The other day I happened across one of those huge So and So’s Guide to Classical Music, and for the hell of it I paged around to the only modern composers I really know (Philip Glass, Henryk Gorecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener), and they were all pretty much panned as fads.
Ages ago when I first moved away from home into my first apartment, Hans Zimmer’s score for the movie The Thin Red Line pretty much played nonstop for weeks, and it still remains a kind of low humming meditation that could be the background music to any life. On other days, the last three songs from Thomas Newman’s score for The Shawshank Redemption are as moving and meaningful as any music I know.
None of these folks are Beethoven or Bach, but like all great art you only think to make comparisons after the fact. In the moment they hardly matter. I still remember the sense of revelation, back in high school, when I realized that sometimes I was in the mood for Beethoven, other times for Rage Against the Machine; neither impulse cancelled the other out.
.…All of these scattered bits just to say: amid all of my apparently knowledgeable thoughts about poetry, how would what I’ve said about the above composers strike someone who considers themselves knowledgeable about classical music? Like So and So’s Guide, all of my preferences could probably be cut down pretty easily, especially any affection for movie composers.
But so what? The meaning I’ve derived from any of them wouldn’t be lessened by such criticism. In a very real way, we all only have so much time, and the position of knowledgeable experts is actually the oddity; and in their desire to classify and pass judgment, it may even become negligible. So when I said that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen—even Avril Lavigne—weren’t “poetry”—maybe not, maybe so, but who cares?
I was humbled by this comparison recently: it was said that at one point, for people not that into poetry, the one book of poetry they’d have owned was Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám. I cringed at this; but immediately it was mentioned that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was the equivalent for jazz, and I noticed that, despite a real love for jazz, that really was one of the only jazz albums I actually owned.
So that while I might know a bit about some classical or jazz composers, and while I have my preferences, I still know very little about music at all. And can many of us say any different? There’s only so much TV, music, movies and books any one person can possibly experience meaningfully. The sense of being personally offended—or just concerned, as I was, that poetry was being swallowed up by other forms of media—actually seems to come from encountering those who find meaning outside of culture altogether: words, music, the or the visual arts are something to be absorbed in order to relax, not challenge oneself—that’s covered by other things entirely.
As with religious zealots, there’s a sense that other people’s lives are literally worse off by not knowing [whatever it is] that we love. I personally can’t imagine life without the slow movement from Beethoven’s 15th string quartet, but before and after its composition pretty much everyone who has ever lived has gotten along fine without it.
Is this so bad?