My job as a magazine editor requires a fair amount of travel. I console myself during these trips by listening to an iPod. From the moment I hail a cab until the moment I approach a hotel desk, the iPod plays constantly. I use it to shut out the world.
During the course of these travels, I have developed a compulsion of listening over and over to one track. I played Darrell Scott’s “This Beggar’s Heart” fifty times in a row. There is a character in one of Thomas Bernhard’s novels who listens incessantly to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the phonograph arm returning throughout the night to the beginning of the record. I’ve done that. I’ve listened to Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Marcia funebre again and again on a flight somewhere.
This is a form of madness, yet I prefer to believe that song flourishes on refrain. We hear things in a thirtieth listen that were not there during the first twenty-nine. There is comfort in familiarity, in knowing exactly which note will play next. And there are many glorious moments worth hearing a thousand times, like Oumar Sow’s guitar solo, which rises unexpectedly three and a half minutes into Cheikh Lô’s “N’Dawsile.”
Which brings me to my point. My friend Amy gave me The Caedmon Poetry Collection: three cds of poets reading their own work, which I loaded on my iPod. I am always glad when a poem plays. William Carlos Williams shows up on shuffle at Sea-Tac, reading “The Seafarer,” or Gertrude Stein appears out of the blue in Pittsburgh, declaiming “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”
After one ridiculous trip to Los Angeles, I flew back to Chicago—a three-and-a-half-hour journey—listening to Joseph Brodsky read George Kline’s translation of his “Nature Morte.” The poem clocks in at 4:17, so it must have been repeated fifty times as the plane crawled across the continent.
I will admit to some confusion about the poet’s words. Brodsky described his English as “better for reading and listening than for speaking.” What I heard in his weary threnody was song: I was compelled by the sound of his voice. I found his Russian accent familiar and soothing. I was moved by the cadence and lilt of his recitation.
When I got home I dug out my volume of Brodsky and read the poem. I discovered that I had misheard a number of phrases, and the text clarified a few of my uncertainties*. But that mattered little.
To hear “Nature Morte” is to hear song, a song as old and immutable as blind Homer. “The song was there before the story,” said Brodsky, who was indeed a singer.
I am dismayed when I hear questions about the utility of poetry. How do you use poetry, and what is it good for? This is odd. Poetry is song. No one asks, What use is song? What use are birds? Poetry has no use. It matters because of its inutility.
“Poetry is not a form of entertainment,” wrote Brodsky, “and in a certain sense not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon.”
People go out of their way to ignore this beacon today, but they do so at their own peril. “By failing to read or listen to poets,” Brodsky wrote in “An Immodest Proposal,” “a society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation—of the politician, or the salesman, or the charlatan—in short, to its own.”
Maybe Brodsky had this right, and this is the highest purpose of poetry, or song: It keeps us from listening to fools.