Might seem like an easy question: ‘what do Tom Waits, Louis Armstrong and Vivaldi have in common?’ – well, music. Very good music. Yes.
These are also artists whose seeming creative disparities are bridged by the common attribute of having inspired writing by poets John Engels, and David Huddle.
Last night’s memorial for Engels at St. Michael’s College brought together images of these artists and a lot more, in thoughtful readings by Engels’ daughter and his longtime friend and collaborator Huddle.
The event’s introduction came from a man who knew them both: Dr. William Marquess, from the St. Michael’s English Department. With insight telling of his own art, he described Huddle as a poet of “hard vision” and “unobtrusive craft”.
For a night when no actual music was played, the occasion was filled with it.
Huddle prefaced the opening selection (the seasonally mud-melancholy “Spring Prophecy”) with the reminder of Engels’ characterization of Vivaldi (from another poem, “Vivaldi in Early Fall”), as being “on the verge of thunderously sad”. Huddle made the important distinction between being at the rim of of that precipice, and falling in – he smiled, and acknowledged that he would not be there to share Engels’ poetry with the audience if it were of the latter kind.
Huddle’s gently Virginia-tinged readings unfolded over the next hour to reveal a deep mutual respect and tender friendship between the two men on topics as wide-ranging as Alzheimer’s disease, fly fishing, an encounter with migrating songbirds, dog walking, and finally a rich poem in which Huddle describes his own arrival (long in coming!) in appreciating Louis Armstrong’s music.
Huddle and Engels often traded music recommendations, it turns out, and though Armstrong had been a favorite of Engels it was a recommendation that Huddles had steadfastly resisted for reasons that didn’t really need to be made clear. Music’s just that way, I guess. You either get it or you don’t. And sometimes it just takes some time.
Huddle describes the Armstrong piece that finally did it for him in the resulting poem “Search This World Over” – the title is a phrase from that Armstrong cornerstone, “St. James Infirmary”.
Most memorable line from the evening? In an hour filled with readings from two of the region’s top poets, you can imagine there were many. But as I left St. Michaels it was Huddle’s Louis Armstrong quote that stuck with me: “if you ain’t got it in you, you can’t blow it out.”
And there was surely no lack of inner source material last night…”on the verge of thunderously sad”, and otherwise.
[ David Huddle’s newest poetry collection is “Glory River” (2008, Louisiana State University Press) ]