Sunday, October 7, 2007

Holm the iconoclast

"The Music of Failure" is one of Bill Holm's masterpieces, although he would cringe at the use of that word. The book is a meditation on the hazards of success and the many ways in which failure can be defined and be useful, even necessary.

He describes his first piano teacher -- a spinster with arthritis, living on a hardscrabble farm, poor. By most definitions, a failure. But it was that teacher, on her out-of-tune upright, who introduced Holm and others to the beauty and mystery of music, especially the European masters. This a wonderful failure, if failure it be.

Holm, Howard Mohr, and a couple of others organized a group called Poetry Out Loud. They toured small towns reading W. H. Auden, Wordsworth, and their own poems in libraries, churches, town halls, and nursing homes. In "The Music of Failure," Holm writes a kind of critique or post mortem after each stop. Here is one:


The poets read. There is a faint stink of excrement, ammonia, scented candles, and sugar cookies. She sits quietly for the first stanza, but then screws up her toothless face...

"Shit! It's all shit! They're crazy! Crazy! Why do we have to sit here and listen to this shit?"

The dignified Norwegian lady sitting next to her is so used to boredom that she would sit quietly listening to The Congressional Record read in Urdu by a computer. She has survived sermons for ninety years, after all. She reaches discreetly for her ear to disconnect her hearing aid.

The crank goes on: "Shit! Nothing but shit!"

She will do no such thing as go gentle into that good night. She gets louder and crankier during my poem. I like her even better. I want to kidnap her, first to Minneapolis, then New York, and wheel her into committee meetings, cocktail parties, congressional hearings, celebrations of the mass, and serious cultural occasions. I may even marry her.


I enjoy Holm because he is blustery, opinionated, cranky. But he is also compassionate and self-deprecating. And funny.


Greg said...

Thanks for the very nice comment on my poem and for the link! I'll return the favor soon and come back often. I like Brautigan too.

Rob Hardy said...

Thanks, Jim. I really like the Bill Holm pieces you've posted here. This one's better (less sappy) than the one I wrote after giving a reading down at the Hassler Theater in Plainview:

Poetry Reading

I love your little sigh at the end
of every poem, your little “ah,”
as if I had touched you privately.

We are old lovers. You give me
the sign of comfort, I give you
a pleasure you have already known.

We are strangers, but for a long time
we have shared the same world.
My words have come home to your heart.

Jim H. said...


Sappy? I don't hear sappy. I hear intimacy, a hear connection. It's sensual. I especially like the line "...a pleasure you have already known."

Thats one way to make a good poem. That is, to make it novel and familiar at the same time.

Very nice.