Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Who Needs Poetry?

Spain, Madrid

A view of Plaza de Santa Ana square in Madrid. This is a beautiful area in the city center with a few pavement cafes and restaurants.
There is a statue tribute to Federico Garcia Lorca, the most famous spanish poet executed during the Spanish Civil War.
This sculpure was made by Julio Lopez in 1984.
Spain, Madrid A view of Plaza de Santa Ana square in Madrid. This is a beautiful area in the city center with a few pavement cafes and restaurants. There is a statue tribute to Federico Garcia Lorca, the most famous spanish poet executed during the Spanish Civil War. This sculpure was made by Julio Lopez in 1984.

Several years ago I was visiting the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. There was one incredible English language bookstore run by an enterprising man, Liverpool-born Paul Wotham.  The store, called “Island Books”, was located near Lamai Beach and boasted of housing more than 60,000 books.  I spent quite a number of days browsing, and finally knew what my psyche needed.  I turned to Paul and asked, “Do you have any poetry?”.  He turned to me and responded, “Who reads poetry?“. I was speechless.  He was serious!  I asked, “Well do you have ANY poetry?” He checked his ledger and responded: “Out of 60,000 volumes, I have two books of poetry in stock: 1)  a book of older British verse and 2) a 3,000 year collection of Chinese verse”.  I had absolutely no idea about the latter, and 3,000 years of Chinese culture was as remote and mysterious to me as the Andaman Islands, which I found out later were not part of Thailand, but actually India.  So I bought it! : The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry–From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3000-year Tradition.

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For three weeks I sat in solitary self-confinement like a monk on a mountain, with a magnificent view of the bay; I played my soprano saxophone, composed and read Chinese poetry. The poems inspired me with their brevity and wisdom. I began uncovering connections where previously there were none. I began to wonder if there might be a theory of poetics in music, similar to that which had guided 3000 years of Chinese culture.  At that very moment the approach to my composing inexorably changed. For me, every nuance, whether a major triad or a most dissonant cluster became “fair game” for me in my work. The words tonal , atonal, pan-tonal, bi-tonal (all fancy music words for degrees of harmonic “relativity”) were  all relevant, but not binding.  Indeed I discovered that it was the very juxtaposition of opposite elements that created the various auditory “explosions”, opening new emotions and sensations. I also was aware that for me to take this step might put me at risk among many of my more academic colleagues (then at the Jerusalem Academy of Music).  For many years I too tried to write “grant music” which looked good on the page (as my teacher the late Bill Dixon so succinctly said: “It’s music good enough only to get a grant”!).  I never felt like doing that, because it wasn’t in my heart to feign false elegance and scholarlship.  However, after this monk-like retreat, I felt there was no turning backI was sure I had found my voice.

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In addition, I also realized that as a romantic by heart, I needed poetry like oxygen:   it was (and still is) the saving grace of language, which in its more grotesque form is a monstrous devil that often divides us, objectifies us, sells us, and cheats us.

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So what is at the heart of poetry’s “magic”? Aside from begin the essence of a language, and wellspring of metaphor, which challenges us with new meaning by using two disparate objects or concepts to create “explosions”, it is ultimately that key that opens our imagination, through sound, rhythm, meaning, and feeling.

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Why do we need poetry? Because it renews life, brings us INTO life, renews language, brings us INTO languages, and, most of all serves as a constant reminder that life is mysterious, infinite, nearly impenetrable; it is the essence of being human; it is born on the cusp of language’s ultimate weakness in articulating the ineffable.

So I will leave you with an array of “definitions” of poetry, which demonstrate that poetry “defined” ultimately remains illusive as a sultry butterfly on a sunny day, a small “beast” which is not meant to be caught, pinned down or used. It has no use aside to be the key to our hearts, making the extraordinary out of the ordinary.

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Footnote: After that initial purchase in Koh Samui of Chinese poetry, the book lay on my shelf for several years, until it was “re-awakened” through a dear friend and poet, Ed Codish.  Through him my passion for this poetry has again been ignited and I have discovered that since my initial purchase, additional translations have been published, many of them superior to the original Anchor edition.  This entire “journey” as been truly inspiring.  Ed and I now meet in the creative sphere, dreaming of how our disciplines can merge!

Appendix: Various Definitions of Poetry (for the reader’s pure delight!)

“Poetry, literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.”Howard Nemerov in Brittanica

“Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all…..“Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

And here are twenty-one others which I love!

  1. Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement. Christopher Fry
  2. Poetry is the spontaneous outflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquillity. William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, 1802
  3. Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own. Salvatore Quasimodo
  1. Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is. James Branch Cabell
  2. Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance. Carl Sandburg
  3. A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words. Robert Frost
  4. Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Robert Frost
  5. A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.
    Dylan Thomas
  6. Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)
  7. (Poetry) is the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake. Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)
  1. Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you. Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne
  2. Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away. Carl Sandburg, Poetry Considered
  3. Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history. Plato (427 BC – 347 BC)
  4. Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash. Leonard Cohen
  5. Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows, and of lending existence to nothing. Edmund Burke
  6. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth. Samuel Johnson
  7. Poetry: the best words in the best order. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  8. Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads. Marianne Moore
  9. Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason. Novalis
  10. There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing. John Cage
  11. Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. Charles Simic
  12. Poetry is an attempt to capture the essence of the chord struck in the poet by an instant of insight, in such a way that the same music will sound in the soul of the reader. Tia Azulay

Extracted from a list of 50 at “Poet in the City”

About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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