Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” were first published in 1741 and consisted of an aria and 30 variations made up of 32 measures each – a sampler of Western dance music enjoyed during his time. In her new collection, New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alice Fogel borrows that structure to invent 30 poems of 32 lines each. The book is called “Interval: Poems Based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations.”
Fogel: “When I listen to music I feel like it is an embodiment of spirit. Even though it is a mathematical structure on the page, we react to it, respond to it in an emotional or a spiritual way. And I think that is what life is about too - we have this body, a structure, but we feel we are more than that. That’s really where this whole book came from.”
Alice Fogel lectures in Keene State College’s English Department, but when she was younger she studied classical music and theater. Her new work play with layers of identity and the shadow selves – the voice and form of each poem changes, inspired by Bach’s variations in mood, key and tempo. Bach’s Variation 18 is a canon – a piece of music using two or more instruments or voices starting at different times, like a round. Fogel’s poem “Baker” is based off of this variation.
Fogel: “In Variation 18, there’s only one beat of music between the leader voice and the follower voice. I felt that the baker is someone who is very close to the work that he does in making and breaking bread every morning, so I brought the two things together. It does feel like a spiritual thing to bake bread, and incorporate air into this solid, and then to eat it.”
Fogel says you don’t have to know the music to enjoy the poetry – but she does think that Bach would appreciate what she's doing.
Fogel: “I think Bach would get a kick out of it. He was stealing all the time! He was going out to the bars, and stealing lines from a song that somebody was humming over their beer, and also from popular music. He was doing what we now call sampling, and incorporating those things into his own work. I think that kind of idea of stealing or borrowing was really interesting to him, so he would probably get a kick of somebody else doing it.”
Listen to our full segment with NH Poet Laureate Alice Fogel here: