David Romtvedt
(Milkweed Editions)
We have, on these very pages, railed at poetasters who make prose, cut it into ribbons, and call it verse --- our thought being that if you are going to write in the chosen form of Shakespeare, Keats, or Yeats, then let the beauty and the rhythm of the words match the shape.

We even, in one of these reviews, took a particularly prosy poem by a temporarily famous Pulitzer prize-winner, got rid of the end-stops and proved, at least to our satisfaction, that a so-so sonneteer could just as well offer herself to the public as a not-too-bad essayist.

No sooner do we get through a pronunciamento like this than we run into a David Romtvedt who, as far as we can figure, is writing poetry that might possibly be prose, but filled with such kindness, even awe, that it makes no difference in which form it appears. Thus he can offer meditations on building steps, anti-drinking posters in high school, slugs copulating, mushroom clouds and his daughter, traveling through a town in Chile named Beso ("Kiss"), and going, after all these years, to a Dylan concert:

    so I drove down, blowin' in the wind
    and the times they are a changing, me
    and a bunch of fifty-something-year-olds
    remembering when we were young
    and so was Dylan and maybe something
    really might change.

Well, something did change. After the concert he's in the parking lot ("I wondered if there is/any other place where Dylan could give a concert and half/the people would arrive in pickups") is offered a beer, and listens to the screams.

Or there is the day he is appointed poet laureate(!) of Wyoming (!!) ... to which he responds, "poet laureate be damned."

"I don't properly thank the governor" because the poet is baby-sitting a friend's dachshund named Abby "while she's away in Denver getting some culture." When he finally tracks down the mutt, the governor is gone and Romtvedt meditates on the risk taken,

    not in naming me poet laureate, but in
    naming anyone to such a post. The risk
    isn't for what a person might do or say
    but for poetry, what it is and might be.

--- A. W. Allworthy
Go to a
from this collection

Boss Tweed
The Rise and Fall of
The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived
The Soul of Modern New York

Kenneth D. Ackerman
(Carroll & Graf)
Have you noticed that, as the print size shrinks, the titles of books are getting fatter and fatter. In 1920, Justin Smith could win a Pulitzer Prize for History with the simple title of "The War with Mexico." But by 1998, a volume on Evolution by Edward J. Larson explodes into Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. The next step, we guess, is a volume with a title that starts on the cover, runs on for 300 pages or so, and ends up with the CIP listing, the author's name, the publisher, and a few critical reviews on the back cover.

Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York may take the cake not only for longwindedness in the title department, but a whiff of poetry. How indeed does a "corrupt pol" conceive the soul of a modern city. Is one conceived in terms of giving birth to, or in just thinking about it: and how in hell does one give birth to --- or think up --- the soul of a city?

Now you may think I am just rambling on because I never finished Boss Tweed and truth-in-lending demands that I confess that fact. I got as far as the marriage of William Magear Tweed's daughter Mary Amelia to "twenty-five-year-old Arthur Ambrowe Maginnis of New Orleans," in which, it was reported, ladies were

    aglow with rich silks and satins and flashing with diamonds [and a] confusion of white arms and shoulders, elegant laces and valuable jewelry...

This means I got approximately 3/7ths of the way before Boss Tweed fell to the bottom of my bookbag and somehow never surfaced again before the deadline I am now facing, so that I can tell you why you should (or should not) be engaged with this one.

Mind you, I am more than a little fond of the history of greed, tyranny, and corruption in early America --- especially in my beloved New York. I will usually jump on such a book, as the old saying goes, "like a dog on a bone." But I have developed a reviewer's nose for bones that are so hoary that they deserve to be left alone. I come here not to praiseTweed and Tweed but to bury him (and it).

Tweed raised himself up by starting out as a simple fireman, and through charm and simple political logic (go where the money is) he ended up running most of the key offices in New York City.

He was your old-time politician, one that you and I could love: heavy in the tum, fingers adorned with jewels, an arm-around-your-shoulders kind of guy ... one you could hit up for a drink even if he barely knew you. This was the pol who would buy his votes one-at-a-time from the hoi-polloi: in mid-winter, the poor tenement-dweller gets a bag of coal or a sack of groceries. They would then deliver the vote. This may beat the modern methodology of tapping realtors, construction companies, defense contractors, and megacorporations to fork over to the candidates' PAC so that, in the end, the rich get the gold and the poor get the shaft.

I confess, I have a distinct nostalgia for the bad old days, but not enough so that I will weave through writing as baroque, as filled with unnecessary detail as this, not unlike the very buildings that Tweed built to demonstrate his hold on the jugular that we now think of as Victorian politics.

--- Irving Spivak


A Listener's Guide to
Music's Boldest Innovator

David Hurwitz
(Amadeus Press)
For sheer output, Franz Joseph Haydn was right up there with Telemann, Vivaldi, and Spumoni. During Haydn's productive years, he wrote 69 string quartets, 62 piano sonatas, 45 piano trios, and an astonishing 1,288 symphonies, many of which have been lost, or better, faded into oblivion.

When he was thirteen years old, one of his mentors told him that his voice would change in a matter of months and convinced him to undergo what was in those days scientifically termed "the snip." This would assure him and the world of Viennese opera that his voice would never change, that he could be a soprano for the rest of his life. On the very day of the proposed operation, his father put in an appearance and shouted, "You're nuts!" (or "Your nuts!" --- accounts differ) and that put an end to the young man's flirtation with the upper registers of song.

Haydn suffered greatly, largely because he was in thrall to his principal patron, Count Esterhazy. On top of that, Haydn's wife was a common scold. She cooked fish (al papier) wrapping it in his newest manuscripts. Haydn was known as "Papa" because he gave birth to so many of these manuscripts. The musicians who worked under him appreciated the fact that they got to play a new sonata every month, a new trio every week, and a new symphony every day.

During the time Haydn was working for Prince Esterhazy, the court musicians complained bitterly about the fact that the Duke permitted no spouses at "Eszterhaza." To keep from losing his players to priapism, Haydn composed the Symphony #45, named "The Farewell." During its performance, each of the musicians disappeared in a puff of smoke (in German, Die Huffenpuffen), leaving only the conductor behind. The Prince got the message. Papa Haydn was not only a musician but a magician.

He also wrote the witty Opus 128, "The Firecracker" in which a bomb was deployed during the final movement, which rattled the audience. Haydn helped his friend Mozarelli to compose the "Musical Joke." In this, one musician asks another, "Who was that oboe I saw you with last night?" The other replies, "That was no oboe that was my fife."

Haydn composed his own musical joke, the Opus 151 in B-flat for Baryton, organ, and gelding in which a horse goes into a bierstube and the bartender says, "Hey, why the long face?"

When Haydn finally died in 1809, the world of arts breathed a sigh of relief that they could stop being deluged with a yearly tsunami of trios, sonatas, fantasias, tortolonis, and cappuccinos.

§     §     §

Hurwitz writes that Haydn was "Music's Boldest Innovator." If this were so, Bach's "Musical Offering," Beethoven's "9th Symphony," Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" --- not to say all of Stravinsky, would be second-rate at best. The author tells us that there are 107 Haydn symphonies in all (two have disappeared). The volume comes with two Naxos' CDs, one for orchestral works, the other for chamber and vocal works.

We were prepared to scorn the CD because all 33 selections are excerpts from the major symphonies, quartets, trios or choral works, including The Creation or The Lord Nelson Mass.

In the case of the symphonies, one is thus unable to appreciate the composer's ability to build from movement to movement ... a trait much praised by Hurwitz.

On the other hand, the eight Quartets included are (and should be) jewels in the diadem of the composer (and the performers), most especially the Opus 33, #5 and the Opus 75, #1. The performances by the Kodály Quartet are good enough --- crisp, alive, precise --- to send one at once to the Berkshire Recored Outlet to see if the complete recordings are available.

Hurwitz makes much of Haydn's humor, telling us that the adagio to the 90th Symphony can be heard as

"Ta-dahhh!...plonk, plonk...plonk, plonk...Plonk! Plonk!"

    The music blithely continues with two seven-note "squiggles" on the oboes followed by a seven-note shout for the full orchestra, also developing a feature from the introduction.

One cannot fault the author for his enthusiasm, but this reviewer contends Haydn's hundred or so symphonies managed each to be more picayune than the previous. He did manage to compose the great works noted above as well as the String Quartet in D Minor Op. 76, No. 2, the Quinten --- an astonishingly soulful piece --- and the Seven Last Words of Our Saviour from the Cross. This last appeared in several forms, with, perhaps, the string quartet version being the most breathtaking of them all.

Readers who are fortunate enough to have access to British Broadcasting Corporation Program 3 on the Internet --- to be found at

--- could recently have enjoyed five hours with Papa on the superbly researched program "Composer of the Week." (It comes during the weekdays at noon and midnight GMT).

The emphasis was not only on the music, but Papa's fine political sense --- how he got himself engaged at Prince Esterhazi's ranch, how he worked himself into his patron's favor (the obscure "Baryton" was Anton Esterhazi's favorite instrument --- Haydn wrote over 100 Trios for Baryton), how he curried favor at every turn so that even when the good Prince up and died, he still had a sinecure until he was famous enough to retire to Vienna.

Like most of the rest of us, Haydn became somewhat potty in his old age. During his last days, he is reported to have said:

    The musical inventions chase and torture me. I can not escape them, they stand for me like walls. If an Allegro chases me, my heartbeat becomes very quick, I cannot sleep. If it is an Adagio, my heartbeat becomes slow. My fantasy plays me like a piano.

--- Hans van Dam
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH