to a child at the piano, by alastair reid

Ceri Richards – Arrangement for a Piano  – 1949 – Lithograph on paper

I’ve loved Alastair Reid’s poem To a Child at the Piano since I was introduced to it by my friend Catriona Urquhart, herself a poet. Back in 2004 I wondered about including it in a catalogue we were preparing for my first exhibition at MoMA Wales. (We decided instead on Seamus Heaney’s Saint Kevin and the Blackbird, a poem that has since inspired many of my paintings on the subject.) I’ve often said that anyone dropping by the studio while I’m painting, will be more likely to find a poem pinned to my easel than any postcard of an artwork. Words provide the inspirations I more readily respond to. A turn of phrase can carry me more rapidly into producing a painting than anything else. Faster than a reproduction of a much-admired artist’s work, faster even than music played to soothe or get the blood coursing faster. I use music to get my energy levels up at the easel, but it’s poetry that sets my imagination afire.

The image at the top of this post is by the Welsh artist Ceri Richards, who himself played the piano and so beautifully captured abstract images of music-making and keyboards.

To a Child at the Piano

by Alastair Reid

Play the tune again; but this time

with more regard for the movement at the source of it,

and less attention to time. Time falls

curiously in the course of it.

Play the tune again; not watching

your fingering, but forgetting, letting flow

the sound till it surrounds you. Do not count

or even think. Let go.

Play the tune again; but try to be

nobody, nothing, as though the pace

of the sound were your heart beating, as though

the music were your face.

Play the tune again. It should be easier

to think less every time of the notes, of the measure.

It is all an arrangement of silence. Be silent, and then

play it for your pleasure.

Play the tune again; and this time when it ends,

do not ask me what I think. Feel what is happening

strangely in the room as the sound glooms over

you, me , everything.


play the tune again.

I think the poem to be the finest description I know of the process of creativity and the need for practise, and its advice might refer to any activity requiring repetition to make perfect. Long ago I would have applied it to my discipline of dance, but now I think of it in terms of drawing. The repetition of the command ‘Play the tune again‘, conjures for me the essential rhythm of repeating a simple, line drawing over and over in order to nail it.

20 thoughts on “to a child at the piano, by alastair reid

    • this poem especially resonates with me in that it describes so well the moment when the best, and freest music making happens, when you forget about all the externals, the fingering, the tempo, what the audience is thinking… get outside of your own head and just experience the music. those moments are truly special and rare for me. but when they happen the performance and the moment are truly special and exemplary!

  1. I saw a large painting by Ceri Richards in an exhibition in St Davids last year and was blown away by it. It looked very, very contemporary and I got lost taking in the technique and the use of colour. Someone who should be better known to wider audiences, just like the poem. Great analogy re creativity. Words to take to heart.

  2. I see where your admiration comes from Clive. It could be an early you I think, though I would not accuse you of copyism. It is very nice.

    • Swansea-born Ceri Richards (1903 – 1971) produced wonderful work both as a painter and print-maker. I’d recommend the monograph by his son-in-law Mel Gooding as a source of information and images.

      Richards developed a practise of working thematically, and it repays to study the ways in which he explored and developed his subjects. (He left a massive legacy of inventive preparatory drawings and themed sketchbooks.) Probably the best known of his themes is the ravishing series of drawings, prints and paintings made to celebrate the work of Dylan Thomas. Artist and poet met shortly before Thomas went on the 1953 poetry-reading tour of the United States during which he fell ill and died. Richards responded with an extraordinary outpouring of creativity, starting with margin-drawings made directly into an unillustrated book of Thomas’ poems, and thereafter in a series of intensely elegiac drawings, lithographs and oils.

      The artist played the piano for recreation, and pianos and piano-players form another theme that he explored with sublime invention.

  3. Oh I absolutely agree….words, words, words…..first and last, they are the source of all joy, images, ideas and the pouring out of ourselves into the new things we make…I love to hear words/bits of conversation out of context – I once heard a woman saying to another woman ‘and then he just flew off….with all that stuff hanging down all over the place’………….I have no idea what she could have been talking about but it has stuck with me ever since and I still hope to make a picture of it!

    Love that C R image, thanks for posting it Clive.

    • My sister-in law Sally once overheard a conversation between two women on a bus, the tail end of which went… presumably by way of an excuse for not sending some unfortunate for an eye-test… :

      ‘… but we’re simple folk, and the boy don’t need glasses.’!

  4. I haven’t seem this lithograph by Ceri Richards before, thanks for introducing me to it, it’s gorgeous, I’m going back and looking at it again and again, and the poem is very powerful

  5. I was touched by this poem and your illustration Clive
    it found me in the perfect time, after my daughter took her first ballet class
    this is exactly what I would like her to see, the wisdom of this poem and sensitivity of your art
    Thank you

  6. That is wonderful, I agree about the power of words proving to be a better muse than images- as temping as the images are- I’m reading Heaney’s “Beowulf”, images pouring forth.

    Concerning tho poem, I love the phrase “Do not count or even think. Let go. ” thinking is of course important especially in the planning; but i can think myself right the hell out of my studio at times.

    This lithograph (I’m so proud of myself, since this class, I can actually identify methods of reproduction ) is wonderful, I can see why you admire it.

    Please pardon me, you may have mentioned this in a previous blog, but is this print from the show you are judging? I’m catching up and the last few posts and details are a bit blurry for me.
    Happy to see images of the OTHER Jersey, I’m from that wasteland New Jersey 🙂

    Take care,

    • Ceri Richards died in 1971. I never knew him, but I know his daughter Rhiannon and her husband, the author and art historian Mel Gooding. Mel wrote the splendid Ceri Richards monograph published in 2002. I highly recommend that to you. Peter and I have a couple of beautiful lithographs by C. R., though not the one illustrated here.

      No work by Ceri in the Jersey show, which is confined to living artists working out of the Channel Islands.

      Many thanks, Leonard, for the Green Man posted for me on your Facebook page. He appears to have a cod-piece abundantly garnished with vedure!


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