If You only had 3 More Days To See

7 Jan

How would you use your senses?

‘Use your eyes as if you were stricken blind. Hear the song of a bird, as if you were stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail…Make the most of every sense..’ (Helen Keller, Three Days To See)

In this post I am going to take you through an exploration touching on the senses, music and poetry, and their relationship one to the other. I’m going to delve into the tumultuous world of Beethoven and his contentious feelings about poetry, art, music and silence;  explore how the poet Matthea Harvey used her poetry to complement and innovate a piece of Beethoven’s music;  immerse you in the world of the senses through Helen Keller; and finally let you rest in the ‘resonating chamber’ of percussionist Evelyn Glennie‘s feelings about ‘the art of listening’. And to do so in the hope that  this  combination of differing forms can create a new form; or at least have changed our perceptions on the relationship of the differing art disciplines, one to the other. That’s my hope.

It is the function of creative men to perceive the relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expression that may seem utterly different and be able to combine them into some new form’ William Plomer (B. Britten’s War Requiem Notes, p4).

Whilst researching into Beethoven for this blog I stumbled upon a very odd letter from Beethoven to Wilhelm Gerhard (1780-1858), a dramaturg based In Lepzig in 1817.  The letter raises all sorts of debates around the nature and quality of the art-forms in relation to the senses. In the letter  Beethoven turns down a request by Gerhard to put his poetry/songs to music by firstly saying that his poems did not ‘lend themselves’ to music,  and secondly and curiously,  that ‘Pictorial descriptions belong to painting’ [so by implication not to music or poetry which seems an extremely odd statement to make and to be quite frank to my mind doesn’t quite make sense. For do not not poems also create pictures? But this is a debate for another blog, I feel (it’s too big a minefield).]

Beethoven goes on to say that although poetry’s ‘kingdom’ is less ‘limited’ than Beethoven’s musical world  poetry ‘ cannot reach to the other regions’  that music can.  It is harder for a composer, Beethoven seems to intimate, to find that ‘kingdom’ of sound, but when a composer does they find places and spaces that other forms and artists cannot reach.   Highly contentious, but particularly potent when you think Beethoven was going deaf.

You can find the full letter here:


Music,Art,PoetryHowever, if you take away the contentious element to Beethoven’s statement  his emphasis on the difference between music, poetry and art is interesting, and it’s a view with which I heartily disagree. Yes, painting, music poetry are different in form and texture but they all can coalesce. We don’t have to isolate them off, one from the other. They can inform each other. But maybe what Beethoven was getting at is that each form taps into our emotions and senses slightly differently. With pictures and words, there’s always a filter- we have to interpret and sift and analyse and create stories; read between the lines and brush-strokes and dabs. With music  the impact is immediate – it vibrates and goes straight to your core. It’s a body thing. There’s nothing much you can do about it.

The fact that Beethoven created a good deal of his work from within a world of silence is probably a great reason as to why he responds to the ‘noisiness’ of the forms the way he does. For him silence speaks; for him, perhaps,  silence  created a space where sound could exist freely, in movement and tone in his imagination and manifested through composition.  Silence and sound. One can reach out to the other. As Sri Chinmoy, a mystic states, ‘ Silence is the nest, and music is the bird’.  We need space and emptiness in which to create real beauty.

Maybe if we lose one of our senses creating other connections become  much more important and maybe easier. Beethoven didn’t take what he couldn’t hear for granted; he created something powerful from it. He seized it and connected. Maybe, we have to open ourselves up into the spaces that each form creates for us and that movement is totally individual to us.

As part of an ongoing Poetry Radio Project a a multi-form concert was given  in collaboration with American Public Media and the Poetry Foundation.  Poet Matthea Harvey chose a sequence of her poems to read in between the movements of Beethoven’s Quartet No 16. Matthea’s  poems were not directly written for the piece but in preparation for the concert she began a process of listening to the music again and again, and as she listened to the music more and more, certain poems from her oeuvre sprang to her mind. The two forms seemed to parallel and then fuse.

You can listen here and judge whether it was successful or not:


As the quartet moves from movement to movement if  you listen quietly and listen hard you can feel the words and the music connecting. The spaces between both the notes and the poems give you room to make different connections for yourself, to use your imagination to create your meaning, your interpretation and your world. This is what the juxtaposition does.

Putting the two forms together almost create a third form which goes beyond both forms- which is totally yours because it is you that is creating the connections; making the sounds and words yours. Undirected. It’s personal freedom in its best sense. 

Helen Keller, both deaf and blind, renowned political activist and author famous for her essay Three Days To See  intimates in her piece that  it is crucial we live to our full potential, push edges, use all our senses as if there  is no other option, no other way. A sensory version of  ‘carpe punctum’: seize the moment.

‘those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of colour and action which fills the world is taken for granted’.

Keller and Beethoven have one up on us. They have had to draw on their other senses in order to create. They have had to live by their senses and for their senses. We tend to need stimuli to do so, artistic or otherwise. A stretch of a note that takes us into the past, or connects us to an image; or a a piece of verse that uses language in such away as to open our eyes to a state or idea.  As adults we don’t tend to think in a panoramic way. We worry about what is in front of us or beyond us, and really looking or really listening, is secondary to us just getting by or managing or stretching towards something that’s out there before it is too late. Art, music and poetry are panoramic. They connect us in the now. We shouldn’t ever take that for granted.

Evelyn Glennie, the well known deaf percussionist calls human beings ‘resonating chambers’. She believes we don’t ‘truly listen’. In an amazing TED speech  she gave entitled ‘How to Truly Listen‘ she makes a distinction between ‘translation’ and ‘interpretation’:  between just taking things in, perceiving them and stopping there {translation} and REALLY taking things in, feeling them with our whole bodies and selves, exploring them creatively by every sense possible like a child {interpretation}.

As adults we’re too fast to take information in and process it without really entering the experience. She says we all have our own ‘sound colours’ (the thought of which I love). What we hear and how we interpret it is affected by our own experience, physical factors in the room, whether we are concentrating or not. ‘Sound’, she says, ‘is not dependent on the ear’. Just like Beethoven was intimating earlier in his letter above. Sound has to exist in a chamber of silence so that it can be filled with our interpretation.

If you think of human beings as ‘sound colours’ and ‘resonating chambers’, and as people who make connections with their bodies as well as their minds, the world can suddenly open up to you and become multi-faceted and vibrant.  It’s a bit like I was suggesting in my ‘playfulness’ blog: we  have to open up and expose ourselves. As Glennie says ‘If we can’t allow ourselves to try and interpret things differently how can we create differently?’. We have, she says to ‘listen to each other’.

And within the context of music, particularly classical music we have to let the meaning seep inside us and fill our ‘resonating chamber’. It’s important to let it rest inside and fill us. We can’t really do otherwise, it often gets to our hearts too quickly; and, indeed, our senses. Music combined with other forms works as Matthea Harvey has shown; nuance can be created and meanings that go beyond each form. But we have to be willing to let the sound, word and feeling into ours being. We have to feel creativity/artistic endeavour with all our senses otherwise we can miss out on what is really there. We can miss out on the silence and the space where we exist, where our interpretation exists, and miss out on the chance of a meaningful journey and connection towards what we are listening to or reading, or feeling. We miss out on what our personal interpretation can bring us ‘a new form’, that is ours alone. My experience and not yours. Your ‘utterly different’ sensory experience.


As always, thank you for your interest and feedback is welcome.

All the very best.




  • ‘Flash Fortnightly’ is back on Wednesday 9th January with Laura Besley, your first helping of great flash fiction for the new year
  • ‘Frenzy’s Flash Feature’, your photo-poetry combination with Greg Mackie will return next Thursday 17th January
  • Artist, Chad Swanson will be guest blogger for us on Monday 14th January
  • ‘Classic Friday’ will be back on Friday 18th January with Nisha Moodley, our classic fiction and author feature
  • And from the Monday 21st Lili Morgan will be our Artist-In-Residence for a month. See ‘Visitor Peep’.
  • Metamorphoses Book 1 Post for our Poetry Project will go out on Monday the 21st January too…See our Transformations Page’ for details. And do let me know if you’d like to join.
  • I’m also hoping to have the Arts Pages sorted by the end of the month with a variety of new features…Bear with me….


Should you want some more poetry here’s some more Matthea Harvey for you :

One of her poems, ‘Implications of Modern Life’: ‘The ham flowers have veins and are rimmed in rind, each petal a little meat sunset.’


Matthea on the nature of language.

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