Monday, August 13, 2018

Poetry, Music and the Opening Door


I lucked into a coffee table book called Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets edited by Steven Ratiner. It brightened my day to read the one with Mary Oliver. Near the end of the interview, she says:

“…there may come a time when the poem that is the little handle that opens the great door is found—and everything in one’s life, thereafter, is different.”

How often I hear testimony like this after these intensive Orff trainings! “This changed my life.” And that doesn’t come just from learning a cool nursery rhyme and Orff lesson plan. It has to do with the way I and my colleagues drill down to the essence of the matter, get down to the musical core of elemental simplicity and grow things to a complexity and intensity that charges the room with electric energy, all without a single plug. It has to do with the way we keep human promise and possibility at the center, help lead people to discover that they can do things that they hadn’t dreamed were possible. Or dreamed, but lacked the key to open the gate. It has to do with the way the whole show blossoms inside the circle of community, so that all can see and all are seen and all can support and mirror and reflect and encourage and enlarge that simple musical impulse tossed in the center.

Neuroscientists claim that there are only two fields of human activity that light up all the areas of the brain when one is engaged in them. You guessed it—poetry and music. The two are linked, of course, in song and generally share even some of the same vocabulary—meter, rhythm, form. The way poetry attends to the sound of language, tuning the ear to alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhyme, is exactly parallel to the way the composer chooses instruments to carry the melody and decides on accents and rhythms and such. So it’s no surprise that they both carry the same power to unlock and send one through that great door of life lived at greater intensity.

Of course, they do depart, poetry skating along on the pond of images and ideas as well as music, music speaking emotion that words cannot reach. But at their heart, they share the same foundation of intent, a similar process of creation and a common power to quiet a room and get people listening as if their lives depended on it.

Again, there is no formula in that small word Orff that guarantees epiphanies of this sort. It is the teacher fully living the life of the artist that allows for that possibility. And though many an artist would fail to see how planning a class can be an artistic pursuit, I would beg to differ and invite them to witness it. So when Mary Oliver discusses what gets her up in the morning, it feels exactly parallel to the way I feel when planning my next workshop. Her words:

“What I’m interested in, what I’m vitally interested in, is the poem I haven’t written yet, but maybe will tomorrow or the next day. The poems I have written—some of them, of course, give me satisfaction, various levels of satisfaction. But it’s poetry and language and what it can do that has been the salvation of my life. And what I think is at the center of human life—we can speak, we can tell each other momentous things to such a fine degree. It’s amazing and it’s sustaining. We can listen to each other and learn from each other.

Also, there is an absolute joy in being involved in good work, so that you lose yourself. That whole sense of losing yourself, immersing yourself, vanishing into the work, is sufficient reward for the labor.”

Always a pleasure to hear words to frame experience and Ms Oliver captures well that pleasure of planning the next class or searching for the next piece amongst the 88 keys or keeping all senses open and ready to receive the next poem. She also speaks what so many felt in these past two weeks at the Orff Course— class after class that served as the little handle that opened the great door.

Poetry and music, two powerful handles that can unlatch the mystery. But also swimming in the Great Lakes and playing with the grandchildren and shucking corn on the back porch while the sun sets. That’s my life at the moment and it is welcome.

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