A Discussion of the "ODE TO THE PIANO"

Ode the to Piano... a long poem on which this essay is based. Please read this before going into the discussion below.

This above poem is very odd, perhaps odder than it seems at first glance. I am fairly sure than nobody is going to tell me anything about it, any positive or negative reaction, even a thought which it may awaken. Let me try to survey the situation and see if there is something I should say by way of comment, elucidation, explanation.

First, I wrote the poem out of a serious involvement with piano. I am finding out many new things which I can do musically, in fact such a cross-hatch of variant vectors that I find it difficult to talk about them. It seems a patchwork quilt of pieces, some old some new, in intentionally planned disarray, which has been on my mind for many months. I could dissect each segment individually and describe it exactly, but only if I ignore all the other parts.

I have a purpose in all this, to tell someone what I am thinking and see if it makes sense to that person. Of course that person is halfway myself, it is clear that I am trying to tell myself some complex things about music, for self clarification. So I construct in my mind the persona of a reader reading these words somewhere.

On the other hand, since it is music which is at the base of my thought, I felt that a poem, seen as the music of the sounds a human makes, would be the best approach. This is not paper poetry! It is made to be read aloud, just as a Mozart sonata score is just an excuse for making the music sound out from the piano. For years now we have been used to poetry as something to be savored in silence, like an postprandial cognac in a large glass, a quiet evening's hour of mind-play.

Not so here, I have read this aloud a dozen ways, intoning, exclaiming, whispering and blustering, and that option is the reason I wrote this as a poem. Writing about music with words, I insist on the music of words or the whole things is a dry waste.

We have got ourselves into a corner with poetry these days. Poems generally describe a scene of beauty, positive or negative, this is the traditional realm we have inherited from the last centuries. Or they can tell something about the writer's inner mind, usually (as befits Americans fed on pseudo-psychological crap) the troubled inner veil, the fears and the anxieties. Or a poem can microtome a slice of life, as it were, and record interactions, dialogues, something like taped sequences (readjusted, snipped and spliced) to make dull life seem somehow more interesting by literary voyeurism. Words are always something the writer trips over, but his worst enemy is that self- adulating and grinning use of words in a forced novelty, the craft of cleverness.

Between the elegantly pointed haiku and the one-page piece of verse, which is what we submit to a poetry contest or magazine, and the long narrative like Masefield's Renard, then passing on to Paradise Lost, the vast display of The Nature of Things and the Iliad ----- there seems to be a lot of available latitude. But we have got ourselves into a corner with the single-dimensional poem on one page of paper, maybe fold it over and add some more. Poems are often what we pick up to look at and put down, like a piece in the curio cabinet, whereas a ten or twenty page poem is something to view askance, dog ear the page to read some other time, perhaps. I want a poem I can go with for a while, not something which runs out on me as I turn the page.

What happened with the great ancient tradition of the poem as carrier of important messages, the tradition which culminated in Lucretius who, with true poetic insight, handled Atoms, Laws of Conservation of Energy and Matter, Evolution and dozens of other items which we now put in the bag of Science, the exact antipode of Poetry. What happened with our culture that we decided that Science was essential, but science was dull; while Poetry was pretty and relaxing, but had no serious value?

In vain I look for serious ideas in the volumes of verse on my shelves. In desperation I read science texts of great importance, continually noting to myself that the ambiance is incredibly ugly, the sentences cramped, the paragraphs blunt, and harmony of the words dissonant by accident. Reading Frost I come away with a couple of new ideas, reading Snow I see bad walls making bad neighbors of artists and the scientist folk. If my model is Lucretius, I have to note that he died aet. 44 of an overdose of something, that he was supposed to have written his science-verse in the intervals of lucidity between fits of madness. Is this the end?

Reading Lucretius Book I, verses 1-100 aloud, you have something to hear while listening to the Rite of Spring at the beginning. Some people can't get a handle on either one, others can hear then together both acoustically ringing, and immediately see a new vista for poetry.

What has this to do with my Ode? I have been adjusting piano actions parts, contemplating the design of the Steinway soundboard, reading treatises on acoustics and finally tuning my piano myself while trying to identify fundamental as distinct from the overtone series. Since this is all acoustic stuff, hence music-based, and I am working composing a music which is both old and new at the same time, these things are much on my mind. Since they are interlocked and inseparable, I knew I could never say what I had to say in line- straight laid out prose.

One day I began to LISTEN. and then I said "Listen!" and absorbed the sound of the word. Now I had a beginning, a message in linguistic code, and a music in acoustic code. The next line came of itself, something coming out of the first word, the way a good piece of music unfolds itself from a single note. From then on there was no contest, this thinking in my mind had to be a poem, and it all happened before I knew what I was writing.

So there is my validation of the Ode to the Piano. As with the word Ode, (from Greek "aeido" meaning 'sing, chant, recount something high..'), I divest myself of ideas of writing decorative verse. Once you see much modern poetry as wallpaper, you cannot live in that room any more. This new place will have notes of things jotted on the walls, it will be a place of reminders, bookmarks, idea-marks and plans for something to follow. Time is the great jell-factor, in the minutes and hours passing, things have an aptitude for coming together.

When they do I take dictation from the wall-notes, the diagrams and the chance-dated reminders to myself. But in the alchemy of converting notes to the music of language, I have my own secret, idiopsychic formulae, so what comes out is not when went in.

It was many years ago that the Arabic scholar Lewis Ware told me as we sat at the edge of a Vermont lake one summer's eve watching the sun go down, that after all Poetry was just pointing to something which is. "There is water. Trees are here. See, the sun goes down orange. That is all there is." I wasn't sure then if that was all there was to say, and I still have some hesitation about ultimate grass roots in art. But much Chinese poetry has this simplicity, which is not at all a simple thing to achieve. We have a lot of cultural undergrowth to clear away before we can approach in purity the sanctuary of the Muse.

Such is the nature of poetry. And this is a venture in a new realm of the poetic vestibule, where it may be possible to impart information, convey messages, and (steering away from the flowery and trifling, the whiney dissatisfaction with the dys-psychic self) it may be possible to say something new and noble, hard and real, worth reading and perhaps even worth remembering.

Ode the to Piano... a long poem on which this essay is based.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College