Writings about Music
Thoughts So Sublime: Helen Vendler Invents
I don’t have time to go into much detail about this. After all, I am a composer, and when I turn to prose its mostly about music. Simply put, Helen Vendler’s writing is often better than the poetry she writes about. There are poets of genius she investigates along with dimmer lights, yet even within the former category there is an advantage she seizes to conquer: the present time, and more recent past, along with its cumulative, international preponderance of artistic and scientific creativity.Vendler’s words and sentences ring just like music, infused with enchanting rhythms, melodies and tone colors. Somehow she manages to get the meaning of what she’s focusing on exact too, even if that sometimes seems a relatively unimportant byproduct of her prodigious improvisational flights. Yes, improvisation. Because one can actually feel her spontaneously articulating into sound or imagined sound precisely the exact word or phrase called for to shine her vision in the manner of Shivkumar Sharma, Pandit Jasraj or Lee Konitz illuminating swaras (tones) and musical sentences.
Helen Vendler’s vocabulary itself is unmatched too, but it really comes down to the absolute magic, artistry and science of what she achieves in her writing: A miracle of human creativity. And the poetry by itself without her music is often merely anecdotal.
But it is ironic how Vendler gave up poetry to write about poetry, and ended up surpassing poetry!
It’s also ironic that the only living wordsmith in league with her is a musician-poet who there is no evidence of her admiring: Bob Dylan; the reason being that Dylan’s poetry is intrinsically and irrevocably tied to his music; and his singing voice, and thus the music too, except when performed by others, perhaps, is sometimes repellent (I feel they are completely missing the point, of course) to many of a certain generation to which Vendler belongs. If someone happens to know that Vendler does admire Dylan’s music and lyrics kindly let me know!
My words used in my title here, thoughts so sublime, were found in the song Mississippi by Bob Dylan.
Several years ago, when I had a question regarding the poetry of William Butler Yeats, I happened upon a random Yeats expert online, and received a most impressive reply. This is how a correspondence with Helen Vendler began, and it was thoroughly enjoyable and educational too. She was even generous enough to send some kind words about my music.
Helen Vendler commenting on Nagamani: "Thank you for the notes and the music, with its shimmering version of the music of the spheres."
Helen Vendler commenting on Mian Ki Malhar: "Thank you for the notes and the music, with its shimmering version of the music of the spheres."
I wish that Harvard would videotape her lectures and allow everyone to watch them on YouTube!
This piece was written in Rhinebeck, New York on 16 July 2015, and I am finally getting around to posting it now, a year from Friday, as it were. Some of the delay was certainly due to my being away from home and my computer. But when I did get back there was a degree of hesitation because my subject matter was outside the realm of music and I recognized how unconventional my views were. Rereading my piece a year later, I realized how much in agreement I still was in both heart and mind. This favorite quote from Yeats is recalled: “I hate reasonable people the activity of their brains sucks up all the blood out of their hearts. I was once afraid of turning out reasonable myself. The only business of the head in the world is to bow a ceaseless obeisance to the heart.”
- Michael Robinson, Los Angeles, July 2016
© 2016 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Postlude: After sending this essay to some leading literary figures, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 13, 2016. Just a coincidence, no doubt, but after I wrote about Ad Reinhardt there were some changes made.
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).