Notes on Notes

I’ve spent the last week going to concerts at Music and Beyond, the new chamber music festival in town. Never mind the stinking heat, I’ve been out there lining up around the block with the other fanatics, and then inside, squirming on bare pews.

To my surprise, it’s been a useful exercise for my poetry. Especially two of the concerts. The first, The Gallery Project, featured new Canadian music composed to art mostly painted by dead white guys. The second was for piano and featured music written by … dead white guys. Okay, so I’ve also been thinking about the need for diversity in the classical music scene, but that’s not my main point today (though it is bugging me. The performers were mostly live white guys. White is getting boring. Read here for a local success story. And then, if you want to be proactive, email here.)

I’d previously read a post by the Newfoundland poet Stephen Rowe in which he discusses what makes poetry great. I don’t want to repeat it here – it’s worth reading. But it had started me reflecting on how I recognize excellence in other’s work when I read or hear it.

I carried that question into concerts, where it’s easier for me to hear greatness because of my early training (my undergraduate degree is in performance on the french horn – one of those popular party instruments, the kind people were always begging me to pull out and play).

I know the techniques to listen for in music. So when I heard Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata the other night, there was no question it was superb. And I could say that even though I didn’t like Tigran Alikhanov’s interpretation of it. The music shone! Next on the program was Schumann’s Carnaval. Not so good. Yes, Alikhanov banged his way through it, but still, as my husband said afterwards, ‘needs editing’. (I think he might hang out with me too much.) The Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition after intermission was straight back to genius.

The contemporary composers were also mixed. Two of them, Scott Macmillan and Jocelyn Morlock, had written tight, crisp pieces. They never sagged. But another one’s work was movie music. Cut. And someone else’s piece had some lovely sections interspersed with ‘oh dear’. I felt I needed scissors in order to be able to enjoy it.

All this made me think of my own poems. I want them to become like Beethoven’s or Morlock’s work. Or, as Rowe points out, like Calvin & Hobbes. Also great. I don’t want the saggy bits where my readers’ attention droops (have I lost you yet?). This means continually honing my ear by reading others’ poetry and by paying attention to what works – and doesn’t.

I also want to know when what I have written is fine but slight, like another of the new Canadian compositions. Hearing it helped me to realize that while the poem I wrote waiting in line for that concert is quite nice, it’s lightweight. Yes, I worked on it a lot (I was in line for an hour) so I got it to a reasonable first stage. But it will never be more than a learner poem, where I manipulate language and play with edge and shadow. It’s still important practise. When the good stuff comes, it helps me to be more ready for it. But from now on, my learner poems stay buried.

Fortunately, the Voice granted me a second poem that day, since the first one left me hungry. I’m happier with this one, though I have to confess, I wrote it during the concert and made a prune-lipped old lady mad. She thought I was texting. It’s quite hard to explain poetry sotto voce.

So for today’s editing example, here’s poem #1:

The Glint of Water




Yup, it’s gone. There are times to be brutal in editing and this is one of them.

Here is the replacement offering:

Listening to Music

Listening to you play,
chords crashing on a flood-lit
stage, clarinet colluding
with string’s waver, I remember
my horn’s own soar, lips tight
against cold metal, breath’s
quiver driving a line on.
Do I miss it? My mind
travels back to rooms tiny
with years’ hot sweat, watch
propped on stand keeping time
with scales running through
boredom’s stubborn face. Yes,
there was joy in playing together,
my part united in Brahms’
grand whole, but always the need
for piecework dragged me
down. Back my mind goes,
back, to cycling home for
lunch-time rounds, trucks breathing
hot on my thin neck. It wasn’t
worth it, was only a mother’s
lost dream. I listen now
with words. Content.




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