Her wattled fingers can't
stroke the keys with much
grace or assurance anymore,
and the tempo is always
rubato, halting, but still
that sound - notes quivering
and clear in their singularity,
filing down the hallway-
aches with pure intention, the
melody somehow prettier
as a remnant than
whatever it used to be.
One of the pitfalls with poems about music, as I've encountered this week, is the association of poetic content directly with a specific piece of music. Tying the two together, unless the poem is very specific about its relationship with the musical content, can drag an otherwise good poem down, as it did earlier this week.
Thankfully, Howell's poem, titled "Piano" deftly avoids that pitfall by making the poem about our relationship to music rather than about a specific piece or person. In the scene, an elderly woman, presumably a once great pianist, possibly arthritic, is sitting at the piano, attempting to play. Her playing is shaky, she cannot play in steady rhythm, and there's little grace to it. Yet for all that, it is achingly beautiful, the notes clear, wafting down a hallway, little fragments that somehow eclipse the whole.
The title is a bit of a pun, in that a piano is being played, and in music terms, piano also means to play softly. I certainly get the impression that pianist in this poem isn't hammering on the keys, but rather stroking them tentatively, lightly. It's not a laugh out loud funny pun, but rather a small smile sort of pun. The poem overall is like a small smile with sadness and happiness in almost equal measure.
That a fragment of the whole can be more beautiful than the whole seems strange at first. How can that be? I think a big part of that has to do with how we perceive the world around us. We are emotional beings. We think of the old woman struggling at the piano, pouring her soul through her "wattled" fingertips, into each note, and even if she can only play snippets of it, it seems all the more beautiful for her effort. That sound, the desperate sound of the aged artist's struggle, is romantic and touching. It's the faded master playing one last tune, knowing that it can never be as beautiful as when they were young, and somehow, we love it all the more.
I've always thought there is a sort of beauty in unfinished things. A sketch will always have the potential to be anything, it remains an ideal. The same is true of hearing a brief bit of music. It entrances us, and then as quickly as it came, it leaves us. This poem captures that sensation wonderfully, and of all the poems about music I've posted this week, this has by far been my favorite to read, because it understands what it is that makes music so meaningful to us. It is the struggle to find art and beauty despite all adversity.