Stephanie Pope essay, Seven Guitars,
myth and poetry

Day Log


Seven Guitars stephanie pope

posted 11:06 am 8-25-06

I read in the New York Times Theatre section the review of the newest play by August Wilson (1945-2005), “Seven Guitars”. The original play first appeared in 1996.

A number of images jumped on me at once as I read the two-page column by Ben Brantley but nothing more profoundly made the leap like the following quote on page two, ' “One day you be walking along, and the music jump on you,” Floyd says.'

It has long been thought the language of music is semiotic and universal, that it has its own “soul”; that it seeps and leaks and yet is more fluidly held together in breaking apart what upholds and what belongs together. (even in brokenness) Music is often beheld as if commonplace. It is everywhere already known instantly to the human heart ―an instant hit―jumping on you. Music activates something deeply complex, ambiguous and without name, something belonging to the silent self beyond the self walking along.

The deep story walking with us wherever we roam is mythic. Although all plots are not myths, James Hillman considers all myths are plots. Furthermore, notes David L Miller in A Myth Is As Good As A Smile this emplotting is archetypal, an anima mundi that compels activism. Music jumps on us like that.

We may live in mythless times but the fluid language makes good use of us beyond what we think we live. As Miller notes, “Mythology can be an antidote for literalism, humourlessness, overseriousness, fundamentalism, dogmatism, and hate.” When you go to see the play keep these six out of those seven guitars in mind.

Now at this point in writing, I often get stung by the twang of things bluer and something more invisible starts jumping in with another kind of conversation… something strung like a bolt of lightening across an otherwise cloudless night. I try to imagine what the seventh guitar may be. Not finding it, I find instead a story…

(ll. 1-29) Muse, sing of Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia…she bare a son, of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods. Born with the dawning, at mid-day he played on the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollo on the fourth day of the month; for on that day queenly Maia bare him. So soon as he had leaped from his mother's heavenly womb, he lay not long waiting in his holy cradle, but he sprang up and sought the oxen of Apollo. But as he stepped over the threshold of the high-roofed cave, he found a tortoise there and gained endless delight. For it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer. The creature fell in his way at the courtyard gate, where it was feeding on the rich grass before the dwelling, waddling along. When he saw it, the luck-bringing son of Zeus laughed and said:

(ll. 30-38) `An omen of great luck for me so soon! I do not slight it. Hail, comrade of the feast, lovely in shape, sounding at the dance! With joy I meet you! Where got you that rich gaud for covering, that spangled shell -- a tortoise living in the mountains? But I will take and carry you within: you shall help me and I will do you no disgrace, though first of all you must profit me. It is better to be at home: harm may come out of doors. Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft (13); but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song.

(ll. 39-61) Thus speaking, he took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvellously; and, as he tried it, the god sang sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals. He sang of Zeus the son of Cronos and neat-shod Maia, the converse which they had before in the comradeship of love, telling all the glorious tale of his own begetting. He celebrated, too, the handmaids of the nymph, and her bright home, and the tripods all about the house, and the abundant cauldrons.

(ll. 62-67) But while he was singing of all these, his heart was bent on other matters. And he took the hollow lyre and laid it in his sacred cradle, and sprang from the sweet-smelling hall to a watch-place, pondering sheer trickery in his heart -- deeds such as knavish folk pursue in the dark night-time; for he longed to taste flesh
....–Homeric Hymn To Hermes

The review of Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” by Ben Brantley suggests it is a wonderful play well worth experiencing because it re-imagines deeply and through music ways to carry on living well not by way of meaning something, but by way of experiencing something and learning how to understand and play upon that understanding. Mythology provides us with another kind of instrument, another set of strings and makes singers of us all. Myths, like the one about Hermes, provide us with a narrative structure. Poetry will take it from there.

The man bent over his guitar
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."    

  -Wallace Stevens, Man With the Blue Guitar

Something in Ben Brantley's review leads me to suspect a tune beyond us dwells in the heart and soul of "Seven Guitars".

mythopoetics mythopoesis
click here for copyright statement