Akhmatova's <Em>music</em>: I'm Here but How Did I Get Here?
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Akhmatova's music: I'm Here but How Did I Get Here? Saturday, June 10, 2017
by Anna Akhmatova

Something miraculous burns in her,
Edges are faceted before her eyes.
She alone speaks to me
When the rest are afraid to come near.
When the last friend averted his gaze,
She was with me in my grave,
As if the first thunderstorm were singing,
Or as if all the flowers broke into words.

translated by Judith Hemschemeyer

A few mixed thoughts on music and poetry. I'm listening to some "light" music while writing checks and paying bills--J. S. Bach's "St. Matthews Passion." All right, it's "heavy" music but Bach wears heavyness lightly, which is especially evident the more you listen to it. And I like to listen to a piece of music over and over again--sometimes all day--before moving on to the next. I like to wallow in it. Music is a sort of world whose structure is abstract, mental and removed from the "real" world, but has the odd ability to change the "real" world utterly, through sound, by changing how you feel about it. I don't know how it does this (nor does anyone else I suspect, though I can recommend some books by people who have tried very hard to understand it).

These musings on music led to me thinking about Anna Akhmatova's remarkable poem "Music" and, by way of comparison, the work of Evgeny Rein. I've always loved Akhmatova's poetry but I've only just started reading some translations of Evgeny Rein. Try as I might to achieve some sympatico with Rein, he's tough going for me. Of course as with all translations you never know what you might be missing from the original, and my small book of Rein's selected poems may not fairly represent his work. But I've had a tepid reaction to what I've read and to explain it I'm going to add two new literary schools to the hundreds that already exist:
  1. The school of You Had To Have Been There.
  2. The school of I'm Here, But How Did I Get Here?
The first, You Had To Have Been There. This is Rein's poetic world, and assumes in the reader a common, shared world of people, events, attitudes, and perceptions that may be fully invoked in all its texture and glory by merely referring to a name, place, or event. There can be a wonderful suggestiveness to this that exploits the allusive quality of the mind, which can conjure whole worlds of memory from a name, a passing sound, or scent. On the flip side, it conjures nothing if it alludes to things you've never experienced or shared. In some essential way, you had to have been there. This doesn't necessarily mean to have been there in the same specific way the author was. But it does mean you must be a common resident of the author's world, insofar as this world is conventional--that is, the world we come to know through shared language, social conventions and mores, and formal education. You must know its geography, its history, share its cultural aspirations, perhaps even be of the same social class (and, as seems to be the case for some of Rein's work, even the same intellectual circle).  Lacking this common residency, all that can assist you in understanding it is scholarship, which can provide missing historical context, lost common cultural references, or biographical details about the author and his cronies. But this is like having to explain a joke. You may come to some understanding of why others think it's funny, but it will never make you laugh.

The second, I'm Here, But How Did I Get Here? This is the world of Akhmatova's "Music," and assumes nothing, shares nothing. It simply acts on you as if it were a person in its own right. It's related to its author only by implication; an author obviously created it but it's been cut loose to do as it will. And so the work does not so much tell or even show but rather slaps, burns, kisses, provokes, or whatever it has a mind to do. Of course this seems ridiculous, and so it is, even while it's perfectly true.

How can a fixed pattern of words take on a life of it's own? How can it somehow be more free of the restraints of common culture, and speak across the boundaries that confine works of the first school? I don't know, but my conjecture hinges on the notion that some things are learned and some things are revealed. Learned things are taught things and therefore grow out of the conventional world of the first school; they're the common stuff of human discourse. Revealed things, on the other hand, do not seem to come out of this world at all--they simply appear fully clothed, from offstage as it were, suddenly thrust into the light. And in the case of "Music" it's even stranger: the words themselves make almost no sense at all, yet having read them I get the uncanny feeling of having glimpsed not music itself but the hidden roots of all music at the juncture of the human mind and the world. This is not something we can normally ever see or know in life, or even understand how it may have been inspired in the mind of the author, yet here we find it presented to us in the poem, like a stranger from a strange land. "I'm here, but how did I get here?" It's a good question, perhaps a topic for a dissertation.

What's the point of such poetry? When such revealed stuff is a psalm or prophetic verse from the scriptures, we have our answer from its context. But when it is a poem by Akhmatova, or whomever, it has no such clear context to put its meaning within a consitent, larger framework. For all appearances, such inspired poems of the second school are spontaneous glimpses of the wider world around us we make silent when we entirely become lost in the complexities of our human conventions of thought and life. Perhaps there is no other point than to affirm the existence of this lost world. As Shestov said, "The stones of the desert have never replied "amen" to the inspired sermons of the saints. But this is not necessary. What is necessary is that to the silence of the stones [...] the saints should sing hosannas."

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