Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reading for a year's end: Hearing

Before the old year disappears altogether it's good to acknowledge the 45th anniversary of Mahler, Jonathan Williams's beautiful poem cycle privately published in 1966, written in accompaniment to the composer's ten symphonies. His literary cohort and often-collaborator Guy Davenport called the forty poems composed while listening to the music of Mahler "one of the really lovely things of our time." It was re-published in a larger edition
by Cape Goliard Press in 1969.

In May, 1966, Williams wrote that "the Austrians know little of Mahler ... he is much too much for them, and still is." And while more than 40 years have passed since that observation, Williams's poetic cycle is as vibrant as the music it celebrates.

Unavailable for many years until resurfacing in the collection Jubilant Thicket (2005), Williams's poems respond to the music of Mahler but are not deliberate interpretations. The poet agrees with Paul Stefan in Mahler: A Study of His Personality and Work: "In general, the hearer who interprets rather than listens likes nothing better than to investigate what the composer 'meant' by his works. Of course, he meant nothing whatsoever."

In a note dated December 8, 1967, the poet writes of these poems: "they were written only during the duration of each movement, lest the com-posing (sic) get too elaborated." He goes on to compare the compositional practice to that of an artist who might "draw with the eyes shut, using only the motor faculty while listening with closest attention." Here is the poet listening to the fourth movement of Symphony no. 1, the "Titan": the section is marked, Stormily agitated.

The things seen, the
intervals, and the noises

are nature's, Dr.

"Measure serves for us as the key:

we can measure between objects;

therefore we know that they exist."

lichens on aspens

seen in green

the crack of perception isn't too quick,
the cuckoo's call is tuned by
adrenalin glands,
clouds linked to the world
by lightning and tuning -- it cracks the
stones and melts the heart

the cuckoo takes heart, eye-bright

in blue air, lightning
hits it

Spontaneity was key, and observation paramount; the poet and the artist, seeing with eyes closed, witness more than the world can offer. Did Mahler intend a cuckoo's call, or linking cracked stones and melting hearts? It's romantic imagery fit for a poet, hardly what a composer of symphonies might intend, but the music conjures such ideas when the mind is surprised by the moment of perception. How does the poet put it? The listener observing as sharply as the cuckoo "eye-bright / in blue air."

Williams was a keen observer of nature, and human nature both. He traveled to Innsbruck, Salzberg, Linz, sites linked with Mahler, Bruckner, Webern, Berg, and other Austrian composers -- and found the worldly (and Jewish) Mahler almost an outsider in his own country, better understood "on the Thames or the Hudson, at Portmeirion or in the Rockies," than in his homeland. Williams remarks in his introduction that Mahler was a composer "in whom a very un-Austrian, cosmopolitan, Freudian daimon existed." This dislocation must have appealed to an artist like Williams, who spent a lifetime's career in the North Carolina hills valuing the unexpected, the individual creating art against the grain of expectation.

At end, of course, Mahler's symphonies and Williams' poems share worlds of experience: the visions of William Blake as well as the linden in summer, both the emotion and the intellect (as Williams writes: the commonplace takes us farther and farther / from ourselves / but we are brought back to ourselves / by solitude, / and from ourselves to God / is only a step.) The writer of verses and the composer of symphonies, though they never met, share with us more than they know. From "Primeval Light" (scored "very solemn, but simple"):

... While we slept these kept with us:
the grosbeak's breast in the early sun,
the wood thrush's notes, ants
in the leaves,
mallows in the wind and

dogwoods opening

the world of the little hears little Mahler,
but while we slept
these kept with us

(photo of Jonathan Williams: Dobree Adams, 2003)

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