University of Rochester

Alumni Review Point

Shall I Compare Thee . . . ?

A violinist and poet gets her arts ‘on the same page.’ By Kate Light ’80E, ’82E (MM)

The lines woke me at three in the morning, in waves of triplet rhythms: “This is a story of life at the reef / where the water’s so clear you can see underneath. . . .”

I was in Sicily, away from phone and e-mail, in a small country house. I had gone there with my piles of notes, my books, and computer, hoping to write. Finally, it was happening.

I grabbed a notebook and ran downstairs:

“. . . to sea plumes and sea lilies, sculpin and shell, / to crinoids in crevices, urchin and eel. . . .”

At last I had begun work on Oceanophony, a multimedia piece commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which would alternate a composer’s music with my text and poems about the ocean and its creatures and habitats.

Though I’d immediately said yes to the idea, I had stalled in the midst of seemingly endless research on marine biology, no poems in sight, until . . . there came the lines, out of the blue, jump-started by rhythm. Once I got going, I kept at it—as I’d hoped I would—with a poem a day.

As the author of several volumes of poetry who also is a professional violinist, I’m often asked how music influences my writing. To this question, with its many possible angles, I probably never offer the same answer twice.

With Oceanophony, it was indeed a rhythm (or poetic meter) that took hold of me and tugged me into the writing fray in the middle of that Sicilian night. The lines came to me in what’s known as a triple meter (for instance, dactyl or anapest; think of the lilt of Seuss’s And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street).

I’ve also always been naturally drawn to the sonnet and other traditional poetic forms—not only to honor them, but to work against them sometimes, and to feel them fight back. This is not true of all poets. Many express outright fear of forms, or scorn, which may amount to the same thing.

But musicians are steeped in the intricacies of structure and detail. It’s easy for me to love the sonnet in all its concision and power. What some might consider constraints—the tensile structure, the rhymes—I find inspiring and truly freeing.

The sonnet’s history, a journey through languages and centuries, courts and countries, echoes aspects of music history. Additionally, just as the string quartet inspired the greatest work of many composers (from Haydn and Mozart to Bartók and Berg), so have many poets been at their finest in sonnets: Shakespeare, Spenser, E. E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, to name a few. Millay wrote, “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines / And keep him there. . . .”

On the other hand, I’ve been drawn, reluctantly, into debate with poets more traditional than I; for instance, there are metricists strapped into strictness to whom I’ve said, “No thanks, I don’t want to ‘fix’ my poems; they’re not broken—this is what I HEAR.”

Indeed, after years of Stravinsky and Bartók, and for that matter, Mozart, in whose music—as the late Eastman musicologist Jerald Graue used to say—“the same is never the same,” my ears accept, even crave, what’s outside the norm. Syncopation, metrical shifts, innovation, and variations have existed in poetry—and music—for centuries.

I’ve spent 20 years in the orchestra of the New York City Opera, craning my neck to catch the supertitles, following lyrics and libretti, listening for the composers’ settings of the text. Besides classic repertoire, we’ve done Sondheim, Gershwin, Loesser, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Keeping such company, I never forget we’re all part of a continuum, the long timeline of art. Spending hours a day with a 300-year-old instrument under my chin, how could I ever forget? Every performance is both poetic ear-training and musical life.

We poets notate scores of our own, with our italics, line length and stanza choice, mix of capital and lowercase letters, use of blank space. Each punctuation mark—be it comma, semicolon, ellipsis, or dash—contributes phrasing, rests, dynamic change. Like a Mozart concerto, the poem read aloud is a performance that never happens the same way twice.

As it turned out, creating Oceanophony was great fun. My next commission, Einstein’s Mozart, required taking on the two geniuses, celebrating the near- convergence of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s “Miracle Year” and Mozart’s 250th birthday with chamber music of Mozart and poetry about both.

Writing about Einstein was fascinating, if daunting; and the chance to channel Mozart, after living all these years inside his music, was a kind of homecoming.

Once again, after what seemed like endless research, I found my way into the poems through rhythm. What leaped into my mind became the opening of “Ether, Or . . . ?”:

“In ancient Greek days / it was quite commonplace / just to declare things were logically true.”

Can you hear the triplets? Triple meter struck again in “Friends of the Past” when Mozart declared,

“I have been asked to write so many things!” In how many ways does music influence my poetry? More than I can count. I’m just happy to get both on the same page, or stage, at last.

Kate Light’s ’80E, ’82E (MM) most recent book of poetry is Gravity’s Dream: New Poems and Sonnets, which received the inaugural Donald Justice Award.