poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz (with 8-string stuff)
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Does Greatness Require Difficulty?

If what one means is that there is always difficult work to do in preparation for doing great work in some field and, sometimes, even more difficulty in the production of some particular great work in that field, I’m on board.

But in a fine essay at The London Review of Books , “Is Wagner bad for us?,” Nicholas Spice says this near the end:

The compression of information characteristic of much great music, the speed at which it passes, the bewildering density and delicacy of its over-determination, makes it difficult in the way that poetry is difficult. Like poetry, music deflects our gaze. It is an elusive medium which we grasp only partially through an endless process of interpretation.”

I know that’s meant as a compliment to poetry, but I’m glad for that “much” immediately before “great music,’ and I’d be very glad for a similar qualifier applied to “poetry.”

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7 comments

1 MAS { 03.29.13 at 12:31 pm }

Sounds like a thesis title to me….

2 judy { 05.12.13 at 9:07 am }

It also explains why all but the simplest of poems is nearly always, like the Bible or Shakespeare, open to interpretation and analysis. The interpretation depends on a reader’s maturity, sophistication (or lack), likes and dislikes, sense of what is or may be behind the poem (that hidden layer) or the motivation of the writer both in what he chooses to present and what choices if any that he made between first draft and final poem.

You can enjoy and even appreciate a piece of music in as passive a mode as you want or need, as background, or direct Listening To, or as a study object.

Poetry on the other hand has to be experienced directly, words on the page or spoken in some way, making it impossible to ignore the way you can background music. I think that involvement in the poem in order to appreciate it colors our choices of what to read and how to interpret it.

Music ‘”travels” faster than poetry, and if you stop to listen to one passage over and over you often miss the flow of the entire piece. In poetry the speed with which it is absorbed is directly related to how fast we read, interpret, or absorb it. A good poem can be reread over and over, in whole or in part, and depending on the day, the mood, and how one feels, can be interpreted differently every time we read a piece. We set the pace in reading, and retain a sense of control.

3 judy { 06.14.13 at 5:43 am }

i was looking for my original comment and can’t find it, mike. Was it taken down?

4 Mike { 06.14.13 at 5:53 am }

Not by me, Judy.

5 Mike { 06.14.13 at 5:59 am }

And nobody else has permissions. Must be some kind of glitch at the hosting service.

6 upinvermont { 09.25.13 at 9:39 am }

Hi Mike,

Long time no see. Forgive me. I get all wrapped up in my own little hermit-like existence (and will again).

As to essay: Well, I guess I wasn’t that impressed. He does alright when he describes his reaction to Wagner’s music [yawn], but there’s lots of pseudo-intellectual, rhetorical posing. And the first part of that quote you didn’t include really irritated me:

” When someone complains that they cannot understand atonal music, I am prompted to wonder what in tonal music they have understood.”

Yes. Exactly. I suppose he *would* be “prompted” to wonder. But then he goes off into more pseudo-intellectual mysticism:

“On the surface, where melody and harmony follow recognisable routines, we feel we know what is being said. But this familiarity is deceptive, if not a barrier to understanding. ”

Blah, blah, blah… Apparently, it doesn’t occur to him to ask *why* the “routines”, as he calls them, are “recognizable”. Instead, he veers off into a quasi-metaphysical airy-fairy-land essentially saying: “Ah, well, it’s just too complicated for me to explain. I’ll just say something that sounds intelligent, and that you *don’t* know, and we’ll agree that this so-called “understanding” would explain everything.”

You hear the same sort of bullshit when Ashbery is discussed.

The reason atonal music is about as popular as root canals (which some nevertheless enjoy) comes down to human evolution and the ability to speak — a.k.a language. Really, it’s not rocket science. I think people have known this for centuries, intuitively. Science, in the meantime, has been thankfully clarifying the matter. Our predilection for certain kinds of music is far from random. Google this: “The Biological Link Between Music and Speech.”

The reason these kinds of assertions piss me off so much is that I used to hear it all the time when I was growing up. It was always: Well, if you don’t like X,Y, or Z, it’s because you’ve been acculturated not to. “My, or (insert artist’s name) (insert “music,” “poetry,” “art,” ) is “great”, you just don’t know it. You don’t ‘understand’ it.”

Then this:

“The compression of information characteristic of much great music, the speed at which it passes, the bewildering density and delicacy of its over-determination, makes it difficult in the way that poetry is difficult. Like poetry, music deflects our gaze. It is an elusive medium which we grasp only partially through an endless process of interpretation.”

What a bunch of twaddle. I don’t know where to begin…. I mean, if you really try to parse what he’s saying, it’s meaningless drivel. What does “density” or “delicacy” mean? What does “over-determination” mean? What does it mean that “music deflects our gaze”? When you try to boil it down, you end up with nothing in the pot.

Some of the greatest poems in our language are so simple that we wonder why we didn’t write them ourselves. And they have nothing whatsoever in common with the fugual finale of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. :-)

7 upinvermont { 09.25.13 at 9:40 am }

Hi Mike,

Long time no see. Forgive me. I get all wrapped up in my own little hermit-like existence (and will again).

As to essay: Well, I guess I wasn’t that impressed. He does alright when he describes his reaction to Wagner’s music [yawn], but there’s lots of pseudo-intellectual, rhetorical posing. And the first part of that quote you didn’t include really irritated me:

” When someone complains that they cannot understand atonal music, I am prompted to wonder what in tonal music they have understood.”

Yes. Exactly. I suppose he *would* be “prompted” to wonder. But then he goes off into more pseudo-intellectual mysticism:

“On the surface, where melody and harmony follow recognisable routines, we feel we know what is being said. But this familiarity is deceptive, if not a barrier to understanding. ”

Blah, blah, blah… Apparently, it doesn’t occur to him to ask *why* the “routines”, as he calls them, are “recognizable”. Instead, he veers off into a quasi-metaphysical airy-fairy-land essentially saying: “Ah, well, it’s just too complicated for me to explain. I’ll just say something that sounds intelligent, and that you *don’t* know, and we’ll agree that this so-called “understanding” would explain everything.”

You hear the same sort of bullshit when Ashbery is discussed.

The reason atonal music is about as popular as root canals (which some nevertheless enjoy) comes down to human evolution and the ability to speak — a.k.a language. Really, it’s not rocket science. I think people have known this for centuries, intuitively. Science, in the meantime, has been thankfully clarifying the matter. Our predilection for certain kinds of music is far from random. Google this: “The Biological Link Between Music and Speech.”

The reason these kinds of assertions piss me off so much is that I used to hear it all the time when I was growing up. It was always: Well, if you don’t like X,Y, or Z, it’s because you’ve been acculturated not to. “My, or (insert artist’s name) (insert “music,” “poetry,” “art,” ) is “great”, you just don’t know it. You don’t ‘understand’ it.”

Then this:

“The compression of information characteristic of much great music, the speed at which it passes, the bewildering density and delicacy of its over-determination, makes it difficult in the way that poetry is difficult. Like poetry, music deflects our gaze. It is an elusive medium which we grasp only partially through an endless process of interpretation.”

What a bunch of twaddle. I don’t know where to begin…. I mean, if you really try to parse what he’s saying, it’s meaningless drivel. What does “density” or “delicacy” mean? What does “over-determination” mean? What does it mean that “music deflects our gaze”? When you try to boil it down, you end up with nothing in the pot.

Some of the greatest poems in our language are so simple that we wonder why we didn’t write them ourselves. And they have nothing whatsoever in common with the fugual finale of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.

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