Posted by: John Looker | 23 May, 2013

VIOLIN (1778)

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Violin (1778)

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At the height of the rebellion of His Majesty’s thirteen colonies,
while the Resolution was charting the unknown Pacific,
Jacob Ford master craftsman, St Paul’s Churchyard London,
made this violin
and when it was complete
there he sat among the wood shavings, tools and pots of varnish
carefully tightening the strings
to set free its sweet young voice for time and the world to hear.

We look at it now and admire as he did then
its curves and glossy skin
and we lean into its song. Not long ago the bridge had broken 
but that was easily fixed. Now there’s a hint of a crack,
merely a hint, in the wooden panel behind. 
That too could be repaired; it isn’t the end.
Meanwhile the voice still sings
and Jacob Ford’s gift to the world beguiles for another year.

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© John Stevens 2013

In memory of my father to whom this violin belonged for many years.

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Responses

  1. Lovely John. What people have made such a long time ago, and is still here while they are long gone, that is fascinating. And even if there are cracks, it still is a fine memory for all of us to witness. 🙂

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  2. Coincidentally, my sister just had our grandfather’s violin repaired for her son, so your poem doubly affirms that music & family transcend revolution. A lovely piece, John!

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    • I like the coincidence! Thank you for mentioning it Elaine.

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  3. You are such a cunning writer, John. So understated, so unobtrusive, we hardly resist the trope: we look at it now as he did then. By that time in the text we DO. And we thought we were just reading a rather felicitous historical account. And sentimentality is kept in check: for another year, with the cracks and all.
    One thing: it may just be me (I’m always suspicious of infinitive constructions), but the “to lean” is not prepared for; what is prepared for is a second finite verb in parallel with “look and admire.” Look and admire and lean . . . as a climax of that triplet, “lean” allows the growing energy of the piece to find a new level of equilibrium in the imagination. And as we “lean” into the song (we imagine we hear) we SEE the cracks, the frailty, the singularity of the object. And THIS is the payoff: the “realization” through your craft of the “real distinguished thing” (to echo James but mindfully so), which includes the things temporality, and with that the imagination’s transcendence.
    Very very fine poem.

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    • Tom, thank you for your very kind remarks – and also for alerting me to that misplaced infinitive. It got left over in successive editing, but I’ve taken the opportunity, thanks to you, to make a correction. It helps to have critical friends & readers.

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  4. lovely piece, John – the idea of the voice carrying on through the years, and along with that voice the violin maker himself 🙂

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  5. Love this! Been thinking about this violin recently! You have too obviously.
    Lovely poem xx

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    • Hello Alice, what a surprise! Thank you! I took Grandad’s violin to a specialist a month ago for repairs to the bridge and the job should be done in a day or two now.

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  6. beautiful John. Did your Father
    play professionally?

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    • No, but he played for many, many years in an amateur orchestra here in London.

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      • that’s pretty cool. I played bass in a few local bands for a bunch of years. I have “retired” from the rock ‘n roll life. For now, anyway. 🙂

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        • Don’t give it up so long as it gives you pleasure! My father persevered until deafness became an insuperable obstacle.

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  7. Music and craftsmenship…almost interchangeable notions…

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    • Yes, making music, making precious things in wood …

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  8. What a beautiful tribute.
    The entwining of the violin with memories of your father is quite special.
    It left me thinking of my own father.
    Thank you for that John

    David

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    • Thank you David; it’s very nice to hear that from you.

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  9. There is a rawness to this violin. In the first stanza, it’s the wood shavings and the violin’s birth. In the second, it’s the crack and the repair, its age, and the voice that still sings and beguiles. It is interesting how attached I became to the violin. In the progression from its sweet youth to its repair is the violin’s ageless voice. Timeless voice and yet changed. Violins…gorgeous.

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  10. One of my favorite quotes is from Philip Larkin:
    Truly, though our element is time,
    We are not suited to the long perspectives
    Open at each instant of our lives.
    They link us to our losses…

    John, you quite convincingly refute Mr. Larkin. The pull of the Violin (1778) shows how suited we are to time’s long perspectives. It starts out almost like an entry in a catalog for an auction. A little history to surround the item for sale. Except, not quite. First we’re in the 13 colonies during the ‘rebellion’, we’re in the Pacific on board the Resolution during the age of exploration—what has this to do with a violin?—and then we sit down with Jacob Ford to admire (and listen to?) a violin he has made. O, that sweet young voice.
    Stanza two throws us right into the present—where we’ve always been. The violin still plays. Been some damage, but it was fixable. I wonder, how many violins in that 200 year plus time period we’re crushed, bent, burnt, and succumbed to floods, neglect, children playing, the cold and callous care of the indifferent? Most of them, right? Violins enter the world of art from two directions: they are made by master craftsmen and they make music when played by master musicians. Meanwhile the voice still sings…
    The poem is over. Except it isn’t. In memory of my father to whom this violin belonged for many years. All poems should be read at least 2 times. But this one doesn’t make that an option. How much more we read into the lines. The care of this instrument was provided by the same person who provided care to Mr. John Stevens. For all these years. Several of your commentators mention the ‘restraint’ in this poem. Yes, as a synecdoche, as a symbol of the whole father/ son story, it is truly powerful, an excellent poem. I think your father—of course we will never know each other—would have admired it in a way that not all fathers could; that is, with genuine understanding. A John Stevens poem is almost always characterized by the way it leaves out the important stuff—and thereby brings it to our attention.
    I think I’m going to listen to George Harrison’s, ‘While my guitar gently Weeps’. Peace to you and your father. What did I ask in that poem I just wrote: ‘How can it be still and still be me?’

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  11. That’s an interesting comparison, Jim, the reference to your own most recent poem – over at: http://extrasimile.wordpress.com
    There’s something going on underneath your lines about permanence, about things we can half-sense, or “glancing at what we cannot see” as you put it. I had hoped that my poem above would convey some such impression, and I’m immensely pleased that you think it does. Thank you.

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  12. Hello Dad, I wondered if this was inspired by Grandad. It’s really beautiful! Was his violin really made by Jacob Ford at St Paul’s? I love the image of him sitting and playing it for the first time amongst the wood shavings.

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    • Hello love! Yes, it was. The documentation certifies that it was made in 1778 by Jacob Ford for the firm of Charles & Samuel Thompson of St Paul’s Churchyard, and there’s an inscription inside the violin also.

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  13. What is special about this poem, John, is its examination of time inside the life of a violin that is new, grows older, becomes loved for hundreds of years, begins to show the cracks in life, is repaired, but goes on making music. The last part of the poem, as Jim notes, is about your father. He owns the violin and made music with it, apparently, for most of his life. Your relation to him reverberates through the time of the violin in the poem, giving the vibration of the strings the sense of centuries passing since a master craftsman gave the gift of music to the world. Music, and our lives, the poem says, are transitory. The music vibrates out to people’s ears, they hear the music, maybe remember it, it passes into memory–the way the vibration of our lives pass into memory. But in the end there is permanence too, even as the cracks that need to be repaired begin to appear. One draw of the bow and the ancient violin sings as our lives sings from father to son to daughter, as the comment above this one proves. Quite a poem, John.

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    • Thank you for reading the poem so carefully Thomas, for taking time over it and for sharing your own musings on the subject.

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  14. Dear John…Academic criticism is not what I do. Though I am well schooled in the ways people talk about poetry and prosody,I choose not to paraphrase, or assume the intent of the author. Too much of that in my misspent youth turned me away from poetry for a long time. There ‘s a lot of bilge in the great ship “Internet “, but saving that concern for later, may I say that I enjoy this poem, I see it, I hear it, I recognize it, and I thank you for it.

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    • Thank you very much indeed, Cynthia. That’s a kind (and incisive) comment.
      Other readers might like to know that I’ve been enjoying poems on your own blog at: http://littleoldladywho.net

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