Sing a Poem, Recite a Song


By Wayne Allensworth

For nearly 40 years, your humble observer’s life has been connected in one way or another with Russia, or, better still, the Russian world, that broad cultural expanse that extends across much of Eurasia. And from the beginning of that journey, what drew me in as much as anything about Russia and the Russians were that country’s impressive cultural achievements. A tragic history, ties to Byzantium, and the mysticism expressed in Eastern Orthodoxy made the Russian world a Janus-like alternative face to that of the Roman West in a divided Christendom. It was enough like the world I knew to be intelligible, but in some ways very different, and magnetically mysterious. Eastern Christianity’s mysticism expressed in sublime liturgies and icons, visual art as prayer, and those onion domed churches, seized my imagination and compelled me to further exploration.

Christ the Savior (Attributed to Andrey Rublev, c. 1410)

Russians have adapted every art form known to us in the West: the novel, the ballet, and the symphony, and made them their own. Most of all, it seemed that every Russian I met was a would-be poet. Some wrote verse themselves, while others could recite Pushkin from memory. A Russian poetry recital was like time-traveling back to the days of medieval troubadours or even ancient poets who sang their verse. Russian poets’ heartfelt, rhythmic recitations were soft songs, the poets’ faces for a time a reflection of something otherworldly.

Here’s a fine example of the classic Russian recitation: Joseph Brodsky recites his poem Nature Morte (Still Life). Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return:

A recitation of Aleksandr Pushkin’s Ya Vas lyubil (I Loved You) set to a string quartet by Aleksandr Borodin. Music and poetry. A love remembered:

It has occurred to me that the talents of our most gifted people are often wasted in a commercial, consumerist milieu — I won’t inflate its stature by calling it culture — that channels so much creativity into spiritual dead ends like advertising. Many of us who would have been poets and troubadours, singers of songs, composers of epics, or artists painting in high cathedrals make an early return to the dust in the deceptions of ad jingles or the crude banality that is today’s pop culture. Poetry seems mostly a lost art, and, with a few notable exceptions, so is the best prose writing.

And yet the light can still shine through the mist. Music and the poetry of song lyrics are one venue where some light has broken through in my lifetime, especially in folk music and story songs, the best of which echo a poet’s lilting verse. We may not have produced a Pushkin or a Brodsky in recent decades, but sometimes our popular music has reached beyond itself. Take this beautiful rendition of Girl from the North Country, a duet by songwriter Bob Dylan and the Arkansas prophet who wrestled with God, Johnny Cash, from Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album as an example:

It’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, raw, just the men and their guitars, with even a few miscues, but they wisely kept them in, making the song seem, to me at least, more human, more immediate. The attentive listener feels the wind behind him, the elevated sense of being that comes with the best in artistic expression. The song is a poetic recitation.

Iain McGilchrist’s work points to poetry, metaphor, and music as being the best possible vehicles for expressing what is inexpressible in conventional language. Poetry verse, song, music, metaphor and symbol, parable and allegory reach into the heart of being that a flat statement or description cannot. Superior prose writing can be almost musical, a lyrical bridging of the gaps between those forms of expression. The best prose seems like poetry, the best poetry like song. Good writing has a melodic quality. And visual art, like the best music, verse, and prose, can be a prayer. Sing a poem. Recite a song. Read the best prose aloud, as was done centuries ago, when all reading was done aloud. Speak to what moves you.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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