Thursday 28 October 2021

'All things which sustain'

 In times like these, when it is fashionable in some quarters to describe yourself as an 'activist' (and, like as not, a 'stand-up comedian'), it's good to hear a quiet voice celebrating the importance of doing nothing. In this elegant, musical poem on a musical subject – the 'fermata' is what we Brits usually call a 'pause', the undefined rest denoted by a Mr Chad* eye (arch over dot) – the American poet Turner Cassity gives form to... well, to nothing, to that charged pause. He's a poet who is light on his feet, fluent, agile, and often – that rare thing among modern poets – funny. His work is hard to find over here, but worth seeking out. The collection from which this poem is taken, Between the Chains, has an epigraph from Ivy Compton-Burnett – a sure sign of something interesting in store...

Against Activism

The arch of the fermata holds the note,
If only on the paper. Wrist or breath
Or the depressed piano keys draw out
The sound itself. Inertia audible,
Vibrating string, vibrating air postpone.
That which they so delay, the beat held back,
Is abstract also; yet the mind conditioned
Waits for the certain thunderclap
Hard on the flash. The lightning, nothing if
Not active principle, creates the wave
Which it anticipates. The lifted felts
In the piano, up-bow, down-bow, tongue
Not touching on the reed, prolong the bars
Each passively, by what they do not do.
Horsehair on catgut take the active voice?
Of course. The thing the players do not do
Is let the change from down to up-bow sound. 
'Free bowing' is the operative phrase.
Assuring linkages by letting be,
Most concertmasters write it in the parts.
Among the brasses faces turn to red;
Arms independent bow one seamless note.
Soon, on the sostenuto, cramp sets in.
The right-hand pedal, all things which sustain,
Do so at least in part by doing nothing.

* Mr Chad was a popular graffito character, usually portrayed poking his nose over a wall and complaining about the absence of something: 'Wot! No.....?' He was born, it seems, in 1941, at a secret training centre in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, where 'radio location' (Radar) was being taught. A wag adapted a circuit diagram into the features of Mr Chad and added the words 'WOT! No electrons?' The rest is history: Mr Chad lasted well into the Sixties, maybe longer.  


  1. It appears from Wikipedia that Mr.Chad may have inspired the "Kilroy Was Here" graffito that GIs scribbled all over Europe. I looked this up after reading your post, since in Gravity's Rainbow Thomas Pynchon suggested that the doodle derived from a band-pass filter diagram:

  2. Thanks George – yes, the two are clearly related, and the origins of both are not entirely clear. I like the idea of Mr Chad originating in Gainsborough because this was my mother's home town and I knew it well in my boyhood.