Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet is a haunting piece of music that, once you’ve heard it, stays with you. The melodies are exquisite and they evoke a late romantic languor, a ghostly longing, a melancholy in the old sense of the word. It is music, obviously, that comes at the end of an era of expansive 19th-Century sentiment, a music soon to be supplanted by modernism’s endless ironies and aggressions—in Vienna the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Brahms’ music in particular was swept aside, to be preserved only in the museum of the symphony concert hall for the sentimental delectation of the upper middle classes.
There is no denying the audacity and intelligence of modernist music, and its even more intensely and self-consciously ironic counterpart in the postmodern, but Zwicky’s poem asks what appears to be a simple question: was anything of importance lost in the effacement of Brahms? The answer presented in the poem is astonishing: it suggests that we may have lost everything. It is a commonplace notion that the modernist ironic world view allowed western culture to adapt to the harsh rigours of a violent and mechanized century, but perhaps, Zwicky proposes, in abolishing a capacity for a certain kind of romantic feeling, we have given up the ability to register loss in the world as a whole.
The poem’s argument presents a simple proposition: “the earth is dying.” It seems like a simplistic declaration because it forecloses on a whole range of complex interdisciplinary debate on the earth’s precise ecological status. In Zwicky’s poetic language, however, the proposition assumes rhetorical force, because the debate is beside the point. Only the most recalcitrant will not accept that the growing list of extinguished species represents the etiology of an ecological disease. This poem is not interested in the finer points of ecological enumeration. It is interested in why we generally remain oblivious to this crisis, and its answer is that the survival strategy that relies on the relentlessly ironic inures us to our own diminishment.
The turn in the argument, then, reclaims nostalgia, regret, and the graceful. All of these emotions have in recent times been denigrated to the status of worse-than useless. Deconstruction and New Historicism viewed nostalgia as the mistaken desire for a metaphysical presence or a universal human nature that remains the ideological vestige of liberal humanism. Zwicky argues that nostalgia has a truth, that it has a crucial resource, which is to open emotional life to the experience of loss, in this case the loss of the natural world. I don’t believe that grace is a type of salvation in this poem; it is, rather, the word Zwicky employs for a form of commensurate living in the world, “living in the world as if it were home,” as Tim Lilburn puts it. And shouldn’t we feel regret over the destruction of natural habitat? “If we steel ourselves against regret / we will not grow more graceful, / but less.”
Zwicky is aware, of course, of the risks of nostalgia. It is closely related to the saccharin and sentimental, and an entire industry of greeting cards has been built on this mush. For Zwicky, however, the risk has become necessary, for it is in a poetic articulation of the elegiac that we can register a sense of loss, and in that discovery of loss is a realization that western culture and its economic tools of capitalism must be completely reevaluated. Zwicky’s poem is profoundly political, not because it proposes in verse a set political program, but because it explores the very ground by which political change may be possible. The poem is not condemning irony—indeed it is at all times a sly poem, even a teasing poem, as much as it is earnest. There is a marvelous irony in the way Zwicky develops her critique in an invocation of Brahms, of all people. At a time when postmodern experiments are conventional, or at the very least expected, when they have lost their shock value, perhaps there is nothing more audacious than invoking Brahms as the ground for a politics of the emotions.
Read the full review in Arc Annual 2010.