Friday, June 19, 2009

God Out of Bounds: Poetry and Music

My next step out of bounds takes me to something that the Bible is full of - poetry and music. Your average worship service is also full of liturgical music of some kind, though not always of poetry, you see some of that as well.

But I'm not talking about the Bible's poetry, or the hymns of the past, or the praise songs of today.

I am talking about T.S. Elliot and Langson Hughes and e.e. cummings. I am talking about trance and hip-hop and rock and blues.

You go to school and you learn the rules of language, already knowing on some level granted by nursery rhymes perhaps, that these rules are not all there is. But the truth is that you have to understand common language first - only then does poetry become available.

Poetry is the modification or breaking of the rules of language (grammar, syntax, spelling etc.) in order to better express. That's sort of my working definition.

There are times when breaking a rule says more than following the rule - even about something that the rule is meant to point toward. There is something that the laws we pass about spousal treatment which shatters, and thank God!, in a single kiss - and only the kiss can get us there.

I have definitely met people who disagree about the importance, truth and beauty of poetry. (I'd link to their blogs if they weren't so frustrating) I'm comfortable, though, in saying that poetry is valuable in and of itself, and that its value comes from its breaking of rules.

This hit me most solidly in my reading of e. e. cummings. His poems are like the confetti that results from cutting up rational treatises into tiny pieces and throwing them in the air in jubilation - but imagine if that confetti fell in just such a way as to surpass those treatises in every way. Some of his poems come off as just nonsense, and others took a while for me to figure out, but overall, its very rewarding to take the tablets of language and hit them with a hammer (wielded with surgical skill) and find, in the rubble, beauty.

Music is the interaction of multiple layers of structure. There is the rhythmic structure of starts and stops, pauses and sustains. There is the harmonic structure of the frequency of sound as experienced by the human ear, how different sounds blend well and reinforce each other. There is also the qualities of the sound itself - the timbre of a throaty jazz singer versus the abrasive plosives of a rapper or the long mournful draw of Yo Yo Ma's bow across his cello strings.

Sometimes there are words, poetry, added to the mix of music, so that there arises a cognitive-experiential structure of how the words harmonize, or do not harmonize, with the music. Otherwise, you just have the music, which is in a sense a universal language, though what kind of sounds one appreciates has a lot to do with their culture (gamelan versus Stravinski versus a raga, say) and less to do with some kind of Platonically ideal set of sounds.

Life is an interaction of multiple layers of structure - life is music. It is the timbre of daily experience, ever-changing in quality; the rhythm of day and night, of weather, of seasons, of heartbeats and breath; the counter-point of thoughts and reflections; all modulated by the brain, which only lets us sense the unvarnished truth of smell - everything else is filtered, modified, and cut to fit our expectations and limitations.

God is poetry - the rule-maker and rule-breaker simultaneously, the confetti of reason that falls just so, and in that mess, we see the truth.

God is music - the infinite layers of order in the universe are in harmony, or potentially in harmony, and one name for that harmony is God.

What is your favorite poet? Favorite music? What has moved you the most in your life in this category?


Stacia said...

Man, some of your prose is so's great.

I really enjoy reading poetry, though I haven't settled on a favorite. I've most recently been reading Federico Garcia Lorca on the serious side, and Ogden Nash on the amusing side. I like poems that leave me breathless; either in the depths of some emotion or in imagining what the poem describes.

I think I have over five genres of music that I love to listen to. Most often I flip-flop between new age (Enya, Lorena McKennitt for example) and alternative/hard rock (Linkin Park, V.A.S.T., NIN, Metallica, etc.). The soul and energy of any music is what really pulls me, and I love to dance to it all! =)

As far as what has moved me most...
I'm afraid as far as poetry is concerned, the poem I wrote for my great-great grandma a few weeks before she passed remains the most moving for me. It was my first experience with family death, so it held a lot of love and reflections on mortality for me.

In music, "The Highwayman" on McKennitt's Book of Secrets always entrances me and makes me cry. I think "El Tango de Roxanne" from Moulin Rouge has the best and most ecstatic crescendo ever.

And now I've gone on long!

Doug Hagler said...

The Highwayman is certainly a tear-jerker, and I'm glad you could put together a poem for your dying loved one. No need to be "sorry" about that!

For music, I thought I was pretty broad, but according to Pandora, all of my music tastes connect. That's not true, but its more true than I'd thought. I like hip-hop, nerdcore, trance/electronica/whatever you want to call what used to be techno, alt rock, folk music, bluegrass, blues, some classical (I lean toward the Romantics and evocative pieces), occasionally avant-garde (but not enough to be cool), what I'd call energetic jazz, trip-hop, some ragas, celtic rock, some funk...I realize that the list goes on and on. Oh well.

For poems, I'll be more brief. I've been re-reading my collected works of Langston Hughes, and loving a lot of it. You can really hear the jazz, and I like to imagine, even Harlem of the past...

Aric Clark said...

Poets I've liked have usually been "witty" - TS Eliot, Shel Silverstein, Lawrence Ferlenghetti. I like clever turns of phrase, puns, and surprise endings. Poetry that is playful.

In music I most consistently turn to Alternative Rock for pleasure, but I also really enjoy, Celtic, Latin, Bluegrass, Blues, Gospel, some Jazz, Ragtime... I also have a very warm spot in my heart for musical theater.