Title: ars longa vita brevis
Post by Pete Atkin on Today at 12:03
Well, here's something a bit different. It's a poem wot I wrote. I wrote it pretty much on the spur of the moment, up against a deadline for a small poetry competition being organised by a friend. The theme was the Augustan poet Horace's famous phrase 'ars longa vita brevis' (art is long, life is short). I make no great claims for it, not least because it's the first poem I've written since about 1968. If I'd given myself a bit more time, I may have used a bit of rhyming, but then again that may have been too much trouble. It's definitely not a song, although I suppose it has some things in common with songs (perhaps not surprisingly): it's about an unspecified tune, for a start; it's not written in a 'poetical' style; it sort of tells a story; each verse stands on its own; and each line more or less has four beats, a bit like beats in a bar. Apart from that it also contains a gratuitous misquote from John Milton. What more could anyone want?
Yes, everyone knows that tune.
It insists its way into your brain
And you don’t know how to stop singing it.
It’s there all the time, on records, on the radio;
You hear it quoted in tenor sax solos;
And when someone sings it we all join in,
Because every one of us is caught by this tune.
But look in the credits to see who wrote it
And it will flatly say ‘traditional.’
Traditional? Please, do me a favour.
Tradition could never have had that idea,
Or the skill to make that musical flick
Of the wrist that makes you gasp as the yearning
Melody catches you every time.
No, it was a human being who thought of it,
Perhaps came up with it noodling on a pipe,
Or a fiddle, or a lyre, or maybe just sang it,
Stopped short and then sang it again,
Called to someone, said “Listen to this!
What do you think?” and then went back
To what they were doing, but still singing it.
But just because it’s a heart-stopping tune
Doesn’t mean he was a likeable bloke,
A generous spirit, everyone’s friend,
The cynosure of all neighbouring eyes;
He may have been cruel, selfish, a show-off.
There’s not much point even in guessing,
But his tune did turn out to have a life of its own.
Sometimes when I sing it I try to imagine
Meeting his eyes across those centuries,
To let him know after all this time,
That even though we know nothing about him,
We sing it still. No smile, but I know
It’s him; his look says “Yes, that was me.”
But then again, perhaps he was a she...
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