One of the great things about being on a writing retreat is being able to paw through the piles of books the others have brought. In one pile I stumbled on an anthology edited by my old teacher-for-a-week Judith Kitchen of short creative nonfiction (In Short, eds. Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones) within which I found a piece by my old friend Fred Setterberg who wonderfully counters my daily crabbing about the state of the States with this metaphor for what we do when we’re at our best.
He quotes, in “The Usual Story,” Nora Zeale Hurston as writing: “Everyone is familiar with the Negro’s modification of the whites’ musical instruments, so that his interpretation has been adopted by the white man himself and then reinterpreted.” Then Setterberg notes, from his stance in the crowd at the Preservation Jazz Hall: “The bass player…launched into a flutter of notes that were both too rapid and dissonant for New Orleans vintage jazz…demonstrating how music — culture — argues, blends, dissolves, mutates, advances. The odd bird who hears something different plucks his strings too quickly or queerly or flat out plunks the wrong note, but he does it over and over until it sounds rights. He finds his own groove and fashions new music from the old. And that’s exactly what American music — American culture — has managed to do.”
How can we not value the gumbo of us, the jambalaya we are, chunky and piquant? Our language itself is a mongrel; or no, a palanquin, a vessel, a ship, a hammock. I can barely talk to you without calling down the whole array of immigrants to our shores, plus the people who were here when they got here.
Yes, English is a difficult language to rhyme in, with all its variety of endings, which is why poetry in English has long gone in different directions from the old endy-rhymey road, and American poetry has been perhaps particularly jittery and digressive, if also ahistorical and culture-centric. But also wide-armed and ribald and jazz-bit.
The diverse rabble of us elbow-jab and glare, and sigh together, and laugh, which itself is one language. Maybe laughter and music are the two things that will save this species from itself. I don’t know. But I thank Fred for giving me a little air today, a moment of breathing room. And it smells sweet.