15 December 2008

Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui

This past weekend the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, of which I am a whisky tenor, performed the Vivaldi Gloria and Bach's Magnificat (the one in D). Both are magnificent, dancing works to sing, and I love the Magnificat especially, it being the first major work of his that I performed in my half century of choristing.

The tenor aria in that work, "Deposuit," is one of the most exciting, testosterone-fired solos in the repertoire, with its heroic text, "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek." One o' these days, I'm gonna get up the nerve to try it in public.

But the best alternative for a choral tenor is the "Fecit potentiam," with its extended fireworks in the opening lines, which then spreads its contagious enthusiasm to the other sections of the choir. Again the text is not what you'd call reassuring: "He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts."

It's that last line that has been haunting me in the past weeks: at first, it was part of the refrain of my rejoicing at the "decisive victory" (love the sound of that!) my team enjoyed in last month's elections (along with the well-known parody of "Fascination" — It was schadenfreude, I know...).

Some weeks on, the giddiness has evaporated as abyss beneath abyss opens its maw our under economy, the days get shorter, the moon gets closer, the weather weirder, and somehow the idea that this one reversal in the political climate of my mother country will heal the world of hurt we're in right now seems remote.

Back in September, I read James Woods's bracing review of my idol Marilynne Robinson's new novel Home in the New Yorker, in which she diagnoses our peculiar malady: "Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset." For good or ill, that imagining of our hearts is in for a bumpy ride, and I doubt if negativity will pull us through.

My only consolation these days is poetry. As Octavio Paz reminds us in his magisterial book of poetics, The Bow and the Lyre, "Poetry changes, but it does not decay. Societies decay." Last week, as I read the chapter on Rhythm, I came across this prescient passage (the book was published in 1973):

[T]he real tradition of the United States, as is manifested by Whitman, was the future: the free society of comrades, the democratic new Jerusalem. The United States has not lost a past; it has lost its future. The great historical plan of that nation's founders was thwarted by the financial monopolies, imperialism, the cult of action of action's sake, the abhorrence of ideas. [67]

Puts things in perspective: sure sounds like the place I'm still living in. Maybe we can change (yes we can), but in the meantime, I'm signing up for Hugh McLeod's less Romantic take on the subject, "You are either a poet or a corpse."

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