16.IX.12/Roanoke (for James, on his birthday)
We call a hole a grave if we value what goes into it, a mine if we value what comes out.
The instrument at hand. (The instrument. The hand.)
No snide experiment. A broken filament like a pearl must be drawn from the lip of a bruised music.
from “What Is a Threnody” in Archicembalo by G. C. Waldrep (Tupelo, 2009)
Poetry and opera may be the two most “specialized” forms of “classical” art in human culture. Each inspires a cult-like devotion and a seemingly exclusive obsession among its practitioners, amateurs and patrons alike. To those ignorant or suspicious of poetry or opera, such ritual stylization may be an obstacle to the exploration of these rarified genres.
One of the signifiers and qualifiers of greatness is its ability to reward repeated readings, hearings or viewings. Shakespeare’s plays continue to enrich and enthrall – and even entertain – us as we spend more time with the Bard and his work. Cervantes rightly observed that Don Quixote should be read across the span of a lifetime. A young man might marvel at the adventures while one in mid-life will laugh at human folly and an old man will cry with recognition, regret and the compassion borne of wisdom.
At the risk of over-generalization we would submit the majority of great art – poetry, literature, music, theatre and the so-called “visual” or “plastic” arts of painting and sculpture – is “accessible,” approachable and immediate in its appeal.
Let’s examine this essay’s epigram above. G. C. Waldrep’s musical gamut of cryptic poetry is not as “hermetically sealed” as an initial reading might imply. Titles – like names – are important clues. That Wagner’s rootless sea-faring wanderer Der Fliegende Holländer (the Flying Dutchman) is known by a legendary title rather than a name is hugely significant to who he is. Likewise, Waldrep drops clues across the lily pads of his "leapfrogging" poems. A threnody is literally a song of lament (from the Greek threnoidia – threnos = lament; odia = ode). This is clue number one.
The first line from which we’ve drawn our epigram is an example of one of poetry’s sharpest blades: the proverb, aphorism or dictum. We call a hole a grave if we value what goes into it… One of the paradoxical parallels and contrasts between Wagner’s Dutchman and the romantic archetype of the “undead” (familiar in the trope of the Vampire) is found in their distinctive “crypts.” The vampire sleeps in a coffin, representing her earthly origins and the grave out of which she arises. The ghost pirate descends into the bosom of the sea itself. We are also intrigued by the frequency with which vampires in their coffins are transported by ship across the sea. This reinforces the parallels between the varying types of “undead” in romantic and gothic art…
Waldrep’s line, A broken filament like a pearl must be drawn from the lip of a bruised music is lyric poetry first – musical, melodic and possessed of a sensuous beauty that is best appreciated by being recited aloud. Like opera, its physical sound alone is central to whatever its “meaning” or “interpretation” is. The poetic sentence is bookended by adjectives of vulnerability – broken, bruised – which evoke a wound that may be both real and symbolic. Both readings reinforce the lamenting song of the poem's title.
We believe many potential lovers of poetry and music – the oldest forms of art we know, predating the drawings which among other activities depict music making – get stuck in a quicksand of the imagination. The false myth that these forms require advanced degrees and a specialized knowledge to be enjoyed persists. One may prefer “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” to Waldrep’s verbal and musical experiments, but to dismiss poetry as an opaque or difficult or nonsensical genre says far more about the ignorance of a would-be amateur afraid of an unfamiliar genre than it does about the qualitative differences between traditional sonnets and modern verse. Likewise, the number of potential opera patrons who have never experienced a great opera live yet maintain they “don’t like opera” will always confound us even if it has ceased to surprise.
The Flying Dutchman is an example of a great opera around which much false myth stubbornly clings like kudzu preventing many an eye from appreciating the beautiful details that have always been present. One 19th century conductor said the wind from Wagner’s romantic seafaring adventure story whips one in the face every time one opens the score. Indeed, its defining motive – the mirror inversion of the arresting leap with which Beethoven launches his great 9th Symphony (the “Ode to Joy”) – will be familiar to not only opera lovers but to anyone who’s listened to Bugs Bunny’s and Elmer Fudd’s hilarious operatic send up, “What’s Opera Doc.” (Yes, it’s on YouTube. The 4’ minute “music video” features a pastiche of Wagner from The Flying Dutchman to Die Walküre, Siegfried, Tannhaüser and back again…)
Let us conclude with another demystifying clarification we may later explore in more depth. The plots of operas are frequently fantastic and require the same willing suspension of disbelief necessary to appreciate many works of fiction in media as varied as film, theatre, television and all kinds of literature. As the scholar Robert Donington puts it, “it is the opera we are enjoying and not just the music.” Wagner was among the first composers of music drama to refer to his written scenario as a poem (an operatic libretto is like a script or a screenplay). The Flying Dutchman was his first masterpiece and major success. It was the operatic ship that launched an extraordinary and endlessly fascinating body of work. This singular marriage of poetry and music in the theatrical medium of opera is among the most immediate and most powerful of artistic media human creativity has imagined.