Garth Greenwell on Poetry
An Annual Column

Reading with the Voice


His voice eludes description. Much of its authentic strangeness survives the dated recording, the poor quality of the little speakers in my classroom. Unsteady and fastidious, strenuous and soaring, eschewing most of the conventional beauties, it seems willfully to rebuke our expectations. A long note, uncomfortably high, begins tremulous, hollow, then swells, acquiring heft and bite, like a skeleton taking on flesh. Extraordinarily graceful, each of its graces has come at a cost and shows it; it is a voice for which every accomplishment is a victory of technique over limitation. Of its imperfections—the way it hovers just slightly beneath the pitch here, the vibrato sprawling a bit there—somehow it has made the virtue of expressiveness: each crack in the veneer seems revelatory of emotion. It is one of my favorite sounds in the world.


We’re listening to a recording of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, a song cycle for tenor and piano by Benjamin Britten, one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest composers for the voice in any age. Britten himself is at the piano; the singer is his life-long collaborator, Peter Pears, one of the more curious operatic stars of recent history. The class is tenth grade English, a survey of British literature, and we’re about to try our hands at writing sonnets.

The students, who have already memorized and recited two Shakespeare sonnets, know much that there is to know about the form. They know that sonnets have fourteen lines; that they rhyme in a particular pattern; that each sonnet must have a turn, or volta, at a proscribed place; that they are written in iambic pentameter. But I want them to understand the form as something more than a set of abstract rules; I want them to feel it as a structure for argument and a vehicle for emotion. And I want them to feel how malleable and serviceable a vehicle it is: how so seemingly simple a structure can remain unexhausted some five centuries after our language first made use of it.

And so we’re listening to Benjamin Britten. A text is a field of choices, I have told my students all year: for Donne as much as for any of them, the blank page represented seemingly infinite possibility, at once pregnant and void. Any word could have been any other; at any point the poem could have found itself fatally stymied. So too with Britten, and our job as listeners—as readers—is to enter the text and tell a story about its choices. I want my students to understand his compositions as acts of interpretation, engaging the same faculties of imaginative analysis I expect from their papers. We listen to a song many times, trying to tune our ears to the way it constructs its meanings.

The cycle is intensely dramatic. Choosing nine of Donne’s nineteen sonnets, Britten devises distinctive textures and rhythms for grief and defiance, elegiac reverie and moral desperation. In teaching these sonnets to my sophomores, I see my first challenge as helping the students gain access to the emotional content of the poems; until they have some affective connection to the text, trying to communicate any of the poem’s other burdens (its formal ingenuity, its historical context) seems futile. But for my sophomores, a great deal stands in the way of hearing the text as human utterance. There’s the strangeness that clings for many of them to the genre itself, even though we’ve studied poems together for weeks now. And though they have been reading Shakespeare since the seventh grade, a significant linguistic barrier remains, heightened by Donne’s tortured syntax. Finally, for almost all of them, the Christian devotional tradition on which the poems depend is entirely strange.

If poetry remains something of a foreign discipline for many of them, though, they experience music as feeling’s first language. Even those with only limited knowledge of the art music tradition respond immediately to these songs. I often begin with the third:

O might those sighs and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourned in vain.

The song opens plaintively, with a weeping gesture—a single note falling a semitone from C to B—echoed in two voices an octave apart high in the piano. The music, that is, begins with the sort of paradox Donne delights in, conveying at once spaciousness (the distance between the voices) and confinement (the voices are allowed only the smallest interval possible on the keyboard). Few figures could be simpler, but Britten’s choice effectively dramatizes the central dilemma of the poem, the speaker’s two distinct griefs: the lover’s tears that fueled Donne’s early poems, and the penitence with which the priest tries futilely (as it seems) to redeem a life of sin.

Only after the voice takes up this figure does the bass register sound in the piano’s left hand, which begins a slow spare descent, its chords arriving on the beat as the voice sighs in syncopation above. But with the second quatrain the texture of the song changes:

In mine idolatry, what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste! What griefs my heart did rent!
That sufferance was my sin; now I repent.
’Cause I did suffer, I must suffer pain.

While the left hand continues its slow lament, the figure in the right undergoes a transformation. To the alternating C and B Britten adds a third note, the G above, and what had been a sigh becomes a flourish, creating a sudden lushness, a new sensuousness that acknowledges the seductiveness of Donne’s remembered “idolatry,” his years spent privileging pleasures of the flesh over the austerities of the spirit. In Britten’s setting—and as Donne’s sequence frequently suggests—the poet’s attitude toward those years is more complicated than the priest’s stolid, sincere disavowal.

The students are visibly startled by Britten’s treatment of the poem’s volta:

The hydroptic drunkard and night-scouting thief,
The itchy letcher, and self-tickling proud,
Have the remembrance of past joys for the relief
Of coming ills.

To this point, the poem has been rueful and self-accusing; here it turns with resentment toward those whose sins have armed them with “past joys” to face their coming judgment. Nothing in Britten’s setting has prepared us for the sudden forte tremulos in both hands of the piano, the declamatory leaps in the vocal line. Pears’ voice, a moment ago lilting and grieved, now bites into the text. Not all of the students have managed to hear, reading the poem on their own, the distinctive texture Donne gives these lines, with their grouped and echoing plosive consonants, their bunched stresses driven by newly-coined modifiers (“night-scouting,” “self-tickling”); Britten’s setting and Pears’ delivery make the change unmistakable.

But the speaker of the poem can’t sustain his anger, and resentment quickly returns to rue: “To poor me is allowed / No ease; for long yet vehement grief hath been / The effect and cause, the punishment and sin.” Appropriately for a poem so concerned with cycles—weeping begets weeping, punishment is indistinguishable from sin—Britten sets the couplet by returning to the opening texture, stripping the song of its ornaments, ending with its original starkness. Again the song restricts itself to two pitches, the vocal line and piano moving between semitones. They end in consonance, coming together on a B natural that rings hauntingly, in the original recording, against the C still resonating in the piano’s undamped strings.

As we’ve listened to the song three or four times, Britten has brought our attention forcibly not just to the structure of the sonnet—each formal division is marked by a shift in the music—but also to the music of Donne’s words. The song gives a sense, too, of how supple Donne’s iambic pentameter is—meter in these songs is anything but metronomic. (One of the glories of the Britten-Pears recordings is the freedom they take with time, now stretching a beat, now rushing it, without imperiling their almost preternaturally exact ensemble.) Most importantly, the students have found that the song gives them a tangible grasp on the poem’s intangibles: its psychology, its emotional turns, its human urgency.

Urgency seldom reaches a sharper pitch than the dizzying exaltations and despairs of Donne’s extraordinary sonnets, and biographical circumstance may suggest why Britten turned to them. In 1945, after the success of his first opera, Britten joined with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin in concerts at the newly liberated concentration camps. Two days after his return, falling ill after the stresses of the trip, Britten began composing these songs. Listening to them yet again, newly equipped with this knowledge, we hear more clearly their swings between the certainty of damnation and the scandal of hope. Somehow, Britten found an expression for the public horror of the camps in the private torment of Donne’s poems, crafting songs in which fear (“‘Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace”) holds hands with supernatural promise (“Christ’s blood, which hath this might / That being red, it dyes red souls to white”). Pears, in a comment recorded by Humphrey Carpenter, saw the cycle as a defiant response to historical catastrophe: it “defies the nightmare horror with a strong love, the instinctive answer to Buchenwald from East Anglia.” Britten’s songs have a great deal to teach us about the sonnet form; just as importantly, they show how a work of art can be an act of witness.


Song was my introduction to poetry. As a child, reading was my refuge, and my earliest aspirations were to be a writer. But in junior high and my first years of high school, suffering—as I now watch, powerlessly, many of my students suffer—a home life wrecked by a brutal divorce and my parents’ cruelty to one another, I was an academic disaster. Freshman year, I was enrolled as a communications major in a public magnet school; when I failed the introductory course, I began casting about for a new concentration. I picked the choir program as the least taxing of the available options.

I had no idea that I was falling into a new life. The conductor, a brilliant singer and the first person to demonstrate for me the power of a great teacher, offered me free lessons after school, teaching me about posture and breath, the colors of vowels and the different shapes phrases can take. He advised me to enroll in music theory classes at a local university, to start piano lessons, to take singing seriously not just as a kind of athletic exercise but as an intellectual pursuit. With his encouragement, I applied to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where I lived and studied for two years, years that—passed in that community of kids and adults devoting their lives to art—still seem the intensest of my life.

Still, it wasn’t until my first years at the Eastman School of Music that I began to learn how to read a poem. My teacher there—a marvelous, crotchety old man we had no chance of pleasing—had built his career as a performer in Germany, specializing in German art song. I had already sung my share of Schubert and Schumann and Wolf; I was scrupulous in my diction and conscientious in seeking out careful translations of texts. And so I was taken aback to learn that, other than scales and arpeggios, my earliest lessons wouldn’t consist of much singing; that, in fact, I wouldn’t rehearse a song until I had satisfied my teacher with my interpretation of its text.

Not until working with Helen Vendler as a doctoral student would I meet a more exacting reader of poems.
I wasn’t writing poems in those years, but now my time as a singer seems key to my development as a writer. I often tell my students that a poet’s relationship to language has to be one of both intimacy and estrangement. For most of us, most of the time, we aren’t aware of any distance between our language and ourselves. Words are the air we breathe, a medium tailored to our thought, transparent as glass; aside from those oddly disconcerting moments when the word we need—hovering just at the tip of the tongue—escapes us, there seems little or no distance between our thoughts and their expression.

For the poet, though, this workaday rapport with words has to be disrupted. In a weird paradox, for the poem to seem like the most intimate speech, the words that make it up must first be made foreign objects, with all the dense objective existence of bricks. Only then can one see writing not just as expression but as craft. I often encourage students to seek out this sense of strangeness by studying foreign languages, but I found it in the dazzlingly unnatural athleticism of classical singing. Drawn out over impossible lengths, riding their columns of air, words sung in this way dramatically impose their physicality: in the vibrations thrilling the resonance chambers of the face, in the tensing of muscles in the abdomen and legs, in the subtle exertions of lips and tongue articulating consonants and vowels. Great song composers reveal the innate rhythms of words, their melodies and percussions, their indigenous music. It would be years before I realized how much I seek in my poems to capture the music of words as I first heard it there.


Seeking out this music is the first task of a poet. But there are other lessons essential for young writers, some of them more challenging: lessons about the complexity of beauty, about the necessary ambition of great art. Even among my most talented students, many regard poetry as a medium that can only accommodate certain aspects of their experience. They see a poem as an opportunity to write about feelings, about relationships—and certainly it is that; but few of them would think of bringing to poetry those parts of themselves that are engaged by a biology class or a political rally. Their poems are lovely, and they are often afflicted with a stultifying slightness.

But great art, even when it is literally small—Emily Dickinson’s lyrics, for instance, or the songs of Alban Berg—is never without intellectual hunger. In my senior seminar, a class called “The Literature of Conversion” that I’m teaching for the first time, I’ve tried to craft a syllabus that reminds students of the breadth of literature, of the fact that novels and poems can treat seriously (as seriously as philosophy or law) our most urgent and intransigent questions. This has meant wrestling with difficult texts, and mostly I’m pleased with how the kids have managed with Plato and Augustine, with Iris Murdoch, Bernard Malamud, Graham Greene. Our working definition of “conversion” has been “the radical reorientation of a life around a new object,” and we’ve discussed the phenomenon in religious (conversion to God), philosophical (conversion to the good), and erotic (conversion to the beloved) contexts, finding that in almost all of our texts these apparently distinct contexts seem intertwined.
The last and perhaps most difficult text on the syllabus is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. We’ve just finished it, and now we’re watching, on DVD, Britten’s treatment of Mann’s novella, his last and greatest opera. Mann is a famously cerebral writer (if also a sensuous one), and Britten’s opera, too, displays the kind of intellectual ambition I want my students to hunger for in their own work. Britten and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, follow Mann closely, but their innovations mark a shrewd reading of the original. As with Donne’s Holy Sonnet, Britten’s choices help clarify crucial elements of the text.

There’s a scene in the second act that I’m especially eager for my students to see. In Mann’s novella, just after Aschenbach has allowed himself a terrible, alluring vision—Venice emptied by cholera, the sole survivors, Aschenbach and the boy Tadzio, left to live in terrible, forbidden intimacy—he falls into a stupor and suffers a dream. Mann introduces the passage with great portent: the dream’s “theatre seemed to be his own soul, and the events burst in from outside, violently overcoming the profound resistance of his spirit; passed him through and left him, left the whole cultural structure of a lifetime trampled on, ravaged, and destroyed.”

Mann sets this up, then, as perhaps the book’s most crucial scene—Aschenbach’s conversion—and yet he allows it only a single paragraph, a paragraph so dense that we spent an entire class period on it. What it describes is a Bacchanalia, an orgiastic rite, during which the discipline that Aschenbach has prided himself upon, and that has been slowly eroding beneath his obsession with Tadzio, finally gives way, freeing him to join—wholeheartedly, disastrously—the ranks of Dionysus’ worshippers. We’ve spoken in class about Mann’s concept, borrowed from Nietzsche, of two distinct and competing impulses in the artistic temperament: the Apollonian, which privileges order, form, the disciplined intellect; and the Dionysian, which revels in passionate dissolution, in the transgression of boundaries, in bodily desire. Mann’s treatment of this theme is subtle and rich; what could be easily schematic is instead suggestively complicated—and therefore, as we’ve found, difficult to grasp.
Britten doesn’t shy away from this complication. Brilliantly, he draws upon the resources of the operatic tradition to make this very interior dilemma something accommodating of dramatic treatment. In the opera’s most daring aesthetic choice, Britten externalizes psychology, presenting the two competing gods—Apollo and Bacchus—on stage in eighteenth century deus ex machina fashion. Apollo, eerily scored for countertenor, tries to compel Aschenbach to resist the enticements of Dionysus, who is sung by the same baritone who plays almost all of the novella’s male speaking roles. By writing all of these roles for a single singer, Britten makes explicit the connections established tacitly in the novella between a number of shadowy, vaguely menacing figures. And here, in this crucial scene, Britten helps us see how Mann has aligned them all with the principle of dissolution, of insalubrious passion.

“Taste it, taste the sacrifice,” Britten’s Dionysus cries as the defeated Apollo retreats and the voices of his revelers rise. “Join the worshippers, / embrace, laugh, cry, / to honour the god.” The music with which Britten scores the ensuing Bacchanalia is every bit the match for Thomas Mann’s extraordinary paragraph. Wisely avoiding presenting the paragraph’s orgiastic imagery onstage (which would strain both material resources and moral tolerance), Britten conveys all of its drama in music. Strings pulse in urgent syncopation as huge, pelagic swells of percussion, winds, and brass wash over a chorus estranged from speech, reduced to preverbal vowels, an “Aa-oo” that eerily and deliberately recalls Tadzio’s name. The passage is brief—just over two minutes—and devastating.

What’s even more significant is the music that follows. After a short expository passage, a distinctive melodic figure appears that has been associated throughout the opera with Tadzio. Tadzio never speaks in the novella, and he never sings in the opera; instead, he and the other children are played by dancers. The music that accompanies them is unlike anything else in the opera: Britten marks the essential difference of the children, their separateness from the world of Aschenbach, by signifying their presence with material reminiscent of Javanese gamelan, a style of music he encountered in travels with Pears and that he reproduces here on traditional Western instruments: xylophone, marimba, and flute.

The juxtaposition of Dionysus with Tadzio is suggestive, and several students are eager to discuss it. Over the two weeks that we’ve been reading Death in Venice, we’ve frequently argued about the significance of the boy. What does he represent, the Apollonian ideal or the Dionysian temptation? Cues in the text—his form like the finest Greek statue, his terrible teeth—give conflicting evidence. Under the sway of the boy’s beauty, Aschenbach writes his last and perhaps most beautiful—most pristine, most beautifully pure—text; after this act of creation he feels soiled, he says, as though he had just participated in an orgy. Now Tadzio, frolicking with an innocence that may be fraudulent, enters just after the opera’s most evidently Dionysian moment. Is Tadzio then merely an avatar of Dionysus, of a libidinal formlessness that finds its necessary conclusion in the death of the novella’s title? This is the interpretation passionately argued by several of my students. But, others remind us, earlier in the opera, at the end of Act I, Tadzio was crowned Apollo’s champion. How can Britten and Mann use him to represent both of the novella’s tutelary deities?

Shortly after the Bacchanalia, Britten presents the opera’s most beautiful aria, in which the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy that has structured the entire novella is called into question. In the passage as Mann wrote it, as Aschenbach, alone, finds himself lost in the city that has come to represent his own disordered psyche, he addresses an imaginary interlocutor borrowed from one of Plato’s most famous dialogues:

So, then, since knowledge might destroy us, we will have none of it … Knowledge is all-knowing, understanding, forgiving; it takes up no position, sets no store by form. It has compassion with the abyss—it is the abyss. So we reject it, firmly, and henceforward our concern shall be with beauty only. And by beauty we mean simplicity, largeness, and renewed severity of discipline; we mean a return to detachment and to form. But detachment, Phaedrus, and preoccupation with form lead to intoxication and desire, they may lead the noblest among us to frightful emotional excesses, which his own stern cult of the beautiful would make him the first to condemn. So they too, they too, lead to the bottomless pit. Yes, they lead us thither, I say, us who are poets—who by our natures are prone not to excellence but to excess.

Reading the novella in class, we spent a great deal of time together worrying over these strange, disorienting sentences. We decided finally that “knowledge”—by which Mann seems to mean something like “experience,” intrication with the world of sensuous appetite—and “beauty” represent the Dionysian and Apollonian modes, respectively, that the novella has explored. This seems to be a moment, then, when Aschenbach tries to re-devote himself to the Apollonian life of discipline, the “stern cult of the beautiful” that has crumbled before his obsession with the young Tadzio.

What Aschenbach discovers here, however—and what Britten’s music and Pears’ performance help us to hear—is that the salvation he has sought in the life of discipline and restraint is a chimera; the austere realm of intellect and ideal forms, by retreating to which he has hoped to escape the physical world of the senses, is an illusion. Here is how the excerpt appears in Myfanwy Piper’s libretto:

Should we then reject it, Phaedrus,
The wisdom poets crave,
Seeking only form and pure detachment,
Simplicity and discipline?
But this is beauty, Phaedrus,
Discovered through the senses,
And senses lead to passion, Phaedrus,
And passion to the abyss.

We haven’t been able to decide on which side of the Apollonian/Dionysian divide Tadzio falls precisely because the boy defies Aschenbach’s dichotomy. He devastates Aschenbach because he demonstrates that the ideal has its source in the senses; that all beauty—even idealized, intellectual beauty—has its root in the flesh, in bodies prone to passion. Aschenbach, who has tried to discipline his life to the pursuit of intellectual beauty, realizes that even his most severe devotions lead to the abyss of sensual entrapment; the aesthetic sense that is the root of his art, he comes to feel, is finally irredeemable. What had seemed like an easy schematization of experience (between ordered and disordered, good and bad) has crumbled—as all totalitarian conceptions seem liable to do—before the fact of desire and the demands of art.


But this music has still more to teach us, and some of its lessons inhere, once again, in Pears’ voice. That voice is older now, and its various imperfections—the unsteady vibrato, the occasional flatness—have worsened. Yet it’s precisely those imperfections, the way Pears manages them, that make for the mastery of the performance. “Chaos, chaos and sickness,” the aria begins, and one hears in the voice the proximity of rulelessness. Aschenbach reprises a declaration from the opening scene of the opera, when, self-possessed, all but untouched as yet by the passions that will destroy him, he proclaimed: “I, Aschenbach, famous as a master writer, self-discipline my strength.” The line returns now changed by what has passed: “Oh Aschenbach … self-discipline your strength,” he sings, the address revealing an estrangement from his earlier sense of himself. More movingly, Pears lets his vibrato widen and slow here, making the assertion a tragic parody of the writer’s earlier confidence. By the end of the aria, when the deranged Aschenbach takes his leave from his imaginary interlocutor, the voice has been stripped to a thin, reedy sound at once innocent and corrupt, like a drunk choirboy, like Tadzio himself. “And now, Phaedrus, I will go. / But you stay here,” he sings. “And when your eyes no longer see me, / then you go too.” Unsupported by strings, even by the spare accompaniment of piano and harp that has carried it this far, the voice is expressive of a terrible, solitary desolation.

Many of my students have a notion of beauty that—like their notion of the proper province of poetry—seems too small to me. Like Aschenbach, they conceive of it as pure, unmixed, as perfect in a way that can come to seem cramped and unexciting. I want them to understand beauty as a thing of contradictions, containing multitudes, entirely distinct from mere prettiness. I tell them now that it was in these recordings of Pears and Britten that I caught my first intimations of this more complicated aesthetic. I heard in Pears’ singing something I would hear later in my favorite poets, in lines when Philip Larkin or Frank Bidart attain the heights of poetic experience by means of the lowest diction, when Yeats’s Crazy Jane affirms that “Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.” Before I fell under the tutelage of Pears, my sense of great singing was largeness and ease of tone, the possession of an uncomplicatedly brilliant instrument. But for Pears, every gesture is the result of careful management, the stewardship of scarce resources; and so every gesture is expressive not just of emotion but of intelligence, and to the pathos of the text is added the pathos of its interpreter’s struggle. “Thought that can merge wholly into feeling, feeling that can merge wholly into thought—these are the artist’s highest joy,” says Aschenbach, and Pears’ voice often seems to me the embodiment of this maxim.

But there is another explanation, of course, for the fact that only Pears’ voice sounds at home in this music, that every other singer who attempts it seems like an interloper. It was written for him; this aria is among the last fruits of a partnership of almost forty years, and both the composition and the performance suggest the final—and the most important—idea of art I want my students to learn from Britten and Pears. In the Phaedrus, the Platonic dialogue that Mann references throughout Death in Venice and that my students have read in preparation for the novella, Socrates articulates a theory of the genesis of love that imposes a peculiar burden of education upon the lover. Love, says Socrates, is a kind of memory: our souls recognize in our beloved a glimmer of the god we served in our existence among the Forms, before our current incarnation. “And so each person picks out from the beautiful ones his love after his fashion,” Socrates says, “and he constructs and adorns for himself a sort of statue of that one, as a god, for him to honor and celebrate.” The desire of the lovers, then, is “to make [the beloved] as like as possible to their god … to lead him wholly into complete likeness to themselves and the god that they honor.” What Socrates is arguing here is that love offers us a new vision of ourselves, a larger and better image of what we are or might become; and also that it is our job, when we love, to bear witness to this image of our beloved, to remind him always of his best self.

Surely something like this vision of love is what we hear in this music. The relationship of Britten and Pears is as close a collaboration as exists in the annals of music history: Pears was muse, interpreter, librettist, and critic for Britten. Britten, in his turn, made music that at once flattered and challenged Pears’ idiosyncratic instrument, seeking out its hidden beauties, exploiting both its strengths and its weaknesses for their expressive potential. They were also lovers, their relationship—marriage is the only appropriate term for it—a courageously open secret. At a time when homosexuality was allowed no public expression, Britten and Pears made their music a declaration of their love. Even as it explores the grandest philosophical themes on an operatic scale, every piece Britten wrote for Pears has the intimacy of a lover’s whisper.

I teach Britten and Pears to my students because their work epitomizes something that seems crucial to me for any art aspiring to necessity or authenticity: a kind of voracity, an intensity that conveys the full urgency of a life. Britten’s music gives witness to the entirety of his experience: his passion for literature, his faith, his confrontation with the horrors of the twentieth century, his love for his spouse, his visceral engagement with the kinds of philosophical dilemmas that fueled and plagued Thomas Mann. It often seems to me, listening to the range of his work, that little in his experience—and little in our common experience—is foreign to or excluded from his art, an art that is embodied with brilliance by Pears, who sings with a commitment so intense it becomes an extraordinary vulnerability. For both of them, as they approach their art, nothing is held back; nothing is guarded. This is what ambition in an artist looks like, I tell my students. It’s an ideal I want them to seek in both their writing and their lives.