September 25, 2007

You may have heard of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But you probably haven’t heard of The Man Who Killed Robert Lowell.

So who did kill Robert Lowell?

Well, I have a horrible suspicion that I did.

Quite accidentally, you understand. It happened like this (members of the jury).

In 1974, the year I turned 13, my parents—having accurately and soberly diagnosed me as a congenital unemployable—needed to confront the question of where to put me in the interval before I could be inflicted on an unsuspecting job market. I was marginally too clever for a sheltered workshop, and the French Foreign Legion wouldn’t accept 13-year-olds.

Then they discovered what seemed like the answer to their prayers. Where are congenital unemployables traditionally placed? In a performing arts school, natch. And downtown Sydney had just such a school.

Now don’t assume that this school contained the all-singing, all-dancing, all-pouting poppets familiar from movies like Fame. This was laid-back Australia, remember. Had we possessed a school anthem (you’ll recall Fame‘s: “I want to live forever / I want to learn how to fly ….”), it would’ve gone something like:

I want to loaf forever
Learning is just so much cant
I’ll never get it together
So give me my new federal grant.

If memory serves, the selection procedure consisted of some bureaucrat pointing to a piano and asking the applicant “Can you tell me if this is (a) a piano, (b) a violin, or (c) a clarinet?” Almost anyone who picked (a) was accepted.

Once you had been accepted, what behavior could be tolerated? Pretty much any. The “self-esteem” gospel had already begun sweeping through the Anglophone world’s education establishments. Classrooms rang with invocations of “dyslexia,” a fashionable 1970s euphemism for “illiteracy,” and a condition marked by its total nonexistence among Jews, Japanese, Chinese, or any other kids who fell below average television-watching levels. “Performing arts,” on which this particular place extorted parental money by priding itself, proved mere hiccups in the core curriculum of surfing parties, beach parties, bong parties, Spin-the-Bottle parties (a phrase surely archaic enough to require translating for Paris Hilton’s coevals), plain old choking-on-your-own-drunken-vomit parties, or combinations of all five. While I shunned them, I did nothing to prevent them.

When these Animal House delights temporarily palled, there was always the joy of destroying the belongings of any student who did his homework. About the only thing not on the agenda was wandering around naked, like the juvenile scholars at the progressive college immortalized by Patrick Dennis’s novel Auntie Mame. Our school achieved what many a feral American cheerleader vainly craves: the entire abolition of arbitrary borderlines between hazing and non-hazing.

Besides, “selective” performing arts school though it might be, it belonged to the state system as completely as does any modern socialistic crack-den in Detroit. During the 1970s, New South Wales’s teacher union bosses ran an openly Marxist closed shop. (Yes, Virginia, in those days Marxist meant Marxist. It did not mean “Derrida-worshiping professor of media studies” or “Let’s have some street theater on our way to Mommy’s merchant bank.”) Occasionally, and despite the union’s struggles, a dedicated teacher would emerge. Usually she left the following year, preferring somewhere comparatively civilized, like Lesotho.

In such an environment, you either acquire a hobby or go insane. I acquired a hobby: musical composition. Not that I was good at it, but others were worse. Eventually plodding, repetitive effort gave me musical techniques I inherently lacked. After much slaving, I learned how to harmonize a hymn tune according to music theory’s lexical rules. That was simply what I happened to do. Some kids collected stamps or coins. My school friend studied the missionary travels of St. Paul at an age where I still needed to consult the dictionary for half the words in MAD Magazine.

And then, in a moment’s epiphany, I fell in love—not with a girl, but with a project: setting Robert Lowell to music.

If few or no subjects are being taught, autodidacts unexpectedly pop up. Hence the decision of one kid in class, not blatantly bookish, to recite a poem by Lowell. I knew nothing of Lowell. I knew nothing of poetry, other than the sub rosa collection of obscene limericks then doing the classroom rounds, thanks largely to myself. I knew nothing of Jonathan Edwards, the poem’s putative subject. I listened to the first lines of “Mr. Edwards and the Spider.” At first I felt little interest. Then, gradually, it was as if a neutron bomb had gone off inside my head.

I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August, when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky …
WHAM! Where had this stuff been all my life? How dare anyone use the English language that wonderfully? Set it to music? Man, it already was music: mysterious, exalted music at that. All I could do as aspiring composer would be to filter the poem’s background noise, as it were, through staff notation.

Of course the pride inseparable from teenaged artistic output soon took over. My youthful notion of composing was to write down one idea, then another idea, then another, then another. This created the general effect of someone flipping through TV channels with his remote control. (Subsequent generations would call my approach Attention Deficit Disorder, thereby opening entire vistas of profitable identity politics and subsidized Ritalian addiction, which I, characteristically, never imagined.) I remained unaware that Wagner once called composing “the art of transition.” So much the worse for Wagner, I would have said, if told of this epigram. The whole setting took me only about a week. Nowadays I take longer over writing laundry-lists.

Having surveyed my creation and decided that it was indeed the masterwork I had always suspected, I nevertheless dimly registered the need to get copyright clearance, Lowell being still alive. This could well present difficulties. Great poets’ estates have varied a great deal in their willingness to provide such clearances. A. E. Housman’s estate was so proverbially laissez-faire that half England’s musicians spent decades churning out Housman settings. But T. S. Eliot’s executors were widely believed to greet would-be composers with sawed-off shotguns. (This was before Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber got hold of Eliot’s cats.) With luck, Lowell might have more in common with Housman than with Eliot.

One method alone could determine the truth. I sent my manuscript (yes, manuscript: no score-notating software back then) to Lowell’s publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Since it abounded in rubbings-out and crossings-out (no Wite-Out back then either), I am now amazed to think that HBJ did not simply consign it to the garbage. Particularly when I couched my covering letter in phraseology that had all the politeness and tact of an Internal Revenue demand.

In an astonishingly short time I heard from HBJ. It was extremely interested in my setting. So interested, indeed, that it would forward the score to Lowell himself, for him to decide whether he would countenance it or not.

A few more weeks passed, and nothing more happened.

Then—we are talking of one morning in September 1977—a headline jumped out at me from the Sydney Morning Herald issue which I was reading at a suburban rail station. “Robert Lowell, U.S. poet, dies at 60.”

It felt like a blow in the stomach. It felt like ten blows in the stomach, combined with having my kneecaps broken. If only some other, any other, American poet had died … why did it have to be Lowell?

And almost immediately, following this train of thought, another, more panic-inducing still. The news report indicated that Lowell had suffered a fatal heart attack. What if my own temerity had killed Lowell? My mind raced towards the nightmarish scenario which could have unfolded. Which must have unfolded. Lowell had received my letter. Lowell had opened my letter. Lowell had glanced at the amateurish musical setting. Lowell had been so outraged by the audacity involved, that his weak heart could no longer cope with his wrath, and he died then and there.

On later reading Ian Hamilton’s Lowell biography, I discovered enough about Lowell’s final years to conclude that maybe he hadn’t expired from rage at my manuscript after all. A walking coronary waiting to happen, he had consumed booze and pills in such amounts as to uphold the proposition that Dylan Thomas was a piker. If the booze and pills weren’t enough to undermine his physique, there was his marital career, retrospectively recognizable as a mixture of Desperate Housewives, Million Dollar Baby, and World Championship Wrestling.

Perhaps, therefore, I can be acquitted of hastening Lowell’s death. Then again, perhaps not.

Poetic justice ensured that some years afterwards I mislaid my manuscript and never succeeded in finding it. Poetic injustice ensured that nine-tenths of it is still engraved on my memory. That’s what a guilty conscience does to you.

I had, at least, learnt my lesson. When I next dreamed of setting verses to music, I always made sure the versifier in question had already gone to his reward. Never again would I run even the smallest risk of manslaughter.

Others may dare to supply musical reworkings for sentiments by bards still in our midst. Me, I long ago decided to stick with the Dead Poets’ Society.

R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne. His book A Student’s Guide to Music History is scheduled for publication by ISI Books in January 2008.


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