One of the pleasures of reading is the discovery of a superior voice, one you’ve been waiting for even if you’d no idea you’d been anticipating it. In my case the aesthetic affirmation comes from Virgil Thomson who’s polemical essays on music and everything else are original and beautifully “unlike” as the best writing should be. Consider this little nugget from his essay “Our Island Home, or What It Feels Like to be a Musician”:
“Among the great techniques, music is all by itself, an auditory thing, the only purely auditory thing there is. It is comprehensible only to persons who can remember sounds. Trained or untrained in the practice of the art, these persons are correctly called “musical.” And their common faculty gives them access to a secret civilization completely impenetrable by outsiders.
The professional caste that administers this civilization is proud, dogmatic, insular. It divides up the rest of the world into possible customers and non-customers, or rather into two kinds of customers, the music-employers and the music-consumers, beyond whom lies a no man’s land wherein dwells everyone else. In no man’s land takes place one’s private life with friends and lovers, relatives, neighbors. Here live your childhood playmates, your enemies of the classroom, the soldiers of your regiment, your chums, girl-friends, wives, throw-aways, and the horrid little family next door.”
This is, if not sidesplittingly funny, arresting enough and if you, like me, labor at a university (or any other professionalized but provincial arena) you know all about the dogmatics of professionals and the “everyone else community” or no man’s (or woman’s) land of private life.
If you don’t buy records or books, you are, according to the professional caste, just another prole. Reader: I went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and all I can say is this is spot on. As for the horrid little family next door it’s probably safe to say everybody hates them.
What’s delightful about Thomson is his candor about the no man’s land. Musicians and composers can make perfect art if they don’t tire of their trades. But then:
“Private life, on the other hand, is beset by a thousand insoluble crises, from unrequited love to colds in the head. Nobody, literally nobody, knows how to avoid any of them. The Christian religion itself can only counsel patience and long-suffering. It is like a nightmare of being forced to execute at sight a score much too difficult for one’s training on an instrument nobody knows how to tune and before a public that isn’t listening anyway.”
Mark Twain couldn’t say it better. (See Twain’s vision of heaven where no angel can play its instrument….)
That’s a delicious pronoun reference—“it is like a nightmare” points of course to private life but it picks up magnet-like, the almost witless patience of the church.
The poet in me loves the following:
“Everything the poet does is desperate and excessive. He eats like a pig; he starves like a professional beauty; he tramps; he bums; he gets arrested; he steals; he absconds; he blackmails; he dopes; he acquires every known vice and incurable disease, not the least common of which is solitary dipsomania.
All this after twenty-five, to be sure. Up to that age he is learning his art. There is available a certain amount of disinterested subsidy for expansive lyrical poetry, the poetry of adolescence and early manhood. But nobody can make a grown-up career out of a facility for lyrical expansiveness. That kind of effusion is too intense, too intermittent. The mature nervous system won’t stand it. At about twenty-six, the poets start looking around for some subject-matter outside themselves, something that will justify sustained execution while deploying to advantage all their linguistic virtuosity.”
Thank you Virgil Thomson. Thank you!
I have indeed however tried to make a grown up career out of a facility for lyrical expansiveness. As for solitary dipsomania, well….
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
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(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger