Poetry, Musical Compositions and the Arts:

Have you ever been transported by poetry or music?

Reflecting upon the assortment of altered mind states or modes of consciousness we have been discussing two aspects seem to stand out. The first is that not even one of them featured analytical or discursive reasoning, sometimes referred to as Left Brain functioning. Second is that each one of them appeared rather conspicuously to be a mind state associated with the functioning of the soul, or what is sometimes called Right Brain activity. Likewise aesthetic consciousness, whose focus is the appreciation of beauty for its own sake, seems similarly very much connected to the functioning of the soul. The consciousness of Poets, composers, musicians, dancers, painters and sculptors – in fact participants in all of the arts – is very much a function of the soul.

Let’s start with a look at the soul of the American poet Stanley Kunitz. This is a story he once told of a powerful and life transforming experience he had as a young man living out in the countryside with a big garden. “The woods behind the house were deep and long, and every day I went out and explored them, evoking images of my childhood. One day, as I stood under a gray Chestnut tree deep in the center of the woods, I heard some rustling in the branches. I looked up and saw a family of owls, a mother and four fledglings, all on one branch. The moment I moved, they frantically whisked off. I found I would be a friend of theirs, and realized I must not disturb them in any way. I learned if I approached them quietly, advancing just a few steps, then standing still, advancing a little more, the owls were not intimidated. And then I could reach the Chestnut tree and stand under it absolutely motionless for as long as I could, fifteen minutes, half an hour or so.

“After doing this day after day for several weeks, I could tell the owls had gained confidence in my presence. Gradually, I dared to raise my arm and lift one of the four babies off its perch and place it on my shoulder for a few minutes and then return it to safety. I did that with all of them over a period of weeks and finally made the great maneuver – I extended my arm and lifted them one by one, all five of them, to my arm. I started with the most familiar one, the mother owl. And then once she was perched there, the others were happy to join. By then they were familiar with my touch. There was no sense of separation; I was part of their life process…”

Stanley Kunitz then said, “One of the great delights of poetry is that you’re really functioning, you’re tapping the unconscious in a way that is distinct from the ordinary, the customary, use of the mind in daily life. You’re somehow cracking the shell separating you from the unknown. There are forms of communication beyond language that have to do not only with the body, but with the spirit itself, a permeation of one’s being. I strongly identify with Henry James when he wrote, in an answer to a letter asking him what compelled him to write, ‘The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life…’ One of the great satisfactions of the human spirit is to feel that one’s family extends across the borders of the species and to everything that lives. I feel I’m not only sharing the planet, but also sharing my life, as one does with a domestic animal. Certainly this is one of the great joys of living in this garden.” (Stanley Kunitz, Marnie Crawford Samuelson and Genine Lentine, The Wild Braid: a Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, W. W. Norton, New York, 2005)

The form of language poets use is intimation, wisps, symbols and sensuality. Rather than standing jaws taut, eyes willfully facing forward, rigidly at attention on hard frozen ground, poets prefer to lie relaxed on their backs floating in a boat looking up at the sky mesmerized by the slowly changing shapes of the clouds. This is the modality in which Stanley Kunitz felt the most comfortable and from which he wrote a poem, titled The Long Boat, about death using a floating boat as a metaphor. This is his poem:

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the shrieking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog,
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
As if he didn’t know
he loved the Earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

Music and dance, perhaps more so than any of the other arts, possess the power to transport. Yes, literally lift you up and carry you to a wonderfully magic place. When we seek to understand what being transported by music or dance is all about it is tempting to fall back on the vocabulary of psychology and employ such terms as ‘transcendental’, ‘altered states’, ‘consciousness shifts’ and other such terms. If we begin our discussion by examining the meaning of such terms, we would not only run the risk of losing ourselves in abstractions, but also risk ignoring the raw experience itself.

My good friend Gregory Ellis, first violinist of Ireland’s Vanbrugh String Quartet, wisely advised me that musicians prefer to discuss performing at their best by talking about what actually happens to them. He said they are more comfortable describing their experiences, than debating, defining or analyzing them. He also suggested that performing at one’s best tends to be a spiritual experience.

I asked Gregory, what he experiences when he is performing at his best.   This was his response:

“I think things become easier.   The technicalities seem to be resolved.   They have obviously been worked on during lots of practice, and when you’ve got into ‘the zone’ or whatever they call it, and you are playing at your best, the technicalities no longer become an issue at all.   Things start to feel very easy, and when the music is great you start to get very much in tune with the meaning of the music.   You feel as though you are being played through – that the music is playing you in a sense.   You feel as if you were a boy riding a bicycle.  ‘Look, no hands,’ as it were.   The music is playing itself.”

Next, I asked Gregory if he could recall what happened to him when performing the middle movement of Opus 132, one of Beethoven’s Late Quartets. He answered: “That’s Beethoven’s Song of Thanksgiving, associated with recovery from an illness.   Yes, that movement creates great stillness, and it’s as though you are reaching very far down into the depths of your being, to your own ground of being.   No matter what troubles have been in the world or in your experience, it’s as if you have reached something very comforting and you’re building up from that basis, coming from deep down. I think that’s what’s going on as we’re playing. It is, as I have noticed afterwards, that when we have been playing at our best that slow, profound music, our breathing calms right down.   You lose sense of performing on a platform.   You sense the audience is there.   And you have a feeling that everyone is sharing the same thing.”

Finally, I enquired of Gregory what he thinks it is about music that can be so transporting. He said, “It’s just because of the way it’s constructed.   It’s an extraordinary art form.   By some kind of intuitive construction and origination of sound, the great composers somehow put across the soul of the music.   It’s extraordinary how they do it.   I think it is one of the greatest achievements of mankind, really – music. It is so powerfully transformative that it makes time seem to stand still – in the sense that you are not aware of the past or the future.   So in that sense, there is only one time, and that is the present.   I think it is fairly clear that when you are totally present in the here and now your sense of time has changed.   It can vary between an absolute pin-point of time to being a vast space in which you have stepped completely out of time.”  (David P. Stang, “What Happens To Musicians When They Are Performing At Their Best”, presented at a symposium on The Aesthetic/Spiritual Interface in Music and Dance at the Irish World Music Center, University of Limerick, October 11, 2000)

And so we see that in poetry and music not only the artists but also the audience as well is transported into other realms. If you have any doubt about this contention just allow yourself to settle into a very still place and listen to the middle movement of Beethoven’s penultimate string quartet, Opus 132. If you have never had an Out Of Body experience and want one to happen to you, try listing to Beethoven’s Hymn of Thanksgiving.

The same kind of thing can happen to you observing a sunset or the rise of a harvest Moon, or a great painting or piece of sculpture or a dancer in ecstasy. This kind of consciousness and the transformative and transporting effect it can have upon you is entirely awesome. When  composers, musicians, poets and other artists find themselves in an exhilarating transcendental state of inspiration they are not very far separated from the patient listening to his soul voice describing a Life Between life encounter with his Spirit Guide, or a person recalling moving through a tunnel of Light during a Near Death Experience or an Irish Visionary reliving her dialogue with an Angel or Saint.