Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Eleventh Commandment: Listen

No one reads the "old school" poets much except as assignments or unless the poets are old enough to have the prestige of time and survival. Yet poetry accounts for the only commencement address I remember in its entirety, even though I was not at Harvard that year or ever, and still had a year to go before my own high school graduation. I offer this background to build on the previous blog about why no one remembers poetry. For me, my history with this poem suggests, real poetry is real memory.

The address was the Phi Beta Kappa poem written and read at Harvard's 1956 commencement by poet John Holmes. In the fall of my senior year in high school I clipped it from Harper's Magazine and still have it, probably because I still need the advice.

The Eleventh Commandment

When Moses came down from the mountain and the cloud,
He came alone down the rocks, and there alone a while,
The air above him empty and all still, he stood.
There had been trumpets in the fire, but he was whole.
He was Moses, older than old, remembering what he saw,
Saying to himself, a white light in his face,
What he must say to the people, remembering the law.

A man can live to an age that is outside age,
Where forgetting is forgotten, and remembering
Is the hand's motion turning an earlier page.
Nothing is unimportant there, and everything
Is written on one page or another of the book.
Whatever the old men need to know, they know
They have but to turn the pages, turn, and look.

Moses would say everything God had said to him
To the people waiting in the valley below to hear,
The cubits of the tabernacle he would build for them,
The cornering, the colors. But there was one more
Commandment more than ten. Only an auditor
Very old, an old man with Moses' many years,
Could know after the ten commandments one more.

He had been up there a long time hearing what he heard.
He had carried up there all he had ever known.
Now he must utter before and after God's word
What both knew. And shining, Moses went down.
He read from the tablet the last word: Listen.
Those who were to be the new world heard the law,
And Moses began again, with the first word: Listen.

Time passed (you can hear time passing) and men begat,
But not daughters with hearing, nor sons with ears.
Oh, a few musicians, and poets. But most forgot,
And the generations became lookers-at, and seers.
Lost, lost, all the shouts and the lovely saying.
Sound of the wind in olives. Birds, and children.
The shepherd's whistle, the priests at noon praying.

And we cannot hear now the ancient rivers in spring,
Because no one who listened wrote of the sound,
Nor of trumpets, nor the wordless songs girls sing
In their mothers' houses, nor wheels on the ground.
But there are trumpets in trees, and river-song.
Listen. The shiver of wind. The shoes of children.
Trees never stopped. Listen. Nor girls, for long.

A world-gale blows. He who has ears, let him hear.
Under the roof of the day our history moves,
Moving away in the corridors, or trampling near.
Memory murmurs in all the rooms. The sound lives.
Sound is a living thing. Life speaks to be heard.
At the windows it comes in, we are the openings
To the wind on us, over and over us poured.

Do not shut it out. You cannot shut it out.
Listen to the length of all life in one voice.
(But it is loud. But it is meaningless, ugly. But.)
Only the noisy make noise. The noisy like noise.
Noise is the most unremembered of all sound.
It forgets itself and is gone as soon as come.
You listen to the stillest voices of the mind.

You listen for the sounds that tell you time,
The lick and lock of a swung clock-pendulum,
The turning over in bed before dawn, the room
Breathing with the house, the electric hum
Coming on or clicking off, gurgling of water,
The traffic decrescendo, the shutting of doors,
The always sounds that only tell you it is later.

For their own sake, you hear the sound of tools.
A hammer on a nail is-a hammer on a nail.
Saws sound like saws. The rigor of steel rules
And levels is a grammar of meaning without fail.
Drills. Chisels. An axe-blade swung true
To the wood-grain, and the split stick dropped.
Tools doing what they tell you they can do.

The monuments of music, music's fountain
That falls lifting, the terraces toward sky
Lit or shadowed as clouds pass above a mountain,
We look long at. The ear becomes the eye,
Hearing the blue cliffs, and eye climbs
Those towers to their tops, comes to silence down,
And again ascends, and a hundred hundred times.

But strings, brass, drums are not music, nor a page.
The piano lives when hands strike music forth,
But is not music, nor theater voices on a stage,
Nor a command an action, nor a compass north.
There is no word unless a listener to the word
Hears it, and with all his branching blood hears,
And makes happen in space the thing he heard.

Who is the hero, then, the speaker-hero?
The maker of music, the stick that beats the drum?
No, the listener: the figure that makes a zero
The number ten, the one that dares be dumb.
A huge courage is needed for the college years,
Some in the professor, living by the mouth,
Infinitely more in a student, living by his ears.

Let us devise honors for this good listener,
Who, while the world and time were running away,
Stayed, in dependence, and without demur,
And lived, and is living to listen another day.
Praise the good listener, yet envy him.
He is that man who is all that he has heard.
One hopes no more than to be his homonym.

So he goes out to begin at being old,
At being another Moses, with time his aid,
He who will do the telling, not he who is told.
But even Moses the lawgiver listened to God.
Achieving wisdom, at whatever score and ten,
He talks less, and his face is a kind of shining,
And he listens to all that is said by all men.

He listens with Indian patience, wary, serene,
Amused, giving everything new its old name.
History is a picture changing from familiar scene
To scene, to one who listens beyond the frame.
He hears what the archeologists listen for,
That part of the story after the story's end,
The more that children ask when they ask for more.

The good listener is strong, the talker weak.
The talker talking drains away his strength.
It fills the listener to hear a speaker speak.
He is a calm always of the greater length,
Receiving the turbulence into his own peace
Where it sinks like a slow stone, and rests,
And the rings round where it plunged widen and cease.

The rings smile in silence, or seem to smile.
The listener waits for another stone to fall.
It falls, face-to-face, with or without style,
Or, high above him, flung at a great wall,
Our pulpit-toning, Parliament-thundering, long
Doubled and balanced dependent clauses hinged,
Verbed, Saxon-and-Roman-Englished on the tongue.

Or the ordinary, dear, silly, coded talk
Of a family, that though seven generations
Of bloods mingle, if a least child speak,
His cousins understand by his intonations.
Or as in married life: what is not said
Is what is said, and years ago, and guessed,
And ritualized, and heard inside the head.

Or the remarkable gabble of the vocaphile,
The trickle, spatter, rally, and rainy rush
When two meet after an absence for a little while
Who do not wish to be heard, but abhor a hush.
Yet never in rage think you to puncture the ear.
Though the crimes in the name of language done
Be dire, it is happier to hear than not hear.

It is not enough that one's own inner voice
Make of one's life a lifelong monotone.
I, me, mine, to-for-because-of me, rejoice
A man but little, then less, less, and none.
What does he hear for news who has only heard
From his own island? It is a treasure of dust
On the wind when he unlocks his word-hoard.

Moses' commandment opens the world's mouth
To utter the memory of life. One listener
Is man multiplied, man taking in time's breath
To be in one body ancestor and heir.
He owes one duty thus: attention. Man
If he means to live shall hold his whole mind
At ready awake. With this the law began.

So Moses brought the eleventh commandment down,
Knowing his will stir, his blood hasten
That the word be said aloud, the word be known,
That on it all men might take hold and fasten
On it, and hear it in all tongues: Listen.

(This and other of his poems are available at the Tufts Digital Library, http://dl.tufts.edu/view_text.jsp?pid=tufts:UA069.005.DO.00013 )

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