“. . . My tunes arise from my heart . . .” (Mahmoud Darwish)

1-useless

Useless?

In his essay “National Music” Ralph Vaughn Williams says that the “chief glory of music is that it is absolutely useless”―or something like that. I’ve quoted him often enough that I ought to be able to find the statement in my copy of the book, but―believe me―I’m not going to read the book until I find it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Or if you know the page or that it isn’t there at all (go ahead, prove a negative!), leave me a comment.

By useless, he means, of course, that music serves no scientific or utilitarian purpose. He did not know the work of Oliver Sacks and other neurologists, of course, who have discovered how important music is to the functioning of the brain―not necessary, but more helpful than any other activity (do you hear that, you home-schoolers and student test score junkies?).

In the long run I think he is right. Delight, mental acumen, expression of emotion, communication―all of those things are useless, particularly in a materialistic pseudo-capitalist society. I made a stab at proving him wrong a few times by teaching college courses in “Music as Propaganda,” but that was almost always about words coupled with music. There are precious few musical statements that “mean” anything or serve any purpose politically. “Finlandia,” “God Save the Queen,” Ein Feste Burg, and a few others do, of course. “The Star Spangled Banner” does not rise to that level because it is an anthem to a piece of cloth, not to a nation―we sing our allegiance to a picture rather than to the nation, but don’t get me started).

Since I retired from regular work as a church organist, I have come to understand the glorious uselessness of music. The music I make very seldom serves any purpose except to “invite my soul,” the value of which is unclear.

Playing the organ in my living room is not my only useless pastime. I watch “Death in Paradise,” “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and “Property Brothers” quite regularly on TV. Notice none of those are binge-watchable hit show on cable TV―I don’t have a clue how to download and binge watch and, since watching TV serial shows and going to the movies are both “social” activities in my mind, I probably never will learn how to sit by myself and watch hour after hour of ongoing stories.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

I read quite a lot of useless poetry.

And I play Sudoku on my iPad. That, of course, is not only not useless, it may well be detrimental. I began that habit because someone told me that someone had told them that they had heard on Dr. Oz or some such show―probably one of those “self-help” shows PBS has been playing for twenty years when they are asking for money―that doing puzzles is a good way to keep your mind active. I’ve ignored neurologists’ admonition that you should find another game when you’ve mastered the one you’re playing. Always work a puzzle or play a game you can’t finish, or it doesn’t help your brain.

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Always work a puzzle or play a game you can’t finish, or it doesn’t help your brain.

Actually, playing Sudoku is sometimes not completely useless. I sit in front of the TV watching “Property Brothers” or “Fixer Upper” and play Sudoku when I need a nap in the afternoon and can’t fall asleep. It’s great fun to fall asleep in mid-afternoon with visions of Jonathan and Drew or Chip dancing in my head. (Tarek on “Flip or Flop” doesn’t make the cut.)

I spend a great deal of time virtually every day posting on my other blog. It usually takes 1.5 to 2 hours daily.

I started that blog in February of 2015 because I discovered the wealth of poetry (useless stuff?) written by Palestinian poets. I was enamored of the useless poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye, the Palestinian-American poet who lives in San Antonio. I discovered that she has translated a great deal of Palestinian poetry from the Arabic to English, and because it was she, I started looking into it. Soon I owned 22 hard-copy volumes of Palestinian poetry and about a half-dozen more on my Nook (iPad).

As I read more and more poetry by Palestinians, I began to realize that the nobility, the anguish, the grief, the defiance, the passion of the Palestinian poetry was the same whether it is by Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) writing first-hand about the Nakba, Tawfiq Zayyad (1929-1994) giving voice to the suffering of the 1967 War, Salem Jubran gently striving to express the relationship between Israeli Jews and Arabs, Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003) disclosing the devastation mothers and daughters have experienced from the Nakba through the Second Intifada, or Yusef Abu Loz and Abdel Rahim al-Sheikh writing of the precarious situation of their people today.

Standing apart (and, it is almost universally agreed, above) in its passion and clarity is the voice of the Palestinian-American Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008).

Inspired by these (and dozens more) poets, I began to try to give a context for their work―or is it to use their work to give context for the news from Palestine? I don’t know. I don’t really know what it is I do every morning. It may, in fact be a useless enterprise―and I think it most likely is. I don’t have any real idea if anyone reads it or who they are.

What I know is that I must do it. I have no choice. This poetry and these (sometimes related) news stories must be together in Cyberspace for some reason I do not know, and I am the only person who can make it happen. Perhaps it is as absolutely useless as Vaughn Williams says music is.

Which is, after all, probably not useless after all.

“A  DIALOGUE  WITH  A  MAN  WHO  HATES  ME,”  BY  MAHMOUD  DARWISH
Rome was burnt, O crazy man
· Rome is more durable than Nero
Rome will not grasp your poems
· She can recite them by heart
Rome will slice your strings
· My tunes arise from my heart
Your voice echoes a miserable past
· My voice echoes a rocket rage
Your path is long
· I shall not tire
Yehuda** sold you
· I shall not be crucified
My ancestors were cremated in Auschwitz
· My heart is with them
· Pull out the wires from my skin
And the wounds of yesterday?
· A shameful scar―in the face of the executioner over there
What do you carry in your head
· A little wheat
What’s in your chest?
· A picture of a wound
Your face reflects a rancor color
· My face reflects the color of the earth
Then convert your sword into plowshare
· You did not leave me land to plow
You criminal!
· I did not steal―did not kill―didn’t oppress
You Arab! You are a dog!
· O man, may God cure your soul
· Why don’t you try the taste of love
· Why don’t you make way for the sun!!

** The Israeli town of Or Yehuda was established in 1950 on the lands of the depopulated Palestinian villages of Saqiya and Kfar ‘Ana. Jews from Iraq and North Africa settled there.

1-IMG_2984The Village of Lifta, Jerusalem, depopulated in 1948. One of a handful of Palestinian depopulated villages where the homes were not destroyed. (Photo: Harold Knight, November, 2015)

 

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