A Few Days at Yale: ALSCW Conference Memories, Part 2

These three posts—the one about the trip and the two about the conference—barely graze the surface of all that happened. But it’s important to say something while the memories are fresh. The slower, more private reflections can take their time and probably won’t take the form of prose. So here we go: Saturday, October 22.

In the morning I attended the Shakespeare plenary session, which I loved. (My summaries might be slightly inaccurate, since I was holding a lot in my head at once and the day was so full.) Rebecca Rush spoke about the different kinds (and meanings) of rhyme in Shakespeare’s plays, with particular attention to Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In particular, she examined how rhyme can express traditional doctrine and mores on the one hand and spontaneous desire on the other. Robert Stagg spoke about the unfortunate tendency to smooth Shakespeare’s verse into perfectly regular iambic pentameter; he made an argument for honoring Shakespeare’s syllables. Then Lee Oser gave a lecture titled “Providential Groping in Hamlet,” which considered, among other things, the possible unity of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy and the “providence” monologue—and with that, the unity of the play as a whole. (There was much more to it than that.)

After that, I skipped out for coffee with Martha. I came back for lunch. Then came the second session of the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar.

If I were to do one thing differently, I would have asked the presenters to send me any slides, recordings, etc. a week in advance, so that they would all be on my laptop, ready to go. (But then, that probably wouldn’t have worked; people often have last-minute revisions or prefer to use their own devices.) There were a few small glitches with people connecting and reconnecting their devices—and for Lara Allen’s piece, I initially opened the wrong file. None of this really distracted from the session, though; it was all promptly resolved. It just meant that we had a little less time for discussion at the end.

The session opened with Lara performing an excerpt from her interdisciplinary performance piece The Hairy Eyeball and then speaking about Harry Partch’s music and its influence on the piece. Except for the glitch that I caused, it was riveting. (You can see more of her work on her website.)

One of the great highlights of the conference for me was the presentation by Fruzsina Balogh and Panna Kocsis, on the artist Lajos Kassák and the composer Béla Bartók, and artistic responses to their work by students of MOME (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design), where both Panna and Fruzsina are studying. It looked at how the arts can translate into one another; in this sense it tied in with all the others and evoked many responses later.

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly’s presentation on two ways of setting Pilinszky’s poems to music (accompaniment and song) brought us back into the realm of the seminar topic. He spoke of the many definitions of poem and song, the close relationship between them, and how he had set two Pilinszky poems (in the English translation of Géza Simon) to music. He played both pieces; it was moving to listen to them again, there in that room. He also talked about the personal nature of the act of setting poetry to music: how it comes from a deep response to the poem, a sense of recognition and shock. He spoke of his experience setting Csenger Kertai’s “Balaton” to music, and about the wordless, intuitive nature of the encounter between poem and music.

I am not going to be doing any justice to the other presentations; there’s much to say about each of them, but I don’t want to weigh this down. Piotr Gwiazda’s presentation on Grzegorz Wróblewski—and the musical-visual setting of two of his poems on YouTube—stood out for its attention to the other presentations and papers (he referred to many of them as he went along). Many strands and sounds came together as he spoke. I enjoyed the fearless straightforwardness (and complexity) of the presentation, as well as the video itself. He brought up the idea—central to several of the presentations and to the seminar’s theme—that you can listen to a poem in a language entirely unknown to you and grasp something of its essence. Here is one of the videos (©Archiwum Literackie 2014).

Mary Maxwell then spoke of the challenges involved in setting the Roman woman poet Sulpicia to music. She brought up an idea that contrasted with what had been said before: that of standing outside the writer and judging her in a way, but doing so in order to understand and portray her better (the way many actors study a role). Ultimately she sought to convey the humanness of Sulpicia’s poems. (This notion of “judging” requires nuanced explanation; she discussed it in more detail during the discussion.)

Next, the poet Jennifer Davis Michael and the composer Nathan Davis spoke of their work “Bell of Silence,” in which the former’s poem was set to music by the latter, as a piece for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and handbells. During the presentation, Nathan Davis sounded a bell; we listened to its long fade into silence. It was still dimly ringing, very dimly, when he muted it. You can listen to the piece here.

Kimberly Soby then spoke about the Korean-American composer Earl Kim and his musical setting of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Listen to it rain” (“Écoute s’il pleut écoute s’il pleut”) in his 1983 work Where Grief Slumbers. There was a fascinating visual aspect to this: the text of Apollinaire’s poem runs vertically, like falling rain, and the melodic lines, too, convey a sense of falling. Soby explained how it worked musically, with the sparseness, instruments, and pitch intervals. (You can listen to it here.)

We were unfortunately running very low on time when Iris Zheng gave her presentation on musical settings of Tennyson. She brought the seminar together into a unity; her presentation brought back memories of Emily Grace’s from the day before, but also spoke, as others had in different terms, of the role of the composer as critic, one who delves into the poem and comes back with an unexpected insight.

The discussion afterward was brief but exciting, since people had so much to say and ask in response to each other.

I then headed to the neighboring auditorium, along with others, for the plenary session on Japanese literature, which got better and better as it went along, culminating in a talk by Keith Vincent on “Haiku and the Novel”—about the novelist Natsume Sōseki, who initially was a haiku poet, and about the relation between the shortest of poetic forms and the much longer form of the novel. He suggested that for Sōseki, haiku writing was excellent preparation for novel writing, since the novel, like the haiku, demands intensity of compression (a point that in turn brought Gergely Balla’s presentation to mind).

And then the banquet! We walked up to the Divinity School, where it was held, found our way in, and arrived just shortly before the feast began. It was delicious and celebratory. There were remarks by David Bromwich, the outgoing president, and David Mikics, the vice president and incoming president (each conference has a new president). Then Rosanna Warren introduced Ishion Hutchinson, who gave the much-anticipated poetry reading. Then Lee Oser, immediate past president, gave closing remarks.

I will close with a recommendation: Read Ishion Hutchinson’s “The Mud Sermon” (which he read, among other poems, at the banquet), “Little Music,” and “Reading ‘The Tempest’“—and then take your own road through his work (to the extent that any road can be anyone’s own, and to the extent that it actually is a road).

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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