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with Lou Harrison
By Richard Kostelanetz
Lou Harrison lived
with his life-partner William Colvig in the Aptos hills above
Santa Cruz, in a sun-drenched compound that includes a ranch house
where they sleep, a trailer where he composes, a woodshed, a stage
that doubles as a crash pad, and a small vegetable garden. Born
in 1917 in Portland, Oregon, he went to high school in the Bay
Area before beginning a distinguished creative career that has
so far encompassed not only composing but writing about music,
in addition to poetry and painting. Thanks to his rich and various
cultural experience, as well as an outspoken temper, he had a
lot to say in September 1990. A broadly built, ebullient man with
a hearty laugh and a full-bearded healthy resemblance to Orson
Welles, Harrison talked mostly over his dining-nook table. He
and I share the same birthday, the high Taurean May 14th, which
may or may not show in the following conversation; we also share
predispositions to both laughter, especially at ourselves, and
Richard Kostelanetz: What’s your poetry about?
Harrison: It divides itself into two: informal Whitmanesque
line business or Dickinson or Blake in the early period. The second
is when I discovered isosyllabic verse forms. The majority form
on the planet through history has always been counting syllables
per line. You know of the haiku as one small example. That has
been a dominating form unrhymed. So I started doing that.
You can invent them, or you can do classic ones. Of the seventeen
poems in [W.H.] Auden’s last book, ten of them are isosyllabic.
For instance, the first poem in his last book, “Thank you,
God,” is what is called St. Ephrem’s verse of seven
syllables per line. You can actually chose to create the number
of syllables in a line, but you have to stick to the form. It
can be done stanzawise or longwise. Alexander Pope did not write
iambic pentameter; he wrote decasyllables. You can tell how to
pronounce certain words by this means--whether you have an extra
syllable or not. So I’ve done a lot of that, both invented
and lifted forms from classic lines.
Do you have favorite countings?
I like the Sapphic stanzas, though I can’t yet do the actual
metrics; but I can do the syllabic outlines of them. I wrote a
lot when I was going around the world, because my instruments
weren’t there and painting is a little hard to do; but you
can always write. And I’m just beginning to get that out.
And also I’ve written a lot for composer friends about them.
And those are available.
In [my book] Soundings a few years ago were a couple of them. In the Cage piece I took
his name and put a syllable gap between them too and came out
with a line length:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
J O H N C A G E
Because of his square
root form, I multiplied that. I told him how I did it--9 x 9 equals
81. His response was, “I’m not yet 81.” Leave
it to John.
And then last year
I noticed in the Advocate [a gay monthly] a little ad for the
world’s poetry. And a handsome bearded man asks you to send
your poem if you have a 21-line one. I happened to have one, so
I sent it in. And it got a golden poet award. Then a few months
ago I got another letter from the same group that I was to go
to Las Vegas, because that poem not only won that for 1989 but
for the last four years it won a silver award.
You portray yourself as both a formal poet and an occasional poet.
Yes, I have a number of unfinished ones that I want to go to.
Right now I’m working on a poem on the work of Claude Lorraine
[1600-82], the great painter. For a long time I’ve been
devoted to Claude’s work; I still am, the divine Claude.
He’s the one whose concept of landscaping and painting brought
about the whole of Capability Brown and of eighteenth century
landscaping. In the poem I’ve been working with fourteen-syllable
lines, which turns out to be the same length of line as Golding’s
original translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It’s
a long line, very bucolic in quality. I found that either my poems
are lyrical and rhapsodic and sexy, or they’re bitter diatribes
What is your literary experience? Who have been your favorite
When I grew up they were Blake and Whitman and Edward Carpenter.
How’d you discover Carpenter, who to my recollection was
no better known then than he is now?
The husband of Carol Beals, a dancer for whom I worked, introduced
me to Carpenter’s writing.
Did you like these three because they were gay?
In part, but Blake wasn’t. Of course, I loved Whitman’s
“Calamus.” I finally set one section of it. Early
on, when I was in the gay movement, I decided that all of us who
are gay composers ought to take a section of “Calamus”
and make a great big oratorio. That was in the 60s. San Francisco
is much earlier than New York.
Did you have any principal teachers who were not musicians?~
I studied painting with the Japanese Chiuro Obata when I was quite
young, and also a bit of poetry with Robert Duncan, who was younger
than I was, in the mid 40s in New York.
Did Duncan teach you anything of use in your music?
Not really. As a matter of fact, I brought him down here and recorded
the songs he used to sing in his readings. In some of his poems
there are little songs. I recorded all those, they are available
somewhere. I’m also going to put out some sort of memorial
edition. When we were working with Kenneth Rexroth, we made tapes.
We played Chinese instruments, and he read his Chinese translations.
Carol Tinker [his widow] has agreed that if I can find them we
should process it, because it’s an important item, his whole
I see Rexroth as a literary analogue to yourself.
In what sense?
His Californian culture, his interest in Oriental art for inspiration,
his universal literacy, and the eclecticism reflected in his creative
Maybe so, but I have actually the lyrical impulses of Robert Duncan
more than Kenneth.
But remember that Kenneth’s very best poems are long lyrics.
I just met a man who played the lead in Kenneth’s Beyond
the Mountains with the Living Theatre when I was there in New
York. I was so mad for Judith at that point. I didn’t realize
it until her book [The Diaries of Judith Malina, 1947-1957, 1984]
came out, and it was there.
You went for women as well?
Oh, yes. Both of Bill and myself have had our experiences--miscarriages
You once told me that your fifties were your best years.
When you are forty you think you are going to have another half
of your life, and so things go on. But when you are fifty, you
are almost sure you’re not going to have another half, so
you say “to hell with it. I’m going to do it my way.”
You are beginning to have fun. And you are still full of your
powers; you’re not getting old all of a sudden. So between
50 and 65 you’re at your very best.
Does the epithet “postmodern” mean anything to you?
It means rather silly surfaces on buildings that ought to have
When did you become interested in Esperanto?
I was sitting at the Coliseum in Rome on day when I realized that
my Latin wasn’t doing very well with Italian. I was there
at a conference in 1954, where Stravinsky handed me a prize I
had won. And then I remembered that in my early adolescence I
had a girl friend whose father was a professor at Stanford. She
had given me a book about Esperanto. So I recollected that, and
when I got back I went to a sort of left-wing bookstore in San
Francisco, where I also found oodles of Esperanto. I began to
learn it and worked with a friend who is a linguist and knew everything
about Esperanto. I started to use it; and then when I went to
Japan, that was all I used, except in the bank. I’ve used
it around the world. A lot of governments broadcast in it, including
Was it hard to learn?
One coast hears Japanese vowels and on the other coast you would
call it Italian vowels. The only phoneme that’s difficult
is the “ch” as in loch, and that’s passing out
into “k” in the words that use it. And the accent
is always penultimate. Grammar can be memorized in a few hours.
Vocabulary is anywhere between minimalist and a lot. And it has
a literature. There are poets who write in nothing but Esperanto.
That’s what I like about it. You get the feeling of being
part of some big symphonic enterprise, because it’s a designed
thing made by a man, like you were playing in a piece. And I also
like that [L.L.] Zamenoff did not release it publicly until someone
wrote fluent verse in it.
You have written in Esperanto yourself?
Yes, sure. I’ve even talked in it and designed [typeface]
fonts for it, because it looks funny in a Bodoni, for example,
because all the plurals end in “J.” It is full of
cases too, one letter one sound and also one word one meaning.
So naturally there is an underground vocabulary of dirty words
too, which get properly published. And there is an academy, where
any Esperantist can ask for an opinion linguistically. It’s
a world academy.
Where is it located?
All over. It’s a corresponding academy. And publishers are
everywhere. One of the finest is in the Canary Islands.
Do you have an Esperanto library in the house?
It’s been randomized [in the wake of the recent earthquake],
but I can get you a few things.
Will it save the world?
Nothing can save the world, Richard; we’ve gone beyond that.
I concluded a long time ago that people really don’t want
to solve anything or even improve it; they just want to mess around.
And that’s why English is going around the World, because
it is the easiest language to mess around in. It has no academy,
there is nothing correct, it has a new slang with every generation.
It has how many pidgins? Varieties? That’s why it’s
winning. It is the easiest language to mess around in and still
be understood. And this is true gradually. People don’t
want to solve anything; they just want to mess around.
is a prolific American artist, author and critic. A passionate
defender of the avant-garde, he has also been a contributing editor
for Liberty magazine since 1987.