Monday, June 17, 2019

'With a Few Separate Plangent Notes'

Every weekday around noon as I walk to the university library I see the same Northern mockingbird (or so I imagine) perched on the privet hedge or in one of the Italian cypresses. Like all the best singers he is confident nearly to the point of cockiness. He is a trim, cool, modestly elegant customer. My presence on the sidewalk ten feet away hardly deserves notice, though I may have interrupted his lunch on the lawn. I’m disappointed not to hear him singing. Critics dismiss the mockingbird as a plagiarist without a song of his own, but this is unfair and represents a misunderstanding of the bird and art.

Originality is a myth. We sing because others have sung. The only truly original artist would speak an idiolect (OED: “the linguistic system of one person”), and even that would probably be cobbled together from scraps of pre-existing words. No, the mockingbird flatters his fellows by performing variations on their themes. He is brother to the jazz musician. Part of the joy of a Sonny Rollins concert is waiting for him to throw in a bar or two of some familiar but unlikely melody. In upstate New York, I once heard a mockingbird reproduce the sound of rain flowing through a downspout. In “Patch Work” (The Man with Night Sweats, 1992), Thom Gunn hears a mockingbird sing

“A repertoire of songs that it has heard
--From other birds, and others of its kind –
Which it has recombined
And made its own, especially one
With a few separate plangent notes begun
Then linking trills as a long confident run . . .”

Younger listeners may think of the mockingbird’s technique as sampling, a favorite postmodern strategy. Gunn emphasizes less the borrowed themes than their variations. The mockingbird “links them in a bird’s inhuman joy,” a capacity observable in all the greatest artists.

Gunn’s use of the delicious word plangent reminds me of Guy Davenport’s use of a related word in a related context in the second-to-last paragraph of “Ernst Machs Max Ernst” (and of The Geography of the Imagination):

“If I have a sensibility distinct from that of my neighbors, it is simply a taste, wholly artificial and imaginary, for distant plangencies and different harmonies in which I can recognize as a stranger a sympathy I could not appreciate at my elbow: songs of the Fulani, a ntumpan, male and female, of ceremonial elephant drums of the Asantehene, dressed in silk, under a more generous sun and crowding closer upon the symbolled and archaic embroidery of the skirts of God, the conversations of Ernst Mach and William James, Basho on the road to the red forests of the North, Sir Walter Scott at dinner with Mr. Hinze, his cat, sitting by his plate.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

When I was in apartments, there was a mockingbird nearby that imitated car alarms.