Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I've resumed reading the Richard Sewall biography of E.D., and find myself wondering about her creative process. In light also of an interesting remark that I heard Steve Martin make on Charlie Rose, to the effect of that the main reason he plays the banjo, even bothers to play it, when he feels that there are far better banjo players than him, who can play the banjo canon far better than he ever could, - so what's left to him? What can he do best with his own banjo playing, that no one else can do? Write his own songs for banjo and perform them. I think that's a fantastic reason, perhaps one of the very most important ones for a creative person to ever master an instrument. It doesn't have to be about being a "concert pianist" - that's the sort of pressure that had been put on me as a girl, and I simply never did have what it took to become that, nor do I have any regrets about it. I'm glad I know how to play the piano and I wish I'd play it more. We own a piano, a small antique (1920s) Steinway, but I dislike playing this particular instrument. It's perpetually out of tune, and even when in tune I find the action or the notes, too loud, harsh, unsubtle, banging. Perhaps part of the problem is that it sits on a wood floor in the uncarpeted dining room. Harsh reverberations. I don't like it.

E.D. played piano, and I was intrigued (many pages back in the Sewall biography) to learn that she would play strange melodies of her own invention late at night. How amazing it would be to be able to hear her pianistic improvisations - compositions? It seems she never noted them. I wonder if she could read music? I can read music, but it's quite another thing to then note down a composition of one's invention. As a girl from time to time I tried - and honestly, when I see orchestral scores by Brahms, Beethoven, et al., I marvel. It is an amazingly difficult thing, it seems to me, to hear all those sounds in one's head - particularly in earlier eras without sound recordings by which one could "save" one's thoughts - and transcribe the sounds into symbols on the page - the rhythms, the rests, the notes themselves, the key changes, the various instruments coming in and out, the harmonics - astounding.

E.D.'s compositions I'm quite sure were much simpler, perhaps hymn-like, or hymns whose chords perhaps in the wee hours (aided perhaps by a drop of sherry?) took on dreamier casts, slower cadences, as E.D. sitting in darkness or perhaps her hands, alighted on the keyboard, illuminated by a single candle that glowed with an occasional flicker, illumining too her face as she played.

The notes of her melodies are lost to us, but I wonder if this is the method by which she might have composed some of her poems. By letting her fingers dwell over the keyboard, her mind wander, perhaps she even sang to herself words, as they suggested themselves with the chords and notes she played.

In musing about this, I reread a poem, which E.D. interspersed within the text of a note to Samuel Bowles (her beloved Master?), that concludes the chapter I have just finished reading in the Sewall:
I have no Life but this -
To lead it here -
Nor any Death - but lest
Dispelled from there -
Nor tie to Earths to come -
Nor Action new
Except through this extent
The love of you.

It's the process-in-reverse in a way, but I experimentally try (a cappella, not seated at the piano downstairs), to sing the words as though they were lyrics - how do they sound? I find that I easily slip into sung hymnal cadences.

Which proves nothing, of course. And E.D. was no "paint-by-number" poet. While her rhythms are reminiscent of familiar hymnal themes, her lyrics are no machinelike (perhaps?, echoing the burgeoning Industrial Age?) marchlike intoned even rhythms and lessons to be sung by a dutiful congregation of whose any potential individual waywardness is deflected by perfect rhymes.

Perhaps I didn't choose the best poem to off-the-cuff analyze in this fashion... this particular one does seem to fall into those cadences.

Actually, reading the poem again, I can imagine it performed as a highly expressive art song, impassioned, soaring, unbounded, as it reaches its anguished exquisite resolve.

Anyway, it's just a thought I've been having. And I've often marveled myself about songs and songwriters. I mean, I write this blog every day, and I know that I have my moments - but think of someone like, say, Joni Mitchell - amazing words, and music. I don't seem to have that gift.

Well, that's okay! This is not meant to be "left-brain" me beating myself up, it's not about the laying on of unreasonable expectations.

But still, E.D. certainly was extraordinary (duh!) and to consider her poetic process, as it might have (I feel sure must have) dovetailed with her actual pianistic musicality - well, that I do wonder about.

Although sometimes I find it annoying and overly analytical to look head-on at creative process. There was a repeat of Charlie Rose today with Chuck Close, Richard Serra and others on the subject, and honestly, it was just way too much rationalistic self-referential navelgazing for my taste - I tried to stick with it for several minutes, but ultimately found it unwatchable.

Darling, I am fading. No big triumphal conclusion or finish. It's been very wet and gray and dark and chilly all day. I feel achey. I relate to E.D.'s "pine and balsam" aspects far more so than I do most cutesy observations of nature.

I wish you were here. Thirty-six years ago I wore a sweater, cream-colored knit, that isn't so different from the one I'm wearing now against the chill. This one has a zip.

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