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don’t call it classical

By Stephen Burt

Ahem. My literary-life motto for this year is “slightly less writing and much more reading,” and so I almost said no to this return-to-blogging — but having now seen Anselm’s amazing nonlinear take on writing with a newborn around I’m in the mood to believe anyone can do anything, as long as it’s done in an enthusiastic and a nonlinear fashion. (It’s a mood that rarely lasts.) So I’ll write about what I’ve been hearing: not reading, but hearing.

You know what you can do with newborns, or babies, or toddlers, or even agreeable preschoolers, around who require attention much of the time? You can listen to music, especially if it’s instrumental music (so no need to worry about what words they learn). Partly for that reason, partly because our preschooler takes his own sustained interest in music, I’ve ended up spending big slices of arts-attention this year not on poetry nor on literary fiction so much as on almost-randomly-selected pieces of composed (I try to avoid the term “classical” in this sense) music: listening over and over, for example, to César Franck’s sonata for violin and piano, Franck’s prelude-fugue-variations for piano and another keyboard instrument, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (also the subject of a book for children!), chamber music by Poulenc, string quartets by Shostakovich, and Stravinsky’s Firebird (which Nathan especially likes: it tells a neat story, and one that won’t repel children). I’ve also been reading Alex Ross, whose terrific new book begins with a reminiscence of the radio station where I used to play obscure rock music.

It’s not that I didn’t know who (e.g.) Shostakovich was five years ago, but I didn’t spend time or money seeking his works out. And now I do. At least a little bit. And I can listen to his works (however imperfectly) while doing the dishes, which isn’t something you could say about the arts that use only words.

And so, two questions for the assembled:

1. The composed music to which I’ve been listening over and over seems to have something in common with the rock music I like: alternating harsh and sweet textures; spare rather than lush instrumentation, with obvious open space; strong, easily remembered melodic lines. (I realize that compared to real musicologists’ comments, that’s not saying much at all: it’s sort of baby music criticism — though I do wonder whether Franck has something deeper in common with today’s indiepop world, to both of their credit.) Are there analogies from this sort of generalized preference to a preference, or a set of tastes, in poetry?

2. The “classical” repertoire is just huge, almost unimaginably vast, too vast for a busy adult to learn fully unless she or he were already deeply engaged from youth (I was shallowly engaged in youth), and it’s vast in at least two separable dimensions: competing versions of the same work by famous composers (ten versions of a given quartet), and new or recent works (which may only exist in one recording, but there are so many more composers today!)

And so thinking about what I want and like and don’t like in this vast world with which I have been only shallowly acquainted makes me think anew about the people who discover poetry, or decide that they care about it a lot, as grownups who have only limited time for the arts. How far “behind” do they feel? should they feel? can they feel? How can we (how can critics like me) help them find what they like, learn what they don’t know, and prevent them from feeling — other than productively, or delightfully — lost? To what extent, if any, is poetry, any poetry, an art whose rules a listener has to learn?

Is “poetry” actually a lot like “music:” something that used to have its own set rules of composition in the West, but that we should now recognize as having split up into several overlapping, intersecting but non-coincident provinces of practice and expectation, each with its own community, its own internally recognized set of forms and rules?

Well, yes. And so we now have poets who happen to speak to more than one such community, cross-pollinators or crossover writers, as it were (H. L. Hix and Claudia Rankine come immediately to mind); we also have poets whose popularity in one community makes them suspicious (as too arid, or as vulgar sellouts) in another, and debates about such topics that obscure, rather than reveal, what we like (that is, what I like) about individual poets, individual works.

That Franck sonata, by the way, turns out to have a literary afterlife, though you or your young child can also find it in this considerably less highbrow source.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 14th, 2011 by Stephen Burt.