menu Arc Poetry Magazine
Essay

Aislinn Hunter on Jan Zwicky's "Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115"

(How Poems Work, July 2004)
Jan Zwicky’s beautiful “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” is constructed as a series of propositions. Each stanza begins with a gentle precept: “That we shall not forget…”, “And, though…”, “That the mind’s light…” and “That a letter…”. Taken as whole, the repetition of propositions becomes entreaty, and entreaty underpins that which I think is the thematic and tonal thrust of this poem: a call for optimism and beauty in the face of a wider reality.
What I love most about this poem is that it talks about ideals (honour, truth, grace, honesty and love) through an allusion to classical music, a medium (certainly in Brahms’ case) where we can easily imagine those qualities residing. And artfully, the qualities above exist in the poem without being listed as a set of nouns, rather they are presented in other contexts: as a verb (“to honour brown”), an adjective (“we will not grow more graceful, / but less”) as adverb (“honestly”) and as predicate (“beloved”)….

Jan Zwicky’s beautiful “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” is constructed as a series of propositions. Each stanza begins with a gentle precept: “That we shall not forget…”, “And, though…”, “That the mind’s light…” and “That a letter…”. Taken as whole, the repetition of propositions becomes entreaty, and entreaty underpins that which I think is the thematic and tonal thrust of this poem: a call for optimism and beauty in the face of a wider reality.

What I love most about this poem is that it talks about ideals (honour, truth, grace, honesty and love) through an allusion to classical music, a medium (certainly in Brahms’ case) where we can easily imagine those qualities residing. And artfully, the qualities above exist in the poem without being listed as a set of nouns, rather they are presented in other contexts: as a verb (“to honour brown”), an adjective (“we will not grow more graceful, / but less”) as adverb (“honestly”) and as predicate (“beloved”).

Jan Zwicky’s beautiful “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” is constructed as a series of propositions. Each stanza begins with a gentle precept: “That we shall not forget…”, “And, though…”, “That the mind’s light…” and “That a letter…”. Taken as whole, the repetition of propositions becomes entreaty, and entreaty underpins that which I think is the thematic and tonal thrust of this poem: a call for optimism and beauty in the face of a wider reality.

What I love most about this poem is that it talks about ideals (honour, truth, grace, honesty and love) through an allusion to classical music, a medium (certainly in Brahms’ case) where we can easily imagine those qualities residing. And artfully, the qualities above exist in the poem without being listed as a set of nouns, rather they are presented in other contexts: as a verb (“to honour brown”), an adjective (“we will not grow more graceful, / but less”) as adverb (“honestly”) and as predicate (“beloved”).

Three of the poem’s central ideas are constructed around the colon. But despite the poems logical construction, the argument is far from didactic. The colon’s function is to separate the general from the specific. What follows a colon is meant to be an elaboration of what preceded it. In ‘And though the earth is dying…: a bright field ribboned with swath’ the image of the field is denotative&#8212an actual specific field, but it is also (largely because of the colon) metaphoric: the earth as a bright field, the swath cut through the earth an aspect of that “dying.”

“That the mind’s light could be filtered / as:…” works to the same effect. Here again we have hypothesis followed by elaboration: a literal porch, trellised rose, but also the symbolism of those objects, imbued here with nostalgia and contentment.

In the actual Clarinet Quintet, Brahms musically restates previous themes in new ways. Zwicky’s poem does this too. The poem moves forward imagistically and topically but the idea of optimism runs through everything. The cognitive leaps are associative: the clarinet’s sound leads us to ‘brown’ which leads us to ‘earth’ and “bright fields” which leads us to “mind’s light”, a porch, a trellised rose which leads us to “nostalgia” and to “a letter.” Despite “diseases”, “regret”, and the “less” in stanza four, we are left with the optimism of supposition. Think of supposition as an “If.” “If” allows for hope. And it’s hope that prepares us for the last stanza. We’ve been warned against caution, implored to “not forget.” Finally we come to “That a letter might honestly / begin, Dear beloved.” By this point the poem has accrued meaning, so that the last stanza isn’t just about a specific person, it’s about the genuine act. Which makes this a poem about how to live in the world, one that argues gently and without force by showing us both sides of the equation.