9th as new

Last week, I tutored a student on a music appreciation paper in which she was asked to review a concert-going experience. Her family background is culturally rich–but not rich in terms of the Western cultural canon. She had heard the name Beethoven; but until this class, as a sophomore in college, she had never listened to his music. She attended a concert that featured a Liszt sonata, two brief Schubert pieces (Ständchen and one other), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Because I cannot remember not knowing Beethoven’s music, I kind of envy this young woman’s revelations in the concert hall; what must it be like to hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony, for the first time, as a 19-year-old? I may not be familiar with all of the master’s works, but my parents had some of the symphonies on vinyl back in the 1960s. We listened to classical music on the radio and in church; even commercial television featured famous musical phrases. My sister and I liked dancing around the living room every weeknight to The Huntley-Brinkley Report’s closing theme (2nd movement Beethoven’s 9th).

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

~

Initially, she and I went over the structure of a review and how it resembles an analysis paper. She had used musical terminology reasonably well, and we had grammar and mechanics to work on. What she liked best, she said, was the part with the singers. She found the third movement “a bit boring. I kept wondering if this was the end.” But the fourth movement excited her: “It was really like a celebration or something, and you could see the expressions on the faces of the singers and the musicians, that they were so into it. Like, you kind of wanted to stand up for it, you know?”

Yes, I know–that’s how I have felt when I have heard the piece in concert.

~

Our discussion went on after our work on the paper’s mechanics had ended, though, because she asked me why courses like this one are required for college. Her major is early childhood education, and she says her parents asked her how a course on classical music has anything to do with teaching 4-year-olds.

It turns out I had more to say on that than I realized. Bless her heart, this student was eager to listen. [I have to admit that isn’t as common a response as one might wish.] Many of my friends, I said, are teachers or former teachers; they are among the smartest, most open-minded and curious people I know. They pay attention to contemporary culture and they read about history. They get allusions and references and make clever jokes and know all kinds of things and also, they admit what they do not know and are eager to learn about. They’d play Beethoven for kindergarteners and let them dance to the fast movements and ask them how it feels to hear the slower, sadder late quartets. They might have the children finger-paint to Beyoncé or twirl like leaves to Vivaldi’s “Autumn” or use round colored stickers to make their own “Starry Night” pictures or recite a poem that’s fun to say out loud. Culture is education.

And there’s more, I told her, that has to do with you as a person who understands the culture you are part of. You have to know about politics, especially local and state politics, because teachers need to understand how legislation and budgets can affect income and careers. You might feel uncomfortable in your job if you don’t get your colleagues’ allusions or feel you cannot participate equally in their conversations when the subject turns to culture, history, museums, music, art, policies and fiscal issues. It is fine to admit what you do not know or have not yet been exposed to–but it helps to know where you stand and to show you want to learn.

You’ll learn from your students, too. If you really want to be a good teacher, I said, you will never want to stop learning. Maybe you will reach a point where you don’t need to know a whole lot more about Beethoven, but you will want to explore other subjects. So when you take the required fine arts courses, the required literature courses, the courses in philosophy and math and all that other stuff, realize how all of it will get into your brain somehow, maybe touch a nerve here or there, and help you become a terrific teacher.

Besides, isn’t it beautiful? Even the boring parts…have you ever experienced anything like that before?

“No, honestly,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I was up for it, but it was worth it.”

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Memoir & the lyrical narrative

I have decided to devote two class periods to exploring the lyrical narrative with my students. The reason evolved from, not exactly a revelation, but a dawning awareness that this particular mode of poetry connects more easily with students than other modes.

Popular music, of course, sets the contextual stage here. American country music fills the nation’s highways and airwaves with lyrical narratives and modern-day ballads. The story-song appears in a wide range of musical genres from rock to rap, born from simple blues narratives and Appalachian ballads and from John Henry and Casey Jones to glam-rock “epic rock ballads,” new wave, Motown, British invasion (think “A Day in the Life”) and quirky indie lyrics–not to mention huge hits like “Lying Eyes” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” or oft-played 70s narrative songs like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” These tunes are all before my students’ time, but they have their own lyrical narrative popular songs; they “get it.”

Bruce Springsteen: lyricsThunder Road

Bruce Springsteen: lyrics
Thunder Road

Narrative lyrical poems hook readers who might not otherwise spend much time closely reading a poem because of those critically important pronouns “I” and “you” and because there’s a human impulse to stick with a story. We want to know how it ends; and we want to figure it out in our own subjective ways, to put the speaker/writer’s experience into our own (or vice versa) and interpret the narrative on our own terms. We also like to be a little surprised.

Why?

I’ve touched on the topic of the cognitive need for narrative in a previous post, and on Boyd’s story-telling impulse research (here), and now–in light of reading the lyrical narrative poem–I want to offer an excerpt from Oliver Sacks. In an excerpt from Speak, Memory, Sacks writes:

“There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected…Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves… Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable. We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity.”

How can we honestly interpret a poem without acknowledging immediately that our brains are highly subjective processing organs that inherently interpret and experience input differently? Our personal narratives, our memories and recollections, limit, expand upon, and influence our interpretations. That is why I insist that my students accept all “expert interpretations” of famous works with a grain of salt. Every human brain re-creates based upon subjective, unique processing; the fact need not keep us from admitting of rational thinking, but it must affect human interpretations of phenomena. Especially subjective phenomena such as art.

This is also the reason I warn my students not to assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet himself or herself. Poets invent, and they can invent personas. Furthermore, in their efforts to write truths–emotional truths, lasting truths–they may alter physical, actual, memory-based “truth.” In other words, maybe the story happened just that way. Or didn’t. Though “for the most part our memories are relatively stable and solid,” the paradox of art is that altering the facts can lead to deeper truths. Sometimes the facts seem altered from one perspective but not from another. Other times…well, I confess, I myself have changed some facts in poems in order to make the poem better. In such cases, craft supersedes the need for stony factuality. I guarantee I am not the only writer who employs this strategy.

Whose life is it anyway? And whose art? Sacks reminds us of the loosey-goosey aspects of recollection: “The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as ‘creating,’ and remembering as ‘recreating’ or ‘recategorizing.’” Thus, the lyrical narrative is a form of memoir, created through individual perception and recreated through the process of memory itself. Which, all of us being human and therefore fallible or otherwise liable to err, and subconsciously quite able to lie to ourselves, means that the lyrical narrative could end up as mythical as the stories of Mount Olympus.

And just as compelling to generations of human listeners or readers.

A voyeur’s fascination that the reader may be witness to the human-talking-to-human in the framework of a storyline is a significant part of what engages audiences. This poem might be memoir! It may be true. It may be genuine experience, something to which I can relate. There’s emotional frisson, or thrilling curiosity, or the dread of knowing it will all end badly. But I must know; and I want to believe it might be true. Tell me sweet lies, oh troubadour!

~

*Note: the image above is not Bruce Springsteen’s handwriting. He prints. An example of his actual lyric drafts is here.

The value of noise

Having posted several times on the value of silence, I feel I ought to balance things out by writing about the value of noise. These thoughts likewise stem from my recent reading: Kay Larson’s book about John Cage, creativity, and Buddhism.

This morning, there were a few hours of intermittent sunshine; the air, still nippy from a recent cold front and some high winds, had warmed up a few degrees. I felt inspired to prune some shrubs and start the rather significant task of removing fallen branches from the lawn. I did not realize how big a job this will be until I started the work because the grass is long and the leaves provide a bit of cover. Every few steps, though, I encountered clumps of twigs, broken branches, sticks of all sizes. We won’t want to run a lawnmower over this mass of debris, and it will get caught in our rakes when we try to remove the leaves. The best way to rid the lawn of storm-downed branches will be the old-fashioned way: human power, gathering one or two sticks at a time. The fresh air streamed into my lungs, the sun shone on my back. I pulled on my husband’s old sweater and my daughter’s old coat and my son’s gloves and my own boots and started to work.

What I noticed this morning was noise. John Cage, a man whose later compositions often engaged with silence, also loved noise. His percussion pieces were scored for tin cans, plates, pipes and modified pianos, and he was prescient about the incorporation of electronically-produced sounds into music. I love reading about his experiments with noise, and today I recognized the music in everyday sounds very clearly.

Today’s noises:

Leaf-crunch. The damp leaves produce difference tones from the dry ones. Leaves of different species vibrate in a range of tones depending upon their thickness, brittleness, serrated shapes, oiliness.

Vehicles. The roads are not terribly close to the house, but when the trees are bare we get a range of vehicle sounds from as far as the highway. Large trucks still growl, wheeze, squeal, rumble, and beep as neighbors get trees removed from their properties and department of transportation crews work at street clean up. Cars drive past.

Somewhere, a leaf-blower. Several chainsaws in the distance.

Mockingbird–not all of them have flown south just yet. The buzzy twittering of starlings and small flocks of sparrows. Woodpeckers drilling at trees.

My breathing.

The sound of the nippers and hedge clippers, the sound that pruned branches make as they whoosh and scratch and shimmy earthward and get tangled in the shrubs. The different noises of a cut made on dead wood and on live wood. The snap of twigs. The silken whisper of long grass underfoot.

Creak and groan of the walnut trees as a stiff breeze hits the woodlot. A dog, barking. The hens, chuck-chucking in their run.

The telephone from inside my house. An overhead jet.

And it isn’t cacophony; it’s a kind of music, certainly. The randomness and the patternedness work together. As do the silences.

 

Here’s one of Cage’s most melodic works, “In a Landscape,” very apropos … very lovely.

YouTube/John Cage “In a Landscape” Stephen Drury pianist

 

Autodidacts & higher education

An early-morning drive to work, low sun gleaming through the remnants of fog, Vivaldi on the radio: Concerto for Two Cellos, a deeply mellow, haunting work of music…and I tried to recall my first encounter with Vivaldi’s music. I am quite sure it was an old Angel Records LP of The Four Seasons in my parents’ modest record collection. When I was old enough to read, I was curious enough about the music to study the record cover, where I learned that Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Italy and had red hair. Our ancient set of encyclopedias (The Book of Knowledge) said he taught music to little girls in convent school. These details, which taught me little about baroque music itself, nonetheless appealed to me as a child who wanted stories. The music seemed to tell me stories, as well–thunderstorms, blizzards, birds at daybreak, mountain streams, slow rivers in the summer sun.

Because I wanted stories, because I sought information and details, I turned to what seemed to me the most obvious place: the library. For three years of my early reading life, that was the Yonkers Public Library’s “new” branch, which seemed impressively modern at the time and which had a fabulous children’s area.

Why I associate Vivaldi with colored light filtering through the clerestories of the library, I don’t know. That’s just how memory works. I also associate my visits to the children’s room at the library with the beginnings of a lifetime of self-teaching through books, music, museum-going, travel, art, conversation, observation, research, and writing. That connection is a little easier to make. Because I was an introverted child, I watched more than participated in the events going on around me. When I wanted to know more, I was often too shy to ask–so I tried to find the answers myself in the place I imagined to be the best repository of stories and information. It was also the only place I knew that could offer such knowledge.

This brief explanation suggests that I became an autodidact because I was socially maladaptive. Or maybe because I was passionately curious about the world. Or because the library room was so magical.

Any of which may be at least partially true. But what I want to say in this post–far too briefly because the idea deserves further reflection–is that while I work in an institution of higher learning and while I believe in the value of higher education, I also believe we can educate ourselves exceedingly well without college degrees. Lack of a degree can limit people in the job market, no doubt; yet some of the most intelligent, interesting, best-educated people I know happen to be largely self-educated. The autodidact has the motivation of personal passion and the ability to be directed by chance and interest, not just to be guided through coursework considered culturally or economically valuable. Most of my older friends have become wise and clever by attending the school of hard knocks and through their personal curiosity and inventiveness; they are true autodidacts, even the ones who actually do have PhDs…but especially the ones who don’t.

Can I go so far as to suggest that we need our libraries more than we need our universities? Why not? I think I started my “college education” when I was six or seven years old because I had the desire to know, the curiosity, the interest. My parents encouraged me, which helped. (For one thing, I could not have gotten to the library if my mother hadn’t taken me there!) Some of my school teachers were also encouraging, but their encouragement mattered surprisingly little. What made the difference was the reward of finding something new, learning a new story, adding details to a foundation of things that interested me.

One of my tasks as a teacher, a poet, and as a mother is to foster that element of excitement when I sense it in someone and to encourage self-directness in each person’s education. Delight: a crucial ingredient in learning that can take awhile to locate but that will motivate a lifetime of knowledge-gathering. Maybe you can find it at the library, too.

Love is all you need?

My daughter made this collage when she was nine years old. This is a poorly PhotoShopped version (the original has faded pretty badly):

~

Love is all you need

I was listening to The Beatles recently, music that takes me pretty far back into my childhood. I’ve been thinking about musical cues to memory for another poetic project on which I am currently working, so the concept of music evoking imagery, subjects, memoir has been uppermost in my mind. More on that project perhaps later, when I have arranged my thoughts more cogently. Meanwhile, some thoughts on “All You Need is Love.” Or more correctly, some musings that begin with “All You Need Is Love.”

When I was an adolescent, that Beatles’ song seemed to signify on several levels. One level was the universal: Love as the root of human sharing, as the means to peace and understanding, as the solution to the Big Problems. Another level was the romantic: Love as the way to solve personal loneliness, finding the partner with whom I could mesh, forge a permanent and personal understanding.

Love as solution. I view that ‘philosophy’ as a non-philosophy now; it is simplistic and impossible. Love is not a solution; it is a verb, active and engaging. Love certainly does not fix things. Its necessity, however, I do not question. Not for those who wish to be fully human.

Wait, you’re going to object–love is a noun, too. In most dictionaries, love as a noun is the entry before love as a verb. Arbitrary on my part to assert precedence for the verb, but I am cautious of abstractions even though I relish philosophy. Love as noun is abstract.

Merriam-Webster: “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” My OED (compact, print edition) contains 9 columns defining Love as a noun and two defining Love in the verb sense.

When I say love is a verb, I mean that in definition 3b in the OED: “to entertain a strong affection; in the reciprocal sense” and 4c: “to take pleasure in the existence of (a virtue, a practice, a state of things) in oneself, in others, or in the world generally.” Love need not be reciprocal, though that feels best to us–hypersocial beings that we are (see my post on Brian Boyd). Love is the greater part of compassion, in which case love is something we do.

I know people who have chosen to take their own lives. A few felt the sense of despair that comes from feeling there is no love (and therefore, no hope). But that is not always the case; some who took their lives did feel love, knew love deeply, knew that others loved them and would miss their physical presence. Love was not all these people needed.

And love was not the solution.

I think we damage ourselves when we believe that love is the solution to our problems. We need other strategies, other fullness in our lives, the tools to overcome or bear with many obstacles; we need perspective and humor and grace. Love alone, in and of itself, doesn’t make peace break out. It does not solve all the issues in a truly profound and sharing relationship–not on its own. Love needs other actions, and other abstractions (trust, communication, compassion, patience, for example) to do its work. It does not solo well–that is not what love needs. Altruism cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can romance, nor compassion.

It takes some effort not to become sentimental here (but Bachelard defends a certain amount of sentiment…)

This is not my definitive post on the subject of love! I need to read more philosophers on love, and to consider love’s evolutionary role, and its spiritual role, in human existence. I’ve done reading on t his in the past, but it was all very long ago. Now might be a good time to begin anew (since “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”).

Yearning

For about as long as I can remember, my favorite Christmas carol has been “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Today, as I listened to an instrumental version scored in a baroque style, I had an insight as to why I have such fondness for the piece. Partly, the appeal is the antiquity of the tone: the carol is quite old, veni veni featuring in sacred songs as far back as 8th-century antiphons, though most sources I’ve checked cite the version we know as dating from the 12th-15th c.

Hence its minor key and simple “sing-ability.” I’m not a good singer myself, but I can sing this carol. The range works for most of us.

But that wasn’t what struck me this morning as the music surrounded me in my car en route to work. What I noticed—felt, in my marrow—is the sense of yearning in this carol. There is something particularly human in the minor-key longing for release, relief, joy, escape, liberty, union with a beloved other, desire that is both physical and spiritual, the yearning for renewal. Not hope but the desire, the longing for hope.

This sense resides in the tune itself, not just in the words of the carol whether Latin or French or English. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” in the text I know best is translated by John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin, yet the heart-breaking anticipation this carol captures for me has less to do with the rephrasing of Isaiah than with the poignancy of the musical prayer it evokes in me. A sigh, a wisp of possible exultation that is not exactly a promise I can understand but which stays inside me waiting to be awakened.

For various reasons, that yearning for hope resonates with me this year. And always.

Ann E. Michael

Reading Reading

I love the wordplay inherent in presenting a poetry reading in Reading, PA: a Reading reading.

This Saturday, Reading is hosting on of the sites for a day-long, global poetry event called 100 Thousand Poets for Change. I’ll be reading around 5:30 pm (645 Penn St., if you are in the neighborhood, and you may want to bring a folding chair).

But by all means, come earlier and stay later: there will be music and poetry and other interesting goings-on all day.

Sat, September 24
100 Thousand Poets for Change and Street Music Festival
Courtyard and walking malls in the 600 block of Penn Street, Reading, PA
www.bigbridge.org/100thousandpoetsforchange/?cat=249

Sat, September 24
100Thousand Poets for Change
600 Block of Penn Street
http://iartreading.org/

 

The screech owls were very noisy at 5:45 am, so I couldn’t go back to sleep. Thank you, owls, for reminding me to post this notice about the reading.