Emperor Joseph II: “My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”
Mozart: “How many did you have in mind, your majesty?”
That’s from the film Amadeus, of course. I thought of this scene recently, when I read some very harsh comments by an anonymous referee of an article that I had submitted to a journal.
I write on Latin poetry. So do many others. Naturally, we often disagree. But disagreement is useful, even intelligible, only when we’re actually talking about the same thing. For example, if you say, “That cloud is white,” and I respond, “You’re an idiot: The Godfather is the greatest English-language film of all time,” does it follow that your vision is failing or that you never learned what the word “white” means? Hardly.
The exchange between the emperor and the composer in Amadeus is a version of the same phenomenon. There are artists and people with an artistic sensibility, on the one hand, and then there are folks who count notes, on the other. Or people who judge a painting by how closely it imitates “real” life. Or who read a sacred text such as the Bible or Koran as if it were no different from the instructions accompanying their new Ikea furniture.
Just so in my case.
For me, a poem is its own universe, with its own peculiar laws. In this poem — to pursue the metaphor — the force that keeps your feet on the ground may be gravity. In that poem, it may be inertia. (Perhaps those are the same forces: your dog knows more about physics than I do.) In any case, our challenge as readers is to discover what those laws are, before we ask questions like, “What does this mean? What does it mean for my life and experience?”
You may still be a bit unsure of what I’m getting at. Take Merwin’s poem “Traces,” which supplies me with the title of my blog. (It’s the first post you see when you visit me.) What might Emperor Joseph say about it? That the poem lacks punctuation? That it’s impossible to forget what you remember or to be happy when you are unhappy? That the unusual word “deckled” is clearly an allusion to the New Zealand writer David Davin’s The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947), where he uses the word to refer to the edge of an ash-tray, which via the association with ashes suggests death? Ugh.
What, then, would Mozart say? Would he try to inhabit the poem, in such a way that he could look around and note its insistence on the ideas of movement through space (passage, land, distance, across the stream bed, at the foot of the garden, as we go, following, at no distance) and time (already, many years, sole moment, now, at its age, of that day, then, now, abide, forgotten/remembered, when we were). Would he revel in Merwin’s music, his harmonizing of space and time in such a way that at the end of the poem, like some poeticizing Einstein, he has enabled us to see that they are identical, space and time? After all, how else can you be happy, even when you are not?
It’s the traces of my past, the “signs of a sole moment / of someone’s passage / that surely was mine,” that enable me to collapse space and time in such a way that I can stand in the shoes of my younger self and feel the joy of my anguish: the grief that a loved one was tormented by his own unhappiness, the regret that I had betrayed someone close to me, the fear that my anxieties would never release their grip on me. Why joy? Because I was full of life in those moments, because I mattered to others and they mattered to me, because notwithstanding the difficulties I loved and was loved.
Another way to say this is that the foundation of all poetry is metaphor — expressing one thing or idea in terms of another — and that we can only talk about poetry metaphorically. I’m not Mozart, not even a very distant cousin. But when I read Virgil, I hear the music of the spheres. For some others, if they hear anything, it is the clanking of machinery.