Poetry and the Music of What Matters

Bruce Bond
Before I knew that love
would end my willful ignorance of death,
I didn’t think there was much
left in me that was virgin, but there was.
That’s why all good music is sad.
It makes the wound of the end before the end
and leaves behind it
the ghost of the part that was sacrificed,
a chord to represent the membrane,
broken only once, that keeps the world away.
                                    —Chase Twitchell, “Why All Good Music Is Sad” (l. 16-25)

If music can be said to be about anything, it is, of all the arts, the one most conspicuously about time. As such, it also becomes about loss, and, as Twitchell’s poem suggests, we feel this loss most acutely when the music is “good”—that is, when it earns both our affection and regret as it passes. One of the distinguishing paradoxes of music is that it can seem both so immediate in its persuasive power, so direct in the way it speaks to us, and yet so elusive, invisible and evanescent. If all beloved music, however celebratory, is sad, it is equally true that this sadness is not the paralyzing grief of deep resignation. While continually disappearing, music is likewise in a constant state of anticipation. Even the ends of musical phrases anticipate a certain quality of silence or listener’s response. Music thus offers itself as both metaphor and embodiment of the amorous imagination, desirous of always the next needful thing. When we listen, our attention is, as a result, ceaselessly divided between the last musical event and the one to come. So it is curious that this medium made of time is precisely that which would serve as so therapeutic in allaying the anxieties and grief associated with time. Odd, how music summons and consoles us in times of dread, confusion, remorse, and personal loss. It is as though we had cut to the core of the temporal problem at the heart of uncertainty and made of it a blessing. There, there, says the music, there, there.

So it is with music as embedded in poetic form, language that values by example this possibility of form. Music, including that of poetry, is paradoxical not only as time’s remedy for time, but also in the ways musical form embodies and arouses desire while nonetheless satisfying it, or some measure of it. For this reason, poets have often turned to the iconography of music and musical instruments as correlatives to both desire and the beauty that desire seeks. Take Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” for example, in which the speaker, the rude mechanical from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, plays the most delicate of instruments with a longing akin to lust:
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music.
While the speaker invites the analogy between aesthetic and animal longing, the fruits of desire, once transformed into music, take on the nomenclature of the spiritual. Quince as a figure of the body transfigures physical desire into the sacramental praise. This movement however is not without complications. When the poem says, “Beauty is temporary in the mind / the fitful tracing of a portal / but in the flesh it is immortal,” the speaker is reversing the expected movement from the body to the spirit. It appears that he wants to emphasize the memorability of the body and the power of physical desire to drive a sublimating aesthetic response.
Important to understanding the poem’s homage to the embodied imagination is the apocryphal story of Suzanna and elders—a tale of an attempted rape and Suzanna’s unjustified period of dread and shame—and yet the unpleasant pathos of the tale is largely buried in Stevens’ joyous word play. In Stevens’ reimagining, the critical moment of assault appears displaced or mediated by the cant of sexual pun. The flesh can only be immortal if indeed it is someone else’s flesh as imagined object, not one’s own as suffering subject. As a celebrant of aesthetic virtues, Stevens wants a poem about play where the ludicrous dominates, where the pleasure of verbal invention freely correlates with that of cymbals and horns:
She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.
Beyond the bawdiness of this example, the poem exemplifies a larger simplifying impulse in the work of Stevens, how readily and unabashedly people get abstracted into ideas and elements of aesthetic experience. Such is the reductivism of the aestheticist point of view at its extreme, a perspective closely allied with musical pleasure-seeking verging on withdrawal from the chore, the ache, the boredom of all that art is not. As a metaphor then, music in its desirousness can come to epitomize the somewhat solitary agenda, however philosophical or ambitious, of the pleasure principle refining what it will in pursuit of some supreme fiction. Nevertheless the poem’s crowning ideal (“to make a constant sacrament of praise”) celebrates not an escape from the real but a the transubstantiation of it, a rendering of it as something more memorable, more worthy of our love. Stevens’ concern here is of course not simply music but the musical dimension of experience, of poetry in particular since, in its referential gesturing to the world, poems would make a musical sacrament.  They would fuse epistemological longing with aesthetic affirmation.

It is perhaps ironic that postmodernism would signal for many a turning away from the lyric tradition, when the more useful contributions of theory might embrace the slippery nature of poetic language as something akin to a musical event. Given a postmodern emphasis on language in all its flux and irresolvable desire, poets raised in the recent philosophical climate might well look to music as metaphor for language’s instabilities, for that poetic possibility of language animated by the amorous imagination, ever looking for ways to accommodate a world beyond its reach, to redeem what can never be redeemed, to speak what can never be spoken. To speak is thus to experience a falling away from being, a slippage akin to something musical wherein the power of expression lies in a renewing sense of loss and deferral. Moreover the miracle of language like that of music is the fullness of association it can suggest in spite of the fact that some absent presence in each summons from a distance. Language, like music, lays down a bridge made of a distance to be bridged.

When we refer to the poetry of music and the music of poetry, our very metaphors suggest that they are sister arts, that the qualities of one illuminate some intuited sense of heightened art and sensitivity in the other. That said, it is equally true that poetry, or more broadly language, and music are in many ways diametrically opposed since writing is the most symbolically codified means of creative expression and music the least. Among the arts, music is the form that is most about itself, most about beauty—if indeed it is about anything at all.  For this reason those of aestheticist leanings such as Walter Pater referred to music as the queen of the arts. All the other arts, according to Pater, aspire toward the condition of music, the condition in which “subject and form” are one and the same.

Naturally anything in this world can serve as a signifier, as a referent or reminder of something else. The difference between poetry and music is that poetry must refer beyond its medium for that medium to be what it is: language. Sure, “program music” may aspire to be referential, but music remains far more slippery and resistant to programmatic interpretation than language and so can never be adequately described as mere language. We can code musical events, surely, but the medium is always conspicuous with sensuous, aesthetic presences that move with a speed and immediacy that elude articulated understanding. Music thus becomes a metaphor for the quality of poetic form and meaning that slips through the hands of our interpretive desire. Perhaps less obvious is how, in its elusiveness, music exposes us to the bones of the aesthetic in its most naked form. Such fundamentals include the ways in which expectations are met just enough to make surprise possible, the ways in which irresolution implies inquiry, the ways tension accommodates resolution and vice versa, the ways in which closures embody the greatest pleasures when they have a future tense to them, the ways in which the hint of the human subject (as exemplified by modulations of silence and the phrasings of words exchanged) invites us into something both familiar and strange.
As the mode of writing most mindful of its own formal singularities, poetry likewise foregrounds its physical presence in the world. By virtue of the poetic line, poetry asks us to slow down, to look at it, not simply through it, to absorb its material texture, to contemplate its multiple meanings. As a result, poetry, like music, resists paraphrase and reduction. It cannot be summarized in any way so as to render anything approaching its artistry. This is to suggest that, as much as any given poem is about the world, it is also, like music, about itself. So familiar is our sense of the intimacy between poetry and music that we often find ourselves talking of the poetry of music and the music of poetry as if, by way of their very differences, they might like lovers illuminate each other’s unconscious life. We might also say that music, however non-verbal, nevertheless has a syntax, a phrasing, a sense of inflected buried structures so often informed like speech by the rhythm of our breathing. To talk of the poetry of a piece of music is to intuit that there is something deeply suggestive, even heightened, about it, as if musical form alone had a voice and so the ability to point to our lives, to make a claim on us, to burst at the seams of its non-verbal limitations.
Similarly words have the often neglected life of their musical embodiments, hidden not because they lie beneath some sensuous surface but rather because they make up that surface, an evanescent texture so easily forsaken by a mind intent on referential meanings. Paradoxically this sensuous surface that speaks with such immediacy, outracing the intellect, epitomizes what is most clandestine about the spoken word. To talk of the music of language is to talk of one way in which language dreams. Thus each medium, music and the word, informs a highly intuitive, highly sensitized, somewhat paradoxical approach to the other. The poetry in music and the music in poetry both suggest the aura of the enigmatic. Both poetry and music articulate what is most evocative, most aesthetic about the other, what deepens our sense of possible beauty and expressive range in ways that require the more remote resources of our intuition.
Surely the mystique of what is hidden in poetry and music appears wedded to their power, wherein one expects intimations of the otherworldly. The common association of music with transcendence is ironic given the simultaneous immediacy of each. We see this irony played out in the poem “Allegro” by Thomas Tranströmer, where the sense of withdrawal attributed to music gets explored with surprising complications:
After a black day, I play Haydn
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready.  Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
Here we find music declaring its independence from the political sphere, but so too that “independence” can be construed as a breed of political rebellion. Tax evasion, after all, is a crime. Nevertheless, though music appears as the vigorous individualist, its claims (“freedom exists” and “someone pays no tax to Caesar”) are vague.
Thankfully, the poem goes on to complicate music’s relation to cultural pressure and in so doing to delineate both music’s power and its impotence:
I raise my haydnflag.  The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
While music remains unshattered by the boulders where they roll, it is likewise powerless to stop them. We might say similar things here about political pressures, imagining instead of boulders that they are tanks rolling through music’s house of glass. While it is a commonplace among contemporary literary theorists to say that all art is political, making implicit value judgments, empowering certain ways of perceiving or producing, positioning itself against or in favor of some status quo, it is equally true that art is rarely as political as artists would like it to be–that is, it is rarely taken seriously enough to be politically effectual. What impresses me about this poem is its refusal to either whine or sentimentalize, its sensitivity in rendering both music’s power and its impotence, suggestive as they are of the strengths and failures of beauty for its own sake when faced with undeniable tragedy or danger.

In both poetry and music, part of the pleasure and sustenance we find in both forms stems from their failures. Neither captures the fullness of being in symbolic form. Neither fires back at the world with the force of a gun, nor feeds the hungry, nor houses the poor. The paradox remains however that poetry and music satisfy some spiritual hunger, and that this hunger can be most acute in a culture under stress. Music appears to feed the will, to plead with it in its native tongue. Poetry too transmutes its failures into imaginative abundance, its losses into an opportunity for renewal. Like music, poetry is best measured not by its power to systematically explain but by its power to affirm, in spite and in light of uncertainty, to inspire not so much final understanding as belief. Thus it is not accurate to equate music, including the musical element in poetry, with complacency or isolation. The movement of the musical imagination must, as with all imaginations, encounter something beyond the self, beyond even the boundaries of its medium, to connect to that which gives it power.

This encounter must remain mysterious in order to constitute a genuine encounter.  The intuition of the thing summoned by music, drenched in the affect of a strong dream, figures as central to what distinguishes the arbitrary from the profound. If music were simply about itself, why is it we sometimes weep? To what do we connect, to whom? To respond this strongly is to be haunted by something unspeakable, some otherness that pressures musical form into being and so cannot simply be described as the musical form itself. That otherness can even feel like part of a collective, part of something broadly transpersonal, longing to be heard. Such is the hunger that feeds a hunger, the desire that quenches our thirst without ceasing to be desire. We feel in music, so quick to cross cultural boundaries, to make a mess and mockery of our cultural constructions, not so much a withdrawal from the world as an immersion in some hidden and dominant spirit of it. We feel the unresolved process of being alive, or the sense of the process, of loss and renewal, that permeates all things. If all good music is sad, it is because we find in its intimacy with loss rendered as beauty something of the will to affirm in the face of ruin. We find pleasure, with its desire intact, tending the many flowers we lay on one another’s graves.
Bruce Bond is the author of fifteen books including five forthcoming: Gold Bee (Crab Orchard Award, Southern Illinois University Press), Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan Press), For the Lost Cathedral (LSU Press), Black Anthem (Tampa Review Prize, University of Tampa Press), Sacrum (Four Way Books), and The Other Sky (Etruscan Press).  Presently he is Regents Professor at University of North Texas.