Niche Work, If You Can Get It: The Music and Poetry of Norman Ball
Those writers who have embraced the Internet’s wider potential for alternative routes to publication may be familiar with the work of Norman Ball. In the past five years, he has published both poetry and essays in venues as diverse in focus as The Berkeley Poetry Review and Liberty Magazine, and his musical efforts recently netted him an appearance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a supporting act for Stephen Schwartz. His work, which is compelling in its own right, carries special interest to me for two reasons: first, it ranges widely, embracing the rhetorical turns of the Shakespearean sonnet and the machine-gun delivery of Primus with apparently equal levels of comfort, and second, a large proportion of his work is available via the Internet. His range, if not readily apparent in the sheer number of forms he embraces, is demonstrated in comparing two of his CDs: his 2001 collaboration with actor Edward Gero, Return to One: A Sonnet Odyssey, and his more recent efforts as Vocalist and Lyricist for the band Razorwire ‘N Voodoo, whose 2005 album, Desert Run, is the electric guitar’s response to the classical strings floating behind those earlier poems. To take in these two offerings is to treat oneself to an exhilarating sense of having stumbled upon a voice that is well-developed, yet still clearly engaged in the quest.
Norman Ball’s standard biography claims, in a clearly tongue-in-cheek tone, that he “has carved for himself (with a spoon stolen from the prison canteen) a fragile niche as a Renaissance Man in a post-post-modern world.” As initially jarring as the image might be, Ball’s work offers a fairly convincing case for the Elizabethan doublet being quite appropriate garb for a trip down to your local Internet café. The Renaissance Man is, of course, a person who excels in multiple fields. In an era that has come to be typified by both specialization and disdain for the masculine generic, this figure has come under considerable attack in recent times, but if we turn to the alternative offered by post or post-post-modernism, we are confronted with the image of the bricoleur, or tinkerer, who is at one and the same moment both the closest modern equivalent we have to the Renaissance Man, in pursuance of multiple fields of expertise, and the Renaissance Man’s dark shadow – Leonardo da Vinci as the jack-of-all-trades par excellance. As tongue-in-cheek as Ball’s biography clearly is, it gets to the heart of the matter, as is clear from the introductory essay he provides for Return to One: “I admire the sonnet, much as I do the cockroach, for its obliviousness to the vagaries of style, fashion, and modern sensibility.” In both his thoughts on the form and the sonnets that result, there is a sense of a voice that has clearly done significant groundwork, but has not yet settled, with a further sense that, were that voice to settle, the work might well suffer for it.
True to Ball’s introductory remarks, Return to One: A Sonnet Odyssey is highly unlikely to be a featured selection in the EMI catalogue at any point in the near future. It’s a cycle of forty-eight sonnets, recited by actor and four time recipient of the Helen Hayes Award, Edward Gero, whose voice may be familiar to viewers of the Discovery Channel, and backed, musically, with selections from Gabriel Yared’s score for the film Camille Claudel. With credentials like these, one expects a relatively highbrow affair, and in terms of production values, Return to One certainly delivers on this front. In form, the sonnets land firmly in the Shakespearean camp, and Ball is clearly aware of the dangers of embracing this form too closely. “The sonneteer,” he writes, “is the wedding singer of modern poetry: a member of the bride’s party by way of technicality, he is never embraced and rarely photographed.” Thus, for an inveterate reader of liner notes such as myself, one enters this collection with the somewhat disconcerting image of Adam Sandler cast in the role of Sir Philip Sidney. This combination has real potential to play very badly indeed, but Ball’s self-depreciating approach proves a central element of the grace with which he moves within the form at hand. In terms of content, the poems are primarily concerned with a re-reading of a number of key mythological referents, drawing heavily upon Gnostic traditions and taking the figure of the tail-devouring serpent, or ouroboros, as a source of inspiration and departure. In the context of a sonnet cycle, use of the ouroboros is hardly surprising, though Ball does make significant efforts to express the relevance this symbol has in the context of our times. The individual poems, which one can take either in their full, recorded glory, or, should one wish to remain pure to modernist notions of the text “alone,” as text within the liner notes, provide a clear study into one poet’s exploration of form. The various traditions and elements associated with the sonnet – love both sacred and venal, meditations on mythology, the often comical recursive sonnet – are well represented here, and poets interested in this form could do far worse than to take a few cues from this collection. And that’s really the point. If Ball’s notes are taken under consideration, it’s clear that this collection is primarily concerned with exploring the form, rather than landing a lucrative contract with EMI. This keeps the focus on the work itself, and the collection that results pays a quiet sort of homage to a tradition that has suffered somewhat from our tendency to feel contempt for what is familiar. Ball’s awareness of this contempt is just the thing to put the collection over the top.
The cycle itself is twelve sections, containing between six to three sonnets each. Ball makes some efforts to engage classical fare with a time range encompassing both Biblical mythology and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In more practiced hands, such a project might be effectively presented, but in practice, Ball’s work is most uneven when it attempts to be too serious. Ball’s penchant for wordplay gets the better of him, for example, in the opening lines of Sonnet 22, from the section entitled “Aspects of a Woman”:
The backward glance that froze a woman’s soul
and chained her to this sublimating place
consigns her to an endless rabbit-hole
of uncast lots; her life can’t fill this space.
This is a clear enough allusion to the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Lot’s wife looks back upon her destroyed home and is turned into a pillar of salt, and the pun in line four proves incapable of carrying the weight of the story it references. In this and other points, Ball’s work demonstrates that his talents as word-spinner are considerably stronger when he chooses lighter fare as his subject. Compare the rather jarring presence of a pun in the above lines to similar groaners in Sonnet 26, a sonnet that appears in the section entitled “The Detrimental Meter,” where they prove much more effective as self-referential wordplay aimed at commenting on the form itself:
Sometimes a pent-up-tameter must run
a giddy-up of gallop on the meter.
“I think, therefore I-am-bic” is no fun.
Worse still, gratuitous rhyming like “Demeter.”
Sonnet 26 also contains a closing line that closely mirrors Ball’s stated purpose in the comments that bookend this sonnet cycle within the liner notes: “The fun is in the run and not the steer.” Return to One is not always graceful in its execution, and it seems unlikely to unseat Edna St. Vincent Millay’s offerings as exemplarary, but there is real joy in witnessing Ball’s engagement of the form.
In stark contrast with Return to One is Ball’s more recent collaboration with Australian musician Paul Millington, with whom he forms the band Razorwire N’ Voodoo. Their 2005 album, Desert Run, credits Millington with the music. Millington lists, among his influences, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, but in reading Ball’s lyrics to the fifth track, “Willie Lepers,” one gets the sense that Ball must have augmented his study of Shakespeare with a review of the complete works of Anthony Kiedis at some point in his life.
I ate the blame to get it all worked out
prop me up like a deathrow inmate
deadweight banging on the pink house
hanging at the cathouse tappin at the outrage
prance it lance it dance it advance it
slip into a back page, pimpin for a new age.
His rapid delivery of those lyrics goes a long way to confirming these suspicions, though the result is a little more Primus than Peppers. It’s a rocking track, certainly a much more viable contender for inclusion in any list made up of the likes of the Goo Goo Dolls than anything on Return to One, but much less likely to attract any attention that might be deemed positive from the stuffier set of poets to whom sonnets generally appeal. Rhetorical subtlety, while it might occasionally find a home in this environment, is not the rule of this land, and there’s little that isn’t venal about the love being described in this track. It’s a jarring contrast that might suggest unevenness in the context of a full oeuvre, but one gets the sense that Ball’s just getting started, and that’s where things start to get exciting. The fourth track, “Spill My Wine,” while again not, one suspects, aspiring to the attentions of the Academy, is a bit more subtle in its treatment of the theme of war, though not so subtle as to forego place names:
I am emptied, Father
stripped of armor, short of time.
There are waiting others
hungry for the savage sign.
Seal Falluja’s borders,
tease the serpent from the crowd.
Raise our sacred heroes
let the verses scream out loud.
Though clearly enough making allusion to current events, there’s an undercurrent to this one in the references to the Garden of Eden, and much of the track’s commentary is veiled in those terms:
In an effort to break the tension
someone began reciting a prayer
before the tank commander ordered him to stop.
Like trace-fire, the man’s amen trailed off
into the bowels of the dark machine.
This last image, perhaps, serves as the clearest illustration of the shift one undergoes between these two CD’s: Return to One is predominately a statement of faith, and if anything, Ball’s earnestness is what makes the project work. In spite of his closing essay, in which he spends some time discussing the concept of decadence as embodied in the mythological body of the Minotaur, there is a sense, in Ball’s straightforward statement of Gnostic principles, that one is dealing with someone who truly believes that there is a central truth, and that it is worth striving for. Desert Run offers something very different: while those principles may still hold sway for the speaker of these lyrics, the perspective is from within that machine, a perspective from which those principles can give the appearance of being truly and finally lost. The voice that results is both less hopeful and more in line with the times it seeks to engage. Taken together, these two CD’s offer the listener an experience that’s a bit like finding out that Iggy Pop reads John Donne between sets, or that Robert Pinsky thinks Henry Rollins is a damn fine writer. One is free to conclude that such libertine congress between “high” and “low” poetic forms is yet another in a long list of signs of the rapid decline of Western Civilization, but it’d probably be a whole lot more interesting to ask how the two inform each other.
So what forces are at work behind Norman Ball’s meandering path through the peaks and valleys of artistic endeavor? Well for starters, if da Vinci had set himself the task of reading every book ever written, he’d have a significantly easier time of it in the fifteenth century than he would in the twenty-first. A brute force reckoning of the ratio between information and average life expectency probably dooms anyone with ambitions in that direction to the compromise role of bricoleur, and that’s before the Internet is taken into account. One suspects that the history of English letters might have turned out quite differently if the playwrights of Shakespeare’s time had busied themselves after hours by tending to their blogs. We’d probably have a whole lot less reverence for their work, and a whole lot more of it. Such are the conditions of modern publishing: in an era where anyone can publish, not much gets taken seriously, and knowing one’s work won’t be taken too seriously, before one even starts, can have a surprisingly liberating effect on what results. Even more liberating when one refuses to take their own work too seriously. I suspect that’s of more than passing consequence in the work of Norman Ball, and I’m just fortunate to be alive at a time when I can watch him at work.
You can, too. A lot of it is available at his website: http://www.normanball.com . If you like what you hear, take the time to buy something from him: I understand he needs a new spoon.