This post is different from my preceding four. It's an excerpt from a book in progress. (If any publishers or agents would like to know more about the book, they can reach me via the contact page on my website.) The post is also longer than the others, so before you plunge in (if you do), I want to thank a couple of folks up front for the privilege and pleasure of guest-bogging on BAP this week: this blog's Managing Editor, Stacey Harwood-Lehman, for her kind encouragement and her help with the mechanics of posting; and--not to forget him--the person who invited me to post. This latter individual's prolificness, talent, and versatility moves me to an assertion that only sounds hyperbolic: Schubert is almost as unaccountable a phenomenon as David Lehman.
Before I wanted to write poems, I wanted to write music: a calling for which I had, talent excepted, all the necessary equipment. In the years since, I’ve asked myself more than once if I wouldn’t rather have composed, had I been able to, than written poetry (or at least what tries to be). An answer that sometimes comes to mind takes the form of another question: wouldn’t anyone rather compose than write poetry? (Wagner looked forward every morning to sitting down at what he called “the incredible loom.”) But sometimes I’m fine with being a poet rather than a composer. On a good day, I can even feel fortunate that this is how things turned out. If there's a central reason why, it’s because writing poetry gives me the chance to choose a poem’s subject.
In what follows, I’m going to assume that a poet who works with subjects carries around, in his head or on paper, a list of possible ones. I say “assume” advisedly. I’m personally acquainted with a subject-oriented poet—a good one—who not only doesn’t have such a list, but says he’s incapable of having one. He tells me that when he sits down to write, he has—in fact he needs to have—nothing whatsoever in mind (unless you count the knowledge that he’s sitting down to write). If he’s lucky, some words will emerge from this void. If he’s doubly lucky, a subject will emerge from these words. If he’s lucky cubed, he’ll find the subject worth pursuing—at which point he’ll have an incipient poem on, and in, his hands.
But since I’ve also spoken with poets who do maintain a list of subjects…You’re looking at your list, trying to choose which subject to take up in your next poem. On what basis are you going to make this choice? Quite possibly on a basis one hesitates to even call a basis. I suspect I’m far from alone in tending to select, from my own list of prospective subjects, simply the most recently added one. This is the one, after all, that will be most freshly charged with the excitement of discovery. Or, in a move that’s almost as mindless, I might choose a subject from my list simply because it differs markedly from the last one I chose. Here again, the driver is excitement, in this case not of discovery but of variety. On rare occasions, we may choose a subject not because it’s different from the last one we chose, but because it’s different from all the subjects we’ve ever chosen. Here we’re motivated not merely by variety but by growth. (Yeats offers a look inside such a development in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” where he speaks of his need to find a theme not among the “masterful images” of his prior work—“Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot, / Lion and woman and the Lord knows what”—but in the source of those images, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”) Note that in all of the above scenarios, the choice of subject is made with the poet’s own pleasures and concerns primarily in mind. It’s of course assumed that benefit will accrue to the reader as well, but as a by-product of benefit to the poet.
A subject may also be chosen, however, with the reader’s benefit principally in mind: chosen mainly in order to intrigue the reader and/or inform the reader and/or amuse the reader and/or move the reader and/or heal—not to forget provoke or hurt (since who couldn't use a poke or some pain at times?)—the reader. Readers being people (for now, anyway), a reader-centric choice of subject is best made in cognizance of human experience. To take a for-instance, would a given subject be expected to intrigue? Any answer worth paying attention to will be informed by an inside knowledge of life. (A lack of such knowledge is what makes passing—not to say acing—the Turing test, or writing a deeply meaningful poem, so hard, if not impossible, for a computer.)
The need—and the opportunity—to consult life in choosing a poem’s subject is the main reason I feel fine—sometimes even better than fine—about writing poetry instead of music. Assessing a subject in light of life, after all, calls upon every faculty we have: intellectual, moral, spiritual—and, yes, aesthetic, to the extent (not always very great these days) that we want our subjects to underwrite poems whose virtues include beauty. This call for all we have, that we might offer all we can—to what other summons would one feel more eager or privileged to respond?
Which leaves my old feeling of being called to composition…where? I remember being shocked to hear myself say, in speaking with a music-loving literary critic, that I thought music was “thin soup” compared to poetry. What I meant (which she understood all too instantly and perfectly) was that the “matter” of poetry—life, language, and the physical world these inhabit—was richer—“thicker”—than the tones and interrelations thereof that constitute music. She was graciously willing to leave it to her face to express her discomfort (to put it mildly) with this view, but I can imagine only too clearly the terms in which she might have objected to it: that the “grain” of music is finer than that of poetry (she might have adduced Mendelssohn’s marvelous assertion that the meanings of music are not too vague but too precise for words); and that, considerations of “thickness” or “thinness" to the side, music affords access to emotional and spiritual depths that would otherwise be not merely un-plumbable but, for the likes of mere us, effectively non-existent.
I wouldn't want to dispute these views outright (not least because part of me participates in them so wholly), but perhaps I might offer a couple of counter-considerations. I was taught music theory in college by a professor with the most extraordinary ear for, and knowledge of, music. He’d studied performance (on the viola) and composition at one of the great conservatories. In a pensive mood one day, he told me that, as thoroughgoing as those studies were, and as indebted as he was to them as a person and an artist, he regretted their having left him without the broader knowledge that a liberal arts education would have provided. (He’d been trying over the years, in a wide-ranging, self-directed course of reading, to make up this deficit.) To go by his feeling of inadequacy in this regard, this good man's lifelong immersion in music might have especially equipped him to understand, and even sympathize with, a view of music as being “thinner” than poetry. Or (Take--or Tack--Two) maybe music and poetry can be seen, to borrow a concept from mathematics, as “different orders of infinity,” with poetry being the larger one (as the infinity of “real numbers” is larger, in being more densely populated, than the infinity of integers).
Someone once told the wonderful choreographer Mark Morris that he seemed more passionate about music than dance. Morris’s response was that “Music is more interesting than dance.” (After all, he went on, “there are only so many things a dancer can do.”) I don’t see how my own love of music could be greater than it is, and yet—and if I were a practicing composer instead of a failed one, this might not be the case—I can at least imagine myself saying (when Bach isn’t listening) that poetry is more interesting than music.