Elana Wolff has published four collections of poetry with Guernica Editions
Elana Wolff is the author of “Year of the Horse,” a poem that appeared way back in Issue 31.
“Every memory … has a soundtrack”
—Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
A few years ago H.L. Hix asked me in an interview to comment on the “dense music and eerie mood” in one of my poems. I hadn’t thought of the poem as particularly eerie, but a reader will glean what he feels from a piece and a heedful reader will often see things the writer is too near a piece to see. As it was, Hix’s question alerted me anew to the degree to which music in my poetry (though probably not eeriness) is foundational.
In my unfolding as a writer, composing music preceded the writing of poetry. In 1992, during a life transition, I was overcome with surges of emotion that demanded channelling. I turned to the old upright Heintzman piano we had back in those days. I hadn’t taken lessons since adolescence and wasn’t in the habit of practicing but I took out some of the easier early music pieces—Purcell, Telemann, Handel, Bach—and played in private. The consonance, symmetry, and tonal closure of the medieval and Baroque sounds were soothing, and I managed to achieve some quiet.
Then, in a burst of mysterious creativity, from February to May, I composed 13 short compositions. My method was vaguely mathematical: I didn’t hear tunes in my head and then write them down. Rather, guided by an idiosyncratic inner formula, I figured the notes out on the page, then tried them out on the piano. It’s said that music is abstract, yet it’s also the art form most readily comprehensive to the seat of emotions: the soul. The effect of creating those pieces was direct: pleasurable and life-defining.
It’s said that music is abstract, yet it’s also the art form most readily comprehensive to the seat of emotions: the soul.
In his 1924 lecture series on music, Rudolf Steiner called tone “a direct expression of the will itself, without interpolation of image.” I wasn’t familiar with Steiner’s writing at the time of my compositional spurt. And I wasn’t engaging in any kind of reflective thinking as I was figuring out notes. I was simply driven to compose, out of a powerful elemental urge. Now however, decades removed from the experience, Steiner’s insights—which I’ve since become familiar with—resound. Composing those 13 pieces allowed me to express melody, mood, and deep emotion—wordlessly. The wordlessness was key. I was impelled to express myself deeply, bodily, without intoning semantics.
But I’m a poor pianist and I could hardly play the pieces I created. In retrospect it seems the compositions were something of a structural, syntactic step of the will, groundwork for writing to come, yet it would be another few years before I would take up writing poetry. In spring of 1992, all of my creative energies were consumed with making music. In June my friend Frances graciously agreed to prepare my pieces—collectively titled The Mem Compositions—for studio recording. Frances played 12 of the pieces; I played one. Recently I had the cassette recording updated to MP3.
In 1996, at another critical juncture, I started writing poetry and before long took it up as a pursuit. I’ve made it my practice to write daily—though some days reading has to count for writing. I haven’t composed any music since The Mem Compositions, but musicality—in terms of rhythm, repetition, and internal rhyme—is integral to my poetry. Tone, cadence, and syllabic count are so fundamental to me that I’ll seek a word for its rhythm and timbre over a word that merely fits the semantic slot.
Music as a motif is ongoing in my work as well. Occasionally names of composers, instruments, and lyrics appear in my pieces. The poem alluded to at the top of this blog—“Age of the Sentient Soul ” from my collection Startled Night (Guernica Editions, 2011)—features a line from the Basia Bulat tune, “Sugar and Spice,” (on Heart of My Own, Secret City Records, 2010). And Glass—as in composer Philip Glass—has appeared in a few of my pieces. There was a time (around the turn of the millennium) that I listened repeatedly to his Concerto No.1 for Violin and Orchestra, performed by violinist Gidon Kremer and the Vienna Philharmonic. I would dim the lights, lie on the carpet, and give myself over to the repetitive rhythmic pulsing and chugging, the ebullient, almost ecstatic dance-like movement, the intense stringent brilliance of the 25-minute piece. Gidon Kremer, who was first to record Glass’s concerto, in 1992, cited the enigmatic quality of its “strict rhythm that at the same time allows the performer to feel free in his fantasy.” How right. It’s something of this mixture—the formed and the freed—it seems to me now, that I sought to tap into through those hours of listening, that I’ve striven for, and continue to strive for in my poetry.
Elana Wolff’s poems have recently appeared (or will appear) in Canadian Literature, EVENT, The Dalhousie Review, The Boneshaker Anthology, Leveler, Prairie Fire, and The Antigonish Review. Her bilingual collection of selected poems, Helleborus & Alchémille (Noroît, 2013; translation by Stéphanie Roesler), was awarded the 2014 John Glassco Prize for Translation. Her essay, “Paging Kafka’s Elegist,” winner of the 2015 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, appears in Issue 136 of The New Quarterly.