Apr '03 [Home]

Preface: Poetry on Music

The bird sings with its fingers.
—Pablo Picasso

They're all folk songs. I ain't never heard a horse sing.
—Big Bill Broonzy

by Guest Editor, Mark Nickels

. . .

Music. Poetry. Like a branch forked deeply under the water, the two diverge, only to join up again and again downstream from their source at the prehistory cave mouth. From that starting point to the present, the thin membrane between them has been braced or cut on behalf of rhetoric, religious mystery, politics.[*]

But it all begins, like everything else, with the brain. Hook the quotidian, healthy brain up to the Bach Family or Lil' Kim and watch the cerebral cortex light up as they pass down the hallways with Baroque lightboxes or SUV headlights, as they case may be, like so many insomniacs by the windows of an old castle.

Analogies about what the brain does leads to oversimplification, I learn. Plotting the internal balances and coordination of a tsunami would be as simple. Right brain and left are so interdependent in functioning, that, though the broadest generalization can be made about the dwelling place of language on the left side of the brain and music on the right, proficiency, not to say distinction, in either seems dependent on an almost continuous firing in each. (Research seems to have demonstrated that the corpus callosum, the bridge between the brain's two sides, is far stronger in adults who practice music before the age of eight.) It's a low-rent assertion, but proficiency in one discipline suggests a predisposition to the other. Shakespeare probably was not tone-deaf. He certainly writes about music appreciatively enough. Beethoven had The Odyssey open on his worktable.

The anthropology of the subject can carry you off. You'll find a lot of it in William Benzon's Beethoven's Anvil, Music in Mind and Culture. In this book, you can examine the ethnomusicologist Curt Sach's thesis about two basic kinds of melody: tumbling, characterized by an octave leap and a descent in successive steps𔄤"a violent howl"—and a horizontal melody "derived from recitation." It's fairly startling to discover that Somewhere Over the Rainbow is closer to a violent howl than That Old Black Magic or, come to think of it, One Note Samba, let alone most hip-hop. But then again, a bird's feathers are really only reptile scales adapted to other purposes—and we're more closely related to bats than to canaries, which is probably why writers should read science.

After all, haven't many of us writers, in poetry or prose, since Joyce, maybe since forever in some sense, been trying to do with language what music does so effortlessly: unite opposites, chart the right-brain lava run of phenomena, the mind's relentless, moment to moment singing to itself—or its rehearsal of disaster? Words (I'm sorrier to say than you'll ever know) don't have tones (other than by analogy, or fleetingly in the languages of other hemispheres) and language is relentlessly linear, instead of polyphonic.

But we keep trying.

How, instead, do I get my reader, at the end of a poem, to the place where I find myself at the conclusion of a great string quartet, the ineffable questions posed, the moss and myrrh-scented entelechy hovering at the end of the "night music" movement of Bartók's 5th String Quartet? How do I get more than one thing to happen at once? How do I refer back to something earlier in the text tonally and have it fire again in the reader's mind without having to give him a Rand McNally atlas? How can the cascade of thought and emotion be plotted in all its shimmering variability, then tied to an architecture where we can shelter from the purely random, the staleness of the word-worlds of journalism, placard sloganeering and podium thumping? Surely it's not only just by what we casually refer to as "the music of poetry":  rhythm, diverse sorts of rhyme and assonance, a diction both smooth and chunky where appropriate, like peanut butter.

For myself, a restless devourer of organized tones (guitars and symphonies bend over me like mothers) as well as of language, I couldn't ask more than that the mind of my reader would fire in all lobes at once, a sort of distant heat lightning on a low warm night in April, one of the first… as if she were at a concert, or with a band. Or with a dozen oboes, riverside…

Presented here are some bridges between music and poetry, in all declensions:  concerning, embodying, illustrative, biographical, electrical. We hope it stimulates thought about each.

[*] For interested parties, I found a concise summary of some of this, if only in the West, under "Music and Poetry" in The New Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms. In addition to the Benzon title above, readers may learn something from Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain. [body]

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