It’s the Music First!

Peach[1]One Heart

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

Li-Young Lee from Book Of My Nights, BOA Editions, 2001

Last month I was at Fort Worden, Washington soaking up poetry and poets at the 2013 Centrum Writers’ Conference. And listening, listening for the music that makes a poem. The music in the café noises where I wrote. The noise of the ocean too far away for me to hear but what I imagined perfectly. Heartbeat of waves on the shore. My own iambic heartbeat.

Music and poetry. That was the topic that American poet Dorianne Laux tackled throughout the workshop she led all week. (I would recommend her generative writing workshops to anyone!) As she stood there quoting passages from Romeo and Juliet, and poems by Thomas Lux, Larry Levis, Li-Young Lee (see the poem above) and Ruth Stone, among many others, she was conductor and musician both, her hands beating the measure of the words into the air about her. I could almost imagine her saying it’s the music first dummy! The meaning comes later. Follow the music. Follow the music.

Laux uses Li-Young Lee’s gem of a little poem One Heart as an example of exquisite musics. Lee (1957 – ) is a much respected and awarded Asian American poet whose Chinese parents fled political persecution in both China and Indonesia before settling in the US in 1964. His lyrical mastery and haunting metaphors creates a mystical feel that adds so much to his poetry.

In One Heart he creates his musical rhythms not just through his use of alliteration and his line and stanza breaks that score the music so beautifully but also through his syllabics. He uses one syllable words so effectively interspersed with two syllable words that slow the poem down, breaks the rhythm, enrich it. And finally he throws in the three syllables of fastening which slows the poem and in some strange way glues it all together.

Here are two big statements on music in poetry Laux made during her workshop:

For poetry you must have music for the poem to take off and to take you where it wants to go.”

There is a sound in the world. We don’t know where it comes from but we must make poetry out of it or we will go mad.

If I remember rightly Laux was clear that the sound each of us hear is unique to that person. It is the sound we are given to find to express ourselves through. It becomes the beat, the music that informs our own writing, our poems.

The American poet and essayist, Wendell Berry says a similar thing in his essay, Sweetness Preserved from his book Imagination In Place, Counterpoint, 2010:

A true poem, we know, forms itself within hearing. It must live in the ear before it can live in the mind or heart. The ear tells the poet when and how to break the silence, and when enough has been said. If one has no ear, then one has no art, and is no poet. There is no appeal from this. If one has no ear, it does not matter what or how one writes. Without an ear, the traditional forms, will not produce Andrew Marvell, nor will “free verse” give us William Carlos Williams.

This idea that the music of words, not their meanings, can best lead us into our poems has been so helpful to me in my writing. And a few years ago this led me to write this to a friend:

This poetry thing that we do is so important precisely because it appears to have so little immediate material impact. But to transform even a moment into something more significant, meaningful, to show the slightest glimpse of the possibility of the sunset behind the sunset, that is life-making. To make the now, utterly present and vibrate like a slack string, tightened to perfect tautness, to carry a pure musical sound that otherwise would have stayed as disorganized noise, that is life at its most expressive and vivid. And even if the musical note pours out as sorrow, not just joy, that is all more reason to listen and absorb its vibrations into our bones.

I have been writing a lot I notice about sorrow! I just posted another blog with that as a topic earlier today. So enough already. Here is a signature poem of Lee’s. The music he creates with the repetitions in the last stanza fills my mouth with the taste of peaches! The Ontario peaches which were an August staple when I was a boy at our cottage in Muskoka north of Toronto. Enjoy!

From Blossoms

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

from Rose, BOA Editions Ltd. 1986

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