Poetry and Music

In Yeats’ edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, published 1936, (my copy inherited from my father), the opening ‘poem’ is a sentence by Walter Pater, lifted by Yeats from Pater’s long essay The Renaissance, and given the title Mona Lisa. It begins ‘She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave. . .’

Pater was the high priest of aestheticism in the late nineteenth century, and I particularly value his aphorism ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ Is this true and if so why? Pater was concerned with the especial perfection achieved in music of integration of subject and form. As experienced, I would say that music is the most spiritual of the art forms, because it is unencumbered by physical extension and mass. One would like to say it exists entirely in the dimension of time, but this is not entirely true: sound waves must travel from the instrument to the listener. But it is unstill, and before recordings became possible, it could only be heard in performance. It was an event, something unique which cannot be recaptured. So too a poetry reading or play performed in a theatre.

Behind the uniqueness of the live performance lies the truth that no notation of score, text or script can render singular beauty once and for all. Nevertheless I am thankful to have seen a great performance of King Lear (Timothy West) some fifty years ago, and the Lindsay String Quarter playing late Beethoven in a church in Bath some thirty years ago.

A jazz lover from my teens, I was nevertheless too young to hear Charlie Parker, but I listened to many of his contemporaries in clubs and concerts: Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. For me their music is the sound of the twentieth century, nothing else has quite that immediacy, nor speaks so directly to my own condition. In poetry, as I struggled to hold on to my sanity, one poem, On a Raised Beach by Hugh Macdiarmid, became important to me, and I made a long journey to see him read only two years before he died. He was still ‘fu’ o’ fechtin’ spirit’ and I am forever glad I made the effort. He reminded me of the need to stand one’s ground, that it is conflict which ‘brings out animal life’s bolder and more brilliant patterns’. And that other great and bloody minded Scottish poet, W.S.Graham: in the advice of the flute teacher to his protege ‘remember when you enter the joy of those quick high archipelagoes, to keep your finger-stops as light as feathers but definite. . . Do not be sentimental in your art… Do not expect applause.’ (Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons)

Oh yes, music, like any calling, demands plenty, and gives back only now and then. My next post will include a poem of mine about music.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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