“…the impulse to keep the hands moving, feeding tiny answers to vast demands.” –Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior
“But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose.” –Patti Smith, M Train
This post is not about elegies and valedictions. Nor about requiem masses. Solace and healing don’t reside there. Or, not only in those institutionalized forms. Let us agree that poetic and musical mourning have been done, done well, done to a turn, for however long poetry and music have each existed. Let us, then, wave at Sappho and Donne, at Guido d’Arezzo and Mozart, and consider the consolation of the living as we continue (for now anyway) to live and work.
I think novelist Kingsolver has it right when she suggests that coping is tactile. We can release sorrow and gain reassurance working at something beautiful: so playing an instrument, quilting, gardening, drawing, woodwork, mosaic…all are ways of hands-in-the-materials meditation. Despite popular misconception, poetry and music are not essentially comforting. And a lot of poems written with the express function of salving grief or speaking about bereavement fail to bring any help whatsoever. The works that are most successful are often those that approach sadness or hardship sideways, that seem to be discussing something else, but strike a glancing blow at the difficult human condition.
When I was in high school, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye gave a reading in our school auditorium. One of the poems she read was “Famous.” The line “the tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek” has stuck with me all of the twenty years between then and now. I was just beginning to understand that I had depression. I didn’t pay as much attention to the ending of the poem but, as I reread it recently to think more deeply about consolation—this short, straightforward poem that has been consoling me since the author’s voice landed on my ears two decades ago—it was the ending that brought me to tears. And these tears were more hopeful than sad. Here it is, in its entirety:
I’m struck here by the aspiration of the speaker to attain the status of simple tools: the buttonhole, the pulley. There isn’t much in life more comforting than a thing that works as it is supposed to work, reliably. What a good goal for a human being to have.
The desire to help, to improve life for someone else, is an essential part of self-consolation. As Ms. Nye writes of wanting to be remembered for smiling at strangers, another contemporary poet, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, wrestles with the selfsame impulse to participate in the world, as with all of humanity and her surroundings partnering in the endeavor. The poem “To Love Is” bears an epigraph from the Jewish text Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. It frames the yearning to help and be helped in the concept of tikkun olam, an idea usually translated from Hebrew as “repair of the world.” While the first two stanzas seem to refer to a pair of human lovers, the third stanza reveals that the relationship in question is between the speaker and the world at large. She realizes that she can’t determine the relationship, or even her place in it. All she can do is affirm her “original loyalty” and recommit.
“To Love Is” appears in Ms. Ostriker’s 1989 book of poems, Green Age. Lacking a publicly available source, I will quote the poem’s beginning and ending here:
You do not need to accomplish the work; nor are you free to desist from it. –The Ethics of the Fathers
|To love is|
|To desire the liberty|
|Of the one loved|
|And if I have desired|
|Since my first childish moments of sentience|
|When I recognized that I ardently loved the world|
|The balanced radiance of its good and evil|
|And wanted to help unlock it to become|
|More and more itself—|
|More and more alive—|
|What then? As I grow older|
|I love it less, the evil seems denser,|
|More strangely skewed,|
|My world uglier and myself weaker.|
|Still I keep my original loyalty,|
|My memory—a child on a busy|
|Sidewalk looking around and thinking|
|Beautiful dirty city, beautiful planet|
|I have my task,|
|What matter if I can|
|Never accomplish it.|
The end of the poem refers again to the idea of manual labor, with the word “task.” Just as a buttonhole or a pulley never reaches the end of its work, neither do we. We are all still useful as long as we exist. And maybe afterward too.
Just a few years before Ostriker published “To Love Is,” Adrienne Rich wrote “Dreams Before Waking.” This poem also deals with sorrow experienced in the everyday urban world, with our participation in that world offered as a way out. Rich uses two epigraphs, one from the Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel, the other from renowned Cuban poet Nancy Morejón.
“Despair is the question.” –Elie Wiesel
“Hasta tu país cambió. Lo has cambiado tú mismo.” –Nancy Morejón
My own translation of the Morejón quotation is “Even your country changed. You yourself have changed it.” Late in the poem, Ms. Rich turns it into an exhortation: “you yourself must change it.”
“Dreams Before Waking” was published in Your Native Land, Your Life (1986) and is well worth reading fully. Here is a memorial essay about Rich that quotes the last stanza, which as far as I can tell is the most widely remembered and reprinted part of the poem. While the poem ends on a hopeful, or at least hortatory, note, it doesn’t start there. The first stanza describes the descent of the mind in despair as the deepening shadow of a skyscraper under construction. The second stanza begins “At the end of winter something changes / a faint subtraction / from consolations you expected / an innocent brilliance that does not come…” It’s through this silhouette-making, this collage of sadness in negative values or cutouts, as it were, that Rich’s speaker arrives at the realization that things won’t improve without her volition. She feels a frightening unity of fate with people she had scarcely noticed before, in the fifth stanza:
|even the woman who sleeps at night|
|in the barred doorway—wasn’t she always there?|
|and the man glancing, darting|
|for food in the supermarket trash—|
|when did his hunger come to this?|
|what made the difference?|
|what will make it for you?|
When it occurs to us that the hungry person on the street could be us—not in a vague hypothetical way, but in the immediacy of true, visceral empathy—we’re motivated to work toward change. When we get to work, then sadness loosens its grip slightly. We’re not free of it, but might we, as Rich writes in the concluding lines, get a different view when we “stand on the first / page of the end of despair?” So the word that started the poem also ends the poem, but this time despair comes with a question mark. It is, quite literally, the Wiesel quotation. Why is this consoling (question mark)? Because, if despair is the question, it is not also the answer. It breaks us open to inquiry without breaking us.
There is a universality to grief and consolation. Meaning not that the same things get us down or cheer us up, but at a fundamental level, the things that bring all human beings low—poverty, oppression, loss of family—are healed with pure human love and attention. As Nye and Rich suggest, it can come from strangers. As Ostriker suggests, it can be directed outward from the heart without a specific target in mind. For certain, it crosses cultures and eras. The preeminent poet Rita Dove constructed a devastatingly beautiful grief-music-memorial poem based on the experience of a Holocaust survivor named Alice Herz-Sommer, a career pianist and music educator who survived the Terezin concentration camp, where she sustained herself and other prisoners by maintaining a regular practice and performance schedule.
Dove’s poem opens with the famous line from Twelfth Night, so oft-quoted that it’s nearly cliché. The poet, working with the material of Ms. Herz-Sommer’s life, un-clichés it as she illustrates that music kept the prisoners alive by feeding them emotionally, intellectually, even as their bodies were malnourished from “the black water passing for coffee / white water for soup.” She also makes an interesting distinction in kind that is very musicianlike: Chopin was the food of love, and not the music “composed to soothe regiments.” This is not merely a pianist’s preference for her own repertoire as contrasted with “horn flash, woodwind wail.” And one could note that Chopin composed plenty of pieces with a military flair, regiment-inspired if not strictly regimental. No, it’s clear that the camp survivors made of their playing a subversive act, and of their chosen repertoire a rebellious anthem. Like the ancestors of Langston Hughes’s streetlight soloist and Tyehimba Jess’s Blind Boone, the Terezin musicians created their autonomy, their very survival, from whatever materials were available to them. Even in the teeth of death, they made choices. Even faced with annihilation, they accomplished artistry.
My life has been fortunate and materially easy. But, like all humans, I have my griefs and, like all musicians, I cope through my instrument. Part of it is the establishment of routine or, beyond that, the refusal to relinquish routine in the face of crisis. Part of it is the physical/emotional/intellectual alchemy that playing works on the player. In other words, I can relate to holding music as a lifeline, even as I stand awed at the extremity of some musicians’ life and death experiences. In a much less extreme situation, really in the day-to-day challenge of improving craft for its own sake, I see musical practice as a problem holding its own solution.
We all go through periods of doubt in our own capabilities, and see ourselves improving over time. We all wonder whether we can live up to our calling, whether we are good enough—not just technically, but somehow spiritually. This is the internal struggle of every performer, teacher, and writer. This was the impetus behind the title poem of my book, Technical Solace.
It is the irony of musical work that our ephemeral, totally transient product comes out of intense physical labor. Perhaps for that reason, I love concrete imagery both as a teaching tool and as a personal way to attach to the music. Having a material or structural image in mind—or sometimes just a color—often helps me to get the sound I am striving for, and to improve my odds of playing something the way I want it to sound.
When I think of music-related images, it is almost always spontaneous, while I am playing (“oh here is that red passage”) or when I am reflecting on playing, as above. Some musicians also perceive themselves performing, but I mainly perceive the internal experience of the music, rather than watching myself, as it were, making the sounds. When I came across the poem “I live in music” by African American feminist poet Ntozake Shange, I was delighted with how she portrayed the world itself as made of music. It’s radically different from our usual perception of music as existing within the world. Her vision is both concrete and theoretical, dreamlike yet vividly sensual, and the poet herself strides through it.
After introducing us to her neighborhood (“i live on c# street”), she pauses to ask the reader “do you live here in music.” But because Ms. Shange’s style is almost totally unpunctuated, there is no question mark or stopping of any kind except the natural line break. So, “do you live here in music” can have an upward inflection or a downward one; it can be a statement. My favorite lines occur about halfway through the poem, with the punch of a bumper sticker and the wisdom of ages:
i got 15 trumpets where other women got hips
& a upright bass for both sides of my heart
i walk round in a piano like somebody
else/ be walkin on the earth
“I live in music” takes up less than a page, but it was published as a gorgeous book, one line per page accompanied by the artwork of Romare Bearden (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1994). The pairing of Shange’s words with Bearden’s painting and collage is perfect, and each deepens the other.
I find poems like this to be more heartening than poems written purposefully to hearten. The need for consolation is not explicit, but the comfort given implies the need: what could be more protective than an upright bass, itself a resonating chamber, guarding the heart with its heart-like curves and strong vibration? What could be more body-positive than brassy, beautiful hips made of fanfare? And where could one be more at home, more in one’s element, than walking round in a piano?
If despair is the question, then music is the answer. If love is a hunger, then poetry is food.