My mother often told me, and I half-remember it, that when I was a toddler I would listen patiently to her reading poetry for as long as she would do it. It is to this that I attribute my love for writing vocal music. I have always been extraordinarily fascinated by the simple fact that words have their own inherent rhythms without which they can hardly be understood. For me to set words is like setting gemstones, and I always have to choose a setting that makes the sound of the word, not necessarily its meaning, shine to advantage. I know there are other philosophies and methods of text setting, and I don’t disparage them, but I don’t respect them either. Handel and Virgil Thomson are my allies on this point. And the principle was impressed on me by my mother’s voice even before I could read (which was at age four).
My wonderful cousin Ann tells me that as recently as last week my mother recited an entire poem from memory, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I would not stop for death,” on what was virtually her deathbed, following her surgery at Baylor Hospital in McKinney, Texas. The surgery went well, but its aftermath did not. Whether Mom’s funeral, Wednesday, went well was, I suppose, a matter of perspective. The churchly elders who officiated but who hardly knew my mother wreathed her in Christian boilerplate and claptrap that attempted to reduce her to just another devout little old church lady, assuring us that we shouldn’t be sad because she had been welcomed into heaven and was sitting at the right hand of the Father – as though our concern for what she was going through at the moment was uppermost among our anxieties. It was, in bulk, a funeral that would have sufficed for any interchangeable number of old ladies who never missed Sunday school.
My mother was devout and certainly prayerful, and seemed to have become more so in recent years, under the influence, I suspect, of church friends who assailed her from all sides. But she also complained to me that she had to hide from her Baptist friends some of the novels she read, of which they would not have approved. She had an acerbic side and a sarcastic sense of humor, and could manage a sharp tongue. I arranged for some time for the funeral attendees to speak in turn, and at my turn, I rather truculently insisted on reading in its entirety Mom’s favorite poem – “Wild Grapes” by Robert Frost, which she had read to me so many times when I was a boy – even though it was three-and-a-half pages long, even though there were octogenarians standing in the warm Texas sun to wait for me to finish, even though it interrupted the revival-meetin’ atmosphere with a secular intrusion, and with little regard for what her church friends must have thought.
The poem is too well-anthologized and –known to repeat here, but I thought its closing lines were admirably calibrated for ending a funeral:
I had not taken the first step in knowledge;
I had not learned to let go with the hands,
As still I have not learned to with the heart,
And have no wish to with the heart – nor need,
That I can see. The mind – is not the heart.
I may yet live, as I know others live,
To wish in vain to let go with the mind –
Of cares, at night, to sleep; but nothing tells me
That I need learn to let go with the heart.
I read it, as much as I could, with the inflections I remember my mother reading it with. (I can clearly recall, from fifty-five years ago, how she intoned, “I said I had the tree. It wasn’t true. / The opposite was true. The tree had me.”) My voice broke a few times near the end. I don’t know what kind of spectacle I made of myself; several people did thank me afterward. I wish I could tell her that I did it, that I personalized her funeral by revealing what I most learned from her. I had made, to those who could understand it, the point that my mother was not simply a Sunday-school conformist: she had a brain, and wide literary and historical interests, and she thought for herself, and she did not let the bromides of organized religion occupy so large a space in her life as to divide her from the wider world.