Friday, June 8, 2012

Poetry Friday: Afternoon of a Faun

Afternoon of a Faun by  Édouard Manet, Princeton University Library, Graphic Arts Collection
First let me just say that I love dance. Ballet lessons were much more expensive than the $1 my parents paid for the 30-minute piano lesson from Miss Annie Barton. I loved Miss Annie and the jellybeans she gave for accomplishing all her weekly assigned tasks, but I didn't really learn to play well. So, I became a mediocre  musician, as well as a frustrated dancer. Loving both, but unable to do either very well. 

This week a YouTube video of Jacques d'Amboise & Tanaquil LeClercq dancing "Afternoon of a Faun" by Debussey crossed my Facebook page. The tools for embedding the piece are not available, but the excerpt, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is here. I've always loved this piece of music, but never had seen it danced. I hope you have time to take a minute and go watch it. It is absolutely stunning in its simplicity. 

The piece stayed in my head for days. The music so haunting. The movement so deliberate. I wondered if there was a poem behind it. And of course, there was. French symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, published it in 1886 with accompanying sketches from his good friend Édouard Manet. 

Apparently Mallarmé was famous for being obscure as a poet. Proust wrote: “How unfortunate that so gifted a man should become insane every time he takes up the pen.” Hmm. I'm not sure I'd want my poetic friends thinking such things, but obviously the man was committed to his perception of the poetic process. Here's a bit of the poem.


From "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune"

These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.

                                                    So bright
Their crimson flesh that hovers there, light
In the air drowsy with dense slumbers.
                                           Did I love a dream?
My doubt, mass of ancient night, ends extreme
In many a subtle branch, that remaining the true
Woods themselves, proves, alas, that I too
Offered myself, alone, as triumph, the false ideal of roses.

You can read more about him his poems here. The Kennedy Center site talks about the connections to the Debussey piece here. I really liked this short excerpt about Mallarmé's writing style.
His works, which abound in complex symbols and images, seek to represent states of mind rather than ideas, express moods rather than tell stories. Mallarmé tried to capture that elusive line between dream and awakening that most of us who are not poets are well aware of but are unable to put into words.
Now back to the YouTube clip. If you didn't go watch it, you really should. It was the simplicity that totally sucked me in. I know enough of art to realize that when something looks effortless, it actually demands tremendous skill. There is so much skill involved in this performance. The composer, the conductor, the musicians, the choreographer, and the dancers.

I've been reading and re-reading some of Patricia MacLachlan's books in the last few weeks. I know that may seem like a sudden shift in thought, but it's really not, because the thing that draws me to her work is that same sense of simplicity. Her prose is lyrical, graceful as a dance. Yet it conveys such deep, honest emotion. Everyone knows Sarah, Plain and Tall, along with its sequels. But there are so many more. I cried at the end of Kindred Souls. I read the last chapters of Edward's Eyes through tears, too. 

In Word after Word after Word, MacLachlan deals with a theme similar to the one Mallarmé explored--the line between truth and reality, between what is real and what is unreal. "They're just about the same," MacLachlan has Ms. Mirabel say. "They are both all about magical words!"

In chapter one, visiting author Ms. Mirabel tells the fourth grade class why she writes. "I, myself, write to change my life, to make it come out the way I want it to," she said. "But other people write for other reasons: to see more closely what it is they are thinking about, what they may be afraid of. Sometimes writers write to solve a problem, to answer their own question. All these reasons are good reasons. And that is the most important thin I'll ever tell you. Maybe it is the most important thing you'll ever hear. Ever." When the students left school that day, they "picked up our notebooks and went off to try and change our lives. Word after word after word."

Don't you love that image? 

I'm reading another book called To BeTold by Dan Allender. These few lines bounced back at me, echoing the thoughts already stirring in my head this week.
But if we honestly name the passionate desires of our heart, and if we risk seeing those desires come to be, the plot of our life story will begin to move with greater intentionality.
And for each of us there is a script written that is contoured to our deepest passions, that reflects our core character and our truest calling. We are written to be real, and there is something in every heart that knows when we are and when we are not. 
We must nourish the truest desires of our heart and then risk the bold act required to give our dreams the ground to grow.
I'm rambling. I know. But for those of us who love the written word, acknowledging that burning desire to write something beautiful, something simple yet startling, something real whether it's true or not, is a place we come back to again and again. We risk again. We write again, always hoping to change our lives and the lives of others around us with something as simple as words.

Word after Word after Word ends with this poem.
Out of our writer mouths
Will come clouds
Rising to the sky
Dropping rain words below.
And when the clouds leave
The sun will shine down word
After word
After word
Planting our stories in the earth. 

Today, I'm wishing your words that will grow, simply, beautifully.

For more Poetry Friday, stop over at Jama's Alphabet Soup.


  1. Well, Dori, I'm on my way to work & thought I'd watch just a little of the video, & it hooked me immediately, as you said. The simplicity and strength is mesmerizing. And, I loved your further research that connected all the way through from Mallarmé (whom I don't know) to MacLachlan, whom I do. I did love Kindred Souls too, & have Word After Word After Word. Thank you for your rambling-did my heart good & started this last day of school so beautifully.

  2. Linda, I'm so glad my rambling thoughts started your last day of school well. I hope the rest is joyful, too.

  3. That video was just beautiful. Do you know when that was filmed? And what a fun journey through the rest of your post, to see the connections made. That last poem is so lovely!

    1. Rene, I'm glad you enjoyed it. YouTube says it was a "compilation of previously unissued television appearances taken from Canadian television and the American series The Bell Telephone Hour (1954-1965)."

  4. So much to love about this rich, insightful post. I enjoyed the video very much -- this piece was new to me, and it's amazing that there was also a poem written about it! I've always admired the beautiful control and fluidity of skilled dancers, envious of their talent and passion.

    I'm also a big MacLachlan fan. Her spare prose is luminous -- and like you, I fully appreciate the immense skill required to write "simply." Effortless prose (to the reader) is always the most difficult to write.

    I love your Allender quotes. Will have to read that book.

    Thanks for all this!

    1. Thanks, Jama. I have enjoyed the Allender book, although sometimes I think he writes in circles. There are some gems in it.

  5. What a thoughtful post, Dori! Much to savor.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tabatha. Poetry Friday is always full of lovely thoughts to rumble around in the savoring senses, especially when Jama is the host.

  6. Hi, Dori. Thanks for the clip. I agree with you about the simplicity. I can't help but notice how healthy/normal the dancers look compared to today's ultra-ultra lean ballerinas. "These nymphs, I would perpetuate them" -- true of much ekphrastic poetry, right?

    1. I agree with your evaluation of the healthy/normal dancers. And very true, "I would perpetuate them."

  7. I'm headed off to a writer's retreat, so enjoy the rest of Poetry Friday.

  8. I'm having a flashback to a grad school class on Mallarme and two other poets. Whew. But this is a lovely post anyway. :-)

  9. Wow! That's an amazing ballet! Poetry in motion!!