In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.
Pietro Perugino, Moses Leaving for Egypt, fresco from the Sistine Chapel
My poetic Lent began in the dentist's chair. The drill whirred and struck an un-numbed crevasse of bone: sublime sharp sliver of pain.
I thought of Mozart, so young, the Sistine -- Allegri's lament piercing his soul: a dagger he transformed into a pen.
Allegri's Miserere mei was first heard by Pope Urban IV in 1630. He was so struck by its beauty that he declared it could only be sung in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. The music alternates plainchant with verses for two choirs, one choir singing a simpler version and the other, a quartet, "commenting" on each verse with an ornamented variation which includes an ethereal, extremely high ornamentation sung by a boy soprano. In addition to allowing the music to be sung only at certain services, it also became forbidden -- on pain of excommunication -- for the music to be written down or transcribed. According to tradition, which is corroborated by letters, the young Mozart, at age 14, visited the Sistine Chapel in 1770, heard the music, and was deeply affected by its mystery and beauty. That evening, he wrote it down from memory, making a few corrections after a second visit to the chapel. In 1771 he gave a copy to a British historian, who had it published in London. The Pope summoned Mozart to Rome and praised his genius, and the ban was lifted.
Our choir sings the Miserere mei twice during Lent: once on Ash Wednesday evening, and once on Good Friday afternoon. So we sang it last night, along with a beautiful mass setting by Herbert Howells and William Walton's Drop Drop Slow Tears: the novocaine was worn off by then!
I move the orchid, window to table and back, needing its pink face -- freckled, blushing -- its gold heart nearby, beating the grey days.
Day's strange beginning: hot water immersion, steam, sunrise on hard ice.
The hallway's a beach-- squares of afternoon sun like towels on the floor. Snow-glare burns my closed eyelids: red iris-image, then blue.
(I generally write these on Twitter, where a number of people explore the 140-character limit by writing micropoetry, haikus, tanka and free verse. If you're interested in that, you can follow me here and find others through my list.)
Well, here we are in December, which seems completely impossible. Where has the fall gone? And now the holidays will be upon us before we know it. Advent Sunday was yesterday, celebrated with a marathon but really beautiful service of Advent Lessons & Carols at the cathedral in the afternoon. We sang a big program of fifteen choral works, and to our surprise -- since we were particularly under-rehearsed -- it all went very well, including a rhythmically-tricky "Wachet auf" by Praetorius, and an 8 1/2-minute Victorian oratorio-style piece by Edward Naylor -- a period that's not usually my cup of tea, but I loved singing this one.
I enjoyed the practice of writing micropoems every day in November, and wonder if I'll keep it up now, a bit less regularly - maybe so. Every day as I came up to the studio, I found myself looking for an image that grabbed my attention, and it was good to have the focus on color as a way of sharpening my eyes to see something specific. All the poems didn't come from those trips, but a lot did; I feel like I bonded even more with my neighborhood by looking at it that much more closely, and noticing specific people, shops, corners, events, habits. There were always more than I coud write about, and it was interesting to observe the sifting process - what image stayed in my head and seemed to lend itself to a poetic interpretation. Most often, I think, they were images that were arresting, somehow, but led me to another thought. I think the best micropoems are like that, not just a description or word-painting, but a bridge to another idea. I also aim for short poems that have a good internal rhythm and music, through consonance or other forms of repetition or structure, but in a poem as short as a haiku, this can easily be taken too far. My attempts usually fall short of the goal, but that's why it's fun (and necessary) to practice training your eye, your mind, your ear to work together-- and once in a while, you write a good one.
The more I write them, the more I appreciate the diligent practice of the haiku-writing Zen monks and itinerant poets of Japan, which led to what we now appreciate as their "genius." I'm not saying the best of them weren't geniuses, but while good results in any art form do require some talent, they're mainly the product of passion combined with practice over a long period of time.
I take Malcolm Gladwell's blanket "10,000 hour" estimate with a certain grain of salt, but I agree with him that it really does take years and years of practice to gain mastery in any skill or art. For most of us who pursue certain arts as amateurs, how much time does that represent? Let's say we can devote one hour per day, including weekends, to writing or artwork or music or dance: at that rate, 10,000 hours divided by 365 hours per year equals 27.4 years. No wonder it's so difficult! But if we can focus on our chosen art for one solid year, say, even six hours a day, we can make a big dent in that accumulated total: that's 2190 hours in one year. The professional musicians I know have all studied their art seriously, taken lessons, received criticism from teachers, and kept at it for years; it's not simply a matter of talent. And the ones who are really good still take their music home and show up prepared; they don't assume they can coast along on their sheer talent alone.
A little more math: to continue with the music example, I was wondering how many hours I might have put in over the 55 years since I started studying music as an amateur. Let's say I've averaged a conservative 4 hours of rehearsal or individual practice per week. That's 208 hours per year. Not much, by itself, but taken over a lifetime, adds up to something like 11,400 hours. Those hours have been spread over piano and flute lessons, band practices, church choirs, school and university choruses, performing in various ensembles, shows, and projects, and individual private lessons and practice in piano and voice. Which probably explains why I am a good overall amateur musican, and not anywhere close to a master of any one of those instruments! But in the last four years, I've been spending at least 6 hours singing and another one or two on my own; that's more like 300 hours a year, and explains why I've felt my musicianship has been improving, even at this late date.
Another figure to keep in mind is how much time is actually available in our lives. 8 hours per day, 5 days a week, times 55 years = 114,400 hours - ten times what I just estimated, more than ten times the estimate for "mastery." A top-level professional musician, my age, who began as a child would certainly have accumulated that many hours by now.
It's interesting to think about what we have spent the most time doing, practicing, and where in our lives we can see the most accumulation of effort -- it's often not just in our professions. Cooking, for instance - think of the number of hours we spend in our kitchens! Parenting. Care-giving. What about you? What have you devoted your time and attention to mastering, and what would you LIKE to pursue, if you could find the time, space, and diligence to do it? Because, all quantitative measures aside, the truth is that the more we practice -- with a reasonable combination of study, instruction, self-criticism and input -- the better we get, and the more satisfying the art becomes.