There are some days that, for all of us, are tough to get through. However small or big the cause may be. It’s as if a part of our soul recedes and falls away and, even though we may go through all the necessary motions, more than anything, we’re looking forward to just getting through it.
Days like that, we need our personal rituals to help us get out of one frame of mind into another — whether that means turning to a much-loved person or pastime.
Today’s poem is about the joy of just such a ritual when, at the end of a difficult day, the poet turns to his piano-playing to bring him to both an ecstasy and a calm. Tomas Tranströmer, a Swedish poet and Nobel Laureate, wrote this poem some decades before his 1990 stroke, which paralyzed the right side of his body and left him unable to speak. Yet, having played the piano all his life, he taught himself to play just with his left hand. And, of course, he continued to write, even collaborating with artist, Peter Frie, on a book of the latter’s paintings with his haiku.
A bit about Tranströmer first. While he started writing poetry early in life, it was never a full-time profession. For much of his working life, he was a psychologist and a translator. Fellow poet and friend, Seamus Heaney, once remarked that Tranströmer’s poetry helped and informed his psychology practice, which led him to work at juvenile prisons, with the disabled, convicts, and drug addicts.
Well-regarded in literary circles around the world, Tranströmer counts the likes of American poet, Robert Bly, Syrian poet Adonis, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and Indian poet,K Satchinandan, among his friends. Not only have some of the latter poets translated his works for their respective countries but, they have also invited him over for readings and such. With Bly, he corresponded almost daily for 25 or so years. This correspondence is available in an edited collection titled, ‘Airmail‘. And, in the Nobel Prize presentation speech, Kjell Epsmark, member of the Swedish Academy, mentioned how Tranströmer had also influenced another Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky, and other poets in China.
Tranströmer’s works are about highlighting the universal aspects of ordinary, everyday life. His poems are often described as Modernist, Expressionist, or Surrealist. His vivid imagery and rhythmic, lyrical language are both so skillfully presented that they come through wonderfully even in translations from the original Swedish — and his poems have been translated into 50-60 languages. While he has covered a wide range of themes and topics through his 15+ poetry collections, certain themes such as isolation and fragmentation have been predominant. And he is well-known for capturing the natural beauty of Sweden’s landscapes and her seasons most beautifully. But most of all, his poems have this quality that Teju Cole put so well:
The satisfaction, the pleasure, the comfort one takes in these poems comes from the way they seem to have pre-existed us. Or perhaps, to put it another way, the magic lies in their ability to present aspects of our selves long buried under manners, culture, and language. The poems remember us and, if we are perfectly still, give us a chance to catch sight of ourselves.
Music has been a very important part of Tranströmer’s life and several of his poems, like this one, have references to music and/or composers. A CD of poetry recordings is available with his performances on the piano of well-known left-hand compositions by notable composers. When referring to music through his poetry, he’s mostly interested in how the qualities of music can shape our emotions and moods entirely, yet leaves the physical world entirely untouched. ‘Schubertiana‘ is another one of his famous music-related poems.
Let’s start our appreciation with the composer whom the poet has referenced: Franz Joseph Haydn, an18th-century Austrian, who was often referred to as the “Father of the Symphony” or the “Father of the String Quartet” because of his important works in these musical genres. The allegro referenced here is believed to be the one from Haydn’s most famous and last piano sonata, No. 52 in E-Flat Major. It is quite complex and was innovative for its time. If you listen/watch to this rendering, you’ll find that the runs are quite unusual and difficult because of the remote keys instead of standard related keys. Allegro, by the way, in case you’re not familiar, refers to the quick tempo or speed at which a particular movement, usually the first, in a piece of music is played.
When the narrator describes, in the first two lines, how the black day evaporates into a warmth with the playing of Haydn, that juxtaposition sets us up for the entire poem as he keeps the contrasts going all the way. And, if you watched the above video, you can imagine why the hands warm up with playing this allegro, can’t you?
He goes on to tell us how the piano feels under his fingers: willing, pliant. And, again, the contrasting of “soft” with “hammers striking”. This, of course, is also the skill and beauty of this particular piece of music. When he describes the resonance, the sound as being “green, lively and calm”, he’s invoking a pastoral or verdant field image for us. Even if you haven’t heard the music, the choice of language here begins to give a clear idea of what to expect, doesn’t it?
The next five couplets now just take off merrily, like the allegro movement itself.
First, the music evokes a sense of freedom, of not having to be beholden to anyone (“someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax”). When was the last time a piece of music, or indeed whatever your favorite pleasure may be, made you feel so free — as if nothing else, at least for that duration, mattered more?
Then, the narrator describes how deep he is in the music, how intense the groove is by coining the word “Haydnpocket”. The phrase “in the pocket” is used to describe something or someone playing in such a way that the groove is very solid and with a great feel. For example, when a drummer keeps a good metronomic pulse, often referred to as keeping time, makes the groove feel good, and maintains this feel for an extended period of time without wavering, this is often referred to as a “deep pocket”. So, when the narrator here says “I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets”, he’s telling us that he’s getting deeper into the rhythm and pulse. And the second line of “imitate a person looking on the world calmly” is terrific because it implies that, inside, he’s the opposite of calm though, outwardly, all someone sees is a person sitting almost still at a piano. The ecstasy of music has taken over.
And the fifth couplet coins yet another new term, “Haydnflag”. By this, I think he means that unique emotional place he has reached with Haydn’s sublime music — a sublime state of mind where he is free, ecstatic and, yet, also at peace and one with the world.
The final two couplets bring the whole poem to a lovely crescendo finish. Music is now likened to a beautiful glass house: transparent, clear, pure, beautifully reflective. And, whatever stones (signifying life’s great difficulties and challenges) come charging or are hurled through this glass house, it will remain whole, its panes unbroken. What an image to end on — it always gives me goosebumps when I read it. That music has the power to make us feel so much emotion, to open us up bare to all the elements of the world. Yet, it also strengthens and fortifies us so that we can withstand the most difficult of things thrown at us.
Of course, the analogy of music as a life-saving and life-giving force also applies to any personal activity or pleasure — reading, running, singing, etc. — that occupies a similar, much-loved place in our lives. So that, no matter how bad a day may seem, allowing ourselves to immerse deeply into that pleasure will bring us the greatest sense of joy, freedom, ecstasy and rejuvenate and strengthen us as well. Whatever that impulse is for you, nurture it, feed it, and practice it. Because there will be days when you’ll need it to help you pull yourself back together — just like the poet-pianist here with his playing of Haydn’s Allegro.
I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.
The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.
The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.
I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.
I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.’
The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.
And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.
~ Tomas Tranströmer, ‘The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems‘, translated by Robin Fulton
— The Nobel Prize in Literature (2011) Pages, including his acceptance speech and lecture
— David Ulin, on Tomas Tranströmer (and this particular poem)