Friday, September 2, 2016

Can We Praise Too Much?

On Sunday, our church choir sang "Dona Nobis Pacem," first verse by verse, then as a round.  Some of you with huge church choirs and a person(s) paid to lead the music program may shrug.  But our choir is very small; on a good day, we have several voices in each section (soprano, alto, bass).  As with any choir, the quality of the voices varies; I don't think any member has had professional training.

On Sunday, "Dona Nobis Pacem" couldn't have sounded more perfect.  It was as if each voice had a piece tailor-made for it.  I was most impressed when the choir went into a round, and everyone stayed on track, a much harder task in a small choir when you can hear the other sections singing.

Afterwards, I rushed right up to tell the choir how much I enjoyed the anthem.  I have since wondered if I was too effusive with my praise.  I said, "It's the best work you've ever done, and I include every cantata, every Christmas, everything."

Later, I wondered if my praise stung.  After all, the choir worked very hard on each cantata:  some of them took months to put together.  They had only been working a few weeks on "Dona Nobis Pacem."  Did it hurt to be told that that work came across better?

And of course, I'm aware that some may disagree with me.  I like ancient music.  Most of the cantatas have been more along the lines musically of the kinds of contemporary Christian works that I dislike most, and some of the Easter cantatas have had some serious problems with theology, more suitable to evangelicals than Lutherans.

But to my larger point--is it tough to be told that the works we've spent the most time on aren't the best.  I thought of the work of Carolyn Forche, who has been writing important poems for decades now.  But she's most well-known for one of the first poems she published, "The Colonel."

I love this poem, and it's a joy to teach. For one thing, it launches an interesting discussion about what a poem is. I've seen this poem in an anthology of short, short fiction, and most of my students say it reads more like a snippet out of someone's journal.

It probably reads that way because in some ways, it is. Forche herself says, ""People have interpreted many features of this poem, but when I wrote it, I was just trying to capture details so that I would remember. I didn't even think it was a poem. I thought it was a piece of a memoir that got mixed up with my poetry book" (The Language of Life, page 135).

This poem is probably her most widely anthologized poem.  In fact, it's the only one of hers that I've ever seen in those anthologies that most of us use in our first year Lit classes. I've often wondered how Forche feels about that fact. I imagine her saying, "But I've written so many other poems. Some of them are much better." Or perhaps she's happy that a poem of hers has stayed in print and in our consciousness over 30 years after it was first published. I would be.

So, in the future, should I be more simple in my praise?  Or is my effusive enthusiasm a gift, no matter how much or little the choir has rehearsed?

I will probably be effusive--as an artist, I like a genuine reaction to my work.  I suspect most are the same.  After all, we usually hear more about what we've done wrong than what went well.

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