I have been reading Thomas Kinsella’s latest collection called ‘Fat Master’, published by Peppercanister Press. The reference is to JS Bach, the subject of the eponymous last poem in the collection. This poem has provoked me to some reflections on the way poets write about music.
From my place in the dark
I think I can see you.
Seated. Facing and embracing your great Machine:
the choir of pipes erect,
multiplex, above your face.
That’s evocative, and refreshingly irreverent. But the ‘facing’ is too closely echoed by ‘face’, and ‘head’ might be better than ‘face’, the part of an organist we are never aware of. But later we read this:
Your fingers busy at the banked keys,
Your boots busy on the pedals with power
which precisely captures the idea of the working artist (those boots!) that Kinsella wants to convey in this poem.
Less happy is Kinsella’s attempt to describe the music itself. After the flourish of the toccata comes the fugue:
Powered by hidden bellows,
The bass lungs deliver their prime theme
Into the vault; sinews of the treble
Counter swiftly up, double-coiling on each other
In the spiral design of life.
It is not clear to me how ‘sinews’ are supposed to ‘counter’, upwards or otherwise, and with the last line I suspect some half-baked reference to DNA of the kind that modern poets are fatally tempted by. I would impose on our poets a moratorium on matters scientific that they do not understand.
In Dennis O’ Driscoll’s poem ‘Background Music’ the attempts at conveying the sound of music through the sense of words are even less successful:
Mahler’s hammer blows fell
As dusk crashed down like cymbals on the perspex
Shell where the orchestra was pitted against
Birdsong, the sky’s membrane raised like a roof.
I’m at a loss to figure out what kind of hammer blows fall like cymbal crashes on ‘the perspex/ Shell’ (whatever that might be) where an orchestra competes with birdsong. Or is it the dusk that crashes down, in which case I have never seen (or heard) a dusk like it? And why should these mysterious goings on be happening at dusk? The attempt to say what he means leads the poet further and further away from any sense of what Mahlerian hammer blows (presumably in the first movement of the Sixth Symphony) actually sound like. Instead he piles up incoherent images.
Finally, the master himself, Larkin, on Sidney Bechet:
That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,
Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares-
Oh, play that thing!
This is wonderfully good, a little New Orleans of the imagination – which is all the city ever was for Larkin, of course. Note how the aura of French colonial decadence is carried in the word ‘quadrilles’, and the passage even breaks into a jazz riff with that last exclamation. The placing and sound of the word ‘shakes’ is beautifully exact, both visually and musically, a shake being a trill.
My feeling is that poets do best at evoking music when they concentrate on the visual rather than the auditory. The problem with auditory evocation is that it tends to drift badly when not anchored in technical knowledge of music. The whole of Larkin’s poem is intensely visual.
The best writers for giving a written sense of the actual sounds are Tovey, Ned Rorem, Robin Holloway and Charles Rosen. All are professional musicians with an exceptional gift for prose, and three of them are composers.
As to the poets, I would advise that they follow Larkin’s example and listen with their eyes.
Here are some other poems on music that you will either know already or might want to read: