Boom Times for the Art Song: A HyperHistory of Poetry and Music

Gay-bashing, Langston Hughes, and Critics

Ricky Ian Gordon calls poetry his “first love.” His older sister put him to sleep by reading poems to him. And it was song that brought his family together—his mother was a Borscht Belt singer/comedienne and two sisters were folk singers.

Consequently, in 1997, overwhelmed by grief following the death of his partner, Gordon sought out writers for friendship and solace. Inspired by poet Mark Doty‘s memoir, Heaven’s Coast, he went to Provincetown where he became friends with Doty. Through that connection, he met and studied with poets Marie Howe and Jean Valentine.

“In both their classes, they cited Lucille Clifton,” he remembered, “a poem about the man dragged to death in Texas. And it was one of the most powerful poems I ever read.” When asked by NYFOS for a new song, Gordon decided to set Clifton’s “Blessing the Boats.” The music was inspired by the fact that he had a crush on a man at the time whose favorite composer was Schumann.

“So I wrote this song like ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,’ he said, referring to the opening song of Schumann’s cycle, Dichterliebe. “‘Blessing the Boat’ is the poem of compassion for our time. Nothing against Billy Collins, but I was so shocked that Lucille Clifton wasn’t named poet laureate—there’s never anything glib or clever about her poems.”

Gordon’s taste is for simple plain-spoken poems and he observes that since he wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s drawn to poets who do as well. His method for writing a song is to memorize the poem, repeating it over and over.

“I let the poem live in me a while,” he said. “Then the world of it opens to me.”

As a way of explaining the relationship of the music to the text, Gordon cites the title of the song-writing class he teaches at Bennington College in Vermont, “A Gesture on Behalf of the Poem.” That, he said, is the essence of songwriting.

“Often you hear a poem where the composer has laid down an immovable floor for themselves—as if they have not made sense of the poem. The setting should clarify or illuminate the poem. For me, I think ultimately, I want to please the poet.”

Tom Bogdan‘s show at La MaMa included seven of Gordon’s songs, three of them on texts by Langston Hughes, a poet Gordon has set often and identifies with strongly. As a boy, Gordon was beaten so badly in a gay-bashing incident that the family moved; his life-long marginalization as a homosexual, he said, has given him a powerful connection with the work of Langston Hughes, who was black.

“At a certain point in my life,” Gordon said, “working on Langston Hughes became my sketchbook. And because of the immediacy of the poems, I could sometimes write a song a day—I couldn’t stop.”

When Gordon talks about the pantheon of his favorite poets, he is passionate.

“Hughes was always an optimist, he has a kind of energetic melancholy. But I’m also attracted to Dorothy Parker‘s cynicism in broken hearts and I love the lyric poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay because reading her is just really music. And W.S. Merwin for me is the Great American Buddha. And Frank O’Hara is Mr. Whimsy…Talk about richness, the richness of American poetry!

Gordon’s recent successes—high profile performances and a Nonesuch recording, Bright Eyed Joy—have occurred within the context of a coterie of composers writing songs that, like Gordon’s, are markedly influenced by the vernacular. Despite high praise by The New York Times pop critic, Stephen Holden, Gordon has been stung by criticism from other critics who find his music either insubstantial or not memorably melodic. He doesn’t feel singled out however, and complained that in any city but New York, he and his colleagues—he named Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, John Musto, and Mark Adamo—would have more support.

“It’s fucking unbelievable that we are all here,” he said, “and we are enemies of the press. We go elsewhere, outside of New York, and we’re treated like heroes. The people harming this world are the ones killing each other, not the ones writing songs—this is such a cynical time. But, really, taking everything into account, I admit I feel lucky. And, look at me—I’m a living composer. I get to get up every morning and go compose.”

In Gordon’s worldview, people are more disconnected than ever before, contributing to the rise of teen suicide, murder, alcoholism, drug addition, and terrorism. It is at just such a time, he said, that an art form striving for intimacy and connection will flourish.

He asked, “What could be more personal and intimate in this utterly mechanized mess of an age, than one person standing up in front of some others singing? One poem, one singer, one pianist. Why wouldn’t I want to do that with my life?”