Solitude, Song & Poetry

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.John F. Kennedy

I’ve begun reading Diana Senechal’s book, The Republic of Noise. In the first chapter she talks about the “virtual clutter” of our lives–it’s jittery jangle that has us jumping–and how the slow movement that has caught on because people are trying to fight back and regain something meaningful in their lives. The problem, Senchal suggests is connected to “our weakened capacity for being alone and our dwindling sense of any life beyond the immediate scramble.” (p. 5) Senechal works to define a way of living that is neither disconnected from contemporary society, nor sucked into its whirlpool, and writes to help readers define the “strength it takes to do what we find most rewarding. The strength it takes time to build.”

Artists need hours alone behind doors tuned in to their work, she explains. So do we all. In our scramble for quick answers, she suggests that we may be going against what we really want. We need, instead, to be able to stand alone and apart, to know our own thoughts–thoughts not based on what someone will “like” on a social network site. What we need most of all, Senechal states, is solitude.  “We cannot have meaningful relationships with others unless we know how to stand apart. We cannot learn unless we make room for learning in our minds. We cannot make sound decisions unless we are able to examine the options on our own, in quiet, along with any advice or information at hand. We cannot distinguish fads from sound ideas if we have never questioned social pressures and fashions. We cannot participate in democracy without the deep understanding of the issues at stake. We cannot accomplish anything of beauty unless we are willing to spend many hours working on it alone. We cannot endure disappointment, rejection, bereavement, or distress unless we have a place to join in ourselves. Without solitude, our very thoughts tend toward one-liners. Without solitude, we set ourselves up for halfhearted pursuits. The catch is that solitude, by its nature, cannot be a movement. Each person must find it alone.” (p. 9-10)

I’ve recognized for years that I need a lot of quiet time in order to restore myself and regain energy for the week ahead where I interact with people all day long. I need the time to write, do art, go out into nature for a bike ride or walk. I need the soundless open hours for inner thought in order to gain the strength to go on giving the rest of the week, and it’s affirming to read a book declaring the value of solitude. In solitude, Senechal explains, we get to know who it is we really are and how to hold on to that knowing. We live in a society where collectivism (her word) is promoted. But, without knowing how to separate ourselves from a group, she states, we also won’t really know how to create community because we won’t have an authentic self to bring to a group.  Solitude allows us to confront ourselves–our faults and strengths, and gives us the opportunity to practice becoming who we are. It’s not going to wipe away problems but it will give us a way to “collect ourselves,” she explains, and can help keep us from giving up. When we let go of solitude, we give in to the group because we don’t have the strength to “stand up for something or to stand apart…Without time to stand back or the strength to separate oneself, one has little opportunity to form one’s own thoughts, let alone defend them.” This is the root of loneliness, Senechal suggests.

But where are we encouraged to stand apart, I wonder? Certainly, the arts is a place where individual expression is still valued. This is, in part, why I’m attracted to them. Perhaps it is also a reason why the arts and artists have long lived on society’s fringes. Artists live inside their respective cultures, but also nurture a critique of it. I’m reminded of an interview with Ilya Kaminsky on the Poetry Society’s web site. “Writing about blackbirds, in our day and age, is political,” he explained to the interviewer. Everything is political, he suggests. It’s true. People don’t give that much attention to nature, to our connection to the natural world, so, yes, writing about blackbirds, for example, can be a political act.  “Our job is to discover something new and fresh and transformative in language; to tell something unexpected or deeply moving about human condition,” Kaminsky continues. “We don’t get there by avoiding certain subjects all together. To do so is shallow.

” In the interview, Kaminsky states that Wallace Steven’s poem, “Mozart, 1935”, “is one of the greatest poems ever written during a time of war.” The poem describes the artist at work at the piano playing while the “The snow is falling/And the streets are full of cries.” In the way the pianist plays his music, he describes the world’s wordless grief, anguish and fear at that moment in history. The artist gives the humanity a way to express the soul. (Read the full poem here.) This is why the artist shuts the door and does his work, why she goes on doing the slow work of developing her skill, so that she can give back beauty to the world, and the strength needed to keep on going in the dark hour.

Earlier, I’ve written about the value of singing as a way to keep your heart open and to give you strength of heart for each day. A favorite song of mine for this, as I’ve said in a previous post, is O Sole Mio. It lifts the heart even on dark and gloomy days because when you hit the high notes, it can’t but help but carry out into the world your pain and grief as if on the wings of a bird or in the crash of a wave, and you are somehow lifted out of yourself as a result.

This past week I’ve woken up with a different song that has me breaking out into song, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a hymn widely used by Baptists and Quakers alike. Though I’ve no idea what brought it to mind as I’ve not heard it sung in ages, I love the encouragement in the words when thinking of them in relationship to the problems across the world I read about in the news, those learn about from different people’s struggles and disabilities, and as I face each day hoping to give to it whatever is needed. The lyrics remind me that whatever difficulty I or others face, the difficulties of the moment are not totality of life experience. By not taking things completely at face value and assuming a wider view, I can keep myself from being consumed by whatever the problem of the moment is. There is a new creation, I can make in myself while practicing day to day–one not based on fear.

To do this I must center myself elsewhere on a larger, wider, deeper foundation that is drawn up out of the well of hours in solitude. When focusing on this center, the tempest can roar, but inside, I can know the storm isn’t the world. As the lyrics state, tyrants can roar, but their time will come to an end and their power pass away. Love’s truth is bigger. We can cling to that knowing, and in that clinging we can find ourselves restored again.

Living in this mind frame when things are falling apart is difficult. Music is one of the things to help us remember ourselves, and to stay centered. You might like this version of the song, sung with lovely harmony by the group T Sisters.  I especially like Eva Cassidy’s version of the song. She sings it with a gospel flair, and her voice delivers the lines with a soulful power that can’t help but strengthen one’s own soul while listening. Whoever you are reading this, whatever you are facing in your life, I hope you find the way to keep on singing.

“How Can I Keep From Singing?”

My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

Oh though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
Oh though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
How can I keep from singing?

Lord, how can I keep from singing?
Oh, how can I keep from singing.

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