Monday, February 15, 2010

The Missing Stanza

I have been interested in the poet A. E. Housman for a while. My interest came from music: many of Housman's poems were set to music, most famously by Vaughan Williams. I then learned that, for a day job, Housman was a professor of classics—mostly Latin—at Cambridge. I was told that one of his professional interests was in editing classical texts, and that he is known for the relative liberty with which he made emendations in his editions. He wouldn't publish nonsense just because he found it in an Old Manuscript, so to speak.

In any event, I thought it was nice that Housman did Latin for a living and poetry for life; I was only a little bit sad to find out that, allegedly, he didn't like music. I keep hoping that it was all a misunderstanding. That maybe he said it in a bad moment, or perhaps because he was still annoyed with Vaughan Williams editing his poetry a little bit too freely...

Just the other day, a friend gave me a copy of Housman's The Name and Nature of Poetry, actually the text of a lecture given at Cambridge in May 1933. Almost at the end of the little book, Housman tells about his own "creative process"—the way one specific poem of his came into being:

Two of the stanzas, I do not say which,
came into my head, just as they are printed,
while I was crossing the corner of Hampstead Heath
between the Spaniard's Inn and the footpath to Temple Fortune.

A third stanza came with a little coaxing after tea.
One more was needed, but it did not come:
I had to turn to and compose it myself,
and that was laborious business.

I wrote it thirteen times, and it was
more than a twelvemonth before I got it right.

I hope Housman will forgive me for editing him so freely... Not that I changed a word; but as I was typing the text I thought it might be a nice idea to lay it out as if it were poetry. That's naughty, of course—it really is. But I hope that it also reveals a bit of the beauty of these lines.

Am I imagining this, or is the fragment getting more and more poetic? "One more was needed, but it did not come": the rhythm feels so nice and easy, so perfectly natural! "And that was laborious business." Even better—plus the for a's in a row at the beginning of the line and the softly bumping b's in "laBorious Business." Lovely, isn't it!

Then the final "couplet": the nice contrast between the "thirteen times" and the "twelve months." I like the emphatic "more" at the beginning of the last "line"; and again, the alliterative "More" and "twelveMonth."

And finally, those final words, the "getting it right." It sound so mundane in a way—almost like, getting the translation of a Latin text "right" in class... How can he talk about his art, his high poetic art that way? And yet, of course, for an artist, there's only one way in which the painting looks just right. Or the composition sounds just the way it's supposed to be.

Still, I can't help wondering: is Housman being just a little bit tongue-in-cheek here? At the very end of his lecture—which is, in essence, an essay in literary criticism—he says:

I shall go back with relief and thankfulness
to my proper job.

His proper job—yeah, really. Like what? Teaching classics? Editing? Writing poetry?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Good Student

Although in a way most of my training in music has been towards performance, I increasingly see myself as a teacher more than anything—of music, but recently also of languages, especially Latin. As a teacher (I teach both one-on-one and in small groups) one has all kinds of students. But I'd say that pretty much all of them, though quite different, are a lot of fun to work with. Still, some students are inevitably easier to work with, some are more ready to take on what I have to tell them, some perhaps trust me more than others. I suppose other teachers have the same experience (but I may be wrong).

Just now, I got an email from, OK, a really Good Student. I know as you're reading this, you can't see the tongue in my cheek and the smile on my face. All students are "good" students, as far as I'm concerned, but today, I feel particularly proud of this one, so I wanted to write about what happened.

This student is in my Biblical Greek class. We met last night, and had lots of fun, partly because we tried to speak quite a bit in the language. Then, for some reason, in the course of the class, she mentioned that she had been a language major in college. German. She was going to be a German teacher, but for some reason, that didn't work so well for her. (She thinks she is not a good teacher, though I'm quite sure the opposite is the case.) I asked her if she reads any German at all these days, just for pleasure. Nope, she hasn't done anything with the language for 45 years. (She must have graduated from college at 7 or 8, I suppose.)

I asked her what she had read in German back then. Goethe. Thomas Mann. Any Hesse, I asked. No. Oh my goodness, I say. You have to read Siddhartha, I'll lend you my copy. She protests that, really, her German is very rusty, and that she can't find her dictionary, and, and, and. But I give her the book and tell her to read the first chapter for homework. Of course, I'm kidding. But, I suppose, I'm also not. And, as much as she protested, she took the book home.

That was last night. Today, at lunchtime, I got this email from her. "Sorry J-P, but I read the first chapter—and you're not going to get the book back till I've finished it." She loved it so much, she wrote, that she had to read part of it aloud. My co-workers, she wrote smilingly, must think I'm crazy.

Of course, now I want to have the book back right away, because this makes me want to read it again myself!

But isn't that fantastic? I so often make these suggestions to students. Why don't you try this piece. Take a look at this or that composer. Have you read this or that book. It's not that these students are lazy, nasty, or even naughty. But so often, it just doesn't happen. (No time, of course, is the standard excuse—usually followed by a few "really's.")

But this time it did happen. I just know that she's going to finish Siddhartha next week or so, and with a bit of luck, I'll get her to read Narziss und Goldmund after that... It's so obvious to me that she loves German and German literature. She just needed this tiny little push. A Pushlein, as we say in German...

I'm so proud of her. What a Good Student!