Poetry Wednesday

Poetry Wednesdays: Louise Glück, “Celestial Music”

Every Wednesday, I shall post a poem and give a short commentary on it. I do not intend my Poetry Wednesdays post to be actual term-paper-length poetry analyses. I have also never had the illusion that my readings are the only correct ones. I think I might approach each poem as I would if I were just reflecting on it, or if I were teaching one of my high school classes.

This first post is one of my favorite poems, and at one point in my life I memorized it. I actually wrote a term paper about it, and at some points in my commentary I will be plagiarizing myself. 🙂 This poem talks about something I’ve come to terms with. And, anyway, it’s a lovely poem.

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Celestial Music
Louise Glück

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature. For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.

My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness–
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person–

In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height–
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth–

In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering–
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

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The vernacular can indeed be beautiful in skillful hands.

It was the first line that made me read on: “I have a friend who still believes in heaven.” Here we have a myriad of connotations: The speaker does not believe in a Higher Power and scorns those who do, but is friends with one anyway. The rest of the poem shows opposition between the personalities of the two: the realist persona does not hear “celestial music” and is “afraid” for her friend who is “caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth,” trapped in a belief system that makes people believe in something beyond what’s real. The friend, meanwhile, “literally talks to heaven” and seems to have a sense of serenity and courage that the persona later admits she doesn’t.

The central imagery in the poem is the dying caterpillar in the dirt. It’s a creature of nature that hasn’t reached its full potential — to become a butterfly. The persona looks away, not disgusted as much as “moved”. The friend, however, looks on calmly, even picking up the caterpillar, brushing the ants off it, and setting it down across the road. The friend, then, believes that dying is a natural process, and it’s perhaps her faith that allows her to face such “real” events with quiet and courageous acceptance.

I find it ironic that, in the third stanza, the believer friend says the atheist persona — the realist who scorns people who talk to heaven — has an “aversion to reality” because she “shut[s] [her] eyes to God”.  I think it’s a poignant moment in the poem when the friend tells the persona that the latter is like “the child who tells herself / That light causes sadness” — as though belief in God can make one miserable. (It can.) The persona then says that her friend is like a mother who urges her to “wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person”. I also find it interesting that in saying so, the persona agrees with, or at least accepts, her friend’s telling her that she is like a child.

It is rather definite that the persona can never believe what her friend does, as we can see in the fourth stanza. The persona does not hear celestial music — but she does see something beautiful in her surroundings: “clouds, snow, a white business in the trees / Like brides leaping to a great height.” And in the fifth stanza, all she hears is “silence pierced by a birdcall.” That’s all she hears and senses — what’s real, what’s in our earthly existence.

However, “in reality”, the air is warmer, and so is the atmosphere between the friend and the persona. They are sitting beside the road and watching the sunset. Here in this sight, the persona feels peaceful. “It’s this moment we’re trying to explain,” she muses, “the fact / that we’re at ease with death, with solitude.” Despite the marked difference in how they reacted to the dead caterpillar, despite their difference in beliefs and personalities, it turns out that both of them are one in being at ease with endings such as the sunset, death, and solitude.

The friend then draws a circle in the dirt around the dead caterpillar, representing its life coming to full circle and its return to dust despite the fact that it never really lived fully. The persona muses that her friend always tries to make something “whole”, “beautiful”, and “capable of life apart from her” — a belief in the afterlife, I think. And yet, both of them find peace in nature.

In the last line, “The love of form is a love of endings,” the persona may have been talking about the form of the objects which she could sense then: the sunset, the rocks, the road, the air, the birdcall. She may have also been talking about forms in relation to Plato’s theory of Forms. According to Plato, Forms are the fundamental essences of things, and are changeless and eternal, of which the forms we sense here on earth are mere mimics. Taking the friend’s comments on the persona having an “aversion to reality”, the friend seems to believe that what’s Real are these Forms, while the persona eschews such a belief in Forms. However, the persona loves these tangible mimics which shall fade with time — and so does her friend. They even have a shared love for the “endings” of these forms.

Therefore, in spite of their different beliefs on whether there’s something beyond what’s earthly, they are at ease towards these tangible forms which, no matter how fleeting and imperfect, are still beautiful.

This poem does not intend to tell us readers whether it’s better to believe or not. I just love that it says some fundamental things: that no matter what you believe, the world can still be a beautiful place, and that two people can be at peace with each other and in the beauty of the world in spite of differences in believing where such beauty came from.

Another note: In an essay entitled “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” Louise Glück writes:

I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power…. It is analogous to the unseen for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know.

I think the poem approaches this commentary twofold: one, in the implications of the silences between persona and friend (Is there celestial music, or is there none? Does it matter?), and two, in the way the persona’s voice narrates and explains things as they are, and how it is up to us to imagine the narrative underneath.

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