Monday, November 8, 2010

Second Installment--Musical Ekphrasis

Friends, once again forgive me for starting a discussion, making a promise to post more, and then disappearing for a number of days.

I want to pick up on a number of things tonight, trying to address a few of the questions and concerns folks raised. First, let me remind you of the several kinds of musical ekphrasis I identified, only the first of which I posted on. I wrote:

I see modern/contemporary poets responding to music in these four or five ways:

1) memorial/commemorative (music as invocation of particular individual experiences)
2) contextual icon (poems exploring music as cultural/biographical/historical means into a composer’s life, an era, etc.)
3) mimetic/echoing (poems that imitate and seek the physical/sonic/emotional effects of music)
4) music as figure/god/form (poems that identify music as an idealized form of making art/meaning or as a version of mystery/power beyond language)
5) the riff (music that improvises and dialogues with music, drawing together many or most of the notions above in a single place)

So my mentor for the semester said this in response to my post:

I've always equated ekphrasis with writing about a particular painting or drawing or photo. I'm thinking about William Carlos William's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." So I was surprised that these poems all seemed to be about a personal experience that the speakers had with music: the mother playing the piano, the kid singing to the juke boxetc. They weren't responses to music so much as memories of events and people connected to music. Would you agree?

Here's how I would/did respond:

Absolutely I agree.* In these poems music is a springboard, often even particular pieces of music or particular singers/composers/etc. for the epiphanic, memorial lyric. At one point I was going to write something like this to talk about how such poems, as much as I love them, often ignore the actual experience of music:

At my age, nearly every one I know has a dead grandma with a favorite hymn. Or an involuntary moment of sexual arousal upon hearing the first five notes of an album he made out to in high school. Or can still sit down at the piano or pick up a guitar and play the first song she learned. Or sustains a perverse love for a marginal pop hit to which we made up alternative/obscene lyrics to be sung in the car (lyrics which have since completely erased all memory of the original words). And almost every poet I know (these are quite often the very same people) has a set of poems about the hymn to which his dead grandma made out in high school while her boyfriend played the guitar and made up alternate lyrics.

But of course I realize that for most of us memory and music are so inextricable (see this amazing study) that it would be impossible to shut off poems about music from such associative connections. And why would you want to, completely?

Still, I find these poems limited precisely because there is so, so much about music they really do not take into account, so let me skip number two in my list and move on to number three:

3) mimetic/echoing (poems that imitate and seek the physical/sonic/emotional effects of music)

Of course I have a long, long discourse on this in my essay, but I want to point out just two poems.

First, Langston Hughes, who was one of the first to attempt to tranlate the experience of the blues (the music, not the emotion) into modern poetry. What some scholars have noted about this process, is how Hughes’ attempts developed over time from, at first simply transcribing or mimicking blues lyrics and rhythms. But readers/scholars almost universally agree “[t]hat Hughes writes his best blues poetry when he tries least to imitate the folk blues is a critical commonplace” (Chinitz 179). While David Chinitz (one of my former profs at Loyola University in Chicago) challenges this common wisdom, I still the basic insight it instructive. The musical ekphrastic poem is an engagement with the music. Rather than a mere transcription of the blues, or an attempt to write lyrics to be sung, blues poetry follows Langston Hughes' struggle to capture "the quality of genuine blues in performance while remaining effective as poems" (Chinitz 177). For Hughes and the many writers who merge into and out of the tradition (see some attached suggestions below) the central challenges have been "First, how to write blues poems in such a way the they work on the printed page, and second, how to exploit the blues form poetically without losing all sense of authenticity" (177).

So to see how Hughes works through/past that challenge, we can take a look at his most famous blues poem, The Weary Blues and see how he combines several impulses to generate a kind of musical experience that adds to or supplements the blues. He gives us a narrative and a character that frames the several quotations from an actual blues tune. The rhyme, repeated lines, and quotations combine to feel like the blues, even though they are not all strictly blues forms. But then other poetic devices, like alliteration, assonance, caesuras also do things poetry can do that an actual blues singer cannot.

So as you write, or try to write a poem about music, what poetic tools can you bring to the poem that do something in addition to describing or transcribing a musical encounter?

Second, some poets adopt new formalist techniques to give a musical texture to their poems, reaching back into the deeper connections between music and poetry. A. E. Stallings has done this often, most notably I think in Blackbird Etude where her small stanzas (rhymed haikus with their 5, 7, 5 syllabics), her enjambed rhyme, and her sonic play with unexpected diction (“melismatic runs sur-/passing earthbound skills”) give music-like shape to the blackbird’s song. She shapes a wild creatures song with poetic forms and reference in the title to an etude, that most classical sort of music pedagogy.

Myself, I love the pantoum as a musical form, one that allows me to make music while at the same time not merely imitating (I hope). Here’s a pantoum from a number of years back responding to a performance by Ella Fitzgerald near the end of her life, an experience at the time I had no idea was so remarkable.

If you want to try and write a musical poem, two considerations I would make. What is the form of the piece of music, at least as you understand it. Can you use that as at least a shape to your poem? For instance, a poem about a sonata might be a four or five part poem, loosely following the music form. Even though you cannot reproduce the exact tones, rhythms, etc. of the sonata, you could rely on its shape to “inform” your own poem.

Second, I always try to think not just of the music’s formal qualities, but also the form of my experience of the music. For instance, Hughes' narrative and cultural explorations in "The Weary Blues" are central to the poem. Or in my Ella poem, I am thinking of how my mind wandered from her frailty to the qualities of the music, to the associations I have with other jazz musicians when I think of her, to the connotative possiblities of words like "trip."

*Though I would work with a more expansive definition of ekphrasis than those poems that write about only a single work of art. I think one of the best, and an example of visual ekphrasis that falls into my second category above, is Lisel Mueller's Monet Refuses the Operation which refers to a whole list of Monet’s works, using the painter’s voice to describe and examine them (and lift them off the page).

Here's the formal bib reference to David Chinitz's article:
Literacy and Authenticity: the Blues Poems of Langston Hughes." Callaloo 19 (1996): 177-92.

1 comment:

Robert Denham said...

Re "Landscape and the Fall of Icarus," I think it's the subject of more poetic ekphrases than any other painting. I've identified some 60 poems written in response to Brueghel's painting. Among American artists, Hopper's "Nighthawks" leads the pack.

I've catalogued these in Poets on Paintings (McFarland, 2010)