Poet's Choice

Sunday, April 22, 2007

In a recent, much-discussed article, The Washington Post Magazine invited eminent violinist Joshua Bell to participate in an experiment. The brilliant and charismatic musician, wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap, took his Stradivarius to the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station one weekday morning. He removed the priceless instrument from its case, seeded the open case with some coins and bills, and, standing near a trash barrel, he began playing the "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

Bell's incognito performance of six pieces drew little attention. People hurried by, with a few significant exceptions. The virtuoso, described as sometimes earning "a thousand dollars a minute," garnered $32.17, not counting a 20-dollar bill put into the case by a woman who recognized him.

Plausible explanations for the general -- though not absolute -- indifference include an insensitive population, a culture out of balance, the overwhelming power of context, and the elusive nature of beauty. A more optimistic possibility would be that people on their way to work automatically resist, and perhaps unconsciously recognize, the anarchic and disruptive power of beauty.

William Butler Yeats's "The Fiddler of Dooney" suggests that idea:


When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,

Folk dance like a wave of the sea;

My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,

My brother in Mocharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:

They read in their books of prayer;

I read in my book of songs

I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time

To Peter sitting in state,

He will smile on the three old spirits,

But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,

Save by an evil chance,

And the merry love the fiddle,

And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,

They will all come up to me,

With "Here is the fiddler of Dooney!"

And dance like a wave of the sea.

In heaven, Yeats proposes, joy trumps everything. Did at least some of the commuters in that L'Enfant Plaza station sense and reject the seductive, amoral appeal of art? Would stopping to listen be too naughty, too irreverent a possibility to consider at all? Too defiant and dangerous, a siren song violating the temple of getting to work? It's a comfort to think so.

(W.B. Yeats's poem "The Fiddler of Dooney" is from "The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats." Macmillan. Copyright 1956 by Macmillan.)

Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Jersey Rain."

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