Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Hick from Springfield

Christine commented: Dale, do you ascribe to the idea that we avoid what we most need? I wonder what lesson from the 18th century you will apply toward your life. Curious, I am.

I started answering in the comments, but it got so long it was more like a post. I hadn't really made it explicit in my mind, but I guess I think that any culture, any time, ought to have something to enrich my understanding and capture my heart. The European 18th Century is several (if closely interrelated) sophisticated cultures, and a long period of time: the fact that it feels so barren to me suggests that there's a resistance in me that prevents me from responding fully, that there's some way that I'm closing my heart against them.

It may be, as some of you suggested, that it's time for me to really learn how to listen to old music: maybe that's what the 18th Century is waiting to give me. I enjoy Mozart and Bach, in a casual way, but I've never felt that I really get them. With all but a few favorite kinds of music (the Rock of my youth, traditional Celtic) -- and especially with classical music, I have the deep sense that I'm just a hick from Springfield, Oregon, too stupid and crude to ever really respond to it properly.

It's funny: I've seen this often enough my poetry classes. Students who are convinced that they just can't read it, due to some genetic or environmental flaw too deep to be mended. Some of them are frustrated enough to say so, and to ask how it's done -- as if there was some secret poetry-reading protocol that prep school kids are initiated into the third grade, that the rest of us have to guess at. The answer, of course, unwelcome as it is, is simply: you have to read it. You can't just glance at it. That's why I used to make my students memorize a lot of poetry: because it's really very difficult to memorize a poem without reading it, whether you want to or not. Whereas it's easy to skim a poem, get frustrated, and put the book away, under the impression that you've "done the reading," but that you're too stupid to understand it.

Probably the same rule obtains here. What I'm going to need to do is actually listen. Where, I wonder, should I start? It probably doesn't matter, really.

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