Musician by Gillian Clarke is a poem about her son learning to play “the piano.” The imagery within the home and outside of the home are utilized to describe the creativity of music, as well as the comfort that it can bring. Perhaps more than those qualities, however, the most pronounced factor of music that is being expressed within the stanzas is its consuming quality. Both mother and son experienced the beauty of the music, but only the musician himself fully embraced that consuming quality to reflect a deep understanding of the art. Despite the noted connection between the mother and son, and perhaps the pride she felt about his abilities, the music was better understood by the musician himself.
Regardless, the comfort and beauty were seen by both mother and son, and when paired against the clutter of a room and the press of a “snow” storm, music’s grand qualities are shown to run deeply and uniquely. You can listen to the poem here.
Though the actual stanza does not mention the son by name, Clarke’s own admission of him as the topic (as well as the brief dedication to him after the work’s title in her poetry collection) lets that idea be known outside of the framework of the poem. The reader, with that knowledge, can grasp that Clarke is referring to her own child, which creates a sense of personal connection in the story. Because of this connection, her declaration that “[h]is carpet [was] splattered” does not feel like unattached criticism. Rather, the saying becomes a typical motherly complaint about a child who would not clean his room—something that seems akin to amused and affectionate honesty.
This adds a level of credibility for every statement that follows because the mother is not claiming the child’s room was orderly, but is being genuine about the state of disarray. If the mother were going to paint an idealized picture of this child, logic would indicate the embellishments of the truth would have started with the room’s description, and since they have not, the rest of the poem can feel like an honest report.
This description of the room is also a representation of the chaos of creativity. The reader learns through the poem that the son was interested in music and decided to learn an instrument, and often creativity can be linked to disorganization. The son, perhaps, would have been too busy learning his craft to tend to his room’s tidiness, which shows a focused commitment to his passion over appearance.
Specifically, his room looked “like a Jackson Pollock,” and that statement is quite meaningful since Pollock was an abstract artist. Just as his paintings involve clashes of color and lines without clear structure, the son’s floor was in a state of visual disarray. Worth noting, however, is that Pollock could have planned out his paintings and had a purpose in mind while creating them, meaning his art may have been purposeful in its visual appearance of disorder. Applied to this son’s room, this could mean that although the floor was disorganized to the eye, it was structured to meet his own purposes of learning his craft. This idea is strengthened since that clutter involved “instruments” and “the NME,” which is a music magazine.
Another detail that shows the mess was a product of his musical passion is that “he strummed all day,” revealing the lack of time he spent in cleaning his room. Additionally, he “read Beethoven sonatas” to dedicate his time to his passion, and his overall connection to that passion is addressed in the final line of this stanza: “He could hear it, he said, ‘like words.’” This shows a personal, deep relationship that the son felt toward music, as if it were verbally communicating with him in a way out of the ordinary.
A final element of this stanza that shows the disarray of his environment linked to the rush of his creativity is that there is no “and” used between the final two items on the list of things that were “splattered” on his floor. It is as if there was no time to waste on a trivial word like “and” because the musical details were far too pressing to delay.
The idea of music within chaos extends beyond the confines of the son’s room in this second stanza since Clarke is referring to the “bitterest winter” when so much “snow” accumulated that they “lost the car in the drive” in the “wafery whiteness” that “hushed” the “suburbs.” During this “glacial” time of disarray, the son embraced the beauty of “the piano” as he became “obsessed” with it. It could be that the son had little else to do during this “snow,” which would mirror the notion that forsaking other duties can assist in building a passion. Like the son did not clean the “carpet” in his room, he could not leave the home during this “snow” to dedicate his time elsewhere. That chaos then created the perfect environment to stoke his passion in order to grow.
It can also be noted that music, in this stanza, granted a beautiful hub in the center of this “snow” storm to the point that it made the scene almost romantic. There were “Hungarian Dances across moonlight snow,” which parodies the concept of a couple sharing a “[d]ance.” This intimacy is reflected as well in the notion that, even though the home was cold enough to cause Clarke to “sle[ep] under two duvets and [her] grandmother’s fur,” the son wore “fingerless gloves against the cold” as he played “the piano” “[a]t dawn.” The timing shows he could hardly wait to play, and the decision to allow his fingers to be free of the “gloves” indicates that the music was so personal to him that he needed to come in physical contact with it. “[G]loves” that covered the fingers would have prevented that closeness.
The idea that Clarke used the verb, “find,” to explain how she came upon him during those “dawn” moments is telling as well since the opposite of his being found would be that he was lost. Indicated then is that the son was lost in his music as fully as the home had been lost within the storm. Just as the home was “cut off” from the rest of the world in an “immaculate” way, the son was so consumed by his music that he had a perfect dome of comfort and beauty. This dome is represented in the home being so sheltered from the storm, but the music that created the dome also afforded a layer of beauty to the home’s situation during the storm. This double connection makes the joining of the ideas itself nearly “immaculate.” The music was the dome for his passion, but it was also what made the dome from the storm a pleasant place.
The earlier notion of not using “and” to end lists is revived within this final stanza for two moments. There is no “and” before the final description of the “[s]now[’s]” height and impact, and likewise, the “detritus” does not have an “and” leading into it. Once more, this indicates the passion for music was so pressing and consuming that no time was be wasted for trivial details like “and.” What furthers this concept is that “detritus,” the noun that grammatically should have the “and” before it, means “waste,” which is almost a juxtaposition. Clarke does not waste the time to say “and,” but she immediately provides a word that means “waste.” This odd pairing strengthens the notion that not wasting time was a key idea for this young pianist since all waste “lay buried” around him—including the necessary “and.”
In similar fashion, the concept of music’s consuming quality is also revisited by so many key elements of the world around Clarke’s son having become so insignificant that they “lay buried.” No “[s]cent, sound, colour, [or] detritus” mattered—only the music.
Clarke once again takes the focus off of the son in the latter half of this final stanza to give a first-person narration, and this decision forces the reader to expand beyond what the son would have felt while playing music. In these first-person moments, the poet herself becomes the focal point, and her perspective shows the earlier sentiment of connection to be valid since she depicts a dream that gives shelter and beauty to the concept of her son’s music. In her dream, “the house” was covered in “snow,” like “a drowned cathedral” while they were “waiting for the thaw.” What she discovered when she “woke” were “the piano’s muffled bells” and “the first pianissimo slip of snow from the roof.”
What this overall scenario showcases is that, whether “dream[ing]” or conscious, this music provided comfort and stability. In the “dream,” it is treated as almost sacred by being compared to a “cathedral,” and during her conscious state of mind, she linked the beginning of the “snow[’s]” melting to the music being played. Either way, it was beautiful and purposeful—whether that purpose was melting “snow” or providing comfort—though in both scenarios, the music was hindered in some way. Remember those “bells” were “muffled,” and the “cathedral” was “drowned.” Even the word, “pianissimo,” has a connotation of a soft sound that might be harder to discern. This could indicate that while she, too, enjoyed and embraced the music, she did not understand it to the level her son did.
Through either person’s perspective—the son’s or the mother’s—the theme of music’s consuming nature is evident as it pervades her “dream[s]” and monopolizes his time, all while providing comfort and beauty to their world.
About Gillian Clarke
Born in 1937, Gillian Clarke has written both verse and prose works that have gained attention, and the honors that she has earned due to her writing have been impressive. For instance, she was the National Poet of Wales. Her works can be grounded in a no-nonsense approach, such as “Miracle on St. David’s Day,” but they are often coated with enough meaning and possibility to garner attention.