darfur. But his career started closer to home, with poems that often casually combined Spanish and English, uniting the languages of his youth. In Blood on the Wheel, he writes:

Blood in the tin, in the coffee bean, in the maquila oración

Blood in the language, in the wise text of the market sausage

Blood in the border web, the penal colony shed, in the bilingual yard …

Typically, the U.S. poet laureate does a few official readings and beyond that is free to create his or her own programming during the year. The modest honorarium, $35,000, doesn’t go far, and some poets use the time to write, advise the library on matters of poetry and explore the collections. Others leverage the media to spread the word about poetry; Natasha Trethewey, who served as U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014, partnered with PBS NewsHour on the series Where Poetry Lives.

Herrera, who lives with his wife in Fresno, retired from UC Riverside in March, where he taught creative writing for a decade. He recently concluded his two-year term as California’s poet laureate, traveling to hidden corners of the state and showcasing young poets’ work in various media. Along the way he created a massive, multi-contributor unity poem and a number of popular live readings, catching the attention of key players in Washington.

‘I think people heard about what he was doing as California poet laureate in ways that you don’t always hear about what state poets laureate do,’ says Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. ‘That was really exciting to see. He speaks poetry in a way that I think is super-inspiring…. He’s the kind of poet who gives you permission to love poetry, to be excited about it, to be energized by it. To think that it’s something freeing and fun but also relevant to the issues we face, the challenges we have; to understanding the world we’re in.’”

An excellent and exciting choice – we will all be richer for it.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos