18 September 2009

The Aural Aesthetic

Today I read, in my French textbook, this lovely little poem by Paul Verlaine. I apologize to any French readers/speakers for the lack of accents in this transcription.

Il pleure dans mon coeur

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville,
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui penetre mon ceour?

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie
O le chant de la pluie!

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s'ecoeure.
Quoi! nulle trahison?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C'est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi,
Sans amour et sans haine,
Mon coeur a tant de peine.

Now, reading this poetry brought to mind some old questions about the nature of art, in response to the lovely sounds of the words. I found I was compelled to read it out loud to myself, enjoying the many rhymes, assonances, and consonances. My simple, sensory pleasure at the sounds was enhanced by my elementary comprehension of French. I am able to translate this poem, with a little dictionary help, but my first response is to the sounds, not the sense. And that distance, that primal response driven by the ear and not the mind, gives me a fresh perspective on poetry.

This reminds me of the first poetry writing workshop I ever took, to which (on the first or second day) we were each asked to bring in and read a favorite poem. I read Hopkins' "Windhover," a poem packed with auditory pleasures. The teacher asked each of us why we had chosen that particular poem, what we liked about it. I was in the throes of just learning to really read and understand poetry, and I could not have accurately paraphrased every phrase of that dense work with precision. I said, "I just love the sounds. Even when I'm not sure exactly 'what it means,' it moves me as a piece of music does. I believe I would love this poem just as much if I didn't know English." And now, here I am barely knowing French, and being musically moved by the sounds of these verses.

I do not have the knowledge to make a literary critique of the Verlaine poem. For all I know, it might be bad poetry. It kind of strikes me that way -- very simple, rather cliched, kind of emo. But my ignorance holds me at a distance, to the point that the individual dots (like those in a Monet) blur and render the entirety that much more beautiful.

I will probably always participate in some way or other in the debates about "What is art?" and "How do we measure artistic quality?" Those debates are valid, perennial, and important. But tonight I was reminded that simple pleasure is one measure of artistic quality. And pleasure of the ear is as important as pleasure of the mind.


Teresa said...

I've recently gotten engaged in discussions with Ofer and Barbara, a friend of mine, in regards to what constitutes a great song. At the simplest level, we all agreed that the best songs combine beautiful, compelling sound with complex, well-written lyrics, regardless of the category of song. (e.g. Alison Krauss) But those songs are few and far between, and we find ourselves enjoying songs that have only one of those two qualifications. For me, a song need only have beautiful or interesting sound to engage me; the words can be non-existent, meaningless jumble, etc. (e.g. the Red Hot Chili Peppers) But Ofer and Barb are both more interested in listening to songs with well-written lyrics, even if they aren't engaged by the tune itself.

I think they're the exceptions to the rule, however. I know many more people who wouldn't be able to sing more than two words from a song (and would misquote those lines at that) but can hum the tune with dedication. I believe there's something in the human make-up that wants to create connections between words, make them flow into a kind of music, before we begin to comprehend meaning.

Iambic Admonit said...

Teresa: I agree! I am extremely compelled by lyrics, but also find it easier to memorize a tune than the words. I think melody is somehow more basic, more natural, to the human artistic urge than text. That would explain why, according to anthropologists, poetry developed before prose (and it was all sung poetry, at first); when humans did begin to write texts, they wrote rhythmic/melodic texts first, and only later (apparently) detached words from music.

Rosie Perera said...

I am looking forward to hearing the Beatles Remastered. Why are Beatles songs so great? The tunes are fantastic. The words don't always make great sense, but when they do they are profound, and when they don't they at least sound pleasurable.

Here's an excellent article from The Telegraph on why the Beatles are still cool.