Ode to Silence

© Danny Kim

A poem by Richard Wilbur that examines the powers of Beethoven's music.

What a strange, wondrous ritual the symphony concert is, an 8:00 p.m. appointment with rapture and despair. When I slip into a velour-upholstered seat at Carnegie Hall and riffle through the evening’s program while the day’s debris rattles through my brain, I sometimes feel unprepared for a dose of distilled emotion. Technology liberates us from the rigid timetable of live events. We need never be without a quasi-intravenous drip of music. We move through the world with its soundtrack muted, replaced with one of our own making. Except that now, when I could have music buzzing through my ears at all times, I often prefer to be without. I head off to the park each morning with the dog at my side and a solid week’s worth of listening nestled in the pocket of my jeans—and most of the time, the earbuds remain stowed. I return to the concert hall’s regularly scheduled rites.

Richard Wilbur, a great poet who extracts lucid epiphanies from compressed moments, loves music—he supplied the lyrics for Bernstein’s Candide—but he also evidently takes pleasure in not listening. Wilbur wrote “C Minor” in 1974, when enjoying music was a less private activity. (Carrying your own supply of sounds meant shouldering a 10-pound boom box and sharing your enthusiasms with everyone in listening range.) For him, it’s the radio that intrudes on a companionable morning still unblemished by events. “Beethoven during breakfast?” the poem asks. “You are right to switch it off and let the day / Begin at hazard.”

Hazard: The word means chance, and also danger, and though Wilbur uses it to suggest all that’s missing from the broadcast masterwork, Beethoven marinated his scores in wildness and menace. C minor was his most brooding key, the one he chose for a heaving, heaven-storming mode. The Coriolan Overture, which opens with a sequence of stentorian blasts; the obsessive Fifth Symphony; the Pathétique Sonata—any of these C-minor works might jar the quietude of a country dawn. They tell stories of struggle and triumph—“the human soul...winning out over despair and doubt,” as the poem puts it. They are made of memories and fears hammered into musical form.

Wilbur requests relief from the composer’s relentless control. Beethoven’s music roars and struggles, but even if you’ve never heard it before, you know how it will end: with insistent alternations of two conclusive chords, clearing away disorder. The poem finds more tremulous uncertainty in the disjointed chatter of the natural world (“the rancor of a jay”), the minutiae of domestic life (‘bran-flakes crackle in the cereal bowl”), and ravishing backyard phenomena (“dew like mercury on a cabbage hide”) than in all those brassy spasms and crashing finales.

Wilbur yearns for the accidental, the un-foregone, for familiar patterns of randomness. If God has a plan for this ordinary day, the way Beethoven does for his symphony’s allotted span, then the poet would prefer not to know about it—not, at any rate, until evening. He would rather wait for the summing-up, the turbulence that’s tolerable only when the final cadence is assured. So goes Wilbur’s own last stanza:

There is nothing to do with a day except to live it.

Let us have music again when the light dies

(Sullenly, or in glory) and we can give it

Something to organize.

I love the irony of this poem—the way Wilbur articulates his resistance to a carefully crafted artwork by carefully crafting another. He switches off Beethoven and then uses the poetic equivalents of Beethoven’s techniques, like percussive alliteration (“despair or doubt”), insistent assonance (“What shall I whistle, splitting the kindling wood?”), and syncopated accents (rhyming “shadow” with “sad/Or.” Just as, in the Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven writes out birdcalls for the flute, Wilbur provides a bucolic soundtrack of “pecker-knocks / in the sugar bush.” (Now, that’s a sly bit of double entendre, suggesting that breakfast might be postponed.)

The poet may crave silence, but his poem is shot through with music. Even the battering interrogations of the sixth stanza—“Shall a plate be broken? A new thing understood?”—remind me of Beethoven’s final quartet (no. 16, not in C minor but in F) and especially the question that the composer jotted beneath the agonizing theme: Muss es sein? “Must it be?”

Beethoven responds resignedly that it must. I prefer Wilbur’s answer, the one most of us give each day until the end: Not yet.