Positively Fourth Street — and Jones Street

Just in time for Bob Dylan’s birthday ( OK, a few days late — his 68th birthday was May 24th), I’ll note that at this very moment the public library in Toms River, N.J., at the most southern end of the Jersey Shore, is hosting a talk by none other than Suze Rotolo — yes, that Suze, the one who’s walking arm-in-arm down Jones Street in the West Village on the cover of an album titled “Freewheelin” by her then-boyfriend Bob Dylan.

I’ve read and recommend Rotolo’s very entertaining book “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties,” in which she writes about her relationship with young Dylan but also offers a fascinating glimpse of the Village’s folk scene and the 1960s youth culture.

I’ve mentioned this once before but I’ll mention it again. One of my proudest moments as a father took place a couple of years ago when I was walking up West Fourth Street with my son Matt, stopped at a corner, pointed to a street, and asked him what was significant about that spot at Jones Street and West Fourth. He answered within 30 seconds that this was the place where the “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album photo was taken.

Here’s an alternate version of that classic, iconic photo:


Here’s a list of songs on what was truly Dylan’s first great album:

Blowin’ in the Wind; Girl from the North County; Masters of War; Down the Highway; Bob Dylan’s Blues; A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall; Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright; Bob Dylan’s Dream; Talking World War III Blues; Oxford Town; Corinna, Corrina; Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance; and I Shall Be Free.

“Freewheelin”  came out in 1963, when Dylan in his early 20s. That was 45 years ago!

Here’s a clip of young Bobby Dylan singing “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” which was probably inspired by his relationships with Suze Rotolo:


And the seasons go ’round and ’round

Check out the links in my Friends list and you’ll find a new addition: a blog called SilverLining, with essays and photos by Mary McAvoy.

Here’s one of her photos (the flowers are bluets):

And here’s a link to a recent post inspired by Joni Mitchell’s song “The Circle Game,” titled “Spring Comes A-Round.”

After reading that, come back around, click on the link in the Friends column, and you’ll find scores of great photos and commentaries by an amateur naturalist who has her eyes — and heart — wide open as she explores the area in and around a small pond in New England, and finds great truths in the small wonders of nature.

Where bluebirds fly…

Further proof that I’m out of touch with what’s truly important: I’d never heard of Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole until I received an email containing links to four different version’s of “Over the Rainbow,” including this beautiful one by “Iz.”

Here’s the video:

Such an amazing voice! The singer died in 1997 but his music remains immensely popular in Hawaii. Here are excerpts from an obituary that ran in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Kamakawiwo‘ole, the singer and musician who was known as “Iz” and who drew the respect of music lovers and the Hawaiian community, died at 12:18 a.m. today at Queen’s Medical Center. The 38-year-old performer had had problems with his weight and related illnesses and had been under care at the hospital for respiratory ailments.

This year Kamakawiwo‘ole and his CD “n Dis Life” won three awards during the Na Hoku Hanohano presentation. The entertainer watched the June 5 ceremonies from his bed at Queen’s, where he was being treated.

He won honors for album of the year, island contemporary album of the year and male vocalist of the year. He also was named favorite entertainer of the year by popular vote.

Kamakawiwo‘ole sang with the Makaha Sons of Niihau before setting out on his own in 1993.

He had traveled many roads — singing, composing, instrumentalizing, producing albums and winning other Na Hoku Hanohano awards. In 1994 he was chosen entertainer of the year.

In May 1996 after a show-stopping reunion performance with his three partners from the Makaha Sons — John Koko, Jerome Koko and Moon Kauakahi — Iz said, “I’ve seen it all, done it all, known it all.”

That was a reference to drugs, a habit that he said he had since kicked.

“It ruins you. It’s not Hawaiian. It’s not about malama-ing (taking care of) those you love,” he told the Star-Bulletin in a May 17, 1996, interview.

His plans then called for a stronger weight-control program: less salt, no fat, lots of water, walking, swimming and other exercises.

The Waianae High School dropout planned to get a tutor to earn his GED.

Throughout his career, Iz also had a weight problem that plagued his 6-foot-2-inch frame. At one time he tipped the scales at 757 pounds, and vowed in 1995 to shed 360 pounds. At one point during his career, he required a forklift to get on stage. Even walking was a chore, and he had to rely on an auxiliary oxygen tank to help him breathe.


Here’s a hope and a prayer: that “Iz” found that place somewhere over the rainbow, which he’d heard about once in a lullaby.

The cultivation of grapes

You ask when I’m going to get around to writing about my visit to Concord.

You would think, when I finally did get around to it, that I’d write about visiting the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Louisa May and all the other Alcotts, all of whom sleep their endless sleep within the green lawns and wooded paths of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a few blocks from the village green.

The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord
The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord

Or maybe I’d write about staying at the venerable Colonial Inn, part of which was occupied for several years by his transcendental eminence Henry David and members of the Thoreau clan.

Concord's Colonial Inn
Concord's Colonial Inn

Perhaps I’d dwell a little on the pivotal events at Concord and Lexington which spawned a revolution.

You’d think I’d write about the delicate white flowers you photographed along the shore and the celestial light I saw shimmering on the holy waters of Walden.

Blossoms at Walden Pond
Blossoms at Walden Pond
Or, speaking of transcendence, maybe I’d write about thoughts that arose as I sat on a bench in downtown Concord and watched as transcendental tourists floated past like wispy wistful ghosts who whispered  of glowing and translucent love.
Downtown Concord
Downtown Concord

But I choose to speak of Concord and its grapes, which were first cultivated by Ephraim Wales Bull,  and whose grave at Sleepy Hollow gripes to the very end and beyond that he realized no gain from his carefully cultivated breed of grape – the real fortune was made by a man from New Jersey, name of Welch,  who took those grapes and turned them into jam and jelly.

And so on Bull’s headstone are etched these words:  “He sowed, others reaped.”

Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes
Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes

I did not know when I came home from kindergarten to the Mulford Garden projects in Yonkers, and waiting for me were a glass of milk and a peanut butter-and-jelly on Wonder Bread made for me every day by my mother, that my mother and I were connecting to and becoming as one with the transcendentalists as I sat and ate my sandwich.

As I sat on that park bench I was thinking about many things, including old Bull and his grapes, and how his hard work yielded fruit that did not bear fruit for himself, about the careful nurturing and pruning and guidance and patience – call it the labor of love – required to allow something to take root and spread its vines and provide sweetness and beauty.

As I sat on that park bench, I thought of an arbor I have in my own back yard. The grapes are, in fact, Concord grapes. Sometimes I’ve cut back the vines or cleared away weeds but mostly now I leave the vines to their own devices.

Some years, when the weather is not conducive to the growth of grapes, they shrivel into raisins on the vine. Other years, when the warmth and light are dealt in proper doses , the vines cascade down the arbor, and thousands of grapes threaten to pull down the old wooden posts with their weight, and birds built nests amid the vines on the top of the arbor, and the birds eat the sweet grapes, and deer come at night, and they reach to the higher realms of that arbor, and there’s plenty of grapes on the arbor for everyone.

As grapes grow so, too, can love grow, when storm clouds pass and the sun warms the vines right down to their roots, and sitting on that park bench,  I thought of Concord and Mr. Bull’s grapes, and I decided I just didn’t agree with that bitter viticulturist – I believe that those who take time to sow seeds, and let them take root, then nurture the vines, then wait patiently for the weather to freshen, these sowers will reap the sweetest fruits from the labors of their love.

“It’s our karma…”

I wrote recently about the poet and editor William Packard, and the acts of kindness he extended to me when I was a young man, just out of college, trying to pay the rent by writing and reading poetry — which led to episodes such as the one, which I described in my previous essay, that involved Packard buying a sandwich and silently sliding half of it across the table to me — the ravenous look in my eye as I glanced at Packard’s sandwich must have been the giveaway — either that or the saliva dripping from the corners of my twitching mouth.

William Packard was an exceptional man and an exceptional writer.

I recently encountered this very interesting video of a brief interview with Packard, recorded in the late 1980s, at a book fair, in which he makes some prescient comments about books, writers and writing.

Here’s the video:

And here, for the record, is William Packard’s obituary from The New York Times:

William Packard, 69, Author and


William Packard, a poet, novelist, playwright, editor and founder of The New York Quarterly, a national poetry magazine, died on Nov. 3 at his home in Manhattan. He was 69.

He died of heart disease, said Raymond Hammond, executive editor of the quarterly.

Mr. Packard founded The New York Quarterly in 1969. It published both poems and interviews, and contributors included prominent poets like W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, Paul Blackburn, Richard Eberhart, Stanley Kunitz, Anne Sexton and W. S. Merwin, among many others.

The magazine suspended publication in 1996 when Mr. Packard had a stroke, but he was sufficiently recovered earlier this year to help bring out the fall issue, which has just been published. The magazine will continue, Mr. Hammond said.

Mr. Packard also taught creative writing at New York University, the New School, Cooper Union and elsewhere and wrote in a variety of forms.

Mr. Packard’s six volumes of poetry include ”To Peel an Apple” (1963) and ”Voices: I Hear Voices” (1972).

His adaptation of Racine’s ”Phèdre” won the Outer Critics Circle Award when it was produced Off Broadway in 1966.

He also wrote textbooks on writing and published three collections of one-act plays.

Born on Sept. 2, 1933, and raised in New York City, Mr. Packard graduated from Stanford University.

He has no immediate survivors.

On the road

The soundtrack wasn’t the late-night bop sounds of Symphony Sid and I wasn’t driving with one hand while my other hand typed my spontaneous beatific scroll. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s newest album on my stereo and I had one hand on the wheel and my Mapquest directions in the other — but I was indeed on the road, first stop Lowell, Mass., hometown of Jack Kerouac and my destination for a meeting with the folks who have organized that town’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which was held last October for the very first time and is already an impressive event.

Allen Ginsberg's famous photo of young Jack Kerouac
Allen Ginsberg's famous photo of young Jack Kerouac

I arrived early, and so had a chance to explore downtown Lowell, which reminded me very much of my own old home town of Yonkers, N.Y., where even now I can walk around those familiar streets and conjure up visions of the city’s once-bustling business district in the old carpet mill buildings and the old sugar refinery and even the old Herald Statesman newspaper office now converted into a library branch because the newspaper was homogenized and sanitized and standardized and blended until it disappeared. Lowell  felt like that, right down to the impressive old Lowell Sun newspaper office, with its big rooftop signs — two of them — spelling out the name of the paper, S-U-N.

Here's a view of downtown Lowell, including the Lowell Sun building
Here's a view of downtown Lowell, including the Lowell Sun building

I then met with the poetry festival organizers, with whom I’d been put in touch by Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. poet laureate who teaches in the graduate program at Boston University and was the featured poet at the inaugural festival held last October in Lowell.

Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky

(Pinsky was the featured poet at the first annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in 1998 — which I founded and still run in conjunction with River Union Stage of Frenchtown, N.J. — and was good enough to come back to read again in 2007 for the 10th anniversary of our readings in New Jersey, which have also featured such literary lights as Louise Gluck, Pulitzer Prize winner and another former U.S. poet laureate; Pulitzer winner Paul Muldoon; National Book Award winner Gerald Stern; and other great poets includling Thomas Lux, Diane Wakoski, Maria Mazzioti Gillan, Joe Weil, BJ Ward, Charles H. Johnson, Stephen Dobyns and many others. The 2009 Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, scheduled for October, will feature yet another great poet — Rita Dove.)

So I met with the Lowell event’s organizers: Michael Ansara, who arranged the lunch, joined by LZ Dunn, who works for the city of Lowell as well as its cultural agency, and Paul Marion of UMass/Lowell.  We had a great exchange of ideas and thoughts on ways the Lowell event might be turned into an even greater event than it already is, including the idea of finding ways to connection with the thriving poetry scene in another old industrial city with deep literary roots — Paterson, N.J., associated with a couple of pretty good poets named William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.

I also had a fascinating but all-too-brief talk with Paul Marion, who it turns out has been the mover and shaker behind many of the efforts to properly honor Kerouac in his home town — and was involved in the cataloguing of Kerouac’s correspondence — including letters Kerouac exchanged with the late, great poet Robert Lax, who was my friend and mentor. I knew about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac, who was fascinated by his Zen/Christian minimalist approach to life and art; in fact, I know that Lax was reading some of Kerouac’s novels in the months just before he died; but I was startled to learn during the conversation that Marion was familiar with Robert Lax and was excited to meet someone — me — who had known Lax.

Here’s a photo taken of Lax by Paul Spaeth, curator of the Thomas Merton/Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University, when Lax visited the school in 1990 during a brief sojourn back to the U.S. from his home on the island of Patmos, Greece:

Robert Lax
Robert Lax

The one downside to the meeting in Lowell: Turns out the 2009 event in Lowell will be held on the same weekend as Rita Dove’s scheduled appearance Oct. 17 at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in New Jersey, so I won’t be able to make it back up to Lowell for this year’s event — here’s hoping I can make it in 2010.

And, because even Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll manuscript had a begininng and had to finally end, so too this post must end. What better way than with a sampling from Jack Kerouac’s Belief and Technique for Modern Prose. He listed thirty “essentials.” Here are my favorites:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
20. Believe in the holy contour of life

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