Music, Poetry and Meaning
Some program notes to Dubussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" said, "The relationship of music to poetry (at least philosophically) was never closer than in France in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The great symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s attested poetic purpose was ‘to use words in such harmonious combinations as will suggest to the reader a mood or a condition which is not mentioned in the text, but is nevertheless paramount in the poet’s mind at the moment of composition.’ Mallarmé sought to duplicate, through poetry, the effects of music, to do what music did better than any other art, express the inexpressible."
Dubussy’s Prelude was based on Mallarmé’s poem of the same name, and seemed to be an illustration of that statement. Indeed, the poet, upon hearing the music, lavished praise on Dubussy’s artistry in expanding the emotion and description of his poem.
"Expressing the inexpressible" seems almost an oxymoron. And yet on a subtle level it makes sense. We make a big thing of language and the ability of words to define, to point out, to suggest an idea or a feeling, and yet most of us have known times when words simply were not adequate to their task. Meaning is not perfectly communicated by mere words, however eloquent the words might seem.
Music touches us on a different level, bypassing our left-brain literal sense. In a way, it seems to reach to a deeper place where words cannot go. Still, we try. As Mallarmé describes his own attempts, sometimes the effect is not contained in the literal meaning of the words so much as in unspoken suggestion.
I think one has to learn how to close one’s literal eyes in order to appreciate such poetry. Personally, I tend to stumble too much on the furniture of the words, and lose the deeper meaning of poetry. Much as I’d like to sense the music in, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets, I find myself looking under rocks for something more concrete.
It’s easier for me to grasp meanings in the lyrics of songs. Perhaps the music guides me. An example of this is Paul Simon’s 1966 song "Dangling Conversation:" Audio clip of this verse.
The images are mostly concrete, and they do culminate in a scene and a mood. But more, they get under our literal translation if we can let them, to suggest tragedy itself. A relationship, frozen and lifeless. Once you sense this, you read or hear the lyrics in a different way. You’re inside feeling the loss, rather than outside merely observing its surface. For me, it’s the dead monotony of the music that does it, arousing something already inside me that can resonate with the words.
I most often feel these particular lyrics when I’m disappointed or lonely. Perhaps those people who never feel that deadness (and I guess there are those) might not "get" this song at all, and might hear it as simply maudlin. If one plays the melody of this song on a piano, it comes across as simplistic. The monotony is broken only in mid-stanza, where the singer raises his voice to wail briefly, only to fall back once more to the deadness. Hopelessness is the underlying theme, both in the music and the words.
To the poetically sophisticated, this may be a poor example; there are volumes of better poetry better equipped to reach under our defenses and lay bare our emotions. Poetry is a language consisting not only of words but of rhythm and other figurative and structural components, each of which contributes to the "real" meaning. Putting poetry to music might be to some people like attaching training wheels to a bicycle—it merely delays the development of necessary skills.
The same thing might be said from the musician’s point of view. Another familiar example: One needs to know only the rough outline of the story to be moved deeply by the final scene of Madame Butterfly, even if the words themselves are sung in Italian (perhaps especially so). The emotional power is in the music.
My guess is that few people are born with an ear for either music or poetry. Meaning comes from context, not just the context of the work of art but the context within the hearer.
Many years ago a lover sent me an audio tape, in which she read poetry to me, interspersed with bits of more-or-less popular music. We had been separated for several months, and missed each other. At the end of one reading (I’ve forgotten the text), she inserted an excerpt from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly, a rock band. I’d never heard the music before, not yet having been exposed to much rock. The excerpt was a section of drum solo, beginning with single strikes of drumsticks on the rim of the drumhead, then proceeding into a ten-minute crescendo of wild drum, keyboard and vocals. Her intent may have been simply, "Here’s an interesting piece." The effect on me, however, was powerful. To this day (thirty-five years later), hearing that drum solo still raises the hair on my arms. Audio clip of the solo.
Why? I’m not sure. It had to do with context—the context that existed in my own mind and heart, coupled with the context of the audio program, coupled with the context of our relationship and our current separation.
Not long ago I found in a used music store a special album of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, in which was collected several versions of the music, both studio-produced and live performances. In the middle of the live performances that tap, tap, tap of the drumsticks on the rim of the drumhead brought immediate cheers from the audiences—cheers that continued for minutes until drowned out by the building music. So it wasn’t just me who responded to that solo. But I’ll never forget that audio tape, or that woman, or that roller-coaster relationship.
Meaning, perhaps, is imprinted in our souls, or hearts, or wherever it is that deep feelings are stored. Experiences that go there most readily are apt to slip past our verbal filters, even if on the surface they involve words. It may not even be a place, for we don’t have words to denote accurately what it is. All we can say for certain is that it is. There’s no one alive who has not responded to something experienced—music or poetry or a glance from a stranger—that simply could not be explained in words.
Somehow, one just feels, with poet Robert Frost, who "took the road less traveled by,"--acknowledging his own unique collection of filters--to see more clearly " . . . and that has made all the difference."
May 6, 2004