A Poet’s Response to Bax – the poetry of Tom Goff
A Preface: Meeting Mr. Bax
I’m an instructional assistant in the Reading and Writing Center at Folsom Lake College,
not far from Sacramento, California. Thus I work as a tutor of English, though my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are both in music (trumpet performance, from Sacramento State University and the San Francisco Conservatory). In the Sacramento region, we’re lucky to have a public radio station that plays classical music, most often of the Mozart-Haydn-Beethoven variety, but with occasional ventures into the experimental or the simply different, the nonstandard repertoire. Once in a while, Capitol Public Radio will program Bax’s Tintagel, Overture to a Picaresque Comedy, or Morning Song: Maytime in Sussex, but little to nothing else of his.
I can say I have enjoyed Tintagel whenever it has aired, but it is human nature
to make sweeping assumptions about forgotten figures like Sir Arnold Bax: namely, that Tintagel was simply the very best of what might be an underwhelming though large body of other music. One attitude I do naturally try to veer away from, though, is that of contempt prior to investigation, so I have long wondered why our symphonic life, at least in the concert hall,
is such a lazy one, consisting of “classics” and warhorses so over-performed that it makes most concerts a dusty “museum” or “mausoleum” experience.
By great good fortune, the Folsom Lake College library picked up a copy of Lewis Foreman’s great Bax biography. There was simply no ignoring the darkly impressive cover, with its Romantically glowering young composer as depicted in Paul Corder’s experimental color photo. Once I started on the first two or three chapters, there was no putting the book down. The assurance that here indeed was an estimable composer in almost every genre was authoritative, and I felt as Vernon Handley has said in an interview on Bax’s symphonies: I was enslaved straightaway. Gradually, working through what I could find on YouTube, then picking up this or that CD by Vernon Handley, Bryden Thomson, or David Lloyd-Jones, I’ve become even more captivated.
It seems to me that by ignoring Bax, we as a musical culture are suffering a true loss, as well as committing an historic injustice, as we do in ignoring the works of Karol Szymanowski, Ferruccio Busoni, Carl Nielsen, and many other composers. I think as does the late Maestro Handley, that perhaps Bax’s supreme musical virtue is his ability to evoke moods, in music, actually mixtures of moods that can elude capture in language: how often, for example, Bax can generate a strong sensation of élan commingled with brooding darkness. In Tintagel, a sorrowing motif in the low strings (separation from Harriet Cohen, we might speculate?) regenerates in triumphal splendor toward the end, among the brasses; that sort of metamorphosis by sheer orchestration is again something Handley speaks of in interview.
Also, as I’ve gotten to know Bax’s poetry, another of his highly developed skills, I have developed a feeling, or it has developed me: a recurring elation upon finding a master spirit whose outlook on life and creativity are not only worth pondering, but even following to a degree (paganism, yes; infidelity, perhaps no). And Bax has become someone rare among such long-vanished “mentors,” a living figure (at least as I conceive him) in my own poetry. For what they are worth, I offer here a sampling of the small efforts in verse he has inspired.
—Tom Goff, Folsom, California, 10/5/2015
Editor: The Author would like to acknowledge the poetry blog Medusa’s Kitchen where some of these poems have been posted previously.
Away from the Garden of Fand
I’m listening to Arnold Bax’s The Garden of Fand
while hydroplaning through a monster storm
en route to work. Symphonic poem in form,
the music: a still, soft ocean-surface; a band
of innocent Irish sea-farers, an island.
Here, that calm sea deposits our sailors; warm
their greeting by Fand, the goddess. Carefree swarms
of revelers hoodwink our boys, as if by wand:
all golden fire aboard this island vessel
and dancing in the company of nymphs,
and fiddlers’ tunes and hoisting much of drinks,
and all take turns at pounding a musical pestle.
Now we’re seduced: Fand sings us her melting song.
Pure honey, it turns sheer tide, then drowns our throng.
So quickly, musically can all things veer far:
how tidal the summoning pull and tug of work,
so too the sheets of suctioning rain that pluck
into liquid heaven each car after each last car,
and I’m afraid I’ll be lost as any sailor
summoned with buttery lips into Fand’s churn,
cream, butter whipped up from my skin brine-inurned,
my bones ripe to be plunged in the wake of a whaler.
Take me away from this workers’ paradise.
With your own touch, free me from that driftwood delusion.
You know a wilder, softer glade of grace
where birdsong flows, timepieces run slow with sand,
no island of tidal upheavals and contortions
where water blows back like fire in a lover’s face.
Take us to safety at last from my lady Fand,
bring us to that sun-rinsed ledge,
our secret pouch above river,
where griefs fall away at the wand-tact of the healer, the great forgiver.
Bax’s Third Symphony, 1st Movement
From the opening notes of piping bassoon
a man determined to show he’s deeply studied
The Rite of Spring, yet drunk from a much less muddied
spring, the clear mainspring of all tendril noon’s
upsprout into muted, then clangorous trumpet tune,
string song crossed by tympani, dissonance-studded
till eruption upsurges rose-thorned, rosebudded.
Tears well up in tunes the violas underpin
(Renée Jeanne Falconetti, eyes of Saint Joan).
Quick six-eight march sunk into a brooding world,
the wordless, snarling stopped French horn, bass trombone
stunned till unstuck when motion warms, unfurled
out of and into Irish, moodily alone
long ruminations, shiveringly rippled
across a mind’s blue waters greenly stippled.
At last a quick tempo, the drumbeat dancebeat,
pounding hellbent to stun;
frantic rude bird plainsong, need-greed-fed,
voltaic in winter sun.
Listening to Arnold Bax’s Fifth Symphony
How often does this man design bold symphonies
from piecework patches, swatches he tilts to flash
beneath sharp orchestral lights their glint, their dash
of eclipse or solar plume? His tweezers seize
bright threads, dark motives—he by hands & knees
makes the tapestry with two backs: all knots he’ll lash
in one loveliness, bristling, polytonal, plush.
He likes making like Mondrian. Baxist boogie-woogies!
Strange pagans keep deep enigmas. Russian, Irish,
British, whose muse’s milk shaped this one strong?
A poet: does he not embed speech in the stitch?
What “intonation units” contour our listening?
He lives on what island, weaving, unraveling song?
Forever the wave-patterns, liquids & sibilants glistening…
Having annoyed us early with its warmth,
premature summer masquerades as spring,
or rather, back to winter it feigns to bring
us who aren’t fooled: behind those clouds the balm
and calm of preternatural vibrant green,
ripe solar plumes, no humans harmed in making
arthritis-quieting sun come early, taking
its ease behind this decoy bay-fog screen.
Yet eerie disquiet lurks behind fake murk,
and, behind that, false notes: mirth too soon unurned.
From Bax’s First, movement two, haven’t I learned?
That elegy for the Irish dead, which torques,
twists discord almost to savagery, tears me apart:
those clouds, if they could, would cry out their heart.
Some years, long repressed, a season wants early escape:
still it hides in robes of dense cloud its rock-black cape.
Within your grip, the straining spans of hand,
barely the octaves; yet your ivories,
live fingers, blending inside the brittle keys,
whisk passion into the simplest allemande.
Nor do you not know, smooth-skin, what allure—lent
by flawless breasts, legs, shoulders—will quickly do
to bother back the botherer of you.
Yes—twice the ecstasy, double the torment.
He too is double, all espionage in love;
you beat back at him as if, straight from Yeats,
you’ve loosed in Byzantine swarms the golden bees
from their waxen sally gates,
bees drunk on great gouts of royal jelly
as Blacks and Tans
set loose on their shenanigans.
In his best interest, have you not contrived
that masterworks, his, keep sunk in your solo trove?
Apostling him to the Nordic god Sibelius,
now loving your merry monarch, now slyly rebellious…
And yet he’s never freed himself from her.
Things about him you know and yet stay on;
the live little dalliances who cling and fawn,
chancing to him as do windfalls off the spur
and sprig of the sexy tree—they just occur.
Or logburst sparks, or sparkles that flare when drawn,
salt with foam, to your hem, the sea-devil’s spawn:
such petty grains claw the petticoats of the slow comber.
The wavebreak comes with its icy cymbal crash.
Surf-climax, after the vast orchestral thrash,
subsides and ebbs as do discords, and you learn
long after what ices your ankles ceases to burn.
“…Ultimately the three motto notes become established as an ostinato, over which
the second subject and other elements of the movement pass in dark review…”
—Arnold Bax, program notes to his Third Symphony
I can’t quite see; the eyes must still adjust,
so vision leans on hearing—my heart beats,
that drum of blood and hunger drums and eats
from inside that same heart. The darkness, dust:
those motes of flare, fine-grained, alone are seen,
where all my life is all the shape I know
in hells where Dantesque shame’s the ostinato
that dissolves the motto suffering in the sheen.
Life shimmers past in dark review; such things
as love, truth, beauty deformed, gone bitter, shrunk.
I’ve warped them from right shape most dismally.
The small cloud guilt turns thunderhead, it clings
with each last static hook to each sapling tree’s
invert voltaic stem and crackling trunk.
Each tree must cease to put out rings and grow
quick as its optic bark can shock, sear, scar below.
(experimental symphony by Bax, 1913)
Spring-man young-man all “extasy” with Swinburne
and Shelley, ardent as must be singers of ardent
riches lit up inside the soul, as argent
or dark mines catch quick underground fire, begin burn,
then char deep mineral seams—unquenchable.
Young Bax’s poetic passion then leans Irish.
This delver feeds Cornish tin, copper to fire’s rich
rich green, spring grass. Rain drips soft emeralds.
Transformation, a mine-fire fever symphony:
belowground-smoldering cello, viola, bassoon,
then blazing trumpets, horns, and (sweet monsoon!)
violin bursts, coupling rapture, burn-for-burn sympathy…
Come, bassarids. Tambourines, rattle out Rupert Brooke.
Ah consummation—to hell with the shepherd’s crook!
I have always thought that art may be a disease of the soul,
like the pearl in the oyster.
In the Oyster
Can love be love, can art stay art, which rubs,
chafes, scrapes so hard and sharp at your soft innards
that you must seal it, as we enamel our tubs
in some exquisite coat that shines, glows, glimmers?
Then, what if the grit-event, buffed lustrous, polished
to rainbow brilliantine, must still be deemed
fit matter for rejection, must be abolished,
expelled, thrown out of the only shell you’ve dreamed,
slept, eaten, tooled around in, your life-carapace?
I hate to think what you’ve made lovely a dismal
germ you must counter with antibodies: brand,
hunt down, lay siege to, kick out. That sounds abysmal:
dark under-depths, frights I wish you’d reprimand,
rebuke back below, so quiet you might not hear a trace.
And why? Don’t lose it, but keep it: turn that grit-bit furl
(now curl, fold inward, shine shyly)—your most perverse
Why Arnold Bax?
Count on it—I seem to love the loser’s cause,
the battle to push back against neglect.
A great composer’s here, dark intellect
and technical splendor forging his own laws,
in Eros as in Art, a blithe young pagan
who pens ecstatic symphonic poems, who’ll darken
his song as wars and losses make him hearken:
the tuning fork beats rue for the bright day gone.
And yet the drumtap, still the rapture-captor
filling symphonies both vast and terse,
chromatically worked, Shelleyan colored glass,
but permanent in structure. And his verse!
Winging from England, pouncing as does a raptor
on Irish legends, Celtic conscience and past.
Before fashion applauds Pessoa’s heteronyms,
he’s Dermot O’Byrne, he’s Shiela MacCarthy:
all Other, and yet still Music, the hymn inside the hims.
Only English composers know the curse
of working in talent-crowded, resource-poor
Great Britain. Only one shot at rehearsing
your latest symphonic masterpiece—the door
to you and it, if orchestras can’t grasp.
In spite of everything, they push, they’re played,
Arnold and Ralph—and influence each other,
this, the source and secret of their long handclasp:
Agnostic Ralph’s folksong- and hymn-awareness
filtered through Arnold’s grassily pagan filter,
Bax enriching VW’s orchestral sparseness,
threading an oboe cadenza through the braid.
Oh friends though they are, what subtle rivalry
together speeds them across barlines—brisk polyphony!
Conductor “Tod” Handley: VW knows placing his tunes,
his elements in each tone poem, juxtaposing;
Bax is the one who shapes his melodious runes,
transforms from the get-go: “It is called, I believe, composing.”
A.k.a. Peter Warlock: a deep archetype
composes his facial lines—a blonder “blond Satan”
than Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Yet let us wipe
from mind the sere thin smile, the goatee latent
with pranks and tricks. Regard the self-taught student,
absorbing Alchemy and Magick, Musick
tightening the tuning peg far beyond prudent,
yet song flows along the old cleanrunning true creek
bed, in the master current, point-counterpoint.
Philip, fitful in confidence, praised by Bax
as original, clear. Phil shrouds the Duchess of Malfi
in as many voice-rainbows as funeral black reflects.
He’ll gas himself dead: despair—in the face of defects?
Yet much is owed: Philip shows Bax a Raleigh
poem, “Walsinghame,” which Arnold compacts
into painful, beautiful splendor. We anoint
their friendship among the age’s treasures, yet
what of the drunken evenings, Arnold weakening
slowly to Scotch? Now Bax’s flickering
will (stop boozing with Phil) meets Bax the meliorist.
Somehow, somewhen, Bax too succumbs. Forget
not this, though: Warlock the loved idealist,
a generous friend and colleague—we can be grateful.
Reserve other feelings for what we assume was fateful.
From Another Art
for the poets of Tough Old Broads: Viola Weinberg Spencer,
Ann Menebroker, Victoria Dalkey, and Kathryn Hohlwein
All through the storm the heedless blackbird trills;
While thunder rocks and tears the coppery sky
And lightning splinters fleck the curtained hills
Persists his melody.
So when your body pitches in the trough
Of bitter tides of longing may you know
Some solace of the careless lilt of love
I sang you long ago.
—Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Arnold Bax, neglected musical master
caught amid extramarital mistressy bigamy,
could summon up twin arts, entwined creativities
plucked from the Bishopy (write it!) kind of disaster.
English composer, English poet too,
he indites—when wrenched almost in halves by love
or the suctioning dread of disappearing soon;
he jots, when nearly drained of his marvelous trove
of chromatic tempest, Magellanic surge
of orchestral song—this wistful little thing:
Bax hears a small blackbird whose heart’s-brimful flings
tinwhistle-faraway flutings all through a storm,
past sharp electric talons, spurred by an urge
that, till he finds his listener, takes no form.
Who is the Baxian blackbird? Who’s the she-listener?
For Arnold, she could be “Tania,” Harriet Cohen
the concert pianist. Tania isn’t alone,
though. Could he mean Mary Gleaves? Is even he sure?
Bax may not get to decide. Blackbird and longing:
are they not one? Symbolic, the fluted tune
piercing the absent lovewoman on the dune
of wet and salt that lashes and lifts and strongwings
the desirer, the rider of that discordant roll.
Yet for how many eons have the throats of birds,
the women, the wantings, mingled and sunk in the din?
Ah, promise-breaker, sing to the girl in your soul,
your silent stray gamine core, all feminine.
Tempt her to come back, this time with honest words.
Arnold Bax, 1939
for Richard Ryberg Adams
Farewell to the vast symphonic hoard, to all
the played, the unplayed, soon to be consigned
to my trunk at the White Horse…to outlast my fall?
Will it now be poetry, music cast out of mind?
Farewell beforehand, small-fingered Harriet
of the sweet soft flawlessly white shape
and ivory trill, us long since caught in the net
of sun-pierced tide along Cornish coast and cape.
Farewell soon, my hearty whimsical happy Mary;
farewell to Ukraine; and Scotland; English friends;
to my lost-behind-mists green Celtic veldts of faery,
and to long-prized Willie Yeats, who this instant ends,
the ink still beading the note-heads on this fresh score
of farewell to a life of vision in love and lore.