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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Episode 21 – Def Poets Society

Direct link to mp3.

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Be quiet now and still. Be unafraid:
That hiss and garden tinkle is the rain,
That face you saw breathe on the windowpane
Was just a startled cat with eyes of jade –
Cats worry in the rain, you know, and are afraid.
The nervous laugh that creeps into our room
Is throated in a voice beyond the door.
We hear it once and then no more,
A distant echo tumbling from its loom.
Our time is measured in another room.

We know days pass away because we’re told.
We lie alone and sense the reeling earth.
(You whisper in my ear it has some worth)
And I lean near to keep you from the cold.
There are so many things that must be told.
I speak of lost regimes and distant times,
And afternoons of rain spun into rhyme.
(The patter of the rainfall marks our time.)

As does the waning moon. Or muted sun.
As do the nodding gods who ride the sea.
For even now, alone and still with me,
You sense the bonds that cannot be undone:
Our pulse is in the rain and moon and sun,
We take our breaths together and are one.

Celebration for a Gray Day - Richard Fariña

Put away your themes and schemes, because it's time for the Dreamtime podcast, occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour. In the background is Tommy Flanagan's, "Peace," and today we're taking about poetry…

I have to admit that when I first heard Dylan refer to Henry Ward Beecher as a "def poet," in the "Coffee" episode, my initial reaction was, "Huh, I never knew that Beecher couldn't hear." However, when he called Robert Louis Stevenson "slightly def," I realized that there was a joke going on that I wasn't getting. Happily, Google is the balm that cures almost all woes – even those of the slightly thick, and, after trying out variant spellings of "deaf," Google informed my white bread self that Dylan hadn't fixated on poets with hearing problems, but instead was using the hip-hop slang term "def," as in "great," or "definitive."

Who knew?

According to Wikipedia, not necessarily a final authority on any subject, "Def" originated in New York City in the 1980s, made it into the big time and the Oxford English Dictionary in 1993, and subsequently was declared dead by the NYC rap community, and even had a mock eulogy delivered by the Reverend Al Sharpton. Dylan apparently got the idea for the def poetry tag from Russell Simmons, who, in 2002 produced an HBO series called Def Poetry Jam, now in its 5th season, with poets performing their work on stage in front of a live audience. Celebrity guests make frequent appearances on Def Poetry Jam, guests that have included Smoky Robinson, Lou Reed, Jamie Foxx, and the woman about who there is nuthin' not to like, according to Bob Dylan, Alicia Keyes herself.

I bet he taped that show.

Def poets on Theme Time have included: Lawrence Ferlinghetti; one of the last surviving Beat poets who Dylan seems to like a lot, Henry Ward Beecher; the Bard of Avalon, William Shakespeare who has had more Theme Time readings than any other poet; Charles Bukowski; Gregory Corso; Emily Dickinson (Def Poetess); Robert Louis Stevenson (Slightly Def Poet); T.S. Eliot; John Donne; Bertolt Brecht; Gwendolyn Brooks; Samuel Coleridge; Edgar Allan Poe; Lord Buckley; Alexander Pope; the Def Bostonian, Anne Sexton; James Joyce, Rainer Maria Rilke; Christopher Marlowe; Percy Bysse Shelley, and Frosty Poet, Robert Frost.

On "Theme Time," Dylan returns to a time of free-form radio when a DJ – especially those on the graveyard shifts – was as likely to read a poem to his or her audience as to spin a platter. Free verse, the ode, the ballad, the haiku, the limerick, palindrome, villanelle, quatrain, sonnet, sestina, and my personal favorite, the clerihew. By any name, if it uses some form of meter, metaphor and rhyme, as far as I'm concerned, it's poetry. To reverse Mata Hari's quote in the "Dance" episode, "The poem is a dance in which each word is a movement."

Richard Fariña was many things, musician, author, poet; contemporary of Thomas Pynchon and Dylan, a charming rogue from all reports, his charm dependent on your tolerance for rogues. Dylan gives Fariña only a passing mention in Chronicles, dismissing him in a line as just someone else who was in on the Village music scene. That's a little surprising, if you've read David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street, but, on the other hand that gossipy book may be one of the reasons Fariña isn't mentioned more in Chronicles.

By the end of Positively Fourth Street, the only person who doesn't appear to be a calculating hustler is Joan Baez's younger sister, Fariña's wife, Mimi. Or maybe some bad feelings still remain. It's been claimed more than once that Dylan's song "Positively 4th Street" was directed at Fariña, who was nakedly jealous of Dylan's success.

"It got to Dick," Mimi said in an interview. "That this younger person (Dylan was six years younger) was able to do it a bigger way." Things went bad between Dylan and the Fariñas both because of that jealousy and Dylan's treatment of Joan. Perhaps in counter to Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," Fariña replied with "Morgan the Pirate," a song ending whatever friendship was left, with the refrain, "one or two hard feelings left behind."

Between Positively 4th Street and Michael Gray's ugly portrayal in his so-called Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Fariña's reputation has taken something of a beating in the past few years. But the bottom line is that he was a talented artist who, at age 29, died much too early to fulfill that talent. Two full albums, one other pieced together after his death, one novel, one collection of short stories. That's all that we have. Dick Fariña would have been 69 this April. It would have been wonderful to have his version of Chronicles. And maybe by now the hard feelings would have been fully left behind.

This is Fred Bals with the Dreamtime podcast, occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour. If you haven't been to our home page, come by and visit. Just put Dreamtime podcast in Google, Yahoo, or whatever your favorite search engine, and we'll be number one on your hit parade.
After the poem Celebration for a Gray Day there was the song, which was also the title track of the Fariñas first album. A song without words, here's "Celebration for a Gray Day."

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