Poet's Pick April 13
Anonymous: "I heard a noise ... "
Selected by Mary Szybist
National Poetry Month 2012

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Mary Szybist's Poetry Month Pick, April 13, 2012

"I heard a noise ..."
by Anonymous

I heard a noise and wishéd for a sight,
I looked for life and did a shadow see
Whose substance was the sum of my delight,
Which came unseen, and so did go from me.
  Yet hath conceit persuaded my content
  There was a substance where the shadow went.

I did not play Narcissus in conceit,
I did not see my shadow in a spring:
I know mine eyes were dimmed with no deceit,
I saw the shadow of some worthy thing:
    For, as I saw the shadow glancing by,
    I had a glimpse of something in mine eye.

But what it was, alas, I cannot tell,
Because of it I had no perfect view:
But as it was, by guess, I wish it well
And will until I see the same anew.
    Shadow, or she, or both, or choose you whither:
    Blest be the thing that brought the shadow hither!

* Mary Szybist Comments:
This anonymous lyric from the early seventeenth century is one that I have learned to keep close after finding myself, for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, reaching back for it so often.  Originally a madrigal, it embodies many of the qualities of what Keats called “negative capability”: uncertainty, mystery.  Significantly, what it does not seem to inhabit is doubt.

I am drawn to the way this poem models receptivity.  Granted, the speaker actually receives little in the poem: the wished-for sight never appears.  In re-living the experience with the speaker, we see no vision, hear no message.  Yet, we are participating in a consciousness that could receive such things.  The posture is one of openness.  In this state of unknowing, this empty-handedness, this partiality, we are ready to encounter another who cannot be measured, surveyed, or grasped.

Who or what passes through this speaker’s world is never determined.  It does not present itself, and the speaker does not presume to guess or speculate about its identity.  What it is cannot be known—only that it is.  Something beyond the self was present.  Something has been heard and its shadow seen.  It is not a delusion or a reflection or a projection; it is “a substance,” and a “worthy” one.  The speaker insists upon the reality and the worthiness of that other presence.

Originating in Italy in thirteenth century with a final flourishing in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, madrigals were, most typically, unaccompanied songs for three to six voice parts, though they began to include instruments in the early 17th century.  This lyric appears in The Second Set of English Madrigals published by Thomas Bateson in London in 1618; Bateson probably did not write the words, but he composed music for them, conceiving of this as a madrigal in five voices.

Madrigals are relational.  They did not feature a primary soloist for whom back-up singers provided harmonies; rather, in a madrigal, each singer had an equal share of the melody.  The musical phrases tended to be consecutive with many reiterations; only occasionally did the voices harmonize simultaneously.  Voices might overlap, echo, collapse, convolute. Performed this way, with staggered starts and stops, such simultaneous multiplicity would be impossible to fully follow or track or exactly reproduce.  It could create an aural space that never quite comes into focus—much like the elusive substance that escapes the speaker’s gaze.  Neither can be pinned down.  The poem’s repetitions emphasize this quality in language itself: “conceit” means something different each time it appears.  It seems to me no accident that “view” is rhymed with “anew.”  To see something is to see it relationally in the present, not as a fixed conception in the mind.

I think, finally, what I love most about this poem is how at ease it is with an unknown that may never be seen or understood but only glimpsed at.  The speaker is willing to look even if that means being pushed further into unknowing.  “But what it was, alas, I cannot tell,/Because of it I had no perfect view.”  The substance is not a blankness waiting to be infused with meaning but a presence pushing back, obscuring the “perfect view.”  I suspect that this willingness to give up clarity and categories may be the only way to apprehend realities that do not fit within them.  This poem intimates at the joys of apprehending something new and unknown, some other “worthy thing”—or even of just seeing its shadow.

To see the music Thomas Bateson composed for this lyric, please follow this link.

About Mary Szybist:
Mary Szybist's first collection of poems, Granted, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her second collection, Incarnadine, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2013. This fall, she is a resident at Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center. She teaches at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

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