Empty Afternoons

The other day in the senior capstone we were discussing the value of aesthetic awareness. I had given the seminar a chapter by Aaron Copland entitled How We Listen. In it Copland divided listening to music into three planes: the sensuous plane, the communicative plane, and the sheerly musical plane.

The first of these is simply the degree to which we enjoy the music. The second concerns our awareness of what the music may be trying to communicate in terms of feeling, intensity, or maybe even imagery; and the last plane deals with our understanding of a piece's structure and order. He points out that while these planes may be experienced simultaneously, it is helpful to think about them separately.

I like Copland's approach to listening very much, especially because it makes clear in a direct and concrete manner that we can enjoy something without understanding it and understand something without enjoying it. In fact, Copland's three plane's apply to many forms of aesthetic appreciation. I try to get my students to apply them to architecture, painting and poetry. We will, for example, look at the first stanza of a poem like W.H. Auden's Look Stranger:
Look, stranger, at this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers
Stand stable here
And silent be
That through the ears may wander like a river
The swaying sounds of the sea.
A prose equivalent might be the following:

To whom it may concern, look at this island as it currently appears while remaining motionless and quiet. Also, listen patiently to the sound oscillation made by ocean waves.
The words in both versions are common and clear enough, yet there is a difference between Auden's stanza and my oafish prose translation. What is this difference, though? That's the question I put to students. What's going on in the stanza that isn't going on in the prose translation? Both carry meaning, but clearly there is a net difference when you weigh them against one another.

The students often respond that the poem "twists things around" or that "it's not as straightforward." Sometimes they just say, "Well, the poem sounds better," but they are unsure why or how it sounds better. So we go to work on the stanza. I show them that it is actually very carefully constructed to enact in sound the very meaning it conveys. The first line, for example, is regular iambic tetrameter; the second one is too until you discover the word "discover" squatting unexpectedly at its end.

Moreover, there are two instances of alliteration in line two that are separated by an instance of assonance (for your). In other words, the "light" on the front end of the line has to leap over the assonance to reappear as "de-light" in the second half. The iambic tetrameter returns in lines three and four, but it's snapped in half, which causes us to pause at the very moment we are asked to "stand stable here." Finally, Auden enjoins us to listen carefully for the sound of the sea, so the line is appropriately long and swaying. It withholds from us what we are listening for until its last word. We have to be patient.

And patience is the problem. Reaching the sheerly technical plane of aesthetic appreciation just runs counter to our current notions of temporality. Indeed, a close reading of anything--a facade, a poem, a musical score--necessitates a focused attention and a willingness to delay gratification. It takes time. In her short meditation on time, the writer Eva Hoffman notes,

[The computer] is accustoming us to speeds of reaction and response measured not in hours or minutes but in brief seconds. How long we expect to wait for information to be delivered, how much time we are willing to give to any mental task before moving on, what pace and density of stimulus we need in order to feel that something "interesting" is happening: all those expectations are crucially affected by the tempo and procedures of fast technologies.
Aesthetic appreciation on a deeper level requires the very things imperiled by our souped-up whirlwind of an information age economy. Hoffman quotes the Romanian poet Carmen Firan, now living in New York, about how time is experienced differently in a society slower than our own.

For nearly 30 years I lived in the opaque world of communism, where time had no value. All we had left was talking. Our conversations, sometimes delightful, were a never-ending chatter over full ashtrays, cheap bottles of alcohol, night-long discussions, and hung over mornings. Time was frozen for us. We weren't in a hurry to get anywhere. Neither did we have anywhere to go.
Ironic, isn't it? Environments of freedom and plenitude are not always conducive to poetry, a habit that tends to flourish more in dictatorships, prisons and wartime trenches. The key ingredient for its propagation is having too much time on one's hands, too many empty afternoons, and no particular place to go. I asked my students a while back if they could recall the last morning they woke up on a day with absolutely nothing to do, nothing at all and nowhere to be. They could not remember.

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