What is wrong with me that I so rarely listen to recorded music anymore? It’s not that I prefer to make my own music; weeks can go by without me picking up the harmonica. But I don’t feel especially deprived, either, because I hear birdsong all day long, interspersed with train whistles and other sounds. And I do love that.
Even more pleasurable, to me, is the feeling of what I can only call musical sobriety. Back in the days of my musical addiction, 15 and 20 years ago, if a record wasn’t playing in the background, I didn’t feel right. And it seemed as if I had to play tunes I liked in order to drown out the annoying tunes that would somehow get lodged in my head on infinite repeat — so-called ear worms.
That turned out not to be the case. Now that I rarely make a point of listening to recorded music, I rarely get ear worms, either. When I do pick up the harmonica, I generally play the same couple dozen tunes, but that’s O.K. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that I’ll never be a real musician. Even at the height of my music addiction, I could never stomach the endless repetitions that true practice entails.
By the same token, I don’t suppose many musicians can fathom how we writers can stand to go over and over the same few words until we get them right. Writing poems and practicing songs seem as if they should be closely related practices — they have, after all, a common origin, and are still closely allied in most oral traditions. But for me, as a free verse poet, melody is a serious distraction. Now that I’ve finally gotten the incessant tunes out of my head, I’m able to hear the sounds and rhythms of language much more easily. Poems come to me now like they never did before.
I’m not trying to suggest, however, that what works for me might be good for anyone else. British poet-blogger Dick Jones says that playing in bands for a few decades improved his writing enormously. It sounds as if his initial motivation differed a bit from mine; I never had much ambition to “set the world alight with my deathless prose and incandescent verse” the way Dick says he did when he was young. Playing bass in public sounds like just the medicine he needed.
Audiences identify with the vocalist or adulate the lead guitarist; they don’t notice the bass guitarist. He plunks alone, shadowy & monosyllabic behind the fireworks. So I stood on the left of the drummer, laid back on the rhythm and just enjoyed the simple process of getting to grips with a musical instrument.
And, over time, this attention to the medium over the message had its kickback into writing. For the first time I started to write poems principally for the sake of the statement made and the craft of putting it together.
Dick and I may have been following parallel courses, though. Because it seems to me that we’ve each stumbled on a discipline that has taught us a little better how to listen.