Notation in music and in verse

Craig Wright
Prof. Craig Wright of Yale teaches a music appreciation course that is available free online.

Professor Craig Wright and Yale University offer a free online classical music appreciation course. In the 3rd lecture, Wright makes a simple but profound comparison between Western classical music and other music, say Eastern music and pop music in the West.

Our classical music is notated, he says. The focus is on the composer, who is the star. He’s like the architect, while the players are, say, carpenters or masons or window installers. When you go to hear pop music, on the other hand, whether rock or jazz, you will rarely see a music stand and printed music. You go to see the band or the ensemble, who are the stars. You talk and laugh and dance while the music plays.

Pop music, which must have come first in any culture or country, is heart and body, rhythm and dance. Classical music replaces heart and body with eye and mind, Wright says. It’s more analytical, rational, demanding of both player and listener. Which is why you need to know something technical about it in order to understand and appreciate.

In the same way, written poetry is a notated system. Most of us in the West may know poetry primarily through song, whether Bob Dylan’s or David Lee Roth’s. (Gods help us, but there is a difference.) And we don’t have to read music to get the rhythms of the song or the idea of the lyrics. Or course, we also know poetry, or did in my day, by reading and singings songs in our early education, whether these were patriotic hymns or folk music. And by memorizing poems, if that quaint idea is still around. (In Catholic high school, junior year, our Christian Brother English teacher had each of the boys in turn come to the front of the room and recite a poem we had memorized, whether Tennyson’s “Break, break, break, / On thy cold gray rocks, O Sea” or Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”: “Now when I was young and easy under the apple boughs.”

An awful lot of poetry currently being written shows no particular knowledge of meter, rhythm, rhyme, and the other formal niceties of traditional poetry. In itself that’s okay. Most of us don’t write formalist poetry anymore. But all of us who write should know something about those traditions, if only to skirt them successfully, to pay homage as necessary and move on. (Of course, even if we don’t use a formal rhyme scheme, we can use off rhymes or slant rhymes, internal rhymes rather than end-of-line rhymes; and there’s an awful lot of shaping of poetry, still, in tercets, quatrains, and other stanzaic groupings.)

This matter of form and formal notation in poetry comes down ultimately to the question: How can we write poetry unless we read it, poetry of the past and poetry of our time too? So that the poetry we write today becomes part of the great flow of poetry over time, not merely a private or solipsistic exercise? “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,” as Yeats asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

It’s difficult in a culture as oral as ours (as narcissistically addicted to sucking and suffering), as “postliterate” as ours (as the Trump reign has been called) to take the time and effort to read and think, gods know. To retire to a “fine and private place,” which is at the same time not (yet) the grave, and there, in the mind, to be content with what we can produce on our own and how we can locate it in the tradition.

 

 

Weary giants of flesh and steel

In the current New Yorker, Ed Caesar writes about a bunker-based server business in Germany that hosts many criminal enterprises. The Dutchman who owns the business — self-baptized “Xennt” and called by a friend “horny for bunkers” — and his associates espouse libertarian ideals expressed in a 1996 manifesto by John Perry Barlow, an anarchist writer, which proclaims, “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow’s sentiments are libertarian and anarchist. We can admire the fervid poetic expression here, but not be swayed.

By now, almost 25 years after Barlow’s manifesto, his words may be both familiar and wearisome. Have they toppled the weary giants of flesh and steel? No. Have they put dents or wounds in ’em? Perhaps.

W. B. Yeats
W. B. Yeats, poet, dandy, rocker.

Thinking of anarchy, I think of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats wrote this in 1919, in the interregnum between WW I and WW II. The lines also foreshadow various and sundry other modern wars and conflagrations, the fruits of “passionate intensity,” the refusal to see another point of view, to compromise, to reason, to get along.

To use Robert Frost’s famous phrase, living without order is like playing tennis without a net. (No, this doesn’t mean all contemporary poetry should be sonnets or terza rima or other formal structures.) “Unless you enchain me,” says John Donne, Yeats’s and Frost’s predecessor by several centuries, “I never can be free.” Donne is talking to the Lord, of course, but whatever authority you prefer — God, Erps. Uncle Sam, giants of flesh and steel — call on him/her/it and charge ahead.

This appeal to authority can be made in the sphere of poetry also. No one can make you write iambic pentameter or rhyme like a rapper or a Hallmark Card drudge. Modernist and postmodern poetry is various and tumultuous in content — addressing government and power, politics, and the passions and intimacies of personal relationships — as well as form — the cadences and vocabulary of everyday speech, the occasional esoteric verbal geode, the surprises of the ordinary day or the ordinary wine (my vin ordinaire of choice is Bota Box’s Nighthawk Black, a jammy red wine blend).

Each writer discovers his or her own sense of order. Becomes hisr own authority. (Sorry, I cannot write “each writer … their,” so propose a neologistic escape from the trap of gender and grammar.) But the author’s authority must be there. The reader, that is, must be able to see in the writing, whether poetry or prose, history or chemistry, whatever, a sense that the writer knows what s/he is doing. Or has learned it, and incorporated it, in the process of writing.

Without order, there’s anarchy, whether in art or business. Do you want to host criminal enterprises?

How do we discover order for ourselves, our own authority as authors? A great question, yes? Stay tuned and let me hear what you have to say, please. For each scribbler, each artist, the answer may be different, but I’ll wager we can find some common ground simply by discussing the issues.