• Jessica L Wilkinson

This essay begins with an ethical quandary: the author’s academic institution had purchased some very expensive resources for her so that she could complete her research for a book-length verse-biography project on choreographer George Balanchine. The problem is, the resources arrived after she considered that project ‘complete’ (the book was in press). How might a creative practice researcher quash her guilt in this regard?

The essay follows her process of reopening the project — as a more traditional biographer might do in order to produce a ‘revised’ edition — not only to integrate information from those new resources, but to revisit discarded research notes (the ‘refuse’) that did not yield poems within the initial publication. In assembling new versions of poems from the published book, the author reconsiders the biographical project as an ongoing, ever-evolving and ephemeral process, akin to the revision of ballet repertoire.

Keywords: creative-practice research, poetic/verse biography, George Balanchine, poetry, biography and revision, Lyn Hejinian, Dennis Cooley

 

The biographer truly succeeds if a distinct literary form can be found for the particular life. (Edel 1984: 17)

 

My university library recently spent a fortune purchasing a set of fifteen DVDs for me that I needed for a book-length Creative Practice project. The videos featured retired New York City Ballet dancers coaching younger dancers in some of their old roles; the ballets were choreographed by George Balanchine. As those particular DVDs were unable to be borrowed from other libraries through Document Delivery, library staff consulted with me about the necessity of accessing the videos. ‘It’s very important,’ I said. ‘I really need them.’ And so, they placed an order to purchase them direct from the George Balanchine Foundation. Meanwhile, I got on with the project and, as it turns out, I didn’t really need those DVDs. I had a strict deadline for that project, which was racing towards me, and while the DVDs took their time crossing the Pacific Ocean, I completed the manuscript, and submitted it to the publisher. Project done.

About a week after I deemed that project completed, the DVDs finally arrived. The diligent librarian wrote to me excitedly and said they were on reserve for me and waiting at the front desk of the Carlton library branch of RMIT. ‘Great,’ I said. ‘Fabulous. I’ll be there soon.’ But a few weeks passed in a flurry of university duties — supervisions, teaching, admin. Another email came: ‘Just checking if you still need those videos.’ The guilt set in quickly.

At first, I had every intention of brushing off those videos as a helpful university purchase for a future researcher, a great investment for the library. But then I started feeling bad. The money that had been spent, the labour of those librarians, their excitement at being able to offer a valuable and relatively rare, almost prohibitively expensive research material. I wrote in my diary: ‘Watch Balanchine videos, library.’

And what would I do after I had watched them?

That question, about the purpose of setting myself this seemingly redundant task, niggled at my conscience. Would just watching those sessions really satisfy that guilt? Or did I have a duty to engage?

The project, which was ‘completed’ at the time I was reckoning with these thoughts, was a biography of George Balanchine, written in poems, titled Music Made Visible: A Biography of George Balanchine. Each poem in the book was titled for a ballet that he had choreographed, from La Nuit (1920), the first documented work, when he was still a student at the Theatre School in Petrograd, through to Variations for Orchestra (1982). The poems were ‘assembled’ (a Balanchine term, from his mandate that ‘God creates, I assemble’) from a combination of information about that particular ballet (the steps, the dancers on which it was first set, the music and costumes), Balanchine’s life circumstances when the ballet was first produced, and historical context. While many of Balanchine’s ballets survived (and are still danced) for many years after the initial choreographed moment, and were often subject to changes to suit different casts, it was a necessary constraint for me to limit an endlessly expansive project by presenting the ‘dances’ as choreographed moments along the timeline of his life. Many of the poems do not, however, restrict themselves to that one moment in time, and often they reflect multiple iterations and casts.

Back to the present quandary, as I faced down the library DVDs: I started thinking about the lifespan of a project, or of a creative process that might continue beyond the project ‘end point’. Of course, there has been plenty written on the way that poetry continues to ‘live’ beyond the fact of the text. Anne Carson, for instance, said in interview:

I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. His mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference. (2004)

Matthew Zapruder says something similar: ‘A poem, literally, makes a space to move through’ (2017: 57). And Muriel Rukeyser: ‘A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response’ (1996: 11). Each of these writer-poets attests to the ‘liveness’ of poetry — that a poem is ‘an event in time’, as Louise Rosenblatt stated in 1964. She adds that a poem ‘is an occurrence, a coming-together […] of a reader and a text’ (126). A reader of a poem is ‘actively involved in building up a poem’ searching ‘for cues that will enable him to organize the elements of thought and feeling — the images, feelings, ideas, aroused by the text— into some kind of structure or meaning’ (125).

Of direct relevance to my own investigations into biographical poetry, Cole Swensen carries the above ideas further, to address the effects that can arise when the ‘liveness’ of poetry collides with documentary, the language of information. In an essay titled ‘News that Stays News’ (after a statement on literature by Ezra Pound) she says:

So a newspaper article tends to seal the issue shut. Documentary poetry reverses the process: its account comes at the beginning of something, and its purpose is to inform you of something that should happen. It does not accept the closure effected by the newspaper, does not accept that ‘there’s nothing we can do about it now.’ By refracting the same material through a different lens, a completely different demand is made. The language on the page is not only trying to convey this; it is also trying to incite it, which makes it no longer sheerly descriptive language, but pushes it into the performative, making it an action with the potential for real effect in the world. And that real effect will be another action, this time on the part of the reader. Language that causes action is itself action. (2011: 57)

Swensen suggests that we can continue to engage with ‘news’ through documentary poetry; that a poem, by virtue of being an ‘event’ in which activity is not simply reported but in which it is happening, is capable of keeping conversations going. When we read documentary poetry, we can actively engage with that documentary material, which might entail political, cultural, social and/or historical considerations, or otherwise. In the case of Music Made Visible, I was in part keen to encourage readers to identify a performance in the poems themselves, that the poems would invoke a performance of a life for which performance indeed was so integral. In this way, the poems might not only be seen to be documenting past events, but to be events in themselves activated in time.

But Carson, Zapruder, Rukeyser, Rosenblatt and Swensen are each talking about poetry that has been written, printed, published, and which is simply lying dormant for a reader to bring new life to the text. What about all the poems that aren’t written, which never moved beyond process? I am not, then, talking about the ‘reader in the text’, but rather, the writer returning to the text, to the process of crafting poems. In the specific context of poetic biography, what would happen if I reopened the Balanchine project, so that the process of assembling poems —including revising poems already in the published book — might continue?

I began to think of further questions, relating to:

  • The revision of a biography — what do new versions ‘add’ to the text? Further, what might a revised poetic biography look like? What might it do?
  • The research one didn’t do, whether due to time constraints, inconvenience or expense. Does this compromise the biography’s integrity? What if one were to reopen the research files and return to research practice after a project’s completion?
  • The refuse of a project, all those notes that were cast aside/unused, the information that couldn’t be accommodated in the book, the possible poems that were never written. Could that material be repurposed?

I turned each of these ideas over in my head before heading to the library to view the first of the DVDs. The following notes offer some of the considerations that arose.

 

Revision

Of course, for anyone interested in reading or writing biography, we know that revised editions of more conventional biographies frequently appear. There have been three editions of Joseph McBride’s biography of Steven Spielberg, for instance, with each edition adding new chapters to cover the latest projects in which the filmmaker has been involved. When a subject continues to live, it is easy to see why extensions are required to the writing of that life.

David McLellan’s biography of Karl Marx has seen four editions across three decades, with each successive edition featuring an updated bibliography that speaks to the latest Marx scholarship, as well as additional footnotes at the end of each chapter.[i] Such revisions speak to Hermione Lee’s statement that ‘[a] biography is always involved with the social and cultural politics of its time and place’ (2009: 126), as McLellan acknowledges the ongoing impact of Marxist philosophy on contemporary thought and life, and continues to offer his analysis of contemporary literature on Marx in these successive volumes.

The most known biography on George Balanchine, by Bernard Taper, has seen two editions. The first was published a year after Balanchine’s death in 1983, while the second edition was published in 1996. The later edition contains a new epilogue that discusses Balanchine’s will and to whom he bequeathed his ballets; it also briefly discusses what has happened to some of those ballets in the years following his death.

In each of these examples, new information — whether that generated through the continuation of a subject’s life, or through new perspectives of thinking about a deceased subject — leads to new versions, new ways for an author to think about and talk around a historical character.

Indeed, there are at least two precedents in poetic biography that I can think of. The first, which might be considered more autobiographical, is Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which in some respects demonstrates additions reminiscent of the Spielberg biography mentioned above. The first version (published in 1980) was begun by Hejinian when she was thirty-seven years old; that edition consists of thirty-seven sections, each of which are thirty-seven sentences long. Each section addresses a different year in her life. The revised edition was released in 1987 when she was forty-five years old; there are forty-five sections in that edition, each with forty-five sentences. The sentences themselves within each section do not accrete according to any conventional autobiographical standard; we sense more of a collocation of memory-images rather than a chronological narrative. Across editions, we not only see expansion of the ‘life’, but revision as well. As Daniel Carter notes, the second edition ‘adds years to a life but also reflects the ways those years change the poet’s perspective on what came before’ (2015). Her numerical approach to shaping — and continuing — My Life, along with the revision of material, demonstrates an innovative approach to the notion of an autobiography ‘growing with’ the author.[ii]

Dennis Cooley’s Bloody Jack, the second example, was originally published by Turnstone Press in 1984, with a second edition published by University of Alberta Press in 2002. Bloody Jack is a book-length work of poems about outlaw John ‘Bloody Jack’ Krafchenko, who was hanged in 1914 for shooting dead a bank manager in Manitoba, Canada. Krafchenko was born in Romania but came to Canada with his parents at the age of seven. He supposedly spoke several languages, including English, German, Ukrainian and Russian. But from a young age he began a life of petty crime (stealing watches, a bicycle) that developed into more serious criminal habits; he managed to evade the police for some time, but was sentenced to various stints in jail. On several occasions he escaped prison — on one of those occasions this was accomplished by sweet-talking a guard.

Cooley acknowledges research undertaken for the project (archival sources, police files, newspaper articles, books about Winnipeg), but the book does not leave us with a clear sense of the facts surrounding Krafchenko’s life or criminal experiences. This may be because the information on ‘Kraf’ was relatively scarce; it could also be because Cooley is matching the ‘slipperiness’ of this character. Cooley, like the guard, allows Krafchenko to evade the traps set by a biography to ‘nail’ the subject; as in this excerpt, set in the courtroom that decides his fate, where Cooley inhabits Krafchenko’s voice and streaks across the page:

                                    & when
                        they come                  the scribes
                                  in black
               to see
                          the carbon
       copy of my words where

                                 will i be
               what they read here
                                         in jangled yellow
                    my loud venal sins like deerflies/
                                                                embalmed
                           lies penned up in their
                                                         like false
               teeth
                         all that’s left

                                                                        (1984: 66)

 

Throughout Bloody Jack, Cooley seems more interested in cheeky play and experimentation than in clearing up facts. As noted in Bloody Jack, ‘he pretty much went his own way’ (1984: 135) and ‘You never could quite figure him out’ (136). Poems appear as free verse, making various use of the space of the page; they are also presented as newspaper reports, a dictionary definition list, a play script, court transcripts, an interview transcript, letters of correspondence, a book review (of Bloody Jack!) and lyrics set to a musical score.

Almost as mythical as Krafchenko’s hijinks is the story behind the editing of Bloody Jack — Cooley supposedly had 800 pages of poems in the manuscript; it was whittled down by his editors at Turnstone Press to 237 pages. Douglas Barbour notes the playful nature in which the book was pulled together:

His extravagance: the early gesture of writing […] around 800 pages of ‘stuff’ for Bloody Jack, dropping the massive manuscript on Arnason’s desk, and then watching the comedy of the editor trying to cut it down to what is still seen as a huge size. (2002: xii)

Barbour also quotes Cooley himself, who recalled his editors/friends David Arnason and Robert Kroetsch arguing for more narrative. Cooley says ‘When Arnason assembled the pieces shortly before publication, he grabbed most of the narrative things and stuck them in. On the sly, I took out some of those and reinserted some love poems’ (vii-viii). And Mark Liben is quoted as saying ‘from first to last, Bloody Jack has remained fragmentary and contingent. This is a text that has never been complete, has always been surrounded by lost loose pages.’ (viii)

In the second edition of the book, published in 2002, numerous new ‘poems’ are added (although perhaps some of this material was part of the original 800-page manuscript). Several of the poems in the first edition have been lengthened and in some cases set to musical scores; some new prose poems seem to provide a shot-by-shot description of a film version of the story (for example, the poem ‘new scene: Medium shot.’) (2002: 11). Another new piece in the second edition is a crossword puzzle, with clues that refer not only to Krafchenko’s life story, but to Cooley’s as well (for example, 1 down: ‘what Arnason did for Cooley’), and there is no ‘solution’ for the crossword provided. The second edition of Bloody Jack continues to exhibit Cooley’s reluctance to wield power — or at least authorial control — over his subject by confining him to a narrative. These new additions do not clear things up for us in relation to understanding or knowing Krafchenko’s story as a set of historical facts. It is as if Cooley is teasing us, saying ‘okay, now I am going to give you Jack Krafchenko’, but once more, he pulls the rug out from under us.

So, what do we learn from the second edition that we did not glean from the first? Is the newer text of Bloody Jack just a way to renew the life of the book and its circulation? Perhaps. But I wonder if it also provides an opportunity for Cooley to keep signalling towards those ‘lost loose pages’ of a life; that the life will always outrun the covers of a book. Slippery Krafchenko, in this regard, might be seen as a symbolic figure for all biographical subjects.

Reflecting on the above texts, I considered the purpose of returning to Music Made Visible in order to produce a ‘new edition’, how this could possibly find relevance in the context of Balanchine’s life work. It dawned on me that, if ballets survive through new blood, new feet, changed steps, could not my biography on Balanchine continue to play with this concept? In other words, the ‘revision of repertoire’ could be a practice transposed to the field of biography writing.

 

Research

My second consideration was about the research one undertakes in order to write about a subject. What is absolutely necessary? What is superfluous? What are the limitations to research? I immediately recalled being at a nonfiction conference in 2017 and having a conversation with a woman who had written a book about Balanchine. The book covered Balanchine’s earlier years in Russia, and his friendship and working relationship with one of his first ‘muses’, Lydia Ivanova, who was killed (probably murdered) in a boating accident shortly before they had planned to defect from Russia. The book provided a detailed account of that relatively brief period in Balanchine’s life, and had obviously involved deep research.[iii] We discussed my poetry project and I told her about the research I had done thus far, the difficulty of dealing with materials written in foreign languages. I could not read nor speak Russian, but she could do both with ease. ‘Oh, you have to’, she told me. Perhaps this was a little competitive dig.

Immediately, I was crestfallen. That would take years and significant finances, neither of which I could spare. And I had already given so much of both time and money to the project in order to get thus far. Grants from the Marten Bequest and the Australia Council for the Arts had given me two months for archival research in New York City and at Houghton Library, Harvard[iv], plus visits to St Petersburg, Paris, Copenhagen and London; I would soon spend another $7000 to return to New York for another month to focus specifically on the video archives of the NYC Public Library (Jerome Robbins, Dance Division) at Lincoln Centre. Time-wise, I had the limitation of non-research academic work, finding it difficult to leave the university for extended periods that would be worth the financial outlay. Besides, I felt I had been very fortunate to achieve what this money and research time had already enabled. So, was it necessary to learn Russian? Catherine N Parke states that ‘[m]ajor investments of time, money, scholarly perseverance, and imaginative energy are among the definitive demands of contemporary scholarly biography’ (1996: 107). Where does a biographer draw a line in terms of what one must know? Was I, as I ask above, compromising the integrity of my biography on Balanchine? Or could a stronger commitment to ‘scholarly perseverance and imaginative energy’ triumph over lack of time and money?

I reflected on my relationship to the material within Balanchine archives, how when I first visited the two major repositories (New York City, Boston) in 2015, I was getting a sense of what was held there, what was available. I knew that it was impossible for me to read through every piece of text. At the Houghton, for instance, there were 2822 folders of material, including correspondence (some in Russian!), transcripts, reviews, musical manuscripts, articles, ballet synopses, labanotation and so on. And it was impossible to sit through all the relevant videos available at the NYC Public Library, including performances of Balanchine ballets, documentaries, rehearsals, coaching sessions, interviews and more. My notes from that time reflect a sort of frantic energy, to catalogue the breadth of the materials in the respective repositories, and a sense of defeat at not being able to ‘conquer’ the lot.

When I returned to the New York City Public Library in 2018, I had a clear mission. Over the years, I had settled on the structural conceit for Music Made Visible as a series of ballets, each of which would ‘contain’ elements of Balanchine’s life story, as noted above. This structure in part recognises that Balanchine, as noted by many of his friends and colleagues, was a difficult man to know, and some say that we can get the best glimpse of him through his ballets. As the Balanchine Foundation and Trust are extremely protective of Balanchine’s choreography, and it is difficult to access and watch many of his ballets in performance without being at the archive, I would return to New York with the sole purpose of watching filmed performances and noting choreographic detail. When performances were not recorded (as is the case for his early ballets and also ballets vanished from repertoire), I would consult reviews, photographs and other materials in that same archive. All of these notes were supplemented, of course, by copious reading and research beyond the official archives (books, articles, documentaries, YouTube clips, reviews and so on). Returning to Balanchine’s Papers at the Houghton was out of the question (time, expense), and I do wonder if my eye would have been differently attuned if I had gone back into that repository with my new ideas on structure.

Hermione Lee acknowledges the limitations of all biographical narratives when she says that ‘[a]ny biographical narrative is an artificial construct, since it inevitably involves selection and shaping. No biographer is going to write down every single thing their subject did, said, and thought on every day of their life from birth to death, or the book would take longer than the life itself’ (2009: 122). This could provide a robust excuse for avoiding certain materials, perhaps. But she goes on to suggest that, despite varying narrative structure and narrative detail, the intentions of all biographers are usually the same:

Biographers may choose to concentrate on a particular part of the life. They may start with a death, or a telling anecdote, or the subject’s posthumous reputation, rather than with a birth. They may allow gaps and puzzles into the narrative, or try to smooth these over. They may introduce moral judgements or personal opinions. But they all want to give as full, intelligible, and accurate a version of the subject’s life as possible. And they all want to make the specific facts and details add up to some overall idea of the subject, so that their biography, for the moment, will give the truest answer to the question: What was she, or he, like? (2009: 124)

Novelty or innovation might come with how a particular biographer chooses to structure life detail, and with the selection of detail itself — saying something new about the subject — yet ultimately the goal is to answer that question, ‘What was the subject like?’ Faced with the impossible task of devouring all available material within and outside of archives, one might reconcile oneself to the limitations of the biographical task (and to other researchers’ opinions about what is and is not relevant) by ensuring that the biography is geared towards answering that question in some way.

In Music Made Visible, the attempt to meet the performative, emotive and incommensurable aspects of dance through the language of poetry was one way in which to offer new perspectives on Balanchine’s life. But regarding the detail I could access and include, I recalled Balanchine’s making do with the bodies that he had, especially in the early days. For instance, when he first came to America and set up the School of American Ballet, he created ballets on bodies that were not yet properly trained, or which had been trained in different styles. The beautiful ballet Serenade (1934) was known to be a training exercise for these dancers in how to perform on stage; the choreography was tailored to the abilities of the different dancers. Furthermore, the ensemble of seventeen women splits into various groups during the ballet, based on who turned up to class on the days that he was setting the ballet. The dance also features a girl on the floor at one point, said to be Balanchine’s preservation of a moment in rehearsal when one girl fell down; at another point, a dancer enters the stage to join the other sixteen dancers — supposedly, one girl turned up late to class one day. This might be another way for me to reconcile with the limits of what is possible with research, that I was crafting poems according to the ingredients that I had gathered together and which had, I felt, adequately revealed what Balanchine ‘was like’ to me.

Now that the pressures had been relieved with the book’s publication, I could choose to spend time gathering new ingredients at will. I was keen to see how my returning to Balanchine materials might push at the edges of the existing poems, prompting new versions of those ‘dances’ or extensions of that repertoire.

 

Refuse

My third consideration was about the material that wasn’t accommodated within the 2019 publication of Music Made Visible. I had hundreds of pages of typed notes from my visits to the archives. Some information I had thought at the time to be ‘gold’, such as personal correspondence between Balanchine and several Presidents of the United States, a letter from Sean Connery to Balanchine proposing a story ballet idea (the synopsis was, unfortunately, missing), and some intriguing shopping lists. There was also correspondence from Stewart Manville (archivist at Grainger House in White Plains, NY) about Percy Grainger’s composition ‘The Warriors’; Stewart and Ella Grainger (Percy’s widow) were hoping this music, which was originally intended as music for a ballet, might finally be made into a dance (Balanchine rejects this possibility). None of this material found its way into Music Made Visible. While I was obviously drawn to these documents and artefacts in the archive, I could find no place for them in the various poem-ballets. I wondered if any of these ‘redundant’ notes might be repurposed, beyond the book publication, into new poems. Would the notes that I compiled after watching the fifteen DVDs seed new relevance to some of that old material?

With all of these questions and considerations swirling in mind, I entered the RMIT library to watch the first of fifteen DVDs.

 

Returning to Balanchine

The poem below, ‘Meditation’, appears in Music Made Visible. ‘Meditation’ was choreographed, to music by Tschaikovsky[v], for a very young Suzanne Farrell in 1963. Farrell had quickly impressed Balanchine earlier that year when she stepped in for Diana Adams at the last minute for the premiere of ‘Movements for Piano and Orchestra’, a difficult ballet set to music by Stravinsky. ‘Meditation’ is not a very good ballet; in fact, he never made a good ballet for Farrell specifically, and some balletomanes attribute this to cloudy judgement — he was too distracted by his love for her, which was never consummated. In the first performance, Jacques D’Amboise, in the male role, was dressed, as Farrell notes, ‘as a poet’ in billowy sleeves. Balanchine also requested that Jacques put some grey in his hair — Suzanne thinks that the choreographer was trying to represent himself.

The published poem draws chiefly on my observations of Farrell and D’Amboise dancing the ballet for a television special on WNET/13 in 1966, and on the comments made by D’Amboise and Balanchine before the dance begins. It also draws on information gleaned from Farrell’s autobiography Holding Onto the Air, and from interviews with her about the dance.

 

MEDITATION
            Choreography: George Balanchine, New York City Centre, 1963
            Music: Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (Meditation, Op. 42, no. 1, from Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher)
            orchestrated by Alexander Glazounov)
            Costumes: Karinska

Jacques D’Amboise: “…to savour things that are sad, to taste how wonderful it is. I think Mr. Balanchine is tasting a little sorrow there.”

Mr. B: “There is no pleasure there, no.”

 

He means to say one of the following:

          “There is pleasure and joy in this dance.”
          “There is pleasure and joy in meditation.”
          “There is no pleasure nor joy in sorrow.”
          “I don’t want to preserve… my own cake.”

His hair is graying but there is new light in his life, sent from God. He points above: an impossible love. She holds on to the air, parts the clouds.

The muse has no understudy, inspires a poem in red that drips like a pussycat-fish. A little bit off. Something sweet that gives way to sweat.

Both hands are over his eyes. She leads from a strong fourth and physics obstructs the step, because, he says, love is awkward. Teardrop pearl with a silver chain.

(2019, 125)

 

*

 

The first DVD that I chose to watch at RMIT’s library featured Suzanne Farrell coaching ‘Meditation’ to dancers Elisabeth Holowchuk and Michael Cook in 2011, followed by an interview with Farrell conducted by George Jackson. Watching Farrell coaching the young dancers, I am struck by how much I already ‘know’ in the coaching tips, how well I understand the suggestions being made. Farrell says to them, for instance, ‘pretend you don’t know the music’ — certainly a Balanchine command, he didn’t want his dancers to anticipate, but to dance as if surprised by the music. She also says ‘everything is long… long and longing’, a wordplay typical of the choreographer, and which also captures his longing for long lines and extensions from his dancers. Noting Farrell’s instructions, though, I started to realise how difficult some movements — which had looked so effortless through Farrell’s form in the video from the 60s — were to execute, and further, how emotion was being expressed not only through explicit gesture, but through covert signals.

To my old notes on ‘Meditation’, I added new notes, mostly instructions from Farrell about how to think about the movements of the dance, for example:

‘A little sadder’ (to the man); ‘not perky’ (to the woman)
‘Slower with the fingers’
‘You reveal yourself’
‘Tight tight tight tight tight’
‘On the rumble [in the music] — the steps serve the feeling’
‘Exclamation point at the end of the sentence’

Armed with an extended body of notes, I began to assemble a new poem. ‘Meditation II’ echoes a sort of loss, I think (the loss of Balanchine, of their relationship, and of Farrell’s career now that she is retired); the poem not only draws from the coaching session, but repurposes some unused material from my old notes which did not find a place in the earlier version. I started with a quote from Farrell that I had noted after reading Holding Onto the Air, where she says that no one else has ever danced ‘Meditation’. This statement suddenly stood out to me as an opening provocation — no one else had danced it while Balanchine was alive and for many years afterwards; now, I was watching Farrell nullify that statement.

 

Meditation II <DRAFT>

        No one else has ever danced it.
                                          Suzanne Farrell

The poet mourns his own passing. He must move
as if he doesn’t know the music pushes him
down, to bury his eyes with slow fingers.
These steps serve the rumble of his stomach.

Life is not always smooth, but memory takes
a lot longer to happen, can change direction —
from a split, drag through mud; become small.
I believe in that moment, he says, pointing exactly.

She slips away, takes a new embrace.

 

*

 

Does this new poem bring us any closer to Balanchine? Definitely not. If anything, it enters more cryptic territory, and is perhaps less urgent than the original. Indeed, as I progress through this new project, I am thinking about how these new poems might add to the existing biography that I have published. If not clarifying Balanchine’s life for us, do they have value and purpose in the context of life writing efforts? Do they, as with Hejinian’s My Life series, or Cooley’s second edition of Bloody Jack, show the stamina in an idea? In Cooley’s case the revision commits his unruly subject to an ongoing effort of outrunning the pages of the book; in my case, I might make a case that the poems, like ballets, are revised according to different bodies (of knowledge), and may therefore appear differently over time. In this way, Leon Edel’s statement, which I use as an epigraph to this essay, becomes particularly resonant, not only in the context of the ‘distinct literary form’ that this biography takes, but also in the possibilities evoked through the development of a revised version.

Each of the new poems that I have produced so far through this exercise are extensions of, or deviations from, the original poems that appeared in Music Made Visible, and seeing that all have come about following a concentrated engagement with video documentation that explicitly details coaching of Balanchine repertoire long after his death, there is a persistent undercurrent of time having passed, of echoes of Balanchine’s voice, of a sense of acknowledged legacy and reverence. It is as if the poem-dances have moved out from under his watchful eye; the bodies on which he ‘made music visible’ have retired, but they pass on their memories and knowledge of those gestures to the new generation. Not intended to overwrite the original poems, these new poems continue to demonstrate the ephemerality of the dance event, its necessary temporal dimension, our inability to hold it — as with the life, or the poem - in stasis.

 

[i] The first edition was titled Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (1973). The third edition was renamed Karl Marx: A Biography (1995).

[ii] A new edition of Hejinian’s work, My Life in the Nineties, was released in 2003. It features ten sections (representing the decade that had passed since the publication of the revised edition of My Life), each sixty sentences long. Hejinian had turned sixty in 2001.

[iii] The note on sources at the back of the book, for instance, gives details on numerous archival holdings visited by the author in the USA, Russia, Finland and Georgia for research for this book.

[iv] The two major collections of Balanchine materials I refer to here are held at the New York City Public Library for the Performing Arts (Jerome Robbins Dance Division), Dorothy and Lewis B Cullman Center, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, and the George Balanchine archive, 1924-1989 (MS Thr 411), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library.

[v] Balanchine’s preferred spelling.

 

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Balanchine, G, Cook, M, Farrell, S, Holowchuk, E, Jackson, G, Karinska, B, and Reynolds, N 2013 Suzanne Farrell Coaching Meditation (Balanchine Video Archives) New York, NY: George Balanchine Foundation

Carson, A 2004 ‘The Art of Poetry No. 88’, interviewed by Will Aitken, The Paris Review 171 (Fall), at https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5420/anne-carson-the-art-of-poetry-no-88-anne-carson (accessed 10 December 2019)

Carter, D 2015 ‘Encoding and Representing Repetition in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life,Scholarly Editing 36, at http://scholarlyediting.org/2015/editions/intro.hejinian.html (accessed 4 May 2020)

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