Poet Laureate

Checking out our new U.S. poet laureate Louise Gluck (daughter of the inventor of the X-Acto knife, and I’m going to figure out a clever comment about that if it kills me), I came across the following statement by the Laureate herself, which made me like her:

The poet is supposed to be the person who can’t get enough of words like “incarnadine.” This was not my experience. From the time, at four or five or six, I first started reading poems, first thought of the poets I read as my companions, my predecessors, from the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary. What fascinated me were the possibilities of context. What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word’s setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word’s full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise; such language, in being generic, is likely to contain the greatest and most dramatic variety of meaning within individual words.

I’m much in sympathy with this. In music, too, simple units are so much more evocative than complicated ones. That’s what makes Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps so effective – it places simple, memorable melodic bits (Russian folk song fragments, actually), drawn mostly from the pentatonic scale (black-notes on the piano), in bizarre, unfamiliar, dissonant contexts. Player-piano pioneer Conlon Nancarrow, too, uses almost nothing but ridiculously simple melodic motifs like (in notes) C-D-F and A-C-B to build up massive complexes of different tempos and sound masses going at the same time. Melodies of simple quarter-notes and eighth-notes are so much more eloquent than the ubiquitous rushed “grupetti” (quintuplets, septuplets and such) that became obligatory in mid-20th-century music. Simple elements draw you into the music and help you identify with it, creating a human presence in a soundworld that could then be as bizarre as you wanted.

The opposite kind of music is that like Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maitre and most of the serialist music that followed it, along with Elliott Carter’s works like the Double Concerto. That music’s units are wide-ranging, rhythmically irregular, and angular, difficult to remember except in the most generic way, as thrown-off gestures. They feel alien to the listener, and repel him. They are the musical equivalent of words like “incarnadine,” or better yet perhaps “incarnadinississimotudeness.” Significantly, that kind of music is most popular in academia, where there are also plenty of people who love seeing big, portentous words tossed around.

What Gluck so aptly points out, that I’d never thought about before, is that it’s the simple, common words that possess a surprisingly large range of meaning and connotation, while the elaborate ones are so much more restricted and lacking in resonance. Likewise, a simple D-B-E-B motive in Stravinsky can have many different connotations depending on musical context, but the 12-tone row that opens Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet can mean little besides a vague anxiety no matter what you surround it with.

Happily, Gluck’s own poetry illustrates her point beautifully, especially her use of rhythm (timing, pacing) to make a simple word seem surprising. I’m glad to become acquainted with her work.