I recently had the pleasure of joining, via Skype, a rehearsal of the Penn State Concert Choir, directed by Christopher Kiver. They’re performing “The Little Stream Sings”, an unaccompanied SATB piece from my “Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music” project, in upcoming concerts.
“Tell us a little about the piece,” Dr. Kiver said.
I knew the question was coming, and I complied by fumbling through a few thoughts, probably too self-aware of my voice booming through classroom speakers 2,000 miles away. But as I’ve re-read the poem in the days since, and thought of the students I had the pleasure of “meeting,” I’ve wished I had better expressed what this poem has meant to me.
So, in my usual mode of finding the clever rejoinder a day late, I’m now prepared to say a little about the piece, which I’ve written as a letter. First, here is the poem:
The little stream sings
in the crease of the hill.
It is the water of life. It knows
nothing of death, nothing.
And this is the morning
of Christ’s resurrection.
The tomb is empty. There is
no death. Death is our illusion,
our wish to belong only
to ourselves, which is our freedom
to kill one another.
From this sleep may we too
rise, as out of the dark grave.
Berry, Wendell. “Sabbaths 2003, IV.” Given: New Poems. 2005. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard.
At some point, each of us realizes the gravity of moral agency, which is to say the fact that we each can—and do—make choices that affect other people. And this includes the possibility that we will hurt them, that we might “kill one another.”
That’s a jarring image, isn’t it?
The fact that we are free to act, not just to be acted upon, is a profound and true lesson, one that I hope will sink deep into you as you sing.
Regardless of your religious leanings (if any), regardless of whether you entertain the idea of the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus or prefer to think of this as a metaphor from literature, don’t let the poem be lost on you: this text invites us first to consider death (of a certain kind) as a human fabrication, and second, to rise above employing our agency to perpetuate this “innovation.”
How can anyone read a text like this so soon after a mass killing, such as occurred recently in Las Vegas, and not feel deeply anguished?
Education, which is what we’re up to, can be defined as the proper ordering of our affections (our loyalties, ambitions, desires). To live rightly as social creatures, we must elevate our commitment to neighborly love and forgiveness and carefully, deliberately subordinate our natural desires for power, convenience, and gain. The hierarchy of our affections will ultimately determine the course of our lives; happiness ensues from ordering our affections properly.
(To believe that something is proper implies also believing in a difference between right and wrong. While that isn’t always a popular theme in secular education, you will want to wrestle with the grand ideas of right and wrong, and commit yourself to live “aright,” if you want to chart a course to purpose and meaning.)
Do you hear this as a sermon? It isn’t necessarily a religious idea, though religious and philosophical traditions concern themselves with creating roadmaps for navigating this kind of life terrain. For example, this is the Tao (Path) and Te (Virtue) of Taoism. However, if this is a sermon, then it’s a sermon in favor of the arts and humanities too!
What I’ve learned about practicing an art (composing, in my case) is that it can teach me to hear a quiet voice within me, my own “little stream.” My inner compass points towards beauty and harmony. It reminds me that I don’t “belong only / to [myself] …”
Practicing the art of singing can help each of us locate that quiet inner voice and learn to follow it. This little stream runs along the path that leads us to become our best selves, which is the same path that results from ordering our affections properly. Simultaneously, our study of the humanities helps us to learn vicariously through the stories of others. We become more fully human, more capable of proceeding on our paths with clarity and compassion, as we internalize these stories.
One of the gifts of a university education is the chance to immerse ourselves in the arts and humanities. If you’re majoring in the arts or humanities, don’t be discouraged when people ask, “what are you going to do with that?” “I’m learning to be my best self in a world that needs me, that’s what!” If you’re majoring in engineering or business (as Dr. Kiver says many of you are), then remember that a prerequisite to using the powerful tools of your trade is learning about the proper (read: restrained) use of power.
One of the gifts of life is that learning doesn’t stop at graduation. Regardless of your declared major, remember that your true discipline of study will be self-discipline, which is inherently interdisciplinary and as broad as your life experiences. Learning to hear and follow the best voice within you, your own little stream, will ensure a rich and useful path in years to come—something to be proud of.
Wendell Berry writes:
“There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. … It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”* (My emphasis.)
Ultimately, I’ve said very little about this piece of music, and I suppose that’s on purpose. In musical terms, I hope it can speak for itself. You can be the judge of that. But I’ve spoken about the music within the music, the little stream that draws me back to my own quiet inner voice and nudges me forward. I hope that you’ll navigate the inevitable obstructions of life by listening to the little stream singing within you, that you’ll rise from our illusions of death, and lift others along the way.
* Excerpted from “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms.” Standing by Words: Essays. 2011. Counterpoint Press.