Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Music: Where Words Leave Off

Aaron Belz


By Aaron Belz

June 9, 2014 

Where words leave off, music begins.” –Heinrich Heine

“Words, after speech, reach / into silence.” –T. S. Eliot 

“Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” –Alphonse de Lamartine

These observations are either plagiarized or so true that they’ve been formulated at least three times in almost exactly the same way.

Words have a certain power, of course, but music has arguably more. While words appeal primarily to one section of the human brain, the language center, scientists have found that “Listening to Music Lights Up the Whole Brain.” After words are spoken, silence ensues, ambient sound quietly makes its presence felt, and that’s where music begins. Eliot often uses an image of silence filled with distant sounds, as in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

Wallace Stevens, in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” presents music as a generative force that conducts wind and wave, ultimately becoming the ocean itself. As a woman walks by the sea and sings about it, song and subject are interchangeable:

It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Stevens concludes that this song is more than creation’s impersonal “deep air / The heaving speech of air, a summer sound / repeated in a summer without end”; it is the creator’s music which, by describing and defining, “makes the sky acutest at its vanishing” and “measure[s] to the hour its solitude.” Hers is the “maker’s rage to order words of the sea,” merging intellectual orderliness and oceanic vastness into a single plane, a song.

As for me, I wake up with a head full of ideas as words and phrases, tiny puns and verbal problems, and in the slurry of coffee and pastries and newspaper I become mentally organized. I become task oriented. Sometimes a poem is a task I can accomplish in a day. Usually all I accomplish are more mundane things, such as answering emails and paying bills.

Walter Pater famously said that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”; I believe this to be true. My poetic words aspire toward music, which is why I feel such gratification reading them in public. They taste good to me. But I envy musicians who can take a few stanzas of poetry and sing them to life in a way that makes my whole brain light up. Heaven will be full of singing and praise, the Bible says. We will have music and dancing—whole brain, whole body. The Psalmist writes of the City of God,

Singers and dancers alike say,
“All my springs are in you.”

So when we dress to the nines for an evening at the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall, it’s more than a formal affair. It’s a way to remember who we are in the universe—creatures that, like God himself (imago dei), name and define reality, summoning vast resources to aid in the task. Among millions of biological life forms, we are the only ones who make music. We are ones, writes the Apostle Paul in Romans 8, not only of flesh but of spirit. We are those who walk by the sea and sing it into greater being.

It’s also a way for us to remember who we aren’t—God himself. For in the sweeping transcendence of music, in the logic of ordered sound, the tension of dissonance and beauty of harmony, we overhear whispers of a conversation among beings greater than ourselves. We perceive “the Spirit,” writes Paul, who “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). And this can be a comfort, because in those times of grief or joy or love that “words cannot express,” music can make sense.

— Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His third collection of poems, Glitter Bomb, was recently published by Persea Books. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelz.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”