Three Sides to Every Story
by Gordon Edwards
The following essay was presented as part of the pre-concert lecture for the premiere performance of The Return, an original choral composition written by Steven Sametz, based on the poem Two Lovers by Gordon Edwards. The piece was performed by the Pro Arte Singers of Stamford, CT on October 19, 1997.
I would like to tell you a story. It begins with an excerpt from Pablo Neruda's poem Walking Around:
It happens that I am tired of being a man.
It happens that I go into the tailor's shops and the movies
all shriveled up, impenetrable like a felt swan
navigating on a water of origin and ash.
The smell of barber shops makes me sob out loud.
For those of you who saw Il Postino, you will recognize this piece. In the movie, a postman has become enamored with Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet exiled in Italy. While on his mail route, the postman, Mario Ruoppolo, hopes to enlist the poet's help in winning the hand of a young woman. After delivering the mail one day, Mario recites this excerpt from Neruda's poem and asks him: "Don Pablo, why "The smell of barber shops makes me sob?" Neruda laughs, and says, "You see, Mario, I can't tell you in words different from those I've used. When you explain it, poetry becomes banal. Better than any explanation, is the experience of feelings that poetry can reveal to a nature open enough to understand it."
I am mindful of these words as I speak with you this afternoon. And I must leave to others to interpret the meaning of the poetry which you will hear sung today. Steven Sametz has provided such an interpretation, and it is one of singular beauty. If there is a story to tell, it is about how this piece arrived here in this form, at this time and in this place-- which brings me back to the reason I am standing here today.
To begin this evening's program, I would like to give you a little bit of background about how this piece, the words and music, were born.
I.The poem, Two Lovers, upon which Steven's music is based, is part of a chapbook of poetry that tells a story about St. Francis' Church in North Stamford, Connecticut. I like the sound of "chapbook." It has the feel of leather binding. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as a "small book or pamphlet containing poems, ballads, stories, or religious tracts", originally sold by chapmen, who were peddlers in Old England. I like to think of them as door-to-door poetry salesman.
This chapbook, The Four White Clapboard Walls, fulfills a commission. In the summer of 1996, Margery Irish asked me to write for the Pro Arte Singers, a professional choral group in Stamford, Connecticut. The poetry was to serve two purposes: first, to provide the source of lyrics for new music to be composed for the choral group's performance here today and, second, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of St. Francis’ Episcopal Church, whose members are generous supporters of Pro Arte.
The majority of the chapbook's fifteen pieces were written during the summer and fall of 1996. The poem The Two Lovers was the last one written, late in October of last year. The first was the Old White Church. For me it is often the case that sewing poems together in groups and in procession creates a new fabric. So a story may be found in the assembling of the work. I found it true in creating this collection. The chapbook presents a quilt of four patches, echoing the Four White Walls: first of Story, then Place, Time and finally Return.
The start of the thread is a conversation with Elizabeth Wilson "Betty" an eighty-eight year old tower of a woman, who has become my adopted grandmother. And grand she is. The poem Wilson recalls the conversation, and it became the foundation for all the rest. What Betty did in a few short sentences was to recount the last fifty years of her life in terms of the ceremonies of an old white church, the St. Francis’ Church to whom this work is dedicated. It was not an autobiography as much as a short story pointing to important events of her life, which have all taken place here, including the confirmation of her daughters, their weddings, her husband's funeral, and the baptisms of her grandchildren. All these major events in her life happened within the four walls of an old New England church.
What this simple conversation said to me was that the large events in our lives often take place in rooms like St. Francis’ Church, as in the homes in which we have lived for many years. The special events and celebrations that occur here become the markers in our lives. And we tend to tell our own stories in terms of these events. So a lifetime can be told in a brief moment of short sentences-- not captured, not defined, but told at once, like a painting or a sculpture. It is an integrative moment, a time without beginning or end.
Yet stories have beginnings and ends; they are serial. Time moves from one scene to another. Even in the flashbacks and subplots, the multiplicity of prose threads is still sequential on the page. This is not so for music and poetry. As music presents the layers of meaning and experience in the sounds of the instruments and voices, so too poetry presents experience in language spoken and on the page. As Donald Hall writes: "... the poem is a way of tapping that source of [unconscious] power and strength and putting things simultaneously together which are apparently quite different. To me this is what distinguishes poetry from most prose, which is linear and sequential. In poetry many things are going on at the same time and these layers of time and density of language make the poem uniquely poetic."
When I reviewed this poem with the Writer's Lab in Fairfield, of which I am a member, I heard a variety of interpretations, especially from the short story writers and novelists. And I was pleased to hear this, for it meant that the readers were connecting their own stories and insights to the story of the poem. Of course, the alternative was humbling: that the poem was hopelessly confusing, with no one able to make heads or tails of what was going on. And this risk is very real, for we have much evidence of it in the state of poetry in academia today. But what I try very hard to do as an artist is to first of all be true to common experiences in which we all share. I believe sincerely that if you find nothing that speaks to you in the first reading of a poem, then it has failed. However, I believe just as strongly that if when you wrestle with the language of a poem and find no further insight or connection it has equally failed. These are two of the principles that my fellow artists and editors have carried to The Fairfield Review, the on-line literary journal that has published this work and made it available to you here today.
So in the chapbook, there is a story. It is a particular story, in a particular place and time. It is a story about St. Francis' Church in North Stamford, Connecticut, at its fiftieth anniversary. But it is also a story out-of-time and place. There is throughout the book an attempt to see the flashes of transcendent meaning that come clothed in specific moments and events in our lives. So this is largely what my work is about: it is based on the concept that, first and last, words are the bearers of happy discoveries, glad tidings, hoppers of emotion.
The chapbook is organized around four themes: Story, Place, Time and Return. Steven selected the first poem in the last section, titled Two Lovers, which we renamed The Return, echoing the final movement in the book. The piece recounts a series of ten glimpses in a couple's life together, spanning fifty years. The return to the old church where they were married becomes the occasion for reminiscing, where their life is seen "at once," and at the end of their time, a return to the beginning, as if for the first time.
The poem is based on a true story. During the summer of last year, I received a call from a parishioner who told me about an old couple who stopped by the church on a weekday afternoon late last summer. They asked to see the old church, explaining that they had just come from New York where they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and were on their way home to Maine. They were married here, in North Stamford, in 1946. After they left, we scoured the church records to find the record of their wedding. And what we found was that they were the first couple to be married in St. Francis' Episcopal Church.
And so this old couple reminds me of the conversation with Betty Wilson. It is their story, but it is also our story, told with the punctuation of special places and special times. It also reminds me how it is the moment, the pause in the story, that grabs the poet as a slant of light grabs the painter. It is arresting, draining, the trance from the charmer's flute, and the writing hand the snake that follows. William Stafford says that he would "give up everything [he's] written for a new one, for a new writing experience. It feels so good to go that trance-like way through a succession of realizations in language toward [whatever]" It's an adventure. It's exploration""
I sent the completed chapbook to Margie Irish, the person who commissioned it, last December. She told me that Pro Arte was planning to ask Steven Sametz to put a selection from the poetry to music. I remember hearing one of Steven's pieces performed at the December concert. At the intermission, Margie rushed up to me to ask, "So what do you think? What do you think? Did you like it?" And I did. I was excited about the prospect of Steven composing a new piece of music and my poetry as potential lyrics.
It was not until the summer that I heard from Steven that he had selected the poem The Two Lovers for his piece. I was surprised. I did not think it was the best piece, and it was unlike most of the other poems in the chapbook-- more abstract, almost ethereal, with a progression of unadorned images. But it had touched Steven in its own special way, which he will tell you about in a moment. So he and I embarked on a collaborative editing of the piece, sending draft and redraft as electronic mails between Lehigh and Southport.
It was the correspondence with Steven, this dialog of letters during the summer, that brought out the meaning of the poetry as a shine on a table following the buffing of hand wax. Not that there was no chiseling of words I thought were "cast in stone." There was. Not that there was no adorning of lines with transition and clarification. There was. And not that there was no pain and bleeding from excising the roots of the piece. That was also present. But despite these uncomfortable experiences of editing, there was this rewarding sense of collaboration, this sense of trust I had, that the work was in good hands, and that the final piece would be true to the experience that engendered it. And it was. That this sense of harmony and alignment occurred is itself a story on another level, in and of itself. It is first a story of how truth and meaning arise out of dialog. But it is also one about how art engenders art, which says so strongly that the creative arts are to be shared even at their origin.
I never saw or heard a note of Steven's piece until I came to an early rehearsal of The Return this past Monday. I came with a sense of expectation and also a sense of fear. I wanted to hear something wonderful, and yet I was afraid of not finding what I sought, of not liking what I heard. So I came to the music as a poet comes to an experience or feeling deep inside. With the expectation of an open ear and open heart, and a desire to follow.
I am not a musician. I do not understand the rules nor how to play. My experience with classical music is limited to an uninformed love of Mozart. And I share this composer's love of play. There is a game I like to play with a six year-old child with Mozart playing in the car's CD. "What do you hear?" I ask. "I hear rain," he says. "Yes, and some skipping on one foot." "Now there are clouds, crying." "Oh, here is dancing and laughing" So we play the game of imagining the scene, of feeling the setting, as each piece plays.
So when I came to the rehearsal, I wondered what I would hear, what I would feel. At first there was the angelic sound of the sopranos that lifted me. I welled up with the feeling of magic and soaring. "Oh, this is beautiful," I said to myself. And then I realized that the words were from the poem, my words re-presented to me. And the feeling was overwhelming. I felt the magical, dream-like quality of the score. I felt the presence of the clock, the sense of moving through time. And I felt the scenes of an old couple's life as if I were watching excerpts from a biography.
But most of all, beyond the exhilaration of the moment, was the sense of being in the same place and time when I first wrote the piece. This was an extraordinary feeling. I asked Steven just yesterday, "How did you do it? What did you hear in the poem?" He shrugged and said how the words and the notes simply began to turn in his head. And when he added his personal story, to which I have already alluded, I was astonished! Here was a story of an elderly couple, connecting to the story of the creation of a poem, linking to the composition of a musical piece, and back to the story of the composer.
I realized in that moment anew how inter-connected life is. How the discoveries we make as artists are never singular, they touch and move and lift those with the openness to listen to their own stories as presented anew in the stories of the work itself. This is what makes the writing and the singing, the painting and the sculpting alive here and now, again and again, in its beginning and in its ending, one and the same.
So I return to Pablo Neruda's words in Il Postino: "Better than any explanation is the experience of feelings that poetry can reveal to a nature open enough to understand it." I offer no exegesis, just an invitation. Hear the poetry, experience the words and the music. It is felt, here, in the open heart.
We invite you to read Mr. Edwards' poem, Two Lovers, featured in this issue --jsg
© Copyright 1997, 1998, The Fairfield Review Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Document last modified on: 09/10/1998