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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"12 O'Clock News": "And the Jolt" Sprung everything


                           Moulin Rouge
Las Vegas, Nevada     
Aug. 2 nd 1955

Dear Mr. Glaser”
         Am sorry that I have to write this letter with a pen, but, on arriving at the air port in Las Vegas yesterday, My typewriter fell from on top of all, that luggage that was on the truck, And the “Jolt” Sprung’ everything. Tch, Tch, isn’t it A Drag? And I wanted so badly to swing a lot of Type Writing, “Gappings” on ya” Of course, they’re fixing it up for me. So, I Guess, that’s all that matters.[1]

Notwithstanding the kerplunk typewriter, Louis Armstrong needed his manager, Joe Glaser, to take care of business right away. If his typewriter broke, Louis Armstrong picked up his pen.

Two decades later, in a similar quandary, Elizabeth Bishop began a letter to Frank Bidart: The E fell off my electric typewriter (those damned Coronas) Sunday & it has gone to Belo Horizonte to be soldered. Thank heavens I had this old Royal, non-electric, here. It was less embarrassing—after all, E is the most-used letter in the English language.[2]

The blessing and curse of typing is that fingers move almost as fast as the mind. Armstrong and Bishop relied on their typewriters to pick up the pace, to carry the tune of speaking voice. The typewriter encouraged Armstrong to write more quickly, but whether he wrote by hand or typed, the voice was his speaking voice.

Bishop used different writing tools for different purposes, pen or pencil for the poems, typewriter for letters. Bishop’s poetic voice, a listening and speaking voice, was in place even in her earliest poems. Usually, she hand wrote the first draft. Then she typed it, hand editing that draft. Next, she retyped it, again hand-edited this, so on and so, over and over. This is demonstrated in the sixteen versions of the poem, “One Art,” in Edgar Allen Poe and the Juke Box edited by Alice Quinn.

Her letters, like Armstrong’s, are the place to go to hear her talking. In his Introduction in One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, Robert Giroux stated that she wrote several thousand letters that covered fifty years— 1928 to 1979. The number of Armstrong letters is almost the same, thousands of letters from the early 1920s until his death in 1971.

Both writers preferred the typewriter for correspondence. Bishop depended on the typewriter’s speed to record her conversational voice. If it broke, she could fetch the spare Royal, her old, trusty non-electric. If the spare broke, she might put off writing letters until the typewriter came back from the shop. The typewriter was one of several staples on her writer’s desk. In Armstrong’s writing space, most often a moving target, the typewriter dominated the workplace. If it broke, he picked up the pen. As early as 1922, he recognized that he could fill long hours in the dressing room with the exhilarating experience of writing.

Louis Armstrong at the typewriter appeared in my February 25 post in reference to two letters in Thomas Brothers’s Louis Armstrong in His Own Words. One is the above-mentioned letter to Joe Glaser; the other is his letter to L/CPL. Villec stationed in Vietnam. Both letters are hand written. Armstrong’s conversational style is evident in the subject matter and the way he used punctuation to mimic his speech. Brothers states: “Armstrong’s prose is idiosyncratic [in his] use of visual symbols… his orthography is an integral part of his writing…it must be respected…how the apostrophe and capitalization are used…to convey emphasis. For example, in [“Jolt” Sprung’], the closed double apostrophe gives primary emphasis to “Jolt” while the single apostrophe gives secondary emphasis to “Sprung.”[3]

From a stoptime perspective, the dashes emphasize a stop or brief pause. This follows the pattern of stoptime, Armstrong used the dash to clear a space for the soloist. He emphasized words by placing them in quotes, particularly words familiar to African-Americans, a device that also stopped some readers. For example, Brothers relates that “gappings” is defined in African-Americans usage dictionaries as “salary” in African-American dialect. He adds that it also onomatopoetically echoes the action of typing.[4] This is a stretch but not farfetched. Armstrong is ever ear-attentive.

Subject matter as much as the mark making carries the imprint of Armstrong’s conversation. He freely and frequently brought up his sex life and bowel functions; he enjoyed giving advice on both topics, promoting the herbal laxative Swiss Kriss far and wide. He responded to everyone in his audience familiarly, even the King of England, calling him Rex during a performance. These letters, to an unknown fan and to Joe Glaser, whom he knew well, covered similar topics. However, his tone of voice to each recipient was distinctly different. Both letters exhibit a jovial Armstrong, but the intent differed. Armstrong wrote to the serviceman as comrade, expressing their shared experience of music. With Glaser control was the issue; Armstong’s joking stance did not hide his demands. “As long as I am Slated to blow this Trumpet don’t spare the Horses. I love the instrument. Then too—the loot looks pretty good in my pocket…So I’ll close—Now that I’ve made myself very Clear. Book Anywhere—Anytime. Just let me know what’s happening—in time.”[5]

Beside speed and ease of typing, Armstrong admired the typewriter for the same reason he enjoyed other instruments —the trumpet and the tape-recorder—the typewriter was an extension of his body. The typewriter is equally instrument and object; it blends the utilitarian and aesthetic. This counts for both Armstrong and Bishop.

The demands of the writing life were far different for Bishop and Armstrong. Armstrong words flowed easily from him, just as music did. Writing was another way of communicating naturally. He wanted to tell his own story and he did, over and over, in his autobiographies and in his letters—to say nothing of the countless times he repeated the same stories on the air.

Armstrong operated almost totally in the spotlight. He wrote on the move, often in a place where others freely entered. He did not appear to ever need a vacation. When he did have free time, he contented himself staying at home with Lucille, compiling his scrapbooks, collaging memorabilia onto his 7 x 7 inch reel to reel tape box covers, going to the corner barbershop, jawing with friends and neighborhood kids. He spent hours and hours in his den/study with the tape recorder. Archivist is another of his full time occupations. Louis Armstrong— trumpeter, vocalist, actor, writer, archivist. He was at all times a public man.

Elizabeth Bishop sequestered herself for days, weeks. She was an intensively private person. She kept notebooks, not diaries. She had a coterie of friends and did not step outside this circle. Her writing room was sacred space, set up in a particular way. Though she wrote in many places and situations, the idea of the writing space as sacred and apart was essential to her well-being.

Bishop fit the model of the writer needing a quiet place, stretches of solitude, long walks, then the return to the sacrosanct writing room. Many poets say it does not work like that. The poem pops up on the walk, scribble, scribble. Or at the party, dip into the bathroom, scribble, scribble. But the vision remains: the writing desk. Elizabeth Bishop had one everywhere she lived. In Brazil she had a whole studio overlooking a waterfall.


My impetus for connecting Elizabeth Bishop’s and Louis Armstrong’s typewriters, the writing desk and room as fixed or fluid, comes from reading Paul Muldoon’s chapter on “12 O’Clock News,” the fourth of his Oxford Lectures.[6] Muldoon discusses the poet’s physical writing space and how, in this instance, Bishop used it as metaphor for the battlefield.

Bishop’s “12 O’Clock News” first appeared in The New Yorker March 4, 1973 issue. She divided the page into two columns. On the left is a list of eight items visible on her desk: gooseneck lamp, typewriter, pile of mss., typed sheet, envelopes, ink-bottle, typewriter eraser, ashtray. On the right each item is briefly described. Here are three:

typewriter           The escarpment that rises abruptly from the central plain is in heavy shadow, but the elaborate terracing of its southern glacis gleams faintly in the dim light, like fish scales. What endless labor those small, peculiarly shaped terraces represent! And yet, on them the welfare of this tiny principality depends.

pile of mss.         A slight landslide occurred in the northwest about an hour ago. The exposed soil appears to be of poor quality: almost white, calcareous, and shaly. They are believed to have been no casualties.
typed sheet        Almost due north, our aerial reconnaissance reports the discovery of a large rectangular “field,” hitherto unknown to us, obviously man-made. It is dark-speckled. An airstrip? A cemetery?

This poem is an anomaly in Bishop’s work. She rarely wrote prose poems and she avoided direct reference to the political. Here the landscape of the writing room takes its cue from the battlefields of Vietnam. Her information came from TV, where, nightly, Americans watched the replay. Everyone got the same picture, a vision that is impossible to imagine today.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “12 O’Clock News” and Louis Armstrong’s letter to L/CPL. Villec remonstrate that the distant battlefield was continually present in the life of U. S. citizens. Armstrong received thousands of fan letters and answered a fair number. Many of these survived but have not been published. Is it odd that his reply to this letter is one that did make it into print? Did Armstrong answer Villec because he was a marine serving in Vietnam? I venture Villec’s Vietnam service had much to do with Armstrong’s letter being saved, collected, and published.

Villec’s letter was lost, but his reasons for writing are plain from reading Armstrong’s letter. He commented on the power of music throughout his reply, beginning with New Orleans music in “Old ′Sanctified’ Churches, the Baptisms—that’s when someone wants to be converted by Joining the ′Church and get ′religion.” He described the Funeral Marches, then advised Villec to “Keep ′Music in your ′heart the ′same as ′you’re ′doing. And ′Daddy—you ′Can’t  ′go ′wrong. Armstrong concluded with the lyrics from “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

Louis Armstrong and Elizabeth Bishop prized the typewriter. More essential was the act of writing, by hand or typewriter. They lived in very different worlds, but writing was at heart of both their lives. Their concerns were the same as those of most Americans in the late 1960s. They struggled with the Vietnam War at a distance, but the war was present always.



[1] Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, edited and with an Introduction by Thomas Brothers, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 157. Note: all subsequent citations from Brothers noted in text, page number in parentheses following citation.
[2] One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, 520.
[3] p. xiv
[4] p. xii, xiii
[5] p. 163
[6] The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon, New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 2006, 82-113.

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