Monday, February 9, 2009

Variations For Two Pianos


On Donald Justice's Variations For Two Pianos

A villanelle is a poetic form in which the first and third lines of the first stanza are alternately repeated as the third line in each succeeding stanza, and then are repeated together in the last stanza. A villanelle is 19 lines long, five tercets and a concluding quatrain. But augmented villanelle forms use the same principle, and can be just as satisfying. The example below consists of 15 lines; you could call it an abbreviated villanelle. I find it even more powerful for its relative brevity, in relation to its classical antecedent.

Here is Justice's villanelle:


Variation for Two Pianos

for Thomas Higgins, pianist


There is no music now in all of Arkansas.
Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos.

Movers dismantled the instruments, away
Sped the vans. The first detour untuned the strings.

There is no music now in all of Arkansas.

Up Main Street, past the cold shopfronts of Conway,
The brash, self-important brick of the college,

Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos.

Warm evenings, the windows open, he would play
Something of Mozart's for his pupils, the birds.

There is no music now in all of Arkansas.

How shall the mockingbird mend her trill, the jay
His eccentric attack, lacking a teacher?

Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos.
There is no music now in all of Arkansas.


There are several things to talk about with this ingenious poem.  Characteristically, Justice's subject is a real person, not an idealized presence of one, or a personified, mythological being from classical literature.  Justice will often play classical themes against Modern situations, using the irony of high art to throw ordinary phenomena into stark relief, or for humor. 

Another nicety is that there is nothing "outside" the poem which our curiosity requires to make the poem work.  We don't need to know, really, any more about Higgins, than that he is a classical pianist, certainly a professional, as well as an academic (whose appointment may have ended, necessitating his departure from Conway [home to no less than three colleges, including the University of Central Arkansas]), and that he takes his pianos with him.  

Why Variations for two pianos?  Perhaps this is a joke.  Pianists have played two pianos before; Liberace used to do it on his television show in the 1950's.  To be more precise, the poem is indeed a verbal "variation" for, since it is "about" Higgins's pianos.  Obviously it's a poem, not a musical composition, though in a very real sense, as a villanelle, the poem is superficially not much more than a set of banal musical phrases.  We are tantalized by the notion of a poem for two pianos, even if it is just a little joke.  Not the kind of "lyrics" one could set to music, though, since their tone is conversational, what Robert Frost often referred to (in his own work) as "the sound of sentences."  By which he meant, I've always assumed, the way people naturally speak, as opposed to the artificial language of "poetry."  And naturalness is very much a part of Justice's approach.  

Is it possible to write highly complex, finished poems, even in classical, traditional forms, in the language of common speech?  Since the early Modernists, in the 1920's, that's been a preoccupation.  William Carlos Williams believed that poetry should not only be about common people, but should, in effect, speak through them.  This tendency, to want to bring poetry down to the level of the everyday, now has a clear history, at least in America. Imagine Frank O'Hara without his "deep gossip."  Think about the Confessionalists, who wanted to work out private, psychological issues, in their lives, as if they were relating directly to a therapist (the reader).  

Justice certainly didn't believe in confessing in his poetry.  His poems often seem like the work of a master tinkerer, perhaps a watch-maker.  The little gears and levers spin and click and mark time, ingenious meters of our mortality.  

Is the poem a joke about Arkansas?  Is Higgins the only man in the state to make real music? Without him, playing Mozart through the open windows on a peaceful Sunday afternoon, as the birds outside chirp in unison, is the whole State an empty wasteland of quiet, or cacaphony?  

Even in going, "the first detour untuned the strings," the pitch, the tone, is distorted.  But what does he mean by detour?   Does the poem take a detour?  If his only real pupils were "the birds" was he not appreciated, for his teaching?  

But nature's music is not perfect, either.  The jay and the mockingbird need instruction too, to mend their trill, their "eccentric attack."  

The first line is repeated four times, the second line, three times.  Between these (musical) refrains, there are four couplets of description.  This is very like a first movement of a Mozart sonata or sonatina, the statement of thematic element introduced, "trifled" with briefly, then repeated primly at the end.  Light, pure, limpid, lapidary, seemingly simple-minded, easy.  

This purity of song is contrasted with the "brash, self-important brick" of the college.  This last reminds me of a snatch of dialogue from John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [1974], where George Smiley is talking to Roddy Martindale who says "just a red brick don...a few bits of sandstone..." to satirize the pretensions of a lower class academic.  Brick being, in the history of English architecture, a decidedly "lower class" building material, perhaps suitable for flats and full service banks, but not nearly sophisticated enough for gentry!

Higgins is probably too good for Conway, and its little pretentious college.  They didn't appreciate him, and now he's leaving, has left.  Does anyone mark his passing, other than the birds?  Justice does.  

We should all be so lucky to have a poet as talented and inspired as Justice write a poem about us.                

9 comments:

Kirby Olson said...

The poem might be sarcastic, as if to say, here was this guy, who thought he was God's gift to music, and now that he's gone, there's no music in the whole state.

I looked up T. Higgins, and there are some books on Chopin's piano pieces, and some other stuff that might relate.

Justice died in 2004, so I guess that now we will not have a poem by him about us, unless there's one in a drawer about you. He has lots of poems to dancers and pianists, it seems to me.

Also, lots of formal poems: villanelles, etc.

In the Reader, there is a ten-page piece called Piano Lessons: Notes on a Provincial Culture, he is writing about the little Bohemias of America, and the people who make up these Bohemias. I think now that his poem to the guy in Ladora was hello to another person in a tiny Bohemian bubble of late-night reading.

He grew up in Miami and studied with a Madame L... among others. He says if he started a little earlier he would have liked to have been a pianist.

Poem called On a Woman of Spirit who Taught both Piano and Dance he's again circulating this motif. He writes about it many of his poems, such as The Pupil, and Piano Teachers.

It seems to have opened a magic space for him. He says as much.

Is there a biography where we could sort out his relationship to Higgins?

Curtis Faville said...

No bios that I know of.

He led a life of quiet desperation, as the saying goes, or of quiet serenity.

Most of his adult life teaching poetry and English in colleges and universities.

He also translated some, from the French and Spanish. Guillevic. Alberti.

I had a class with Justice at Iowa in the early 1970's. He was very precise, quick to find amusement, slyly deprecating on occasion.

I think he thought I was patronizing him a little by writing poems that were rather like his, in style, at that time.

Kirby Olson said...

Did he have a love life?

Curtis Faville said...

Married to the same woman all his adult life. They had one son, Nathaniel.

No idea about extracurricular.

Read his poem "The Telephone Number of the Muse."

Anonymous said...

I composed a musical setting of this poem. When I wrote to him for permission to do so, I received it; but he was also curious about my musical intentions. It turns out that he studied music with Carl Ruggles before turning to poetry. He said that Higgins had been a good friend (in fact, he had died at about the same time as my request for permission to compose the music.) But he had been denied tenure at the college. Evidently the president felt he was too radical; Justice thought the Higgins' main offense was wearing a beret when it rained. Justice said that Higgins also had a death mask of Chopin, that that he couldn't figure out a way to put it into the poem. I enjoyed a couple of meetings with Donald and his wife Jean when they visited this area (the West Coast.) He returned to composing shortly before he died and sent me several of his new pieces.

Brian Holmes
horncabbage(a)aol.com

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Mr. Holmes:

Very interesting.

Justice was my poetry teacher at Iowa (Writers' Workshop) during the early 1970's. He was already--by that time--somewhat the grand old man of American academic poetry--though he was unfailingly humble and courteous in his approach to student work.

The Variations has always been one of my favorites of Justice's work. I can rarely find anything wrong with Justice any poem, though occasionally I feel his revisions (later versions) to be mistaken.

I too compose. My maternal grandmother was a graduate of Oberlin, and a voice teacher in the 1920's and 1930's. I don't often think of voice in composition, but I've tried making a few things. My latest idea is to set Tennessee Williams's "Which is My Little Boy"--do you know it? (I discovered Lee Hoiby had already made a version, which I've never seen or heard.)

I think Justice probably spent a lot of time at the piano during his life, but had given up composition in favor of writing. He also wrote the libretto for an opera on the theme of the Death of Lincoln, a printed version of which I own.

I mostly compose jazz piano, or pieces for classical guitar.

Anonymous said...

Is there any type of Figurative Language in this poem "Variations for Two Painos"?

Curtis Faville said...

He compares birdsong to Mozart. That would be one example.

Anonymous said...

I was fortunate to know Dr. Thomas Higgins, personally from the late 80's until his death in 1995, in St. Louis. I came to know him through two family members who were friends of mine. From what I knew of the gentleman, amd family discussions - Justice dedicated this piece to Tom out of genuine fondness and respect. Tom had been a child prodigy but sadly, due to bad timing, poor choices, fate or whatever you choose to call it - the full scope of his musical genius was never fully realized. Author Daniel Stern portrayed him as "Les Reilly" in his memoirs of life in 1930's Paris and Chicago, "What is What Was" A gracious and kind man, though not without a certain measure of inner demons, ego and self-defeating tendencies - my life was much the richer for having been able to call him friend. Anonymous - St. Louis, MO