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November 30, 2021

Award-winning poet Lynn Strongin, a composition student at MSM from 1956 to 1959, reminisces about her time at the School

photo by Deborah Munro

Born and raised in New York City, Lynn Strongin studied at MSM when it was located on the east side of Manhattan. She’s the author of more than 12 books, one of which was selected by her publisher as its submission to the Pulitzer Prizes.

Now age 82 and a resident of British Columbia, Lynn shares with us her memories of attending MSM as someone who suffered the physical effects of polio, and speaks of the importance the School has had in her life and on her creative path.

What are your strongest memories about MSM?

That is a good question. It was the very first time I got out of the house after polio, the first time attending school in person, as all my high school years were spent learning in our living room overlooking fire escapes and water towers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Now, I was learning overlooking fire escapes from the Upper East Side! I was elated and determined to overcome the physical difficulties presented to me.

Attending MSM was a window on the world. My struggle was enormous: to walk up the four steps I shall never forget, with the help of my taxi driver, Jo Abromovitch. I used two crutches and two long leg braces which locked at the knee. I had learned rehab well after half a year in a rehabilitation hospital, a building which must have served government surplus food; it felt like a warehouse from the war.

Lynn Strongin in Berkeley, California, after a peace march in the 1960s

But in snow, sleet, or rain, I never missed a class, and my memory of struggle is intertwined with my pleasure and determination to study musical composition. It was a huge family support effort to help me, a team which included my mother and my taxi driver. I was self-conscious as the only student who’d had polio and used braces and crutches, so I was early to class and the last to leave so as to not be stared at.

I do remember being one of only two women in the composition class. Vittorio Giannini always played the men’s compositions first. The late fifties were very much still a patriarchal decade. Ludmila Ulehla was a superb teacher of ear-training and form and analysis; Nicolas Flagello taught instrumentation and orchestration.

MSM's home on 105th Street in the 1950s when attended by Lynn Strongin

How important are those years for you?

Extremely.

My years at MSM are as crucial in memory as they were in reality. I came out of my shell, I learned composition, but as well I recall two excellent academic courses. Michael Steinberg taught music history and became known as a great musicologist. As well, I was studying with him when he was young and he was so eloquent he inspired me. I was unable to sleep the night before his class quite often. James Shenton taught world history; he was equally inspiring and shared these teaching stints with Columbia University.

Why do you think Manhattan School of Music is a good place to study?

Situated in New York City, it is diverse, very democratic, fair yet eclectic in student selection. In Manhattan, the musical world is an oyster you break open. The location took me away from a sheltered middle-class Jewish environment to a more edgy environment where I learned the jazz and slang rhythms of the city, in streets I passed and in my readings. I opened up a closed world and was very stimulated, often exhilarated to be in this new atmosphere. Different from hospital, different from home, MSM stands out as a pearl. I felt the heart of the city throb here.

You studied composition at MSM in the late ’50s, and then went on to become a celebrated poet, with more than 12 books published. Can you tell us about your artistic journey from music to poetry?

My journey was a long, rich one, beginning with our mother reading us Emily Dickenson poems. Our mother encouraged my younger sister and me in all the arts, especially music. My sister Martha Strongin Katz (world-renowned violist, founding violist of The Cleveland Quartet) and I practiced sonatas on our New York apartment piano, I played accompaniment. I went to Tanglewood and heard Koussevitzky as a child of seven. Having listened to poems before I could read, I was very open to music. We had an old two-octave piano under the stairs a bit later, and in the early forties during the War, I began to pick out tunes on it. Piano lessons followed at age five and continued all the years of my earlier childhood. In the hospital, I saw a piano in the corner of the auditorium I mention above, in which films were shown. I asked to be wheeled up to it and played on the piano. Memory served me, and both my hands were free even lying on my stomach. When allowed to come home for weekends, I had a piano lesson and cherished these times. I had not yet begun writing poetry.

After my three years at Manhattan School of Music, I gained the confidence to believe in my ear and transferred the music of notes to the spoken and written line. When I wrote my first poem, my mother said I should send it to Robert Frost. I did. He said I got it to a poetic depth in the line describing death: ‘I am a quilt gently covering eternal rest.” I began writing in my first year at Hunter College to which I transferred after my wonderful musical education at MSM in order to to round out my education. At Hunter, I studied Milton, Shakespeare, modern poets and began writing at first a poem about a harlequin, and then all the musicality inherent and learned poured out of me. I haven’t stopped writing since that time.

Three of Lynn Strongin's 12 books of poetry

What connection do you feel there is in general between music and poetry?

Rhythm and melodic line are the primary connections between the two arts. Expressivity of course in words in one case and in the musical harmony, rhythm, melody in the other. They are closely allied. Almost inseparable in inspiration.

Tell us about your most recent book?

My most recent book is a chapbook, Slow Dark Film (Right Hand Pointing). In this book I look back to my hospital experience at age 12 when Monday night movies were our sole treat. Wheeled into a vast auditorium which overwhelmed me, we lay on stretchers, in casts or flat and in contrast, the OTHER cast: the men and women in the movie. Thrown by the projector upon the screen of my life. Mainly these were westerns in which Gene Autry and Dale Evans ride into the sunset on a horse. Such contrast to our daily lives provided relief.

Now in age, I have come to see life as filmic: there is a slow grain of old black and white documentaries in which each granule is visible. I especially admire the still photography of Saul Leiter. New York being the city of my birth and my growing up appears behind a scrim. Life is there, a documented and often disturbing but always moving life in New York in the earlier part of the 20th Century. Music documents our lives one way — I think in particular of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City — in another contrasting way.

The cover of Lynn’s most recent book of poetry.

Rhythm and melodic line are the primary connections between music and poetry. Expressivity in words in one case, in musical harmony, rhythm, melody in the other. They are closely allied, almost inseparable in inspiration.

Poet

Are you working on any writing projects now that you’d like to mention?

I am working on a book of poems ELIZAH: One Love an Appalachian Woman‘s Journey.

I do not speak much about work in progress. It is a new background for me to explore and researching language, music, art of this vast region crucial to our country, I find once again fresh inspiration in my early eighties.

Additionally, I am doing a new book of elegies to follow The Sorrow Psalms; A Book of twentieth Century Elegy (University of Iowa Press). These will be post-millennial elegiac poems, psalmic.

Finally a study of five women poems, LIGHT IN A DARK TIME, will include essays on major contemporary women poets: the late Lucie Brock-Broido, Jane Kenyon, the late great C.D. Wright, Mary Jo Bang among them. One poet is vernacular…Wright; another, Brock-Broido, embroidered with a cast back to the metaphysical poet, and in her ornate language; while Bang is piercing, and her signature lyric always rings true.

Music is the foundation of my creativity, the trunk if you will: lyric-writing the flowering, the leaves.

You were born in New York City, but have lived in British Columbia, Canada, for many years. Can you tell us about this?

I had always wanted to live outside my own country, as a writer. Canada is of course on the same continent but different enough to open my ears to a new music: British ex-pats. The old Scottish voices had a music of their own filling our glass lobby on quaint old Fort Street, Antique Row, in the heart of Victoria. I moved to be close to a dear friend, to share life, and to open up my world further. It has profoundly influenced my writing. Canada is my adopted home, the United States my homeland. I remain inherently American as a poet enriched by new accents, history, background.