To Be of Use

In the draft of the poem I posted Monday (previous post), I contrasted the communal experience with the individual one (in baseball). However, on reflection, these are probably not so distinct. The batter at the plate or the pitcher on the mound feels the pressure, not only to maintain their reputation, but not to let down their teammates and fans.

I suspect that most performance is like this, especially if one performs as part of a group. Yet the pressure on the soloist seems even greater. Errors stand out starkly.

One of my goals for returning to formal piano lessons in my late fifties was to overcome my fear of performance. Everyone fears performance to one degree or another, I think.  But mine was exaggerated, the probable cause my senior high school recital in which I had to memorize an hour-long program and in the midst of which I predictably and completely “froze.” I could not start again without the music and was utterly humiliated at age 18.

I still don’t like to perform or to play from memory, but through practice at doing both, that anxiety has lost some of its power over me.  There remains, however, the worry about not doing justice to the composer’s music, but even that has been moderated a bit because of my interest in promoting the work of contemporary women composers. I figure that even imperfect renditions are better than none.

So of what use is individual performance? As I noted in an earlier post (August 25), art was once judged as craft:  i.e. for its usefulness. But like many contemporary amateur pianists and poets, I often feel the need to justify the time I put into these “practices” and to allow almost any other daily “need” to take precedence. If “use” is measured, as it seems to be these days, by the amount of money one is paid, then how “useful,” how justifiable, are these pursuits?

Perhaps that question lies behind my wish to give away the results of my practice—for free—as I said in one of my earliest posts (August 6). That way I am spared the concrete measure of the usefulness—or uselessness–of my creative “products.”  That question is also perhaps driving this blog about the creative “process.”

Marge Piercy wrote this wonderful poem in the 1970s:

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.


By happy coincidence, one of my college roommates, Pat, from Colorado, sends me this today:


Pat comments, “I think this goes a long way to answering the question you posed awhile ago – is music useful? More useful than most things I think.”

And this leads me to today’s thought: that the “use” of music and poetry (and even baseball, despite the Brewers’ dismal performance tonight even as I write—how will they deal with this adversity? how will we deal with “our” loss?) lies in its ability to modulate emotion—to steady and center and guide the listener/reader/fan through the whole range of emotions that human beings are capable of; even if the performance is not rendered perfectly, it provides a safe place to feel those emotions.

I think that this belief is behind my recent decision to respond to a call by a local hospice organization for volunteer musicians to play for those in hospice, and their families.  Useful?   

Listen to Bidu Sayao sing this ariaCantilena by Villa-Lobos–and see what you think.

These words by the poet Wallace Stevens are immensely comforting to me: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”

And, “The imperfect is our paradise.”

I’ll close for tonight with this poem written by Stevens in 1945:

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.


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