Pete Unseth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
I don’t usually write to music. I’m too susceptible; I find it can give what I’m writing a false, unearned resonance, like slipping a poem into Garamond to make it “better.” But there are two songs that are rhythmic enough, each in their own way, that I sometimes put on a loop when I’m revising. There’s something about the cadence and the breath in them that works for me, that creates a kind of chamber that keeps the outside world at bay. And though I’ve heard “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” (a quote so apt, it’s attributed to no less than a dozen people), here goes:
“Spiegel im Spiegel,” 1978—Arvo Pärt
The piece—in English, “Mirror in the Mirror”—begins with a simple ascending arpeggio, little triads that subtly alter, reflected back and forth like light on water, a mirror looking into a mirror. The melody stretches over and through the scales, extending like a long breath. The left hand on the piano arrives, eventually and sparingly, to ground the upward yearning, trees reaching toward light from the roots. The work is minimal in its composition, yet never fails to tug me out of my momentary preoccupations into a broader sense of time, drawing me into eternity through the little window of now. There are many beautiful recordings, but Angèle Dubeau’s version is a good place to begin, I think. If you put it on and close your eyes, everything will soon feel softer.
“Fleurette Africaine,” 1962—Duke Ellington
Mingus starts the song with a spiraling, skeletal stuttering on the upright bass, a sleeping animal rousing itself, a little tousled. It’s all very organic, the rise and fall of a breathing body. Ellington’s piano wanders in, elegant, stately. Max Roach’s drumming is the nest—he drums around the song as much as into it—weaving the thatch that holds the bird that sings the song.
—Michael Bazzett, author of “Autobiography of a Poet”
When Charles Simic died recently, I pulled his books from my shelf and reread them from the beginning. I thought I had long ago metabolized his poetry, but it turns out those early collections, especially, could still shake me. Simic, who grew up in Belgrade during the 1940s, lived in the vortex of the greatest horrors and atrocities of the twentieth century. His poems neither name nor catalog these historical particulars; instead, those events exert a pressure on the poetry by lurking just off stage, as though they have only just happened, or are about to. Simic had no interest in being the hero of his own poems, which are typically delivered from the perspective of a mystified fool gazing at the object world, uncovering its ancient and terrifying wisdom—those deeper dream meanings. His is a poetry so unlike our current period style! It provides the best reading experience: enchanting, unsettling. Start with Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, though any of his books from the late 1970s or early 1980s will do. Each is a marvel.
—Dobby Gibson, author of “Small Craft Talk”
You can read our Art of Poetry interview with Simic here.
Here’s an experience I can’t exactly recommend but which has its particular pleasures: getting really sick, lying flat on your back with an eyeshade on in the afternoon, and listening to the audiobook of Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast. I did that for the first time when I had a concussion in college while I was forced to lie in a dark room for a week without reading or writing. I have no idea why I chose this particular text. Whenever I have tried to pick up the actual book, I am less sympathetic to it—I find it treacly, which it often is. But listening to it, especially in a state of heightened vulnerability and self-pity, I am moved by its cadences and easy romance. One passage, on skiing, that I like to listen to, but which works alright on the page too:
I remember all the kinds of snow that the wind could make and their different treacheries when you were on skis. Then there were the blizzards when you were in the high Alpine hut and the strange world that they would make where we had to make our route as carefully as though we had never seen the country. We had not, either, as it all was new. Finally towards spring there was the great glacier run, smooth and straight, forever straight if our legs could hold it, our ankles locked, we running so low, leaning into the speed, dropping forever and forever in the silent hiss of the crisp powder.
—Sophie Haigney, web editor
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