Martin Langford: Eardrum: Poems and Prose about Music

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019, 153pp.

Music is the most emotionally engaging of the arts/entertainments, the one we hold most closely to. You can lose friends after arguing about music whereas you are unlikely to lose friends claiming that Thackeray is a better novelist than Dickens or that Antonioni’s films are overrated. Martin Langford’s Eardrum is entirely about music. It is immediately engaging (at least to me) but unusually difficult to write about because one is continuously breaking off one’s own composition to argue with some specific point or to follow another one further. This usually doesn’t happen with books of poetry where a critic is able to retain a certain personal distance from what a poem wants to say about society or a tree, or wants to do in some experiment with form or language.

Eardrum is made up of three parts: a nearly booklength collection of poems; an extended set of short poems, some of which could be called squibs, some more like epigrams (the section is called “Minims”); and a final set of prose pieces, meditations on music. There are a lot of structural issues at play here. When you first pick up the book, you think immediately of a kind of symphonic structure (though of only three movements) with “Minims” – which reminds me both in tone and form of Peter Porter’s “Scordatura” from his Afterburner – as a sort of scherzo. But for the conclusion to be prose seems odd. Is it analogous to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth which tries to negotiate a move into an entirely different form? Could the three parts have been reversed? Not really because then the prose ideas would predate the poems (structurally) and make the poems seem like statements of a predetermined set of understandings. It’s a complex business and I’ll have more to say about it later when I try to analyse the relation of prose and poetry in this and Langford’s other work.

The next thing to recognise is how dauntingly wide, deep and, most importantly, ecumenical Langford’s grasp of music is – far wider than mine and far more ecumenical. Punk and Rock get treated in the same dispassionate analytical way as does Classical. (At this point let me – as thousands have before me – remind readers of the inadequacy of this term which simultaneously denotes all “art-music” and art music in the brief but crucial period between the mid 1750s and, perhaps the death of Mozart in 1791. To keep calling art-music Classical Music privileges the sonata form of a movement away from the home key to which the music ultimately returns. It’s a bit like defining lyric poetry since Sappho in terms of Renaissance works and calling it not “lyric” but “Petrarchan”.) At any rate, the ecumenicalism is built into the structure of Eardrum. The opening poem, “The Finales” – whose title and subject is a nicely timed irony – is about art music. Its subject is one to which many of the poems and prose pieces in the book return: the notion that nineteenth century music is cursed by its striving towards an unattainable transcendence:

A Beethoven ending is not a true ending.

It can’t be. There are no such things.

He raises the volume.

He tensions the strings and attacks . . .

Eases silk across skin.

Still God refuses to happen.

He pounds with that great club, his talent;
empurples the air
with the claim that a world has been won –

leaving his heirs
to the doubts after Ludwig – . . . 

I think, as I have thought throughout my rereadings of this book, that this is a little unfair. And here, as with the term “Classical Music”, I’m dragged away from Eardrum and into my own thoughts on the subject. What matters in an art form is not the restrictedness of the possibilities in which it operates but how it accommodates to these. I think Beethoven – a genius rather than a talent and one who had experienced more than most of us of the vicissitudes of both History and personal disaster – knew that the structures of his great public works, pieces like the odd numbered symphonies, Fidelio and the Missa Solemnis were failing gestures, perhaps glimpses of God and human unity that were never possible, but made the gestures nevertheless and changed the inheritance of Haydn so the these gestures arose from the music. He knew, in other words, that he was banging his head against an unbreakable ceiling and it is significant that his endings (the Ninth Symphony, the Opus 130’s original Grand Fugue) are problematic – though perhaps more for us than for him. If I have concerns about the music it is that the great Beethovenian climaxes (notoriously that of the fifth symphony) sound military to my untrained ear.

Again, this is something of a distraction – the kind of distraction that Eardrum constantly leads me into. My initial point was that the book’s structure declares its ecumenicalism. The first poem is about art music, the second, “The Stone Song”, about music seen as the expression of the long human drive towards violence and cruelty. It’s not exactly the same as the military sound that worries me in Beethoven’s “grand” works but military marches are part of it: demanding that all march in the same time towards a goal established by others. It’s a music which, the poem says, can be found in the nastier banter of the lounge room during peace time

. . . . . 
but which will – if the hunting comes back -
soon flower again
to a stale room, a barge smeared with blood.

The third poem is about Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” a mid-twentieth century avantgarde piece known to people because of its appearance in Kubrick’s 2001. We have left the problems of the nineteenth century behind only to encounter another set of difficulties:

The inversion of scale is complete.

This is not music
where selves loom as monsters of doubt -
driving the action-plan, searching for home -
flailing around as theatre and actors and script.

Here there are only
immense folds of darkness.

At one point: some wingbeats.

Then: miniature dialogues, off.

Based on the kinds of things that other poems have to say, this should be read as approval, I think. The word “dialogues” always has positive connotations here and Langford is usually interested in contemporary music which turns its attentions otherwhere to form a counter arc to the development of harmonically based music. After this poem comes a poem about the Rolling Stones’ early signature piece, “Satisfaction”; then one about the shakuhachi flute being played at Government House under the watchful eye of a painting of one of the English kings so that a music which explores “prairies with no known co-ordinates” is contrasted with what postcolonial critics would call a measuring imperial gaze; then a poem about dance hall music.

This survey-like shape recurs in the order of the next section, “Minims”. It begins with a poem about Punk – “Punk: when ‘wanna screw, / wanna screw, right fucking “now,” / was a moment of cultural significance”, follows this with a poem about jazz, then a poem juxtaposing Furtwängler’s wartime conducting of Wagner with the bland big-band music of victorious American soldiers. Next is a poem about Sinatra. One of the “Minims” catches this width of reach nicely, exploiting the surprises that can derive from considering “serious” and “popular” music as parts of a whole:

James Brown,
live at the Apollo -

or Mitsuko Uchida,
calming a trill -
both are the music of bodies.

So the range is very wide. But the position is distinctive. The music critics we usually read, ranging from Rosen and Ross down to humble liner notes, are often content to see a work in the context of developments in music history, occasionally making gestures towards broader cultural phenomena such as Romanticism or Modernism. Langford comes at music as a phenomenon of creativity enmeshed in a particular social setting. The driving forces – as we will see later, often the conflict between the mind and the body, or understanding and dance – are at quite a different level of abstraction and in quite a different location. As the first of the prose pieces says:

A recurring theme of Western music has been the way that, whenever the iterations of the subject have started to pall, music has turned to the dance: to lighten things up, to make things more bearable – or because we have a sense, anyway, of the necessity of interplay. If the eighteenth century’s celebrations of kings and their victories became pompous, then it was time to revisit the bourrees and scottisches where one could forget power for a while. Once those elegant suites began to sound thin, however, then it was time to explore something meatier: a journey towards ecstasy, perhaps. And when the claims of the symphony became unsustainable, then Prokofiev and Stravinsky could provide us with ballet scores. This is true not just of classical, but of popular music too, which also seems to exist in a tension between dance and the demands of story: for the word-heavy music of the sixties to disco, Madonna and Michael Jackson – and then back again, as the impulse to “say something” re-emerged with Jeff Buckley or Radiohead.

The last three poems of the first section make the most detailed and extensive statements. The first of these, “The Symphonists”, revisits the material of the book’s first poem: the massive achievements and limitations of the nineteenth century symphonic tradition. The hero of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is used as a metaphor for the moment of arrival at the sacred, challenging and unyielding place:

. . . . . 
Till – sooner or later -
as Rolande had done, long ago -
the claimants arrived
at the cliff-face of Ultimate Things:
a trumpet, perhaps – more sforzando -
then storm-winds of urgent repeats -
banging away – for a sign – for a path up the rock . . .

A great, dominating form reaches the point where the moves it wants to make or the questions it wants to answer are unachievable. It’s not a dissimilar situation to the nineteenth century European novel whose achievements are dauntingly vast but which ultimately becomes an impossible form needing, at the beginning of the next century, to be taken apart and rebuilt. Langford leaves the symphonists with a judgement that sympathetically acknowledges their greatness – “Mighty approaches. But failures as vast as invention. // As wrong as a gesture can be. // And as kind. And as true.” And his portrait of Brahms as someone who knew the end had come, that “harmonies stretched / in pursuit of more power all led neatly / to fractures and vacuums” but nevertheless “insisted you walk / in his rose-scented garden” is kinder to its subject than I have ever been able to be. One of the “Minims”, “The First Viennese School”, also pays tribute to the symphonic tradition inaugurated by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven:

who’d stare as far down
into chasms
as those who came later –

but who’d so much more home
to return to.

And the second-last of these final poems of the first part of the book, “Arcs”, looks at elements which derive from other than the great celebrations and searches of previous musics and are seen as counter-arcs:

. . . . . 
until, bit by bit,
there were tunes free from status -
Poulenc, with crackers at carnies;
Britten, on Midsummer’s Eve –

a music released
from its comic-book triumphs:

a bedrock without a home-key.

Not much to build on, but all we had left
once the claims of the tribe had been shredded . . .

This is all a crude summary of a complex and consistent attitude to music in all its forms. I think its best understandings are expressed in its shortest forms, as momentary illuminations, witty asides and compressed truths: as epigrams, that is. And it should come as no surprise that Langford’s previous book, Neat Snakes is a collection of epigrams, a form one wouldn’t expect to find alive in the first decades of the twenty-first century. In fact, Neat Snakes and Eardrum form a kind of pair – even though music barely appears in the former – and there is much to be said for reading them in tandem.

To return to the issue of the structure of Eardrum, it seems on first viewing to register a kind of defeat of poetry, an admission that ultimately poems must make way for prose. But the reality is more complex and revolves around the nature of the epigrammatic and how it can appear in both poetry and prose. Just because something appears as expository prose doesn’t mean it is locked into a rigid structure of assertion and logical support: there are more open kinds of prose that get called (admittedly, fairly carelessly) “poetic”. The final section of Eardrum is in this mode, especially the extended pieces, “Stave Dreams” and “Electric Dreams” which work by juxtaposition and suggestion and thus might be slid across the genre map towards that imprecise phenomenon called the “prose poem”.

Are the epigrams of Neat Snakes a kind of prose poem or is the epigram the opposite: a distillation of prose thought? Langford’s description of his interest in the epigram accords it a lot of features that we would want to call genuinely poetic:

. . . . . I became intrigued by the possibility of combining the defamiliarization of the poets and scientists with the lucidity that the aphorism had traditionally employed. Sometimes, writing can feel like an attempt to articulate an aesthetic, and although one may only approximate it occasionally in practice, its presence as an ideal – the search for a tension between lucidity and strangeness, so that the phrase can never quite settle – provided a kind of stiffening for the project, a background pressure or test which nevertheless helped to keep it afloat.

“The search for a tension between lucidity and strangeness” sounds like a good description of one of the features of lyric poetry whose attributes always seem to be made up of a whole raft of these sorts of tensions: abstract/specific, personal/communal, the natural environment/the inner life, and so on. And one of these tensions would be that between open and closed meanings – what one might think of as “poetic” versus ”prose” meanings. Are Langford’s epigrams “open” in meaning, or “closed”? It isn’t an easy question and reminds us just how crude our notion of the way prose communicates ideas is. Sometimes, as in “Every culture has its own way of averting its eyes”, the openness lies only in the fact that we nod wisely in response while trying to think of some examples from other cultures we know something of. The same could be said for, “No specific difference is fundamental: racism, sexism, class. We will nominate any difference we can build an advantage on” and “Our tolerance of reason varies with the threat that reason represents”. These are, in a way, polemical epigrams that ask for assent. Others are “poetic” in that they seem to encourage exploration without imposing a final meaning: “The right combination of mirrors should keep you from falling”, for example. It is significant that the shortest of the poems in the first section of Eardrum, “Bach”:

Just as the war
between knowing
and dancing
would lurch,
like a fate,
towards knowledge:

made it sound
as if nothing
need keep them apart.

could well have appeared in the second section or, straightened out into a single prose line, could have appeared in Neat Snakes.

Fundamentally, I think it is an issue of control over meaning (not the same as control over response which Langford analyses in a critique of Ravel). Langford’s poems seem to come out of an extended and coherent meditation on core subjects: in the case of Eardrum, music. So, although the poems are open to a certain extent, we are always aware that the author is, finally, in control of the meanings. He isn’t the sort of poet who will say, “I’ve no idea what it means and I didn’t when I wrote it. But it might be fun to try to work it out together”. Which of these two approaches makes for the better poetry ultimately, I don’t know. Control of meaning may oscillate with openness of meaning through literary history in the same way that the tension between music of the body and music of the understanding oscillates, in Langford’s view, through the history of music.