Friday, 26 January 2018

"We must admit there will be music despite everything."

Excerpts from "A Brief for the Defence" by WS Merwin
(thanks, Annee.)
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants....
                                                     The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
                                           From REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005

Some things don't resonate for me - "what God wants..." when the only God I can relate to is nonhuman, so doesn't "want" - though I follow the poet into the idea of praising the Devil (as a symbol for evil in the world) if we make injustice the only measure of our attention. That's an important insight.

None of this stops us trying to do something about sorrow, slaughter and malnourished babies - but if our attention to the wrongs and evils of the world takes us over, we are in deep trouble, and those who suffer get nothing from our despair. From our delight, from our enjoyment, comes the sense of values and contrasts that enables us to take useful action in the social sphere. 

And so, of course, the poem reminds us to seek to live in the present moment and to act from it.

"We must admit there will be music despite everything."

There was music in Terezin transit camp - not, as in Auschwitz, to keep time as the slaves were marched to work, or to deceive inmates about the true nature of the place, but for its own sake. Despite everything. Despite the fact that what they were in transit to, from Terezin, meant that most of them eventually died. But before then - there was music.

Olivier Messaien wrote his "Quartet for the End of Time" in a prisoner-of-war camp. The quartet was premiered at the camp, on a bitterly cold night 15 January 1941, in an unheated space. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. The cello was bought with donations from camp members. Messiaen later recalled: 'Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.'

1 comment:

confounded said...

Apologies to the memory of Jack Gilbert - his poem, not WS Merwin's.