The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

December 01, 2011

Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Wisława Szymborska

In the December 22 issue of the New York Review of Books, Charles Simic writes that Wisława Szymborska's poems are "poetry's equivalent to expository writing." He goes on: "Comparing the singing of Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday's in a short review of Fitzgerald's biography, Szymborska also says things that are true of her own poetry:

Yet at some point in the sixties some listeners' taste began to change. People started noticing certain limitations in Ella's singing. Not in her voice, which surmounted all obstacles with ease, but in her manner. Take, for instance, Billy Holiday, who poured her heart, soul, and various other organs into her songs. But Ella wasn't histrionic. She always kept a little distance from the text; she never worked the song into a lather. And thank heavens. I see this as yet another leaf for her laurel. Expressive singing is a slippery slope; once you're on it it's hard to get off."

Let's compare:

 

 

 

 

On one hand, her opposition rings a bell heartache gives Billy enough of a chance for "expressive singing," and Ella is, after all, going on about not being able to get in the mood. The songs are opposites in this way, conforming to Szymborska's comparison, one about feeling it in somebody's absence and the other about singing to that somebody right there that she's not feeling it. Of course it's trickier than thatElla attains quite a high emotional pitch, whereas Billy sounds admirably restrained here (making the song more powerful, I'd say).

Simic raises Szymborska's note on changing tastes in American music to the level of self-commentary, notable in light of his praise of "her atypical lack of narcissism for a poet." The difference is between two kinds of art, and, implicitly, where Szymborska sees herself fall.

So who plays Billie to Szymborska's Ella?

Do current audiences favor the art of Billies or the art of Ellas? What new oppositions are at work?

--Andrew Saviano

Szymborska's

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