Poems about Music

January 2, 2019

I think that poetry aspires to the power of music: the ability to convey thoughts and emotions directly, head to head and especially heart to heart: wordlessly. And yet poets love words and language, so we make our music out of those. Out of those and lines and white space. It’s very difficult, and almost paradoxical, to write poems about music, when music speaks so beautifully for itself, but I can think of a few poems that manage it. Here’s a favorite of mine, by the Swedish poety Tomas Transtromer (translated by Robert Bly). I hope you’ll post your own favorites, with some commentary about why you chose them.

ALLEGRO

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

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7 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply Robbie Gamble January 2, 2019 at 1:30 pm

    I studied music as an undergrad, and I’ll never forget a bit of graffiti in one of the men’s bathroom stalls behind the practice rooms, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Of course, poets like Transtromer, equally comfortable at keyboards of notes and of letters, have been able to surmount that difficulty and bring those two languages together. I immediately think of Yusef Komunyakaa, too, a poem like “February in Sydney” where the jazz ia apparent in both the meaning and the sonic unwinding of his lines.

    • Avatar
      Reply sharonbryanpoet January 2, 2019 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks for this. I’m having trouble finding a copy of “February in Sydney” to post. Do you have one? If it’s too long could you post an excerpt.

  • Avatar
    Reply Suzanne January 2, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    Here’s one I just found by Robert Haas. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48851/faint-music

    • Avatar
      Reply sharonbryanpoet January 2, 2019 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks, Suzanne. Just what I had in mind.

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    Reply Anne Pitkin January 2, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    Schubertiana. Even though I cannot read him in his original language, Transtromer is my favorite poet of all time, and Schubertiana maybe my favorite poem. It’s too long to quote here but a few lines:

    . . .
    The giant city there is a flickering drift, a spiral galaxy from the side.
    Within the galaxy coffee cups are pushed over the counter. . .

    The final lines–of so many I’d love to quote here–

    . . .the long melody that is itself through all changes,
    sometimes sparkling and gentle, sometimes harsh and strong, snail track and steel wire.

    The persistent humming that follows us this very moment
    up
    the depths.
    tr. Samuel Charters

    I just picked up the nearest one I could find. I think my favorite translation of this is Robert Bly’s. You probably know Transtromer was an accomplished pianist.

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet January 2, 2019 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks for this. One of my favorites too. Yes, I’ve seen clips of him playing. And after his stroke he played music for one hand–you can find it on youtube I think. Amazing.

  • Avatar
    Reply Emily Bobo January 5, 2019 at 10:54 am

    https://www.robert-morgan.com/poems/the-grain-of-sound

    I love the meditation on the ingredients of the instruments and their effects on the quality of sound–the nature of music.

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