Poetry Classroom: Bach Learns to Love the Masses

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet and professor David Wright. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of David and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

Bach Learns to Love the Masses (in b-minor)

You’ve hitched a ride to the form, to the form
you know will take you, take you where you know
the next hard hitch in the dance, and the score,
evened and smoothed, turns out, not a rondeau
or gavotte, gavottes being another
slow way to move. No, this, love, is the fugue,
like high mass where the man in his miter
holds the body aloft, then again. Fugue
where all manner of noise comes to matter–
the low voices even get their measure
of love. We are falling here, a clatter
of loves–men into women—b-minor
tonic drawing us deep, bearing us down,
weary voices and full, home to the ground.

Photo by GollyGforce, via Flickr. Poem by David Wright, author of A Liturgy for Stones.


Discussion Questions:

1. Do you know anything about the fugue music form? Is it necessary to know this, to appreciate the poem?

2. We have general ways we think about love and its expressions. Is there love in this poem?

3. There are quite a few rhymes in this poem (and something called half rhymes or slant rhymes, where the words almost rhyme or sound like an echo of each other). Does this lend anything to your experience of the poem?

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  1. Tania Runyan says

    I love how the rhymes and sonnet form help to mirror the musical form of the fugue, which involves repetition, the interweaving of themes. And the repetition of living, as “weary” as it makes our voices, is also beautiful and irresistible–“all manner of noise comes to matter.” I see this as a love poem of sorts to the human condition.

    • says

      Thanks, Tania, for noticing the sonnet and the attempt to play with form in the way music does. I had never really thought of this as a love poem, but I’m pleased you see it as trying to love humanity in a larger way.

  2. says

    The title makes me smile, Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” being one of the most glorious of his works. I also enjoy the double meanings achieved with the religious allusions (“high mass”) and musical references and terms, such as “the tonic”, “the low voices even”.

    • says

      Good to find another lover of double meanings, Maureen. I find it almost unavoidable. Is that something you work with in a more conscious or less conscious way in your poems?

  3. says

    I think forms for poems and music and masses are like playgrounds with fences. The children go all the way to the edge to enjoy themselves. Leave off the fences, and the children are afraid to go anywhere near the boundaries. (http://www.examiner.com/article/why-children-need-boundaries)

    I have heard of a fugues, masses, and Bach, and that is really all I needed to know to get the rhythm and richness of this poem. I felt myself lifting and falling with the rhyme, and felt the pulse of unrelenting movement that Bach always instills in me.

    I, too, loved the play on words with “the masses,” and hitch, and the rhyme of miter and matter and clatter.

    This makes me want to look around at all the other forms in my life, the artificial boundaries that give me courage to really live.

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