Friday, February 17, 2012

The "primal cry" in poetry and song

I'm singing settings of Thomas Hardy and Robert Louis Stevenson poetry by the British composers Gerald Finzi, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams this Sunday, February 19, at 2:30 pm at Grandin Ct. Baptist Church (2660 Brambleton Ave, Roanoke). Rather than a series of program notes, what follows is a winding philosophical & literary essay inspired by one of the poetic themes in Hardy's lyrical poetry.

A through-line is a theme recurring in a work of art, particularly in the media of literature, drama and film. It has been likened to the spine of the work. It has musical equivalents (or cousins) in Berlioz’s obsessive idée fixe and the “fate” motives of composers from Beethoven to Wagner and beyond.

I believe one of the through-lines enlivening and unifying a large body of various artistic media is the primal cry. The uninhibited “yawp” Robin Williams demonstrates to his timid English students in the film Dead Poets Society is the primal cry. It is present in the emotionally fervent poetry of Walt Whitman and it is the theme of Allen Ginsberg’s infamous Whitmanian ode, Howl. The primal cry is uttered in many an operatic mad scene and orchestral cadenza, especially when the raw emotion of the human voice is evoked by a solo violin or cello. The primal cry has soul and permeates the blues. It is heard at the wailing wall and embodied in archetypal images of the weeping mother. The unmistakable quality of lament and the cry of unmitigated joy are both expressions of this primal outburst.

It wells up from the pit of the stomach, and its raw, uncensored ventilation turns heads when it sounds in public. It upsets decorum. My graduate school mentor Joseph Flummerfelt was the first teacher and artist to articulate it in my life. He often spoke of “the gathering at the core” of our being “which allows us to connect to the primal outcry – that longing which lives within each of us.” (Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt, Donald Nally. Scarecrow, 2010).

Perhaps the primary reason our civilization requires artistic expression for its health and survival is to experience that connection with the core of being. The expression of that primordial longing within each of us triggers what the original Greek dramatists referred to as catharsis. The Jungian psychotherapist and author James Hollis describes tragedy as a “summons to consciousness.” The primal cry is one cathartic means of summoning those deepest emotions of human life from the recessive depths into the light.

The catharsis of emotion was at the fore of the Romantic movement across the arts. It is hardly surprising that the reconnection to classical ideals of ancient myth and drama was of primary import, especially in literature and theater.

As the industrial revolution hastened modernization throughout the 19th century, Janus-faced artists emerged and interpreted the changing times. In such a context, the primal cry might sound as a call to embrace the progress of both science and the humanities while warning against a reactionary tendency to cling to obsolete concepts and beliefs. One such Janus-faced visionary was the author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who summarized one of the aesthetic challenges of the day:

Artistic effort always pays heavily for finding its tragedies in the forced adaptation of human instincts to rusty and irksome moulds that do not fit them.

One of the remarkable aspects of Hardy’s career was his equal success as both novelist and poet. Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the Durbervilles and Jude the Obscure changed the landscape of the 19th century English novel and were as controversial as they were influential. Hardy’s unflinching look at the hypocrisy of traditional social mores, especially within and around the church, and his frank assessment of adult relationships, including infidelity and “family planning” made him many enemies in the so-called polite society of his day.

Upon hearing a copy of his novel Jude the Obscure had been burnt by a bishop, he wryly commented such an act was done “in despair at not being able to burn me.”

The nagging criticism and incessant censuring contributed to one of the greatest writers of fiction in the English language abandoning the craft mid-career and turning to the more abstract medium of verse. His poetry is equal to his fiction, while picking up the through-line of the novels and distilling their essence through meter and rhyme.

The Complete Poems edition in my library has 947 entries. The 489th is The Choirmaster’s Burial, a poem that inspired in Benjamin Britten one of his best songs, an art song many consider the single finest in the canon. The poem takes the form of a romantic ballad, a story or tale in miniature. The crux of Hardy’s lyric scene is the death of a beloved music director, the parish choirmaster. The story is told by an old tenor from the choir who bears a resemblance to Hardy’s own grandfather. Britten wrote the song for his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, reinforcing the personal resonances of the poem. After the “tenor man” shares the choirmaster’s wish to have a favorite Psalm tune played at his funeral, the Vicar dissembles for reasons of thrift, expedience and convenience, if not unspoken spite. Britten’s music hurries along at this point in the narration:

Hence, that afternoon,
Though never knew he
That his wish could not be,
To get through it faster
They buried the master
Without any tune.

The poem closes with a scene of visionary rapture that silences the parsimonious cleric by elevating the generous-spirited musician, a metaphor for the artist and society both witty and profound.

At the dead of next night
The vicar looked out,
There struck on his ken
Thronged roundabout,
Where the frost was graying
The headstoned grass,
A band all in white
Like the saints in church-glass,
Singing and playing
The ancient stave
By the choirmaster’s grave.

The poem’s personnel remind me of a wonderful novella by the contemporary British novelist Hilary Mantel. Fludd tells the story of a visionary curate who upsets a local village in desperate need of transformation. In a line that could be an updated version of Hardy, Sister Philomena muses on an example of dusty, unexamined tradition and quips, “Christ died to free us from the burden of our sin, but he never, so far as she could see, lifted a finger to free us from our stupidity.”

Another through-line across the romantic period and into the modern era is the nexus of innocence and experience. William Blake’s poetry is a beacon of English verse from any period. The “Songs of Innocence and Experience” could also be understood as a dialectic of intuition and cognition, spirit and intellect, or feeling and thought. The pragmatic and business-minded vicar in Hardy’s ballad represents the so-called wisdom of experience, while the ever-romantic artist represents the innocence of pure feeling. The romantic poets looked back to the Greek world where the gods lived and moved among humankind. Their “innocent” project can be read as an attempt to prevent encroaching modernism from siphoning off mystery through political, scientific or industrial “experience.” Books have been written about the subject. For starters I commend Julian Jaynes’ seminal The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and a contemporary response to it, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World, by Iain McGilchrist.

Hardy and Britten both weave these threads of innocence and experience throughout their works, and one poem in particular unites our theme with a culminating primal cry. Before Life and After is the closing song in Britten’s cycle of Hardy poems, which the composer called Winter Words. The poem’s setting is an imaginary landscape:

A TIME there was – as one may guess
And as, indeed, earth’s testimonies tell-
Before the birth of consciousness,
When all went well.

Hardy’s tongue-in-cheek irony is present, and this poet’s verse in general offers example upon example of the intelligence required for an appreciation of genuine wit. Another through-line uniting various media, from the arts to psychology to religion, is the quest for authenticity. Poets like Hardy, wrongly accused of pessimism, cynicism and / or atheism, frequently employ the sharp edge of humor to cut through the complexes engendered by consciousness. Laughter = medicine.

Hardy continues to diagnose the modern condition and our predilection for complicating matters and magnifying problems by evoking an idyllic
time of pure innocence. In one of his books about modern neuroses, James Hollis evokes the freedom of childhood through James Agee’s A Death in the Family (and the source of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915).

I, too, should like to recover “the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Hollis also quotes Nietzsche’s wonderful paradox of an aphorism:
We are the abyss and the tightrope across the abyss.

It is “out of the deep” from which the primal cry resounds, and it is into the depths of our soul’s abyss we must plunge if we are to “prize depth over abundance, humility over arrogance, wisdom over knowledge, growth over comfort, and meaning over peace of mind” (What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, James Hollis).

Hardy’s double-edged sword of truth concludes with a question Britten builds to a passionate outburst. Knowing the tenor voice as intimately as he did, the rising line leading to “How long, how long?” exploits the voice's plangent qualities by oscillating between a high f-sharp and g, two notes astride the voice’s breaking point. It is a poignant articulation of the primal cry in an art form traditionally prized for its taste and decorum.

Hardy’s question could be addressed to any expression of our dialectical through-line. It represents the artist’s impatience for the authentic. Hollis cites Dostoyevsky as one of the first moderns to expose these same ills, and though their voices could hardly be more distinct, the Victorian poet and the soulful Russian both cry against “trivializing popular culture and mindless excitation of the senses.” Both are Janus-faced visionaries inscribing with “prophetic horror” the fear that any of us have become the “programmed person so many of the systems did produce, systems that created anonymity, depersonalization, robotic responses and conditioned values.”

One of my favorite modern howlers is Thomas Bernhard. His wit is caustic and I must fasten my armor to read him. But no one dissects the relationship between the artist and modern society with more raw energy than Bernhard. Old Masters “exposes the pretensions and aspirations of humanity in a novel at once pessimistic and strangely exhilarating.” (University of Chicago). The anti-hero protagonist Reger is a depressed musicologist who muses on genius in a Viennese museum.

One’s mind has to be a searching mind, a mind searching for mistakes, for the mistakes of humanity…A good mind is a mind that searches for the mistakes of humanity and an exceptional mind is a mind which finds these mistakes of humanity, and a genius’s mind is a mind which, having found these mistakes, points them out and with all the means at its disposal shows up these mistakes.

Showing up those mistakes can be dangerous, as Hardy and Dostoyevsky, Blake and Britten all knew. How long before a few more wake up from the mindless slumber of modern convenience, yawp the soul’s ever-present hunger for truth, and sing round the choirmaster’s grave with the dead poets, mad artists and exiled angels?

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