Oct. 10, 2006

Thelonious Monk

by Stephen Dobyns

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Thelonious Monk" by Stephen Dobyns from Common Carnage. © Penguin Poets. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Thelonious Monk

A record store on Wabash was where
I bought my first album. I was a freshman
in college and played the record in my room

over and over. I was caught by how he took
the musical phrase and seemed to find a new
way out, the next note was never the note

you thought would turn up and yet seemed
correct. Surprise in 'Round Midnight
or Sweet and Lovely. I bought the album

for Mulligan but stayed for Monk. I was
eighteen and between my present and future
was a wall so big that not even sunlight

crossed over. I felt surrounded by all
I couldn't do, as if my hopes to write,
to love, to have children, even to exist

with slight contentment were like ghosts
with the faces found on Japanese masks:
sheer mockery! I would sit on the carpet

and listen to Monk twist the scale into kinks
and curlicues. The gooseneck lamp on my desk
had a blue bulb which I thought artistic and

tinted the stacks of unread books: if Thomas
Mann depressed me, Freud depressed me more.
It seemed that Monk played with sticks attached

to his fingertips as he careened through the tune,
counting unlike any metronome. He was exotic,
his playing was hypnotic. I wish I could say

that hearing him, I grabbed my pack and soldiered
forward. Not quite. It was the surprise I liked,
the discordance and fretful change of beat,

as in Straight No Chaser, where he hammers together
a papier-mâché skyscraper, then pops seagulls
with golf balls. Racket, racket, but all of it.

music. What Monk banged out was the conviction
of innumerable directions. Years later
I felt he's been blueprint, map and education:

no streets, we bushwhacked through the underbrush;
not timid, why open your mouth if not to shout?
not scared, the only road lay straight in front;

not polite, the notes themselves were sneak attacks;
not quiet—look, can't you see the sky will soon
collapse and we must keep dancing till it cracks?

                                             for Michael Thomas

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, (works by this author) born in a village in Parma, Italy (1813). His parents owned a tavern and were not very well-off. But his father recognized musical talent in Giuseppe and bought him a spinet (an upright harpsichord), which he kept for the rest of his life.

By the age of 12, Verdi was the organist for his church. He started playing for other churches farther away from home, and then he went off to music school. He lived in the town of Busseto, and boarded with a wealthy grocer who liked Verdi and wanted to support him, and whose daughter Verdi ended up marrying. When Verdi went for the position of maestro di musica in Busseto, a scandal erupted. One faction supported Verdi and the other, headed by the clergy and the local bishop, were rooting for his rival—a more traditional, conservative, and older musician. The town was in such discord over the matter that they completely banned music in church until the question was solved.

Eventually, they compromised and made Verdi the maestro for secular music and his rival the leader for church music. Verdi wrote marches, overtures, and other pieces for the Busseto Philharmonic Society and the town marching band. But then he set his sights elsewhere and got an opera, Oberto, performed at La Scala, the most important theater in Italy, in 1839. It was a modest success.

Then tragedy struck, when his wife died of encephalitis. They had already lost their two children in infancy. He vowed he would never write music again. But he couldn't resist when he read the powerful libretto for Nabucco. He turned it into a stunning opera, premiering on March 9, 1842. The audience applauded for 10 minutes after the first scene, and after the chorus, the audience demanded an encore, even though they were prohibited by the Austrian government at the time. Even the stagehands, who rarely paid attention to the performance, would stop what they were doing to watch and applaud the show.

Verdi used the same librettist for his next opera, Lombardi. The librettist had a procrastination problem, and Verdi had to lock him in a room in order to get him to write enough on time. Once Verdi made the mistake of sticking him in the room with his wine collection, and hours later the librettist emerged drunk. Verdi wrote a total of 26 operas, most notably Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), Aida (1871), and Falstaff (1893).

It's the birthday of playwright, screenwriter and director Harold Pinter, (books by this author) born in East London (1930). He was the son of a Jewish tailor, and he was raised in a small, working-class neighborhood that he had to escape during World War II. He acted in plays at school, and he liked to read Kafka and Hemingway. Pinter tried out London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he didn't like it and left after two years. He debuted his first full-length play, The Birthday Party, in the West End in 1958.

It didn't do well, but he continued to write plays and eventually created a body of work that people call the "comedies of menace." In these plays, situations that should be ordinary turn absurd or ominous because of characters acting out of character for inexplicable reasons. The plays usually take place in a single room, whose occupants are threatened by indefinable outside forces. Pinter wrote The Homecoming (1965), about a man who brings his wife home to meet his all-male family. She stays with his family to be their caretaker and whore, and he goes back to his job teaching philosophy, realizing that nobody needs him.

Pinter said that the opening of that play in New York City in 1967 was one of the greatest theatrical nights of his life. He said the audience was full of money—the women in mink, the men in tuxedoes. And as soon as the curtain opened, they hated the play. Pinter said, "The hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it." But, he said, "The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything [they had]. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated. All these men in their tuxedos were just horrified. ... There's no question that the play won on that occasion."

It's the birthday of Thelonious (Sphere) Monk, (works by this author) who was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina (1917) but grew up in New York City. He started piano lessons at a young age. By age 13, he had won the weekly amateur night contest at the Apollo Theater so many times that he was no longer allowed to compete.

Six years later, he joined the house band at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where he and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and a few others invented a new kind of jazz known as bebop. It involved unusual repetition of phrases and an offbeat, angular pattern of sound. In the '40s he started making recordings, and in the '50s he came out with two of his most popular albums, Brilliant Corners and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. With these albums, he gained international attention as a pianist and a composer.

The Thelonious Monk Quartet, which included John Coltrane, began a hugely successful regular gig at the Five Spot. Monk played at jazz festivals with other famous jazz legends around the country until the 1970s, when he stopped touring. His most famous compositions include "'Round About Midnight," "Straight No Chaser," "Blue Monk," and "Misterioso."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show