What are the heart’s necessities? It’s a question Jane Tyson Clement (1917–2000) asked herself over and over, both in her poetry and in the way she lived. Her observation of the seasons of the soul and of the natural world have made her poems beloved to many readers, most recently singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, who has given Clement’s poetry new life – and a new audience – as lyrics in her songs. This book interweaves Clement’s best poems with the story of her life, and with commentary by Stevens describing how specific poems speak to her own life, passions, and creative process.
Several years ago, Becca Stevens was struggling to write a song in honor of a close friend and musical collaborator, Kenya Tillery. By chance, she came across two of Jane Tyson Clement’s poems, “Winter” and “Tillery,” that had both the perfect theme and the perfect rhythm to match the melody she had already composed. The resulting song, “Tillery,” was the first of five new songs, and the beginning of an artistic collaboration that led to a new Plough book, The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry.
The Patterned Heart
The patterned heart is stubborn to reform;
the soul desires forever its first food
and lives but briefly on a different fare;
the eye accustomed to the edge of earth
battles with hills that shut the edge from view;
the ear that listened first to silences
struggles with sound as a bird within the net.
We are not sand to shift beneath the wind,
showing new contours after every storm;
more than the blast of hate must turn my love,
more than the noise of logic change my faith;
my food was peace, my vision space, my sound
the sound of silence, and by these alone
will I be moved to come into my own.
July 5, 1940
Pendle Hill, Pennsylvania
Out of a Difficult and Troubled Season
Out of a difficult and troubled season
the timely harvest thrusts amid the stones;
the dry mind that would claim a thousand reasons
melts beneath the Lord’s appointed rain.
The furred magnolia buds we bring to warmth
here in the heated room soon bloom and sicken;
the tree without keeps its own secret time.
Powerless are we to move God with our clamor,
to seize the least fringe of His mystery;
but we must wait until the gift is given
and poor, walk faithfully the lanes of heaven.
October 1954 – June 1955
Woodcrest, New York
If I could live as finished as this phrase,
no note too strong; each cadence purposed, clear,
the logic of the changing harmony
building and breaking to a major chord
strangely at home within a minor web
of music; if I could define my end,
from the beginning measures trace my course,
I might be old and prudent, shown by laws
how to devise a pattern for my days
and still be free, unhampered, yet refined.
He sat before the keys and turned the notes
into a fabric of design and peace;
here are the notes, the keys, my fingers free
to run them through their course, and here my mind
seeing his wisdom work within the chords,
finding his knowledge in the finished line.
I would be wise if such restraint were mine.
Smith College, Massachusetts
I stand behind every word of this poem! Bach’s music takes my breath away, gathers my focus with its dancing lines, and inspires me with its intricacy, confidence, and sensitivity. Three centuries after his death, Bach’s voice is still like no other, and his music is as inspiring as the day he first “sat before the keys and turned the notes / into a fabric of design and peace.”
Bach is my desert island composer. His compositions are spiritual, perfect, complex yet direct, meditative, and, even after thousands of listens, they never cease to reveal something new. I love Jane’s idea of life like a Bach phrase, “no note too strong; each cadence purposed, clear… at home within a minor web,” embodying the balance of restraint and freedom in Bach’s writing.
I picture a twenty-two-year-old Jane at the piano, playing through a Bach invention, moved to peace and poetic inspiration by the musical fabric, and admiring the restraint and maturity with which it was woven.
I relate to Jane’s sentiment here: “I would be wise if such restraint were mine,” especially when I read her poetry. Jane exemplifies that restraint, but the fact that she doesn’t recognize it in herself makes her that much more beautiful as an artist, always reaching and seeing her own potential beyond her grasp.
When I was in my late teens, around the same age Jane was when she wrote “Bach Invention,” I was moved to write a poem inspired by the seventh of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Several years later I composed a choral arrangement setting of that poem, commissioned by the Melodia Women’s Choir of New York City. Here’s that poem:
Soli Deo Gloria
When that first note is flung into stillness
So begins a perfect minute and sixteen seconds
Brilliant & resolute
A breathless instant I await;
the first roulade sung so light and sweet
Like drops of water thrown effortlessly
From the wings of a bird
As the cadence subtly slows I know
I am leaving a perfect moment in time, by and by
Which will without fail
Be followed by a strange awareness of my every hair and then
The gift of this music is forever
Fresh in my mind like a secret
Soli Deo Gloria means “To God alone be the glory.” Bach sometimes put the initials SDG at the end of his works to indicate where the attention should be. While the Goldberg Variations were not church music, they touch me, as does all of Bach’s music, on a divine and spiritual level, as if the music is a connection between human listeners and God.