Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Stravinsky and the Right Note

A few years ago Dustin Hoffman gave a moving speech when he accepted a Golden Globes lifetime achievement award, and it stuck with me. He talked about an interview he’d seen with Igor Stravinsky, and the interviewer asked Stravinsky what the most satisfying aspect was of being a composer. Was it when he finished a great piece like Le Sacre du Printemps? Was it when he was on stage conducting it? Was it when he heard the applause or received an award? Stravinsky kept answering no, no, no, and finally said that the moment he lived for was the moment when he’d been struggling with a particular passage and suddenly found the right note.

It’s a good insight, I think, into the life of an artist, and Hoffman went on to talk about an actor’s struggle to find the right note for a performance, just the right inflection for a word or phrase. Of course poets are all too familiar with the frustrating struggle to find the right word.

Anyway, this all comes to mind right now because I’m getting ready to send the final final version of my manuscript (the final revision of the galleys) to the publisher before the book is printed, and I’ve become obsessed with one line in one poem that just doesn’t feel right. It’s driving me crazy! I keep coming up with one version after another, some of them radically different from one another. I guess I could post a dozen versions here and have people vote on their favorite, but no, I think I’ll drop that idea before it catches on.

The hard part is figuring out how to forget the poem. I figure if I could just read each version as if it were the first time in my life I was reading the poem, I’d know what to do. But when it’s really the thousandth time I’m reading the poem, that’s not so easy. I find myself printing out the maddening page and taking it for a walk around the block. I very carefully don’t look at it and try not to think about it, and then after I’ve walked for a while I sneak a quick glance—hoping to catch that precious glimpse of how it would look if I’d never seen it before. I’m praying I have “a Stravinsky moment” before the printer's deadline!


Diane K. Martin said...

Well, that's it (she says, familiar with your line). It's like I've said before as a metaphor, like buying perfume. Not that I buy perfume; it makes me sneeze. But when I did... you smell one and it smells nice. You smell another... Pretty soon you have a grand headache and you couldn't tell the difference between vanilla and horseshit.

But if it's any comfort, your book is wonderful, and no one but you is going to put that much weight on that one line.

Robert said...

To continue the perfume analogy, what is needed is coffee beans. If you've ever tried to buy shampoo at an Aveda store, you may have been trapped by the clerk into smelling a dozen perfumes so you get the shampoo that's "right for you." They stick a bowl of coffee beans under your nose between perfumes to "cleanse your nasal palate." If only there were an equivalent of coffee beans you could sniff between poems so you could read with a clear mind!

Radish King said...

Fishbone Elixir

When Igor Stravinsky
moved in next door,
he fixed the plug in our
kitchen, split his canny
lip, burned through

every morning, hand
on the small of my back
as I practiced Mozart.
Concentrate, be muscular
he said. You're old enough

Stravinsky wore a sapphire
ring, snapped a rubber band
around his wrist when he found
himself in the wrong city,
the wrong war, the wrong

He admired my long legs,
the Russian writers living
inside my head, the little
German M. who spiked me
to my chair.

That entire summer I was furious,
unsettled, a wet seed sliding inside
everything. Precocious he said,
This is the way, this
is the way music crawls under.

(Just cause it felt like the right thing to do at the moment.)

the machinist said...

robert--have you read Stravinsky's 'Poetics of Music?' It's very applicable to writing in general; he was a smart, smart guy in more than just music.

Robert said...

Woody, I'll look for that essay by Stravinsky. It sounds like just the sort of thing I'd enjoy.

Rebecca, if only I were having a contest for best Stravinsky poem, yours would win hands-down.