Thursday, February 3, 2011

'Music Lesson' by Mary Oliver (1978)

                        Sometimes, in the middle of the lesson,
                        we exchanges places. She would gaze a moment at her hands
                        spread over the keys; then the small house with its knickknacks,
                        its shut windows,

                        its photographs of her sons and the serious husband,
                        vanished as new shapes formed. Sound
                        became music, and music a white
                        scarp for the listener to climb

                        alone. I leaped rock over rock to the top
                        and found myself waiting, transformed,
                        and still she played, her eyes luminous and willful,
                        her pinned hair falling down –

                        forgetting me, the house, the neat green yard,
                        she fled in that lick of flame all tedious bonds:
                        supper, the duties of flesh and home,
                        the knife at the throat, the death in the metronome.

When I read this poem for the first time one line – the moment it appears, its timing – became a kind of music lesson in itself:

                                    her pinned hair falling down

Again, like the ending of the Milosz poem, it is seamless way in which the poem moves between the actual and the metaphoric; the real and the reflective. 

The poem opens with the image of the music teacher sitting at the piano “her hands / spread out over the keys”. As the music teacher plays, the student (the speaker) drifts off into a dream-image of white scarp suggested by the music. Then as she reaches the summit in her reverie, the poem returns to the room: “and still she played, her eyes luminous and willful” (note the word 'willful'). And then the detail:

                                    her pinned hair falling down

This is more than just showing a particular. It is the particular detail that is most suggestive of the themes of the poem: how the music teacher – lost in her lonely, loveless and ordered life – finds expression in her music, an intimacy that exists nowhere else in “the small house with its knickknacks/ its shut windows”.

The last stanza simple develops what is already given in this image: that this fastidious woman, in the tidy world of the suburb, plays music to escape the entrapment of her life, to allow for a moment of passion to be present. (Oliver calls this “the death in the metronome” hinting perhaps at a displaced sexual, or at least, sensual aspect in the act of playing.)

Another interesting device (which she uses twice) is the transition from the image of the teacher and student sitting at the piano, to an awareness of the 'house', which in both cases has disappeared from the mind of the piano teacher. The small house with its knickknacks and photographs slips away from her for the few minutes in which she can lose herself in music. It acts like a slow pan-shot in cinema. Later, Oliver repeats, “forgetting me, the house, the neat yard…” Although these things are precisely what the teacher has become unaware of as she plays, their physical presence in the poem creates a counterpoint and tension upon which the central theme of frustrated passion is expressed, as "her pinned hair" falls down.


  1. I've only discovered Mary Oliver recently and hadn't seen this poem. I loved it straight away and your close reading adds to that enjoyment.

    I started reading Mary Oliver after hearing about her in a novel called The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. I think you'd enjoy it.

    The first person narrator in the novel has been asked to compile an anthology of poetry, but the more he tries the more reasons he finds to explain why this is an impossible task. Mary Oliver is one of his favourite poets. It may sound like a dry subject, but Baker is very readable and I've never come across a novel aimed at poetry fanatics before!

  2. Really enjoyed the analysis of Hughes' and Plath's poems. Of course their relationship is a whole other path of exploration but it is good you didn't go down that route as it has been done so many times....

  3. Thanks Adele. I've never come across the Baker book. Sounds fascinating. Interesting that Mary Oliver should be his favourite poet. I beleive much of her later work is nature poetry. I like this piece in particular. It feels like a small chamber piece, to borrow on the music theme...

  4. Hey Shauna. Thanks for your thoughts on Hughes and Plath. Yes, would've been tempting to try relate this back to their relationship, particularly given that the two poems appeared in the same year. But so much has been said about that... Felt it was more interesting for the reader to make those connections if they choose to. For me, it was more interesting to see how differently they handled a similar theme. One piece, clear and exacting; the other organic and primitive...

  5. I should say that Mary Oliver is the favourite poet of the first person narrator in The Anthologist, rather than Baker himself. It's an indescribable novel and definitely not to be missed.

    Baker's characters have various obsessions, and a first person narrator obsessed by the details of poetry is a real joy to any poet! Baker dissects the minutiae of our daily lives, and to have a poetry fanatic as a first person narrator dissecting the minutiae of poetry is really funny - if you're a poet.

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