Poetry

Corrupted into Song

The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman

Edited by Deborah Dorfman, with a foreward by Harold Bloom and an introduction by James Geary

 

According to Harold Bloom, "The best of Alvin Feinman's poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime." This definitive edition of Feinman's (1929–2008) complete work, which includes fifty-seven previously published poems and thirty-nine unpublished poems discovered among his manuscripts, introduces a new generation of readers to the lyrical intensity and philosophical ambition of this major American poet.

 

A riveting collection by a poet who deserves to be better known.

—Carol Rumens, The Guardian

Poetry is making, poesis. And for a time, Alvin Feinman was a maker, a majestic poet who came to embrace his own intolerable limitations, his own dead-end. After long silence, one rejoices in these almost forgotten, rigorous, earthly, purgative poems.

—Henri Cole

 

Listen to Harold Bloom read two of his most beloved Alvin Feinman poems.

 

Read an excerpt from the introduction and four previously unpublished poems in the Harvard Review.


Gefluisterd Licht (Whispered Light)

Published by Athenaeum in Amsterdam in 1996, this is the first translation of Hart Crane's poems into Dutch. I wrote the introduction, and the translations are by Lloyd Haft, an American poet and sinologist who lived in the Netherlands for many years.

 

Read my introduction (in Dutch).

 

In 1994, Lloyd Haft was nominated for the VSB Poetry Prize for his volume Atlantis, a collection of poems in both Dutch and English. As part of the festivities, I interviewed Lloyd and he read some of his poems on May 20, 1994 at De Rode Hoed in Amsterdam—two Americans talking about poetry in Dutch.

My Poetry

 

Malthus Issue 3, 1987
came in its own Ziploc plastic bag

Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Anon (Four, 2006)

 

Matins

Orbis (No. 131, Winter 2004)

 

Entanglement

Nightingale (June 2002)

 

Socrates Is Mortal

Malthus (Issue 3, 1987)

 

Words for Refrigerator Doors and 17 Reasons Why

 

After graduating from college in 1985, I moved to San Francisco, where I eked out an existence working in restaurants and driving a van, surviving mostly on boiled rice and vodka. When I first moved to the city, I discovered e.g., a second-hand bookshop located right around the corner from my apartment. I used to spend a lot of time there, browsing through the shelves and playing chess with the proprietor, David Highsmith. I soon learned that David also ran a small press in the back of the bookshop. So I showed him Words for Refrigerator Doors, which I had written over the previous two years as part of my undergraduate thesis. He liked the work and agreed to publish it. So in December, after just a few months as a starving young poet in San Francisco, I had managed to get my poems published. I was very happy.

 

The first edition of Words for Refrigerator Doors consisted of 12 poems and 12 aphorisms. The book sold pretty well for a small press edition; it was reprinted in February and July of 1986. I did regular performances of the poems as well, appearing at arts venues in San Francisco and Berkeley, where I also sang (badly) and showed some of the short films I had made in college. And I kept writing, too. By 1987, when e.g. published an expanded fourth edition, Words for Refrigerator Doors consisted of 24 poems and 24 aphorisms.

Performances

Performances

Larry Blake's
Berkeley, CA
August 17, 1987

This is a recording of a reading I gave at Larry Blake's, at the time one of the premiere venues for poetry in the Bay Area. It includes a rendition of The Existential Hangover Blues, which was a regular feature of the poetry performances I did when I lived in San Francisco, from 1985 to 1989. Halliday Dresser and Mike Bailey played guitar; I played guitar and violin and sang, all badly. In the audience that night were some distinguished and soon-to-be distinguished writers: the poets Jack Foley (host and MC), Larry Eigner (who asks when the fortune cookies will be distributed) and Leslie Scalapino (visible in the front row); Jonathan Lethem is behind the camera. My goldfish also make an appearance.


Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco

This is a video of a poetry performance I gave at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. The large box you see contained, among other things, an umbrella, a toy boat, a chessboard and chess pieces, a mannequin's head, a toaster, a toilet seat and, of course, my goldfish. I also distributed my own fortune cookies at each reading. I had the cookies made at a little fortune cookie factory in Chinatown, and each one contained one of my own aphorisms.


WVBC
Bethany College, Bethany, WV
May 13, 1983

This is me reading a piece of juvenalia, my poem 'Autopsy', on the radio show I hosted at the time. Guess you can tell I was reading a lot of Dylan Thomas...

Singing Badly

Singing Badly
The Existential Hangover Blues

This unplugged version of The Existential Hangover Blues, circa 1988, also features me on guitar.

This rendition was recorded in 1986 (or 1987, I can't quite remember) in Berkeley, CA. Philip Price played guitar and bass and programmed the drum machine; that's me singing. The vocals on this recording are a bit rough around the edges and more than a trifle affected, but then so was I at the time.

Short Films

Short Films
Empty Boat
This is first of three Super-8 films I made during my last two years at college, from 1983 to 1985. Empty Boat begins with a shot of a lone oar floating down a river. Cut to a woman playing chess with a mannequin head while seated at a table in the middle of the river; the oar floats past. The woman makes a clever move and smiles at the mannequin head. The oar continues its journey down the river and we see a man and woman, each lifting a heavy stone and carrying it from one side of the river to the other. They throw the stone down, pick up another and carry that one across the river, too. In the middle of their labor they stop, throw down their rocks and look up. Cut to the oar becalmed in a lake. Pan up to see a girl on a pier holding a helium balloon and gazing down at the oar. She walks to the end of the pier with her balloon, from which we can see an empty boat in the middle of the lake.


Sunday Morning
Sunday Morning begins with a shot of a man smoking in the tub. He gets out of the tub and we see him get dressed and check himself in the mirror. We see him leave the house and walk down a lonely country lane. He enters a graveyard and passes a tombstone that is in flames. We see him kneel before a tombstone that is a mirror. He has a large rock in his hand. He smashes the mirror with the rock, and we see his shattered reflection in the glass. He pulls a bouquet of flowers from his sleeve and drops it on the grass.


Bread
Bread begins with a shot of a boy fishing in a river. We see him from afar casting his line. Cut to a woman in black walking across a field. She approaches a barren tree from which a globe hangs. She plucks the globe from the tree and opens it. There is a loaf of bread inside. We see the woman walking again. She comes across a wine glass filled with water on a stool. There is a goldfish in the glass. She feeds it a piece of bread. Then she comes across a man in a black suit struggling to open an umbrella. She throws a piece of bread at him; his umbrella opens. Then she's casting breadcrumbs to a group of children on the steps of a church. The kids are scrambling around for the crumbs like a flock of birds. She drops a bread crumb trail, which they follow to another tree with a globe hanging from it. One child cracks open the globe and loads of candy spills out, which the children devour. Then the woman walks to the river, sits on the bank and begins absent-mindedly tossing bread crumbs into the stream. Cut to the boy fishing. We see him reel in a slice of bread, which he eats greedily.

 

In July of 1988, e.g. published 17 Reasons Why, which as far as I can remember was also reprinted two or three times. I did my own sales and marketing for the books, selling them mostly at my performances. But one of my favorite things to do was to periodically visit City Lights Bookstore in the North Beach section of the city; they had a small press poetry section in the shop and were always willing to take more copies of my books. That’s Buster Keaton on the cover of 17 Reasons Why, sitting on a keg of dynamite, which he is inadvertently about to ignite with his cigarette. Which is pretty much how I felt at the time. This edition comprises the complete texts of both Words for Refrigerator Doors (1985, 1987) and 17 Reasons Why (1988).

 

Words for Refrigerator Doors "treats the tragedy of life with headline succinctness and a warm understanding which points up life's sweet ironies."

The Bay Area Reporter, April, 1986

Lyrics & Libretti

Broken English

In 1992, the Dutch composer Harke Jan van der Meulen asked me if I would be interested in writing the libretto for an opera based on the book A Word Child by Iris Murdoch. I had never read Iris Murdoch, but thought the project was fascinating and agreed. So I read A Word Child and hated it — an incredibly melodramatic novel with a detestable main character — but loved the theme of the book: how a man's love of language proved to be his salvation and his downfall. When we started out, Harke Jan wrote the music first and I wrote the words to fit the rhythm and the melody. There is apparently a term for writing librettos this way: contra factum, against the facts. Harke Jan eventually found it a bit contrary, too, so halfway through we switched: I wrote the words first and then he wrote the music to go with them.

 

My inexperience as a librettist led me to write the lyrics as dramatic monologues. There was very little story-telling and no dramatic action. That left little scope for staging what I had written. But it never got that far. Our requests for grants were all denied, so instead of a full-blown opera we produced a dramatic song cycle called Broken English. Broken English has so far been performed twice, in 1996 and 1999, both times in Amsterdam. You can hear some of the songs here.

 


Performance Details

 

October 3, 1999
Live performance at Cristofori, Amsterdam

Conductor: Marko Kassenaar
Soprano: Alfrun Schmidt
Tenor: Erik Nelissen
Baritone: Michel Poels
Bass: Onno Pels
Flute: Karin Langendonk
Clarinet and bass clarinet: Vicky Wright
Violins: Jeanine Caland, Manuel Visser
Cello: Aniek Senten
Piano: Louise van de Sande-Backhuysen

 

 

November 6, 1996
Live performance at the Posthoornkerk, Amsterdam

Baritone: Michel Poels
Soprano: Mariette Oelderik
Piano: David Menesse

 

 

Original recordings, 1992—1995

Baritone: Michel Poels
Keyboards and piano: Harke Jan van der Meulen

 


Lyrics And Audio Files

The Rain Has No Father

Original recording
Oct. 3, 1999

 

The rain has no father, the wind it has no name
The rain has no father, the wind it has no name
Actions speak, hearts will beat, louder than words

 

Broken English
Broken English

 

The limits of my words are the limits of my world
Scatter your words, leaves in the wind
A place to end and to begin

 

The rain is an orphan, it knows not from whence it came
Who, who can give the wind a name
The rain has no father, the wind has no name

 

Like a river flows to sea
To drown in words

 

Word child, child of the word
Feel the rain on our bodies, pounding like iron
Wind in our faces, sharper than knives

 

Word child, child of the word
Is it you who can father the rain
Is it you who can give the wind a name

All of the Books

Original recording
Nov. 6, 1996

 

All of the books here are useless
All of the books in the world can't explain
Why there's not nothing, why there's not nothing
All the books in the world can never spell your name

 

How can I find words to tell you
Everything flies before the wonder of our eyes
If I try to explain, words fail me

 

Truth is beauty, beauty truth
So the poet tells us
This is all we know on earth
And this is all we need to know
All that we know, only until death us do part

 

These are the words that we've spoken
These are the vows that we made never to be broken
This is all we know on earth
And this is all that we need to know

 

Love, the world is such a big place
Arms open wide to embrace it
Say the word and we will fly

 

Far from these old shelves
Into our new selves
Out of the humdrum
Into the black sun

 

Now or never
Gone forever
Amo Amas Amat
Amo Amas Amat

 

Amen

Beginning Once Upon A Time

Nov. 6, 1996
Oct. 3, 1999

 

Beginning, once upon a time
Abiding, no reason or rhyme
Who can say why
We live, we die

 

A little girl lays on the ground
Fists full of dirt
Bites in the earth
Bites so deep in the earth

 

Fists full of dirt
Earth in my mouth
As if the world had just begun
There on the tip of my tongue

 

See the handmaid of the Word

 

Feed me with wine and song
Can't live by words alone
And if you love me, show me you love me
Soon we'll be gone

 

All love's old stories, that sound and fury
Signifies nothing, nothing
Pipes and lutes, mad pursuits
Babbling brooks, all those books

 

Behold the handmaid of the Word

 

Ash to ash
Tra la la
Dust to dust
Blah blah blah

Heartbreaker

Nov. 6, 1996

 

Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
wheels within wheels within wheels
So you are the ghost from Gunnar's past
The wheel has come full circle

 

Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
How long have you been the man who loved his wife?
I am the ghost from Gunnar's past
I am the man who loved his wife
The man who killed his wife

 

How long have you been dying
While time has flowed on by
In my mind the rain is still falling
While time has flowed on by

 

He still talks about you
He still can't forget
That you were his best friend
He wants so much to tell Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
In my mind I hear him
Calling out her name

 

Forgive and forget
Forget all about her
Let her go
And learn to love again I can't forgive
I can't forget what I have done
I can never learn to love again
One man's joy, another's pain

 

Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
Lover spurned, fingers burned
Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
Twain shall never meet

 

The heart is like a piece of chewing gum
It bends and it breaks but it won't come undone
My heart has come undone

Look at Us Now

Nov. 6, 1996

 

Look at us now
How far we have fallen
Look at us now
At all that's been broken

 

After the funeral I went through her things
Strange and suddenly so unfamiliar
Apart from some letters, some photos
It could have been anyone
It did not mean a thing

 

After such passion, is this all there is
Just dust and ashes, is this all there is

 

After a while I just stopped trying
Strange how the heart keeps on beating
Alien, seeking oblivion
Despite everything
It could have been me
After such passion, is this all there is
Just dust and ashes, is this all there is

 

Who are we now
Two planets locked into orbit
Drawn together forever, kept forever apart

 

Who are we now
Two coiled serpents
Each eating the other's heart

Songs of the Industrial Revolution

These are the song lyrics I wrote while living in San Francisco from 1985 to 1989. A few of them were set to music, but The Existential Hangover Blues was the only one recorded.

Portrait of the author, with product placement,
San Francisco, circa 1988