Using Chord Lines to Chart Songs

In recent years, I’ve become ever more frustrated with charting songs for guitar. For a long time, that’s consisted of simply writing lyrics with the chord changes above them. If I’m familiar with the song, I can usually get by with this method, and I have for many, many years. The band I play with also uses song charts, which consist of listing the basic structure of the song and the chord changes. It’s not bad, but in the past few months, I’ve wanted a little more. When learning new songs, I seemed to miss the big picture, the conceptual whole of the song I was trying to play. One solution I’ve found helpful is using chord lines.

What are chord lines, you ask? Well, several months ago when I started using them with greater earnest, I scoured the internet looking for some kind of guide, but to my surprise found nothing. Turning to paper and print, I scanned my book spines and found an undersized book with its black spiral bound pages. Rise Up Singing. Compiled by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, the book contains lyrics for over 1200 songs. An indispensable classic, in my opinion. It’s the place where I first learned about chord lines.

Chord lines are a method of charting the chords for a song developed by Peter Blood. Rather than writing the chord changes above the lyrics, which is the typical way we often see charted songs or fake sheets, a song charted using chord lines isolates the chord progression for a verse or chorus, recording the basic pattern of chords and beats for one line of lyrics. The break for a new grouping of chords, as well as another line of lyrics, is marked by a slash. For repetitions of chords, the method uses dashes, and if a whole measure of chords is to be repeated, there will be an empty space between a pair of slashes. Using this method requires much less space when charting a song, and the simple markings and grouping of chords communicate the basic structure of song in a way that can be quickly understood by the musician.

An image of the Wild Rover from Rise Up Singing
from Rise Up Singing by Peter Blood & Annie Peterson, p. 237

I like the method because I struggle with rhythm sometimes. It’s nice, therefore, to have the chords and beat of the song illustrated in a way that’s easy to understand. That helps me get a feel for the song much faster, and more importantly, conceptualize the overall structure of the song. When I’m charting songs for myself, I often use this method because it helps me account for the correct number of beats in each measure or line of lyrics. Granted, it looks a bit strange at first, but once I became familiar with it, I felt quite at ease using the method.

The genius of the method is that of saving space. Whereas traditional songbooks might become quite large with only a few dozen songs, the 1200 songs in the Rise Up Singing take up far fewer pages. In fact, there are usually about four songs on each page of the book. To me, that’s incredible, and as a guitarist, it’s convenient to have such a great number of songs collected in such a small book.

It really bothered me, however, that I couldn’t find anything more about the origin of notating songs in this method, especially something I think so useful. So back to the internet, and instead of coming away disappointed, I found contact information for the authors, Peter Blood and Annie Patterson. After a couple emails, I had some answers.

According to Peter Blood, he invented the method of chord lines. Although he had been working on a version of the system for several years, he dates the method back to Winds of the People, his songbook self-published in 1979 and the predecessor to Rise Up Singing. Blood writes, “I think I had used a modified version in earlier song sheets that had been mimeographed for groups I was part of, but I don’t think I used the consistent system of relating the chords to the downbeats of the rhythm until we created Winds of the People.” Over the years, he says many people have expressed appreciation for the system while others seem a bit mystified by the groups of chords, dashes, and lines that accompany the lyrics.

Despite those who might be a little lost, Peter Blood cites some of the same reasons I did for using the method. He told me the system seemed the best possible way to show where the chords fall without writing the chords above the lyrics, and ultimately, that saves space. He also finds playing and reading chords from these sheets easier. “It pops out more,” he says, when comparing his charts to the traditional method of notating the chords. I agree, too, that the method seems to declutter the page, stripping away the extraneous to create cleaner, simple song sheets.

For me, as well as many others, simplicity makes a world a difference. The irony is that Blood’s chord lines are a simplification that communicates more than the traditional method of charting songs. To make a comparison, his method acts like a snapshot of the song’s deep structure, and as we have so often heard, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Making Lists & Favorite Books for Teenage Boys

I think I’ve always been a list maker. My wife often discovers scraps of paper with some of my lists. I make them in notebooks and on yellow legal pads, too. I’ve tried writing them on my phone using the notepad app, but there’s something sterile about it. It’s just not as satisfying as pencil and paper.

A few weeks ago, as I began my 17th year as an English teacher at a small rural school in northeastern Pennsylvania, I asked my students to make some lists of their favorite books. I thought this would be a great way for me to get to know my students, and for the past few years, the first assignment for my freshman English classes has been to write a short essay about one of their favorite books. This has served me well, and I’d like to think it’s been good for my students, encouraging them to reflect on themselves as readers and put into words what motivates them to read. And that relates to the biggest challenge of the assignment, which is that they need to avoid plot summary as the content of the essay; instead, they must articulate the reasons this book is their favorite.

Picture of Books

This sounds easier said than done. Oh, you want me to write about my favorite book? Sure, let me tell you what it’s about. No, no. Tell me why it’s your favorite. What do you like about the book? Well, the story is about… No, no. Give me three reasons you like the book. Oh, well, because, I don’t know. It’s good. Yeah. But why? Well, because, it’s a good story.

And that’s the way it goes, despite my every effort to be clear in my directions, and, as usual, provide several models for their writing. Inevitably, a student will ask me for feedback, claiming the essay is almost done, and I’ll have to say, but you didn’t tell me the reasons it’s your favorite. You still have a lot of writing to complete. And sometimes the essay never gets much further. Indeed, I’ve discovered the assignment requires more mental effort than I expected when first adding the essay to my curriculum.

It’s difficult, for many students, to even name a favorite book. That’s my problem, as well, sometimes. My favorite books are always changing. Certainly, there are few that remain in the top ten, but as I continue reading more and more, my favorites shuffle and slide about. In addition, I’m almost loyal to certain books to a fault. I have this same problem when naming favorite albums, because I have my list of favorite albums from my teenage years, but now that I’m older, I’ve listened to so much more. I can list favorite albums from the past ten years or even the past year. A definitive list, however, seems impossible. How could I make any list of favorites without including The Dark Side of the Moon or Nevermind?

The trick for me, I guess, is to narrow the focus in some way. My friend, Jon, does this often. He’ll post lists of his favorite albums each year on Facebook, sometimes dividing the year into two or three parts. I’m always intrigued by his lists, and following his lead, I look forward to December and thinking back on all the new music that was released during the past year. And then I share my list of favorites. Sometimes, my picks even earn a Grammy, as Kacey Musgrave’s album, Golden Hour, did for 2018.

Books are a little harder, of course, but as my students wrote about their favorite books, I decided to make a list of my ten favorite books for teenage boys, a group I often find myself worried about keeping motivated to read over the course of the year. Obviously, I was once a teenage boy, and I remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure and Lone Wolf books before getting to high school and discovering classic authors like J. D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the past thirty years, however, the market for teen and young adult literature has exploded. There are so many books, so many choices for teenagers. Some of my choices fall into this category while others are simply books I think teenage boys would enjoy. And naturally, now that I have a teenage son, these are books that I’d like him to read at some point in the next few years.

Top Ten Books for Teenage Boys

    1. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
    2. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
    3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
    4. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
    5. King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher
    6. Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going
    7. Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
    8. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
    9. Looking for Alaska by John Green
    10. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Now I could annotate each of the books on the list, but that seems too tedious. However, I will say that there’s only one book that I read as a teenager on this list, which is The Catcher in the Rye, the classic coming of age novel. I think that’s something interesting to note, because I expected to have a few more books that have been with me a long time. It’s actually the oldest book on the list, and I still teach this novel to my high school juniors. I also teach The Things They Carried, and I’ve written previously about this novel as well as the important lessons this novel about the Vietnam War offers for teenagers. Fallen Angels is also about Vietnam, and I hesitated to put two novels dealing with the same topic on the list, but Walter Dean Myers is such a good author for teen boys.

In fact, most of the authors on my list are well-known, and I imagine many people will recognize their names. Chris Crutcher, though, might be less familiar. I highly recommend his novels, many of which center around sports, especially high school swimming, which was Crutcher’s sport as a teenager. I remember first discovering Crutcher while in graduate school. My wife, who is also an English teacher, had a colleague introduce her to books like Whale Talk, Stotan, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes—all great novels for teenage boys. She even met Crutcher at a middle school book symposium. My favorite book by Crutcher, however, has always remained King of the Mild Frontier, which is an autobiography about Crutcher’s childhood and teenage years. It’s very funny, and I’ve often recommended the book to reluctant readers.

The other nonfiction choice on my list is Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Here again, I feel obligated to put one of my favorite Krakauer books on the list. He’s such a good writer, I could list almost all of his books here, but for teenage boys, Into the Wild rises to the top. As I think about it, I’m reminded of Hatchet, since both books are about surviving on your own; however, Krakauer’s book about Chris McCandless is a true account, which sets it apart. He’s such a compelling writer, and I’ve always loved the way Krakauer weaves his own personal experience into this story about modern adventure and authentic experience. I’ve always wanted to teach the book to my older students, especially with all its references to many of my favorite authors like Jack London, and of course, Henry David Thoreau. Indeed, I thought I could write a post without mentioning old Thoreau, but he always finds a way, the little bugger.

On second thought, nevertheless, that Thoreau might show up in some form isn’t really that surprising. To make any list of favorites, our choices most likely contain something of us, too. Maybe it’s when the writer captures something about the reader, maybe something that the reader doesn’t even recognize before reading the book, that a book gains some extra significance. For me, Jon Krakauer is one of those writers, and making a list of favorite books allows me to understand myself a little more. It’s also one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed assigning this essay to my new students over the past few years. And every year, the best essays, by far, are the ones that reveal the personality of my students more than the contents of the book. Whether they consciously realize it, when they write about their favorite books, they are really writing about themselves.

The Curious Case of Thoreau’s Bean Field

Gardening is a strange pleasure. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau describes his experience in the bean field as a “small Herculean labor” and a long battle, the Trojans taking the form of worms, weeds, and woodchucks. For a weapon, he recounts leveling his enemy with his long-handled hoe, turning dirt and dust over the weeds that fought for water and sun with his rows and rows of beans. When reading Thoreau’s story of his bean-field, which I’ve done several times in the past few weeks, it’s almost always this image of Thoreau, fighting against worms, weeds, and woodchucks, that stands out to me. It may have been a battle, but clearly, he enjoyed this “curious labor,” as he describes being out there all summer in the early morning dew, barefoot in the field, until noon, and sometimes, staying there all day to see the evening birds overhead. There’s a certain magnetism in the earth, he says at one point, and I tend to agree.

Like Thoreau, I have my bean field that I’ve planted behind my barn year after year. At times, it seems to be more trouble than worth. The hidden calculus at the back of my mind tells me I must be losing on time and money. Surely, I’d be better off just making a trip to the grocery store, where I’ll ultimately end up buying my lettuce because my stalks in the garden have gone to flower. And yet I continue my little gardening enterprise year after year, knowing, like Thoreau, that there’s something more to be harvested than beans.

Thoreau standing in my garden

Over the life of my garden plot, I’ve tried many things to satisfy that strange pleasure of gardening—far too many to list here. And usually, I take several pictures over the course of the summer, a kind of photographic journal. There’s a picture, for instance, of the garden’s infancy, our first summer at the house, when the farmer up the road brought his tractor down to break ground for us, creating a rather large plot of land. My work even included a scare crow, but the garden proved unmanageable. In another photo several summers later, the garden includes a discarded snow fence I used to keep out the deer that tarry our plants—no woodchucks that nibble our leaves like Thoreau, but rather deer that feast upon them, leaving nothing but bare branches and curses in their wake. Indeed, I’ve never liked the idea of using that green garden fencing, which reminds me of working in a cage, but I found the red vertical slats that comprise snow fencing to be a rather pleasing aesthetic. Then there’s pictures of raised beds some years, large mounds in others. It’s always changing.

This year was no different, as I enlarged the garden dimensions and rearranged to make room for raised beds, which I had done away with only a couple years ago after seeing a friend’s garden. Maybe I’m fickle. This time around I drew inspiration from some pictures from an article in This Old House Magazine, an issue that I’d tucked away for safekeeping because, well, one day I wanted to build a garden like the one featured in that issue, or at least, to build something similar. No, I couldn’t do it exactly the same. So that was my project at the beginning of the summer, using two-by-fours for the beds instead of scrap hardwood flooring, using red as my color palette instead of green, and using brown mulch instead of pea gravel for the paths. And like most of my projects, it’s about 80% finished at this point, but the plants are in the ground and growing. Tomatoes, basil, lettuce, peppers—lots and lots of them in several varieties—potatoes, squash, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and cilantro. My tastes are a little more diverse than Thoreau, but my son did throw some beans in a patch of dirt as almost an afterthought, and ironically, it was the only thing that didn’t come up, the seeds having been leftovers from previous years.

The garden is better than last summer, for sure, but there’s always something that could be better. Thoreau gets this, too, for about halfway through his chapter about his beans, he discusses the desire to change things next time, opining that we all too often do the same thing year after year in both our gardens as well as our principles and actions. For Thoreau, change is good, and to me, that’s also one of the strange pleasures of working the soil. Gardening is about returning to the same place day after day, always looking for little ways to improve, to do things differently. I have plants on my property, for instance, that I have moved a half dozen times, hoping to find the best location. Another small flower garden went through a huge transformation a few years ago, as I hauled away a stone border, installed a decorative fence, and carefully placed a few very large rocks. Of course, there were some new plants, too. I’m happier with this garden, too, but I’m always tinkering with improvements.

That’s the difference between gardening and farming. According to Thoreau, the farmer is concerned with the product whereas the gardener is concerned with the process. The gardener realizes there’s more to be gained from working the soil than the harvest and the feast, which brings us back to Thoreau spending so much time hoeing his rows of beans. There are times he relates just standing there, listening to sounds in the distance or watching the nighthawk in the sky above. People stopped by, seeing him there with his beans, to offer advice for a better harvest in the fall, but Thoreau wasn’t farming. In fact, he describes farmers as robbing nature. No, instead, he was gardening. It should be noted, however, that Thoreau preferred the term husbandry when describing his own activities, a term which today seems almost obsolete. For Thoreau, husbandry was a “sacred art,” an activity that connected us to the earth more as stewards rather than owners, cultivating rather than reaping. The word also denotes a kind of management or conservation of resources, too, that anticipates, perhaps, that nature is not an infinite bounty, but something that could slip into a wasteland. Indeed, the land around Walden Pond in the 1840s was not as we see it today, but more desolate, much of it having been timbered and stripped to the ground. The beans were planted, in part, because other crops wouldn’t grow in such poor soil. It’s no wonder then that Thoreau might see himself as husbandman rather than a farmer. And unlike the farmer, the husbandman carries less anxiety, worrying much less about whether he should lose the rewards of his labor. Instead, the labor is the reward, and again, the strange pleasure.

As for me, I’m all right with words like garden, gardening, and gardener. Much better than worms, woodchucks, and weeds, for sure. But it’s that idea of change, I think, that becomes the key to understanding the difference between the gardener and the farmer. For me, gardens are experiments, little places where change is welcome, even encouraged, as the necessary ingredient to the process. It’s a place where possibility dwells, a place where the imagined comes to life. The words maybe next time and what if grow alongside the cabbage and broccoli. That’s what I like about it, and perhaps, that’s what Thoreau loved about it. This past week, on a trip to Creekside Gardens in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, that fact was highlighted for me. As my wife and I admired the plants, we struck up a conversation with one of the owners, discussing a miniature garden decorated with fairy houses and little sprites going about their gossamer business. And even as we admired the beautiful little garden, she told us what needed to be changed. “That’s what we’re always doing with our gardens,” she said. I think Thoreau would agree. The pleasure is in the process.

The First Fourth of July in Montrose, Pennsylvania

Over the past few months, I’ve delved deeper into the history of Montrose, Pennsylvania, than ever before. I’ve always been interested in writing about places, and for a long time, this small town where I live has provided plenty of inspiration. One of my writing projects has been a collection of poems about Montrose that I’ve finally decided to publish, and of course, that’s when doubt really starts to creep into my thoughts. Here I am, writing about my adopted hometown, but what did I really know? I had the overwhelming feeling that I was only skimming along the surface. I’d written about a few notable people and specific places, even a poem about our Fourth of July celebration, but I needed more details, more history. So now, several months later, having scrutinized old maps, read old newspapers, and seen hundreds of old photographs, I’m rediscovering the place I’ve called home for the past fifteen years.

Published in 1873, Emily Blackman’s History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania contains a wealth of information, including much about the founding of Montrose. She’s considered to be the area’s first historian, so naturally, I’ve been reading her book, scanning the index and picking relevant topics. One story that stands out, especially at the beginning of this month, recalls the first Fourth of July celebration, only a short year after Captain Bartlet Hinds built a small log cabin that became the town’s first settlement in 1800.

Just like our modern fireworks, these early settlers wanted something grandiose, something with a great boom. If we take Blackman at her words, Captain Hinds must have been a clever woodsman, besides a soldier. Hoping to recreate the fusillade of cannon fire, Hinds felled thirteen trees in quick succession, choosing trees and notching them in such a way to fall like dominoes. Has anyone ever heard of such a feat? The noise must have been marvelous, as each tree crashed into the next and into the next on down the line. As the boom resounded in the woods, and the last tree fell to the ground, I can only imagine the few settlers gathered about clapping and cheering such a spectacular show.

Felling of the Trees by Colleen Caterson
Felling of the Trees by Colleen Caterson (from Montrose Through the Years, 1976)

Somewhere off in the woods nearby at least one other person heard the flurry of the captain’s wooden cannons. Reportedly, Jason Torrey, while out surveying land, followed the great boom to its source and soon discovered the little party in the midst of their merry making. They gave him food and drink, and according to Blackman, Captain Hinds offered up a toast on the nation’s birthday, saying, “The United States! May their fertile soil yield olive for peace, laurel for victory, and hemp for treason!”

Although we can’t give credit to Hinds for composing these words, as this was a familiar toast at the time, his fighting spirit is certainly embodied in them. Hinds was a soldier, after all, having fought for liberty or death against the British. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote The Declaration of Independence, was the newly inaugurated President of the United States in 1801, and George Washington had only died a couple years earlier.

So goes the first of many celebrations in The Hinds Settlement, later renamed Montrose, Pennsylvania. While researching the details of this event, I did come across at least one person who asked, Why thirteen trees? Indeed, I don’t want to take anything for granted, so let us remember the thirteen stripes on our flag represent the original thirteen colonies who banded together to fight for independence. By the day Hinds brought thirteen trees crashing to the ground, the number of states in the union had grown to sixteen, but thirteen had already become sacred. So strange, that today, we associate the number with bad luck and trouble. It seems to me, however, that Captain Hinds most certainly had those original colonies in mind when planning his “fireworks” for the Fourth of July.

It’s interesting to note, too, that one of the mottos of our new nation, e pluribus unum—a Latin phrase meaning “out of many, one”—was even comprised of thirteen letters. As an English teacher and student of language, I’ve always found this detail about the motto fascinating, but the phrase becomes even more poignant as I think about the beginnings of Montrose taking shape. When the Hinds family and Jason Torrey came together, they were parts that joined as one to create something greater, much like our country, much like our small town, much like our annual celebration, and much like those thirteen trees, so many years ago, crashing together into one great echoing sound heard deep in the woods.

All of this makes me reflect on things that bring us closer, that pull us together rather than apart. The Fourth of July in our town, unlike many of our other holidays, is unique in that respect. Whether we gather along the parade route, visit the vendors on The Green, or sit together to watch the fireworks at the end of the day, we celebrate together. My parents, for instance, will travel two hours to be here. Many others are coming from much farther to visit close friends and family, often using this event to return to their roots. It’s estimated that our town swells to nearly 20,000 people on this one day of the year. Although they will not hear the thunderous roar of those thirteen trees described by Emily Blackman in her book, it’s clear that our tradition of bringing people together, especially in Montrose, is still strong.

From Mordor to Montrose and Back Again

Maps have always fascinated me. As a kid, I remember scrutinizing Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth for what seemed like hours, tracing the path to the Lonely Mountain and Mordor. When I made a recent trip to Walden Pond with my creative writing class in April, the only thing I was adamant about purchasing was a copy of Thoreau’s survey of the pond from 1846. I guess it doesn’t matter if they’re fictional or real, but there’s something about maps that I appreciate as a writer. Maybe it’s because maps communicate something that’s so hard to put into words. That sense of direction, distance, depth—those relationships that maps allow us to glean more readily than words.

In the past few months, I’ve been researching Susquehanna County and Montrose, Pennsylvania, where I currently reside. Besides documents and pictures, the old maps tell a story all their own. For example, the Map of Susquehanna Co. from the Actual Survey by G. M. Hopkins, 1858, is a large color map of the county including street layouts of the major towns. The framed copy in the Susquehanna County Historical Society in Montrose is especially ragged, the wear emphasizing its age at over 150 years. Like Tolkien’s maps included with his stories, the hand drawn nature of this map captures my attention, but there’s another thing that’s taken some time to really grasp.

Detail from the Map of Susquehanna County by G. M. Hopkins, 1858

The artist for the Hopkins map rendered the buildings along the streets as tiny dark squares of varying size and shape, labeling many of them with their owners and even plot boundaries. Why does this make any difference? For me, it’s because there’s just enough room in the details for the imagination to do its work. Unlike Google Maps, where the fascination lies in seeing an actual image of your house on the screen, and how many of us haven’t done that, this map leads me to wonder about all those dark boxes, lines, and labels. In the end, the map requires a certain amount of mental work to read the story with the limited details.

That said, this map is even more special because of the vignettes along the margins that provide a glimpse of life back then. For instance, there are four drawings of Montrose, including the newly built Court House, only three years old at the time. There’s also a drawing of a snowstorm on April 21, 1857, that dumped over three feet of snow in Montrose, which must have been quite remarkable to have been commemorated on this map. It’s the only event on the map, as the other vignettes are buildings or landmarks such as the Starrucca Viaduct.

Another large map hanging in the Historical Society is titled Map of the Borough of Montrose, Susquehanna Co. Pennsylvania, Surveyed and Drawn by Philip Nunan. Published in 1853, this map also has vignettes, mostly of residences around town. The streets seem to be the real focus of the map, however, and a careful study reveals some significant changes over time. The original scheme was a grid, which the map readily communicates. But some streets, compared to the present, are almost completely gone. Take Pine Street, for instance, near the county courthouse. Only three houses still remain on this short street that I always thought so awkwardly placed, but the Nunan map shows this street used to run all the way down to Church Street and beyond, and parallel to Spruce, which makes much more sense to me now. Not to mention that two evergreen names were placed side by side, something that never occurred to me until studying the map.

Like Pine, Beech Street also had some major changes, because the Nunan map marks it as a long straight street whereas the street now takes a meandering route through the area just south of Church Street and Tannery Place. In some cases, the streets have even flip-flopped names, as appears to be the case with Chestnut and Cherry. And this is where the maps fall a little short, because they don’t reveal the reason for the changes, but simply record them over the years. I know, for instance, that Montrose suffered some devastating fires, and I’m wondering if some of these changes weren’t made on the heels of these major fires. It’s something to consider when studying the history of the town.

Many people are familiar with the panoramic maps of Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, who signed them simply T. M. Fowler. These birds-eye maps may be the ultimate treasure in capturing the history of many towns in Pennsylvania at the turn of the century. Each one is a meticulous study of a town, drawn with three dimensional buildings that are remarkable in detail and accuracy. When thinking about the Hopkins map I described earlier, these maps are the antithesis, recording the town with such facsimile that someone can’t be but overcome with awe, and I know that several of my local friends have the map of Montrose from 1890 hanging in their houses. Fowler drew 426 of these, and of those, 248 were towns in Pennsylvania. Until recently, however, I didn’t know that the Library of Congress has these maps available online, and the tools provided at the website allow you to zoom in very close and see the drawings in greater detail than ever before.

Some may also be familiar with the Susquehanna County Atlas of 1872 published by Frederick W. Beers. Unfortunately, the Library of Congress doesn’t have that map available yet, but there are other places online where it can be viewed such as the website Historic Map Works, which provides tools very similar to the Library of Congress. The atlas is beautiful, too, but not nearly as fascinating as the Fowler maps, and of course, it doesn’t have any of the vignettes included with the other maps mentioned. Each of these maps probably served their purpose, and like I said earlier, maps get at something beyond words, allowing us to grasp a larger, fuller picture than words can provide, but they also serve, at least as I’ve found, to stir the imagination, to make me wonder and seek answers. Taken together, the maps create an intriguing picture of my hometown through the decades, a map of its journey so to speak, that certainly rivals the maps of Middle Earth that I stared at again and again so long ago while reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

To Walt Whitman, On His 200th Birthday

Although Edgar Allan Poe may have written the most famous American poem, “The Raven,” it’s Walt Whitman, The Father of Free Verse and The Good Gray Poet, who claims the top spot as our most important poet. Born on May 31, 1819, he became a national treasure by the time of his death, though criticism of his book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, remained mixed.  Thirty years after first publishing the book, Whitman, in fact, wrote that its reception remained “worse than a failure.”  But that’s expected for trailblazers and revolutionaries, and naturally, many of this ilk don’t receive their due until after they’re dead.  It took the world time to appreciate Whitman, but here we are, and to celebrate his 200th birthday, I offer some places where Whitman continues to speak to us.

Pen Drawing of Walt Whitman by Kerr Eby

For an English teacher like me, the 1989 film Dead Poets Society earns one of the top spots. My favorite scene is when Mr. Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams, makes Todd Anderson yawp in front of the class.  For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Ethan Hawke’s character, Todd, is supposed to write a poem for English, but comes to class empty handed, and instead of simply moving on to another student, Mr. Keating rallies him, running to the chalkboard to write, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”  It’s one of my favorite lines by Whitman, coming at the end of his epic poem “Song of Myself” and only after about seventy-five pages of poetry.  It’s only fitting that this line earned a prominent role in the film.  The scene continues, when Mr. Keating calls Todd to the front of the class to “yawp,” goading him until he finally barks out a good one. Eventually, Todd improvises a poem in front of the class, under the tutelage of the teacher, and completes the assignment to much applause from his peers.  Sure, it might be a bit contrived, but for any English teacher, it’s also a bit of wish fulfillment.

Like Mr. Keating, Levi Strauss & Company has also paid their respects to Whitman.  It’s interesting, too, that Levi’s jeans and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were contemporaries, their birthdays dating back to 1853 and 1855, respectively.  No wonder then, that the company, chose an advertising campaign, led by Wieden + Kennedy, who has done ad work for Nike too, that paired a recording of Walt Whitman, supposedly from the 1890s, with their jeans.  Even though many scholars believe the recording to be a hoax, the result, directed by Cary Fukunaga and first aired in July 2009, is a beautiful piece of cinematography where the advertising and the product for that matter, fade into the background to allow Whitman’s poetry—the theme of American democracy—to take front and center. 

Furthermore, in a moment of genius, Fukunaga even accounted for the hiss and scratchiness heard in this antique recording by repurposing the noise as a burning fuse to an explosion, or better yet, a firework. I’ve read in at least one source that the ad premiered on July 4th, making this detail even more befitting to the topic. And the bonus, Levi’s advertising campaign distributed Whitman’s voice to a mass audience that probably would have never bothered to listen to this recording.  And even if it’s not truly an authentic recording, the words remain Whitman’s.  The voice, too, sounds to me like Whitman’s should, which is perhaps why it may not actually be authentic.  Nevertheless, it’s something I show my students every year, and the poem’s imagery and style serves as an interesting contrast to many other poems by Whitman.

Finally, it’s hard to write about Whitman without mentioning another one of my favorite teacher dramas, Breaking Bad. Indeed, the AMC series about a chemistry teacher mixing up the best methamphetamine is all about breaking the rules much like Whitman’s poetry. By far, I think this is my favorite TV drama, better than The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Dexter—many series that I devoted so much time to watching. Maybe it’s because Walt Whitman and  Leaves of Grass take on a role in the show.  Even the name of the show’s main character, Walter White, is eerily reminiscent of Walt Whitman, so much so, that I have often wondered if the writers had the plot worked out so far down the line to include that connection four seasons later to that infamous copy of Leaves of Grass, gifted to Walter White by his diligent assistant, Gale.  Even “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which was referenced directly in Breaking Bad’s plot, recounts a narrator walking away from a classroom to reap the benefits of firsthand experience.  It’s just so wonderful, so apropos, to the series that I can’t help but “look up in perfect silence” while watching the storyline unfold.  

So there you have it, some of the places where Whitman persists, despite calling his book a failed experiment. It’s been interesting, at least to me, to research many of the details that I often discuss with my students, but haven’t completely fact checked over the years.  Of course, an article of this nature requires a proper conclusion, so I’ll leave you with one more detail from my research. For many years, I’ve had the hint, the remembrance, of a directive given by Walt Whitman about reading his poetry.  In writing this article, I discovered that directive in the Preface to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass, which is a kind of manifesto on poetry.  In later editions, the Preface was cut from the book, but in the first edition, Whitman advises us “to read these leaves in the open air in every season of every year.”  I like it, that advice, because poetry is sometimes sterile, confined to the pages of a book, the walls of a classroom, and if lucky, maybe the audience at a coffee house.  How wonderful to think of it, instead, mingling with nature, the clouds floating overhead and the green grass under our feet.  No, I’ve never done it, but perhaps this year, I’ll finally take my copy of Leaves outside, read a few poems aloud, and celebrate Whitman’s birthday.

On the Occasion of Poetry

I’ve done a tremendous amount of writing in the past four months, much more than in the previous few years combined. I often go through spurts, starts and stops, devoting time to writing lyrics for a song or turning my attention to a poem or two. Sometimes I’ll give an assignment to my students, and because I like to model the work, I’ll find myself suddenly transported, deep in thought, churning out a little rhyming poem or a series of haiku.

Over the years, I’ve come to love the poetry units I teach, maybe more than anything else during the school year, and I often culminate them with assignments to write similar poetry. In a world where analytical writing is so privileged, I also want my students to do something more creative, more expressive, more emotional. And with regard to my own writing, I’ve found myself working more and more in the world of poetry, alongside these blog posts, of course.

Certainly, circumstance plays a role, providing the occasion for poetry. For example, just before Christmas, I made a connection with a colleague, someone I’d seen off and on in my building, who I was obliged to speak to now and then, and really nothing more. But by chance, we struck up a conversation about books and discovered a mutual fondness for Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I have long loved this book, and of the many novels written by Kingsolver, including The Poisonwood Bible, it’s Prodigal Summer that moved me the most. That served as an appropriate introduction, and I’m happy to call Tracey a friend now.

More importantly, however, is Tracey’s love of poetry. She’s been writing for a long time, working seriously as a poet. Having quickly developed some trust, I sent her a collection of poems I’ve been working up to get her opinion, and likewise, she shared her published book of poetry, Storm Farmer, with me. Soon we were in business. She came as a guest to my creative writing class to lead a lesson on mimicking the work of other poets. My students, who recently collected some of their work in a little chapbook, many of them selected the poem written from that class activity. Of course, I wrote a poem, too, and the occasion, her presence and interaction with my students, fueled my writing.

Poetry is often about timing. We wait around for the right inspiration, something that moves us so that we can’t help but try to capture it on the white whale in front of us, whether it be the computer screen or the blank pages of a notebook, but poetry is as much about inspiration as the circumstances that arise, or that we make, in our daily lives. Perhaps, that’s why I admire those writers who show such discipline by writing day after day, good or bad. They approach writing like a day job, rather than the stereotypical artist, moved by the moment or the muse.

John Grisham, author of so many novels, is famous for this kind of resolve. While writing his first novel, A Time to Kill, he committed himself to writing every morning for three years, day after day, as he continued to work as a lawyer. It’s a habit he’s continued, even after becoming a bestselling writer, which allows him to publish a novel almost every year.

Likewise, Jason Isbell, recent Grammy winning songwriter and guitarist, has spoken about approaching his craft in a similar fashion. After being tossed out of the Drive-By Truckers and finally getting sober, he worried about ability, about inspiration. Did he have what it takes to make music while clean? However, he found that alcohol and excess was only an excuse, and that his best writing has come from the discipline of sitting with a guitar, working with lyrics and melodies, in a more disciplined way. Like Grisham, he also sets aside time to write, and in interviews, he often states that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block.

Nevertheless, circumstances, whether manufactured or random, have helped renew my poetry habit. At the grocery store, a few weeks ago, I happened upon my artist friend and gallery owner. Betty told me that her new gallery was set to open the following weekend with a space dedicated to a local artist, Joe Welden. As it turns out, I’d already written a poem about Joe, having been a fan of his art and purchasing a painting by him several years ago. At her invitation then, I read my poem at the dedication ceremony. In my opening remarks, I said, “This is the right place and the right audience for this poem, ” and truly, I couldn’t have found a better time to read the poem in all my life, surrounded by Joe’s artwork, in a space named for him, in the company of his family and friends. I couldn’t have asked for a better reception, a better place to release the poem into the world.

That moment, nevertheless, was relatively short—the event lasting a few hours, the reading only a few minutes. But the event provided good motivation, reminding me that poetry is a worthwhile pursuit. That those countless hours revising a single line again and again until it sounds just right, and then doing it again the next day, the same line, returning to the former phrasing because, after twenty-four hours, it was a mistake after all. That time, that mental energy—that’s worth something. It’s easy sometimes to say it’s pointless or selfish, that I’m wasting my time and energy. It’s easy to judge ourselves not worthy of the pursuit. But that’s the triumph of any artistic endeavor, and especially creative writing, that someone makes the occasion for poetry. We say, yes, this deserves my attention, and then we write, whether it’s a novel, a song, or a poem.

Painting by Joe Welden
Joe Welden

Jazz Artist
by Aaron Sinkovich

Like any ordinary cup of coffee, our Joe Welden
could easily be passed over for something more robust,
but there’s a world teeming inside him, a fresh, rich pot
brewed with jazz and full of folks always giving him the slip—
musicians, saxophones blowing notes and singers singing songs,
a rhythm running through his figures like his fingers over a keyboard.

Almost anything can serve as Joe’s canvas—
napkins, crumpled newspaper, salvaged windows and ceiling tiles,
something with texture, an up and down, a rhythm or chord progression,
laying down a beat like the rat-tat-tat of a snare, the ting-tinging of a cymbal
until you feel it under your feet, the people moving with Geppetto’s music,
at block parties, city bars, along hot streets lined with tall buildings—
drinking in life with secret arrangements to run away before daylight.

Instead of three musicians, he painted four for me—
I swear it’s The Bird, Benny, Miles, and Ella
who slipped away this time, —Could you really blame them?
refusing to lay down their instruments,
racing away to another gig, another stage, another audience
to play notes, like Joe’s brush strokes, that can never be pinned down.

And don’t bother these folks with “professional framing”—
exact measurements, perfect right angles, smooth polished finishes,
that’s too square, like playing the notes straight time;
much better to improvise, to use what’s at hand, let the beats swing
so the song is never played the same way twice—
that’s Joe’s signature, Joe’s art, Joe’s jazz.