What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

July 10 & 17, 2017 Issue

Clive James, in his wonderful poem “A Heritage of Trumpets,” in this week’s issue, picks up from where he left off in his Poetry Notebook (2014), the last chapter of which is titled “Trumpets at Sunset.” For James, it seems, the trumpet, when it’s played “with definition, lyrical and real,” the way, say, Bunk Johnson, Buddy Bolden, Bill Coleman, and Louis Armstrong played it, evokes the bittersweet mixture of elation and elegy (“The controlled sensation / Of vaulting gold that drove a funeral then / Linked death to dancing people, grief to joy”) that James is feeling as he approaches life’s end (“the dying voice of silence”). I love that “Blaze away / Into the dark, bugler. Be sure the night / Reflects your song with every point of light” – James’s inspired variation on Dylan Thomas’s  “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

James’s poem contains at least one other allusion, as well – “Play that thing!” – an invocation of Philip Larkin’s great “For Sidney Bechet,” in which Larkin, apparently listening to a recording of Bechet as he writes the poem, gets so caught up in his intense response to it, he suddenly shouts out, “Oh, play that thing!” James’s use of the line allows us to be aware simultaneously of Larkin’s original melody and the new melody based on it, the poetic equivalent of jazz improvisation. Brilliant!

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