22 January 2011


"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; ~~ Alexander Pope

I am now 86 pages into a remarkable book, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, by Kenneth Koch. Although my own writing sometimes approaches the nuance of poetic prose, I make no pretense of being a poet, nor of knowing much about poetry. So Koch's book has been a revelation. He conducts the reader on a tour of the foundations of poetry, breaking it down into its component parts, with plenty of examples along the way. Here is one of the most lucid descriptions of poetry I've ever encountered --

"If we take the idea of a poetic language seriously, it can be defined first as a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax. In ordinary language, the sound of a word is useful almost exclusively in order to identify it and to distinguish it from other words. In poetry its importance is much greater. Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say, and in fact it's often impossible to distinguish one from the other."

When Leonard Bernstein delivered his 1973 series of six Norton lectures at Harvard, titled The Unanswered Question (still available on DVD), he brilliantly illuminated the structure and function of music by noting the parallels between music and language, borrowing from the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky. In Making Your Own Days, Koch similarly illuminates poetry by noting the structural and functional parallels (and differences) between poetry and music, as well as poetry and prose. The degree of overlap is astonishing, yet it makes perfect sense. There is subconscious music in poetry, and subconscious poetry in music. Scan the Wikipedia article on linguistics and you'll see what I mean. It is a particular delight when the understanding of one field of study lends dimension and texture and color to another field.

Speaking of music, NYTimes columnist Anthony Tommasini has presented his choices for the ten greatest classical music composers in history. Any such list is subjective, but Tommasini does a good job of explaining his choices (see image below, click to enlarge). They are, in descending order, as follows --

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)

Claude Achille Debussy (1862-1918)

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Bela Bartok (1881-1945)

As explored in yesterday's post, our preoccupation with round numbers in general, and the number ten in particular, makes for some unfortunate omissions. When I view the list above, I have a few quibbles with the order (Mozart should be at #2, for instance), but I also cry out, "What about Rachmaninoff? Where is Haydn? Vivaldi? Mendelssohn? Chopin?" Surely the list of preeminent classical composers should be expanded to 20! Ah well, food for thought, grist for one's mill, choose your metaphor and fire when ready.

Another musical curiosity -- in Pearls Before Breakfast, Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten describes a wonderful experiment, one into which you, gentle reader, might insert yourself to see what your response would be. Here is the setup --

"He emerged from the Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall next to a trash basket. By most measures he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

"It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1097 people passed by .... Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape. Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What are the moral mathematics of the moment?"

"On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by the Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste. In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"

You'll have to check out Pearls Before Breakfast to learn more. If you are surprised by what you read, you'll not be alone. Be sure to view the embedded video in the article, and wonder to yourself -- would I have stopped?


  1. "Pearls Before Breakfast" is very impressive and haunting. Gene Weingarten is a very good writer. For one of his most recent fine articles, check out http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701549.html, Fatal Distraction.