Helianthus

The thing about writing poetry is that it’s a pretty solitary experience. Mostly I just think about things quietly in my head, write them down, tinker with them until I’m satisfied and/or finished tinkering, and nobody else is involved except for when something is accepted for publication. Even then, there’s not a lot of back and forth — mostly just confirming availability, publication rights, and other administrative stuff. I miss working with other creative people. I miss the writing group I was part of ten years ago; I miss singing in choirs and, back in dinosaur times, playing in my high school band. Writing poetry is a balm for me, but it can be lonely too.

All of this to say — it was a real pleasure when Canadian composer Frank Horvat contacted me a week or two back, looking for text for a choral piece he wanted to write. Frank has been very moved (as have we all) by the plight of the Ukrainian people, and wondered if I had any poems in my files on the theme of peace? Well, I didn’t, so I wrote him a new one. And while I have had some of my existing poems set to music before, this was the first time I was writing a text specifically for that purpose. It was a fun challenge and I enjoyed collaborating with Frank!

The poem text is called “Helianthus,” which is the scientific name for sunflowers. It draws from a few different things: the language of flowers, specifically around poppies and their role in commemorating those lost in war; the sunflower as Ukraine’s national flower; and my own comfort throughout the pandemic and other turbulent times in my life in the knowledge that whatever else happens, the sun will rise and set, the moon will wax and wane, and the seasons will still turn from one to the next.

“Helianthus” is scored for a cappella treble choir (SSAA). The sheet music is freely available on Frank’s website, and includes the full poem text on the last page. I dearly hope to hear a choir sing it one day — but for now, I’m just very pleased that it exists.

Some ephemera

I’ve had several posts rattling around in my brain for a few weeks now — but I’ve hit a bit of a busy stretch, or at least a difficult-to-blog stretch, and I don’t think any of them will ever be realized at this point. So, in no particular order, here are some things I’ve been thinking about lately:

1. Recently I read Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, by Vigen Guroian. His thesis is that the “classic stories” — fables, myths, and fairy tales in their un-bowdlerized, un-Disneyfied versions — are powerful tools for teaching and nurturing the virtues in our children (and ourselves). Each chapter examines a classic story or two, the virtue it imparts, and the means by which it does so. It’s compelling reading — and enough that I immediately checked out the original story of Pinocchio when I had finished (since I am only familiar with the Disney film version). I was especially struck by this passage quoting George MacDonald:

There are critics who say that George MacDonald wrote over the heads of children. MacDonald himself said that he wrote for “children” of all ages. He endeavored to appeal to the childlike in everyone — not the childish, but the childlike — and to feed the moral imagination. MacDonald dd not exaggerate the power of the imagination. Imagination is a power of discovery, not a power to create. The latter capacity he reserved to God alone. Nor did MacDonald equate imagination with mere fancy, what we used to call “vain imaginings.” Rather, for him, imagination is a power of perception, a light that illumines the mystery that is hidden beneath visible reality: it is a power to help “see” into the very nature of things. Reason alone, MacDonald argued, is not able to recognize mystery or grasp the moral quiddity of the world. As the sensible mind needs eyes to see, so reason needs the imagination in order to behold mystery and to perceive the true quality of things. Imagination takes reason to the threshold of mystery and moral truth and reveals them as such. Reason may then approve or submit. But it remains for the heart of courage with the will to believe and the vision of imagination to embrace the beauty of goodness and the strength of truth as the foundation of virtuous living. (141-2)

2. “Silent Night” — the Christmas carol, I mean — has always driven me a little nuts. It doesn’t scan properly. We expect melody and lyrics to work together in the service of meaning, but in this case, they’re constantly fighting each other. The third verse is slightly nonsensical. Son of God love’s pure light / radiant beams from thy holy face / with the dawn of redeeming grace — what does that mean? Is the Son of God “love’s pure light”? In which case, where is the verb that should go with the “radiant beams”? Or are we supposed to read it as “love’s pure light, radiant, beams from…” where “radiant” is modifying the light instead of describing the beams? I shouldn’t have to work this hard at a Christmas carol, for goodness’ sake.

However. I was leafing through one of my older hymnals and came across an alternate translation, by “Jane M. Campbell and others”:

Silent night! holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Yonder the Virgin-Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night! holy night!
Only for shepherds’ sight
Came blest visions of angel throngs,
With their loud alleluia songs,
Saying, Christ is come,
Saying, Christ is come.

Silent night! holy night!
Child of heaven, O how bright
Thou didst smile on us when thou wast born,
Blest indeed was that happy morn,
Full of heavenly joy,
Full of heavenly joy.

I don’t have any German and so I can’t compare the fidelity of either translation to the original lyrics (except by running it through Google translate, which illustrates the continued necessity of human translators). But as English versions go, I think this is far superior to the more popular iteration. It’s grammatically sensible. It scans perfectly with the melody. I move that we all sing this version instead (start petitioning your choir directors now).

3. I ditched Facebook a good while ago now, but my husband still has an account, and occasionally I hop on his when I want to check something — usually a business or organization that only has a FB page instead of their own website, which is a really boneheaded choice for several reasons, which is a complete digression from the point that I’m actually trying to make. The other night I was scrolling through his feed and all I could think was I don’t miss this at all. Sometimes I regret giving up my account because it also meant giving up a certain ease of connecting with people — but when I remember everything else that came with that ease, I am again satisfied with my decision.

On a somewhat related note, the other night my husband was looking at Goodreads reviews for a book he just finished. (Why? I can only assume it’s because he likes to punish himself.) He found a long, one-star review by a contributor who admitted to not having read past the fifth page of the book. Apparently five pages of the introduction — it wasn’t even the first chapter — was enough for him to feel he had thoroughly understood and engaged with the book’s material.

It is a strange thing to live in an age where every thing demands an opinion, no matter how  dishonestly we may come by it, and every opinion is both instantaneous and public. I had both of these incidents in my mind when I ran across a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this morning, Barton Swaim’s “For Sanity’s Sake, Delete Your Account“:

The in­stan­ta­neous aware­ness of so much folly is not, I now think, healthy for the hu­man mind. Spend­ing time on Twit­ter be­came, for me, a deeply de­mor­al­iz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Of­ten, espe­cially when some con­tro­versy of na­tional im­por­tance pro­voked large num­bers of users into tweet­ing their opin­ions about it, I would come away from Twit­ter ex­as­perated al­most to the point of mad­ness.

I thought of a verse from the 94th Psalm: “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are van­ity.” Af­ter an hour or so of watch­ing hu­man­i­ty’s stu­pidi­ties scroll across my screen, I felt I had peeked into some dread­ful abyss into which only God can safely look. It was not for me to know the thoughts of man.

Indeed.