Unlikely music critic of the day

We are right off the park, and I get a lot of nature taking Harriet to the amusements. The other day, Anton Webern’s music was on the radio. She heard it and said, “It’s like wild animals thru the woods walking,” and then, “It’s like spiders crying together, but without tears.”

—Robert Lowell to Randall Jarrell, November 7, 1961

At the time, Harriet Lowell was four years old. Her Webernian impressions would turn up in her father’s poem “Fall 1961,” an anxious meditation juxtaposing “the tock, tock, tock / of the orange, bland, ambassadorial / face of the moon / on the grandfather clock” with “the chafe and jar / of nuclear war; / we have talked our extinction to death”:

A father’s no shield
for his child,
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.

Nature holds up a mirror.
One swallow makes a summer.
It’s easy to tick
off the minutes,
but the clockhands stick.

In his biography of Robert Lowell, Lost Puritan, Paul Mariani points out that “Fall 1961” was Lowell’s first poem after a difficult, fallow year following his wildly successful “For the Union Dead.”

3 comments

  1. Something that strikes me odd here is the fact that a piece by Webern would have been on the radio! It could even have been on WCRB. How often would you happen to hear Webern on the radio these days?

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  2. Elaine: my guess was actually WHRB (an FM signal since 1957), which still offers a decent amount of my favored crazy modern music. College stations are the best. One time, my old college roommate and I were driving nonstop to Florida and caught Carter's Piano Concerto at 6 in the morning on some random college station. I practically stripped the gears in glee.

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