Back when I still used Twitter, I came across a picture of a poem entitled “Perfect Song.” I have no idea the identity of the poet, much less that of the person who ushered it into my feed—perhaps they are the same—and numerous Google searches have yet to contribute any clarity. But the poem remains in my mind, and I have returned to it often, long after my departure from the social media network where I made my discovery.
The sixteen-line poem recounts the story of a young person “walking through the morning / after a night of heavy snow and drink / with my headphones on and they played / me the most perfect song.” The narrator proceeds to describe the way the combination of song and state of mind gave them the feeling of being “woven into the electric / cold bright air,” gave them the feeling that “at any moment / someone might fall in love with me.” Since the morning in question, the narrator has searched in vain for this apparently glorious tune only to realize “that what I had taken to be the song / was in fact the joyous concordance of / a moment that would not come again.”
I quickly saved the poem’s image to my desktop but, in my continuous quest for the dopamine injection that ensues with every click of “refresh,” neglected to record any other details. Its origin, at least in my mind, has now met a fate more complete than death, having been erased almost entirely from my purview with the deletion of my Twitter account. The dead linger after their passing in the memories of those who knew them; this poem, however, lingers only on my hard drive, contextless and adrift in the sea of my thoughts and memories.
I can’t help but note the poetic symmetry that seems to define my discovery. I found a poem, just happened on it, because it poked its head out of the dark abyss that was my now-defunct Twitter feed, otherwise defined by hopeless college kids bemoaning their individual anxieties or their collective political fears. Amid the seemingly unconquerable chaos, not unlike the zeugmatic “night of heavy snow and drink” the poet establishes, I came across a perfect song of my own, only one that happened to be a poem, to forestall my continued descent into the internet’s ether. The poem forced me to stop my scrolling, if only for a moment, to luxuriate in the present in the same way as the poem’s narrator. To cap it all off, I imitated the narrator in their search for their life’s momentary artistic accompaniment, which ended in the same verdict of fruitlessness. The kind of moment the poem describes manifested itself in my own life–how poetic!
More importantly, however, I recognized my own life in this poem. I’m sure you do too. Remember? You heard that song in an airport lounge, where the singer crooned about her lost love mere days after your own heartbreak. Or once, when you were driving home after a long day, you turned on the radio to discover your new anthem, blaring and proud like you always imagined Gabriel’s trumpet might sound, only instead of ringing from now until eternity, the approximation of heaven was curtailed in favor of a song you already knew, replacing grand wonderment with mere recognition. What about a couple weeks ago, when you were at the record store and one of the employees put on a song of such muscular grace that you felt your soul expanding as you clenched your fist in joy, the only impediment to its identification stemming from your shyness (cross the store to ask what it is? More like cross the River Styx!) Or how about the song your best friend put on in his dorm last weekend? The rest of you were too drunk or stoned to recognize it, let alone inquire after its name, but you languished in it, comforted by the dark paleness of his painted walls and the sloshy comfort of his beer-stained bean bags.
In moments like these, when the artistic and the temporal overlap into a synthesis of life, all the pieces are already there, independent of the song. Otherwise, every time we discovered a new song would be tantamount to the ingestion of a wonder drug, clearing away all the sadness and pain that obscures our ability to see the beauty and joy that might surround us. No, the song is not the catalyst but the connector, the singular thread tying together all the otherwise disparate pieces of the moment into a blanket for your soul. The music doesn’t create everything; it also tunes you into what is already there, alerting you to the moment’s inherent splendor.
For evidence, we need only look to our favorite songs and the way their structures might mirror this phenomenon they seem to create. Take “Thirteen” by Big Star, a quintessentially flawless pop song in its elegant compression. The melody is infectious without being irritating, the instrumentals simple without being simplistic, the lyrics nostalgic without being sentimental: musically, the song works. But what takes it over the line from good to perfect?
You could say it’s just one of those songs where all the individual elements are so good that they work well together, and I would agree: the whole ends up greater than even the sum of its parts. You could also say that the lyrics and music reflect one another in their tone and mood, and I would again agree. I think there’s something more, though, something in the way the song’s structure and compression (it’s only 2:34 long) emulate the kind of moment our unknown poet describes in “Perfect Song.” Practically over before it’s begun, the song draws attention to its finitude with its brevity. The song’s elements all work together because they are packaged into a terminable whole.
In fact, “Thirteen” is just one example, one that happens (miraculously) to be an entire song rather than a portion of one. The mid-piece swell of the Tannhäuser overture, the shift from solo to duet in “O soave fanciulla” from La Bohème, the first distorted chords in Car Seat Headrest’s “Drugs with Friends,” the modulation in George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”—they all work not just because they’re individually well-constructed musical elements. They work because of their singularity, because of the attention such containment draws to itself. They work because they replicate those moments in our life when we put in our headphones, look up at the stars, and find everything falling into place.
I have had many moments like the one described in the poem that have enhanced my life over the past twenty-three years. One I frequently recall occurred many years ago, on a plane whose origin and destination I have long since forgotten. I was listening to “Sleeping Lessons” by the Shins, which begins with quiet arpeggios before a gradual crescendo. The plane was sitting on the tarmac, and just as a layer of electrics guitars superimposed itself on top of the gentler piano and acoustics, the plane’s engine roared into a higher gear, and we began to take off, the roar of the engines aligning with the boom of the song’s orchestration. I think about that flight every time I listen to the song and every time I’m on a plane. I’ve tried to replicate the experience but have never been successful—I imagine it would be nearly impossible to sync a musical moment to a physical moment whose arrival is impossible to predict from the passenger’s seats. But no matter. The moment lives on in my memory.
We’ve all had moments—numerous, surely—like the one our unknown poet encapsulates in “Perfect Song.” But if music teaches us anything, it teaches us that we cannot force these moments any more than an artist can force their melodies and rhythms to move their listeners out of sheer force of their artistic will. They must create musical structures that elicit these reactions, drawing us out from ourselves and into the world and back again.
It’s the same, then, with our lives. We cannot will moments like those described in “Perfect Song” into existence, moments where it seems as though love is lurking in every corner and our fate rests in the palm of our hands. We can, however, look to music as our connecting agent, a catalyst to synthesize the disparate elements of life that surround us into something unassailably, unbearably grand.