What sorcerer has caged these limbs
and poised them in electric trance
across the empty cornfields?
No master: drunk, they sport and reel
the sizzling clothesline’s stolen power;
airy shapes avoid them.
With such grotesque articulations,
one such brute could be despised,
but now, most delicate monsters!
now that you have peopled earth,
there’s music in your staggered dancing;
one cannot but listen.
Through greasy miles of cinder blocks
That flank the road and, box by box,
Unpack its weird anatomy,
Sail shades of mufflers, brakes and shocks.
A billboard piston on the fly
With neon spark plug flashes by.
Chasing its lost rim, maybe,
A giant tire rolls through the sky.
Like illustrated magic runes,
Bizarrely captioned bold cartoons
Dissect the fruits of industry
Under the streetlights’ amber moons.
Whereby the ever-literal heart
Construes a world so blown apart,
Not even the heaviest battery
Can make the silent engine start.
And multiply them ten times ten,
Not all the horsepower or men
In fired-up forge or factory
Can make the bruised core sound again.
(from a lecture on prosody)
Music and Poetry were divine twins, daughters of the great
god Apollo. Our story begins, after all, in ancient Greece, so you postmodernists
in the back row will have to pardon a bit of blatant patriarchalism, as
being somewhat in the nature of the case. Anyway, their father taught the
two his own ravishing skills from birth, though it was soon evident to
all the gods that one sister was more adept at singing, and the other at
playing the lyre. One had inherited all her sire’s command of melodious
words, his power to strike heavenly fire into the tongues of mortals; to
the other had descended his mysterious sway over all that came sweetly
and ineffably to the mortal ear, the Golden Numbers that governed the stars
and planets in their sublime pavan.
Throughout their girlhood in
sunny Greece, the sisters were inseparable, going hand in hand to all the
festivals given by mortals in honor of the gods, their radiant twin smiles
hovering in misty outline over the grizzled brow of a blind bard, their
bright eyes winking in the dark as ephemeral lovers crept to each other’s
beds, with a song on their lips.
Not that no shadow ever crossed
their Apollonian harmony. As siblings do, one would sometimes make a point
of going her own way, just to show the other that she had a mind of her
own. This happened more as they grew older. After many seasons in the earthly
choruses, where Poetry would file and polish her words like tiny arrows,
and hand them one by one, with lightning speed, to her sister, who shot
them with exquisite timing from her lyre, straight into the hearts of the
singers, Music would begin to grow a little restless, thinking that she
was being made to play, in the expression of some of her later protégés,
“second fiddle,” and would get it in her head to liven things up a bit.
With incredible speed, she would shoot her own little arrows, fashioned
from birdsong and the tinkling of raindrops, in between her sister’s. Poetry
would look up from her work in surprise, and a slight frown would cloud
her face. At first she would say nothing to her sister when she did such
incomprehensible things. Later she would try to get even with her, although,
as in most such cases, who can really say who started the quarrel?
For Poetry had her little quirks
as well. At times she would sit silently by herself, making marks with
a stick in the sand, or with a bit of clamshell in the bark of a tree.
Her sister would come over to her and ask what she was doing, to which
she peevishly replied — when she bothered to reply at all — that she was
making songs. Music’s eyes would grow wide, and a hurt look would come
into them, as if to say: “What, without me?” Understanding her look (for
Poetry did not always need words herself) her sister would merely smile
mysteriously, as if to say: “There are things that you will never understand.”
As they approached adolescence
the sisters, and those who cared about them, were perhaps beginning to
see that they really were different in many ways, and gods and mortals
both were trying to come to terms with this. Great performances were devised
in which each had her chance to shine: to Poetry it fell to represent the
actions of gods and heroes and compose their noble words into great torrents
of speech, while her sister sat idly by. But then the chorus would chime
in, and Music would rise and come into her own, setting the fleet sandals
tapping in the orchestra under the swirling gowns of the dancers, and of
course, now and then playing such little tricks between the words as we
have already seen.
In fact, despite all efforts
at fairness, Music still felt disgruntled. Why did she have to follow her
sister’s words at all? But Poetry had men of great learning on her side,
who clearly stated that she was entitled to take the lead on all such occasions,
for pretty sounds without speech were fit only for birds, not rational
Music, too, had her allies among
men, but they were, alas, not such reputable ones. And yet they were better
than none. Sometimes her sister, carrying a load of scrolls, would come
upon her in some back alley where dice-players and harlots congegrated,
standing with a smile behind some dirty beggar with a pipe, whose notes
were swarming into the air like maddened bees. Now it was Poetry who asked
in perplexity what her sister was doing, and the other who gave a look
that said: “There are things that you, girl, can’t even begin to understand.”
Despite these little tiffs, though,
they remained good sisters, for the most part, and when both felt their
father’s power of harmony rise in them at once, at some sublime moment
of earthly grief or laughter, all their differences would dissolve, and
they were once more the destinies that they were born to be, twin radiances
in the dark sky of the world. But then disaster struck.
The gods of Greece were overthrown,
and in their place appeared a band of usurpers. They all had strange names,
except the stumpy little warrior who conquered Apollo and, in awe of his
reputation among gods and men, took his name for himself. Now the two sisters
were left orphans, with an impostor of a stepfather who spoke a clanking
barbarous tongue in place of their father’s golden Greek. And yet they
had to make the best of it. Poetry began applying herself to the uncouth
thing at once, to see if it might not yield something a little more pleasing.
Music was slower to learn, since she had always left that side of things
to her sister. For a while she continued to make the same kinds of tunes
as before, but her sister soon grew impatient with her, saying that those
were all very pretty, but didn’t fit the new tongue. Music labored to make
ones that fit, but sometimes all she could do, in desperation, was take
some leftover piper’s tune from the marketplace, where she had lately been
going with her bands of wandering exiles. Poetry, on hearing such vulgarities,
would sometimes smirk, but at other times sigh deeply and retreat into
her study, where she was spending more and more of her days now.
So things were hard, but much
worse was to follow. Darkness overtook the world. We lose sight of the
pair for many long centuries, in which they are reputed to have wandered,
each on her own, over the plague-ridden hamlets, ruined cities and bloody
battlements of Europe. Each, deprived of the other, had to supply the sister’s
role in herself; Music would pick up what crude verses she needed from
the lips of peasant soldiers or wandering clerks; Poetry would use the
same few half-remembered tunes over and over again, or none at all. In
the chaos of the times, Poetry was forced out of her books, while Music
wearied of her vulgar companions and began to retreat from the world. Naturally
there were periodic reunions; let us attend one such, in a great cathedral
in the heart of the continent, where Poetry has heard her sister presiding.
Finding her in radiant white robes behind a choir of monks, she listens
for a moment and then, after a rather formal embrace, asks her why she
is having them sing in that old tongue.
“It’s Our Father’s tongue,” Music replies.
“Stepfather’s, you mean,” says Poetry, but something
in her sister’s demeanor makes her suspect that it is not Apollo she is
“Well, anyway, I’m glad to see you finally learned it,
though I must say you sing it so slowly that one could go right to sleep
listening to you. Why, I could say a whole poem in the time it takes you
to get one syllable out. Listen, here’s a little verse I just gave to the
And she sings in Italian, very badly, to a tune Music
doesn’t even recognize as being the very one that she had brought back
from the marketplace, so many centuries ago, at Rome. Now she bursts out
“What on earth is that? If you want to use that silly
dialect, that’s your business, but you’d better leave the tunes to me,
or you’re going to make quite a fool of yourself among these mortals.”
“You’re wrong, sister; they’re singing it all over Italy.
And it’s a good deal more lively than that deadly droning you’re so addicted
“Oh, so you’re the lively one, now, are you,” says Music,
suddenly dreading that it might be true. “Well, can you do this?”
And like startled rabbits, the monks all of a sudden break
into a quick madrigal, whose strains have themselves more than a little
of the marketplace about them, but woven into a counterpoint so brisk that
Poetry can’t follow a single thread.
“What are they saying?” she frowns. “I think they must
all be singing in different tongues.”
“What if they are?” replies Music. “It’s only a trifle
anyway. When I want to make a truly divine song, I use Latin.”
“My, you’ve grown pious in your old age,” mutters Poetry,
leaving her sister alone with the disconcerted monks, who now endeavor
to recompose their own piety.
Now let us move forward several
centuries more. The two are both great ladies now, thoroughly elegant and
mature. Each has her own court of followers and flatterers among mortals,
and each sees the other now only for ceremony’s sake. All their old intimacy
is gone. Neither is happy with the situation, and each blames the other
for it. The humans of the day, too, are uneasy about the long-standing
quarrel, and just now a group of learned men in Florence are talking of
reconciliation. They bring out musty books that tell of the sisters’ early
childhood and the happy harmony they lived in then. Music, seeing Poetry’s
name written all over these books, scoffs to herself, thinking: yes, that
would suit her fine, wouldn’t it, to get the upper hand again. But I have
some learned men on my side now too. I even have my own books. And right
then she sees a clever way of turning the tables.
Performances were to be arranged
now as of old: Poetry was to be given the burden of the story, while Music
sweetened the words with passion. All awaited the first performances with
tremendous anticipation; Poetry was all smiles, though she wondered a bit
at her sister’s complacency. But when the play actually began she was mortified:
her words had been cut down to a third of what they were before, and those
that remained were chopped into so many different notes, with some syllables
swollen into long wailing shrieks and others swallowed entirely, that she
could not have told, if she hadn’t known before, whether they were in Greek,
Italian, or some strange gibberish from another planet. Behind the sumptuous
decor, amidst the busy warbling of the flutes and fiddles, she heard her
sister’s wicked laughter.
Worse yet, the mortal audience
— even many of her own ostensible followers — not only didn’t protest this
desecration, but wildly applauded it. From then on, Music gained a power
in the world beyond her wildest dreams. She went on from triumph to triumph,
and had less and less use for words at all. That was when Poetry finally
went bitterly back into her study, from which she has scarcely even now
begun to emerge. Every opera or concert brought a book of verses in revenge.
Each began to strive for a sort of purity that would rid her of any need
for the other. They long for their lost childhood, but each stubbornly
claims to possess, in herself, all the virtues of both. The flatterers
of Poetry never fail to mention her musicality, while those of Music harp
constantly on her eloquence, her epic and dramatic qualities. And so the
two as we know them have come down to us.
But somewhere, along abandoned
railway tracks, in the back alleys of the neon cities, riding the air waves
and hiding in the boomboxes, the spirit of their lost father begins perhaps