We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

A spring day: "Anyone can whistle" · 23 March 06

Dear Jennica,

Congratulations! Is an FYA one of the girls who gets to have her own room in a hall, and is an advisor to the others girls on the floor?

I like e. e. cummings’s poetry very much. The one you cite means precisely what it says. If I may make a concise synopsis (which is a profanation of a poem): love is rare; when real, deeply felt and irrational; rejuvenating. Do remember it’s a man speaking and he would look at love as a woman who is going to make him the repository of her ego, live for him deeply and be irrational. In another of his poems, cummings says his beloved opens for him petal by petal (the metaphor refers to the vagina). I like his verse best when it’s irreverent, and it often is. He plays games with words. He’s not often reprinted in the big anthologies.

Here’s a lovely one for a spring day like today in Virginia:

fair ladies tall lovers
riding are through the
(with wonder into colours
all into singing) may

wonder a with deep
(A so wonder pure)
even than the green
the new the earth more

moving (all gay
fair brave tall young
come they) through the may
in fragrance and song

wonderingly come
(brighter than prayers)
riding through a Dream
like fire called flowers

over green the new
earth a day of may
under more a blue
than blue can be sky
always (through fragrance
and singing) come lovers
with slender their ladies
(Each youngest) in sunlight.

Again cummings is looking at women; this time a group stirs him like so many objects (imagine a necklace with beads). The poem reminds me of the long parades so common in medieval verse, the later 17th century Dryden imitated them in a lovely fresh spring poem called "The Flower and the Leaf," by some attributed (vaguely) to a woman, but it’s not so. Women do not tend to write the poetry of parades. The other medieval women poets we have (Marie of France, Christine de Pizan, the women troubadours, none of them do.) The parade or list originates in epic as lists presented as public pictures; it’s a form of highly self-confident naming which endows the poet with the gravitas of the figures that through his poetry he endows iwith immortality (so he assumes) in his parade. e. e. cummings’s tone characteristically undermines this hierarchy, he’s apparently humble. No names used. No capitals. Very sweet.

I don’t know the songs you cite. When it comes to lyrics, among the songs I like best the ones that come to mind this morning (outside of sheer country songs that I do love, like those by Nanci Grffiths, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson) are Stephen Sondheim’s. Now the Admiral, or Jim, likes these very much too. He and I share tastes; he showed me Stevie Smith’s poetry first as I said.

We have a fat book of Sondheim’s scripts and songs (including A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George) and also Sondheim’s Passion (in a separate book). I have read the original epistolary novel, I. U. Tarchetti’s Fosca: Italian, late 19th century text on which the film that so moved Sondheim was based; it’s about a crippled young woman who loves pathetically poignantly, hopelessly. Here I have the recent English translation named after Sondheim’s musical, Passion by Lawrence Venuti. Powerful novel in the Clarissa mode, and, like it, a man in drag, this one enacting the myth of female masochism (Tarchetti’s text flatters male power, justifies it all the more for agonizing with a victim). Some time I’ll tell the real story of Masoch’s wife and his silly book of lies and delusions.

To return to Sondheim (who does not buy into such misogynistic myths), here’s one of Jim’s favorite songs—I’ve heard him sing it. It comes one of Sondheim’s early staged musicals (very great, but a commercial flop), whose title is the same:

Anyone can whistle

What’s hard is simple,
What’s natural comes hard.
Maybe you could show me
How to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be ….......... free
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.

The song is a melancholy ironic romantic satire (many people cannot whistle) sung by the young hero (he critiques himself, understands himself—very Byronic this). Brief, oh so brief. Think about the words. It too is a man’s poem (dealing with the demands of masculinity norms), and a young man’s at that.

The idea of a universalist point of view on love is untrue; love poems are everywhere marked, come out of, the writer’s gender.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. I think I heard that there were no FYAs when Isobel was a freshman, but then I heard about something that happened to an FYA in 2002, and wasn’t that before Isobel was here? The spring of 2002 was before she was here, I think, and the fall of 2002 was her first semester I think. So I don’t know whether FYAs existed. You are correct, they have their own room, and they live on the hall with the freshmen and lead freshman orientation, and they answer the freshmen’s questions and direct them to resources, and they organize hall socials. I’m excited, and today there is a meeting for the FYAs to meet each other and for our boss to see how we interact to help him decide who to put on which floor. There are three FYAs per floor in Meta Glass, and 2 FYAs per floor in Grammer (the one Isobel was in). I was in both buildings. The first semester I was in MG, and the second semester I was in Grammer, the same floor as Izzy.

    I like "Love is More Thicker Than Forget" more the more I read it and listen to the song.

    Do you like jazz? Jazz is my favorite music.

    If poems and songs are different whether a male or female wrote them, then is this a male or female song?:

    I’ll be seeing you;
    In all the old, familiar places;
    That this heart of mine embraces;
    All day through.

    In that small cafe;
    The park across the way;
    The children’s carousel;
    The chestnut tree;
    The wishing well.

    I’ll be seeing you;
    In every lovely, summer’s day;
    And everything that’s bright and gay;
    I’ll always think of you that way;
    I’ll find you in the morning sun;
    And when the night is new;
    I’ll be looking at the moon;
    But I’ll be seeing you.

    And what about this one:

    Smooth road, clear day
    But why am I the only one travelin’ this way?
    How strange the road to love should be so easy
    Can’t you see the detour ahead?

    Wake up, slow down
    Before you crash and break your heart, gullable clown
    You fool, you’re headed in the wrong direction
    Can’t you see the detour ahead?

    The further you travel, the harder to unravel the web
    she spins around you
    Turn back while there’s time, don’t you see the danger sign
    Soft shoulders surround you

    Smooth road, clear night
    Oh lucky me that suddenly I saw the light
    I’m turning back away from all that sorrow
    Smooth road, clear day
    No detour ahead

    I saw another version that said he spins around you instead of she spins around you, and I don’t know which is the original version. Is the singer singing to herself (or himself) or is the singer singing to his/her friend? And there’s other changes that other singers make, like instead of I’m turning back away from all this sorrow – I’m turning back away from all this trouble. And instead of can’t you see the detour ahead – can there be a detour ahead. Unfortuntely I’ve only heard one singer sing it. I want to hear the others sing it! Actually never mind, I just remembered hearing another singer sing it.

    Do you like the Beatles, Elton John, and Paul Simon? I like them, but I liked them more in 7th-11th grade than I like them now.
    Jennica    Mar 26, 7:53am    #

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