Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Music – Poetry

Recently, I have been learning (or trying to learn) to play classical guitar. I had piano lessons years ago, so I have some grasp of basic musical theory, but everything is still pretty new. I can see that the music wants me to play an F and a D together, but I end up staring at the fretboard wondering how to play both of those at the same time. It forces me to slow down and think about which notes I'm playing; gives me a chance to wonder why.

The first poetry I remember enjoying is the dwarves' songs at the beginning of Tolkien's The Hobbit. I read them more as poems than as songs, but they carry music in their wording and are generally delightful. They did not, however, give me much cause to think about what poetry is all about, since they follow every convention of structure and metre and rhyme that I understood at the time. Those, it seemed to me, were poems. The newfangled free verse stuff that my English book went on about was not.

It worried me that the great fount of wisdom that was Comprehensive English Practice: Grade 6 said (or seemed to say) that breaking writing up onto lots more lines than were needed made it poetry. (It doesn't, of course, but what does make it poetry is rather subtler.) Somewhere in the middle of that textbook is Seamus Heaney's Storm on the Island. I don't think it's exactly a difficult poem. It works at face value; it is not the kind of poem that describes a ship without mentioning the ship and is not in fact about a ship at all. It is quite a complicated poem, because it largely describes what isn't there. (Which is rather the point.) It hits a balance point that eleven-year-old me had to think about, but could understand.

I am learning to play an étude by Dionisio Aguado. It is not, in the grand scheme of things, very difficult at all, but it is quite a challenge for me. I am pleased when I work out how to play another bar and delighted when I can pick up the patterns of the music. Oh, this is the same chord, but with the A an octave lower and I keep playing this sequence because it's the broken-chord A minor triad and the piece is written in A minor! I can't find a melody line in my étude, but when I have to slow down to think about it, I can find patterns in it. And then, hopefully, I can take those patterns back to the sweep of the music played as quickly and flowingly as it should be, so that I can see the weave without forgetting the warp and the weft.

Sometimes art is at least as much thinking as feeling.


  1. I LOVE the dwarf songs in The Hobbit. I was beyond psyched to see the songs would have a greater significance in the upcoming movie <3

    I've never been musically inclined myself; I can barely read sheet music, let alone play it.

  2. Huh, I would've said learning to read music without playing it was harder than doing both together. I wouldn't say I'm really musical, but I still find it satisfying to play just for myself.

    The dwarves are awesome! I just wish we heard more about them.

  3. This makes me think I was a stupid 11 year old =P

  4. Tux is also feeling stupid, because you cut his brains off in the picture. :P Obviously neither of you are actually stupid; that's incompatible with being a comp. sci. geek.