Review: John Guare on Sondheim (Part One)

While reading through the newly published Everyman edition of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, edited by Peter Gethers, I was struck by the synchronicity of two theater masterpieces that both opened in 1971, Sondheim’s Follies and Harold Pinter’s Old Times. I had never considered how much of the Pinter play is encapsulated in the Sondheim musical.

Follies is a story about people confronting the ghosts, the wreckage of their past, when their identities were being formed and even disfigured by a belief in the songs of their youth.

Old Times is ostensibly a story about a woman come to visit her old roommate and her husband after many years apart. They summon up their troubled pasts by remembering the seemingly innocent songs of their youth.

ANNA. Ah, those songs. We used to play them, all of them, all the time, all night long, lying on the floor, lovely old things …

DEELEY, singing. Blue moon, I see you standing alone …

ANNA, singing. The way you comb your hair …

DEELEY, singing. Oh no they can’t take that away from me …

ANNA, singing. Oh but you’re lovely, with your smile so warm …

DEELEY, singing. I’ve got a woman crazy for me. She’s funny that way.

Slight pause

ANNA, singing. You are the promised kiss of springtime …

DEELEY, singing. And someday I’ll know that moment divine, / When all the things you are, are mine!


ANNA, singing. The park at evening when the bell has sounded …


DEELEY, singing. The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses …

ANNA, singing. The waiters whistling as the last bar closes …

DEELEY, singing. Oh, how the ghost of you clings …


They don’t make them like that any more …

Pinter creates a dread awareness that the memories suggested by the shorthand of those songs are hardly innocent nostalgia. He uses them as incantations that evoke something—something that cannot be spoken.

And why not? Songs are the signposts of a life—what was playing when we first fell in in love, what was playing when we lost that love, when the call came bringing the dread news that …

Noel Coward understood what nightmares the memory of a song can dredge up. In Blithe Spirit, the old chestnut “Always” by Irving Berlin has the horrifying power to literally raise the dead. In Private Lives he wrote, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” When Pinter directed Blithe Spirit at the National in 1976, he told the cast: “Noel Coward calls this play an improbable farce. Well, I just wish to make one thing clear—I do not regard it as improbable and I do not regard it as a farce.”

Pinter and Sondheim each dramatized five years earlier how songs out of popular culture are a treacherous link to the unconscious.

The sun comes up / I think about you / The coffee cup / I think about you / … You said you loved me / or were you just being kind / Or am I losing my mind?

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Sondheim’s work has been a bellwether for me since 1957 when I was eighteen, a freshman in college, and went to the Winter Garden theater to see West Side Story and heard Larry Kert singing, Catch the moon / one handed catch … the air is humming. And something great is coming. Yes! Life was starting. Give me words to make sense of the tumult in my head. Who was this Sondheim? Two years later at Gypsy, my mantra became Gangway world, get off of my runway. T. S. Eliot didn’t do it. Dylan Thomas didn’t come near. I loved them, yes, but Sondheim gave me a vocabulary for the self I wanted to be. He’s continued underscoring my life these many years. I look at this Everyman book and wonder at these lyrics, such a part of my life since I first heard them, seeing them lying there on the page so nakedly exposed, so strangely vulnerable, shorn of their music. But give them their music—they exert a visceral power over me. What is that power?

I look at the list of poets published in Everyman’s Pocket Library of Poets. There’s Byron, Eliot, Andrew Marvell, Rumi—and now Stephen Sondheim. I have a different relationship to poetry. Poetry occupies a different part of my head.

Peter Gethers writes in his loving introduction:
[Sondheim] believes—no, insists—that lyrics are not poetry. One reason impossible not to argue with is that lyrics are not written in a vacuum; they are written to go with music. True. But here is the OED definition of poetry. “Noun. A piece of writing in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by particular attention to diction (sometimes involving rhyme), rhythm and imagery.”

But Gethers has his worries.
So I don’t get another email from Mr. Sondheim with the words “You are wrong” in the headline, I will let readers decide for themselves if the words in this collection qualify as poetry … I’m fairly sure I know on which side of the fence you will alight … They all can only belong to the genius, demons, love and, yes, poetry that all live inside Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim as poet?

Poets die like Chatterton in attics. Or by gas in Sylvia Plath’s kitchen. Or John Berryman’s leap off a Minneapolis bridge.

Or become happy scribes of “light verse” who warned, like Phyllis McGinley in her “Love Letter to a Playwright,” that “vita is extremely brevis.” Or Ogden Nash’s “Further Reflections on Parsley,” “Parsley / Is gharsley.”

Or stayed alive and wrote poetry while supporting themselves as insurance executives like Wallace Stevens.

Or like the bulk of poets, teach.

Sondheim a poet?

Why would Mr. Gethers fear Sondheim would dismiss the suggestion of being labeled a poet with a curt “You are wrong”? Why would anyone argue the point? A poet is closer to Olympus than a songwriter. Right?

Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball write in the forward to Reading Lyrics, their exhaustive collection of lyrics from 1900 to 1975:
Reading song lyrics is very different from reading poems. A lyric is one half of the work and its success or failure depends not only on its own merits as verse but also its relation to its music … There’s almost no way to read certain lyrics without evoking their music: That’s both the difficulty and joy in reading lyrics.

The publishers describe Reading Lyrics as “celebrating the work of dozens of superb craftsmen.”

Incidentally, Gottlieb and Kimball mention in passing that Sondheim “remains the benchmark composer/lyricist of his (and our) time.”

Wait—we’re talking about poetry. Don’t bring up craft. [Read Part Two here]

John Guare is a playwright. His works include House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of SeparationHis most recent play was Nantucket Sleigh Ride at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center. He wrote about Elaine Strich for Book Post last year.

Book notes
Booksellers are rising up in defense of the post office! Our own former indie partner, Danny Caine of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, has published a zine offering “a quick introduction to the struggles facing the USPS and why it needs to be saved.” (He summed up his case for Publishers Weekly.) The Raven is dedicating $1 of the (tiny) cost of each copy of “Save the USPS: A Small Business's Love Letter to An Essential American Institution” to giving away stamps (the zine costs less than the postage as it is). With your zine you get an interview with a mail carrier, mail voting policies by state, a list of charming things the Raven has received in the mail, and “lots of action steps” for supporting the post office. The experience of independent bookselling during the pandemic so perfectly encapsulates the vital role of the postal service in American life that Danny and Astoria Bookshop’s Lexi Beach have even appeared on TV to talk about it!

Ednilson Bernardes, who studies supply chain management, described recently for The Conversation just how essential a functional postal service is for small, low-margin businesses like independent bookselling: “larger retailers like Walmart and Costco can offer faster delivery alternatives free—so the ability to get products fast and reliably is vital for small retailers with narrow margins.” (The Conversation is a web site where historians, social scientists, philosophers, and other scholars comment on daily news.) The USPS is especially important for rural areas: the commercial carriers themselves often rely on the postal service for “last mile delivery” in more remote places because “because it isn’t profitable for them to operate in regions with low population densities.” In his zine Danny points out how the post office’s “Every-Address Mandate” (“we deliver to every address in America, from the biggest cities to the smallest hamlets. This is our mandate”) is a feature of is democratic mission, not shared by for-profit carriers. Sarah Smarsh, Kansas-based author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, told a little story on Twitter of a pleasure in her life that comes to her in the mail, saying “rural folks pay bills by mail (no broadband) & basic needs like MEDS and VOTING are paramount in crisis. But don't forget our systems can let us do more than survive! They can bring joy.” Smarsh joined Danny Caine for a Raven-sponsored rally in support of the American Postal Worker’s Union Day of Action on August 25. (Meanwhile in Malibu, another famous author, Cher, was disappointed in her efforts to volunteer at her local post office.)

Indeed connecting Americans across this vast land was the founding purpose of the postal system. Winifred Gallagher, the author of How the Post Office Created America, told Isaac Chotiner for The New Yorker that in 1792 George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Rush decided to expand the mail’s reach expressly in order to promote an informed electorate, by using expensive letter delivery to subsidize distribution of cheap newspapers. Before the Feds intervened, delivery had been in the hands of printers, competing to put the news in front of their readers. Benjamin Franklin organized a paid postal service to support delivery of the news uniformly, arguing that timely access to news is “on many Occasions useful to Government, and advantageous to Commerce, and to the Publick.” Historian Amy Werbel, (again in The Conversation) tells us, “in doing so, Franklin contributed to an early American culture of free speech, which recognized the benefits of competing ideas and shared knowledge.”

Many observers have noted that when Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America in 1831 he marveled at the reach of the American postal system, calling it a “link between minds.” As Danny Caine reports, Roosevelt again endorsed this principle when he created a special rate to support the distribution of books. Roosevelt’s “Media Mail is more than just a cheap book rate,” writes Danny, “it’s the government’s show of confidence in the importance of well-read, well-informed citizens.” When we started Book Post, we named ourselves after this very postal rate, and created our little book-stamp logo in solidarity with its mission. (The artist who made our logo, Olga Florenskaya, has a postal-art sub-specialty, as it happens.)

Fortunately for those wanting to support the post office, it’s a great time to buy stamps! Look at these beautiful Voices of the Harlem Renaissance stamps! In a less literary vein are these very chic wire sculptures from artist Ruth Azawa and the opportunity postally to celebrate the anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. We cannot resist noting that we ourselves recognized a stamp last year with a two-parter by Geoffrey O’Brien on Marvin Gaye on the occasion of his own Forever stamp, and well, yes, a new record. Cheer your grandma up with a socially-distanced letter, or send postcards to encourage people to vote.

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