X will mark the place

Lovers of poetry will gasp, (even, probably, faint delicately onto the floor) – but I will admit right here that while I am a fan of theatre, books, music, visual art, and just about any form of the arts, I generally do not seek out, or expect to get a lot out of, contemporary poetry. Well, traditional style contemporary poetry anyway, which of course is an idiotic thing to say. By traditional I mean, contemporary poetry presented as a written text – for example in a literary magazine or highbrow newspaper – as opposed to a spoken word performance, which to me feels like a whole other artform, which often sends chills up my spine and thus is not the one I’m not talking about here.

Generally, and no doubt unfairly, when I come across contemporary poetry by accident – believe it or not, folk, this does happen – I approach it with bias, expecting it to be obscure, or indulgent, or both. When I see a poem printed in a newspaper or literary magazine, I often simple turn the page to read the next story.

I know this is unfair of me. When I studied poetry in Year 12 English Literature, and discovered Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, (at that time, their poetry was considered contemporary enough for high school Literature classes) I’d never encountered anything like their non-rhyming, anti-climactical texts. I was so inspired that naturally I even took to writing my own poems, as all 17 year old girls who fancy themselves as artistic types do.

Unfortunately, however, these poems caused me to like poetry so much that I took poetry as an elective in first year university and, sad to say, I was less inspired. Bored to death would be a more accurate description of my state of mind on being introduced to the poetry of Alexander Pope – and what he wrote, I cannot now tell you. I seem to recall some interminable lecture that felt like it went on for days rather than hours. It’s possible that I may have skipped a few of those lectures and instead hung out on the South Lawn.

In hindsight, I blame stodgy old Melbourne University for my suspicious approach to poetry.

Nowadays, it’s  increasingly hard for the Arts to compete for attention in a world where people are plugged in and switched on, listening to podcasts, watching Youtube clips, Instagramming and Snapchatting everything, and that’s just on their mobile phone on the way to work. So it’s particularly hard to understand how Poetry – an unobtrusive, pared-back artform that relies on a willingness to read words written on a page and allow the reader’s imagination to provide any or all of the accompanying loud noises, pretty colors or handsome character in the main role – can still expect to fight for a portion of that audience.

(If Poetry had any thoughts at all on the matter, I guess it would first turn up its hearing aid, and then agree that it has passed its prime but is quite enjoying its twilight years.)

Yet while I mostly avoid reading poetry, at the same time, I’ll readily listen to song lyrics.

I’m willing to listen to a song even if the lyrics are obscure and hard to fathom. If I judge that the music is worthy of listening to, it seems I can engage with lyrics the way I do with visual art, that is, by accepting that it’s up to me, the viewer/listener, to make my own meaning from the work when the meaning does not seem clear, and that there is no right or wrong answer.  In some cases, where lyrics seem nonsensical, I’m even willing to imagine that the songwriter was just having fun with words, and perhaps had no other intention beyond that.

Whack fol the diddle all the di do day.
So we say, Hip Hooray!
Come and listen while we pray.
Whack fol the diddle all the di do day.

The Clancy Brothers*

Music alone has power, but there is a kind of chemical reaction that results when the perfect combination of some simple words, with music that expresses the mood perfectly, and a human voice suited to imparting those exact words in that way, are put together. When that happens, even contemporary rock music has the potential to achieve the pinnacle that art is capable of.

What is that pinnacle that art is capable of, you may well ask at this point. Well, in my opinion, it’s capable of giving us a momentary glimpse of something deep within ourselves that feels intensely personal but simultaneously connects us to the universe (through shared experience with the human condition). You know when it’s achieved because it will make the hairs on your arms stand up and a shiver run down your spine.

I’ve written before about the shiver that runs down my spine when I hear, or read, Macbeth’s final soliloquy. That particular shiver is one of awe, in recognition of the insignificant smallness of human life, in relation to the unimaginable eternity of the universe. So I guess that shiver is the standard that I hold all art against.

And sometimes, listening to a song, a line jumps out at me that causes a similarly visceral response. Sometimes it’s sadness, or poignancy – a particular line that captures something I have experienced, for example the grief I felt at the death of my younger brother. These are personal responses, so I’m aware that the same line may mean nothing to another listener, or may mean something completely different to the person who wrote it, but in that moment of emotional recognition, it is of no importance whether my interpretation of the line is what the songwriter meant by it.

The example I have in mind today, and what all of this has been leading up to, is a song by Radiohead, from the album Hail To The Thief – yes, the album I was addicted to about 2 months ago. You’ll be pleased to know that in-between, I did stop listening to it for a while. Clearly, I started up again. It’s a habit that’s hard to shake.

The song is Where I End And You Begin. Lyrics are as follows:

There’s a gap in between
There’s a gap where we meet
Where I end and you begin
And I’m sorry for us
The dinosaurs roam the earth
The sky turns green
Where I end and you begin

I am up in the clouds
I am up in the clouds
And I can’t and I can’t come down
I can watch and cant take part
Where I end and where you start
Where you, you left me alone
You left me alone

X’ll mark the place
Like the parting of the waves
Like a house falling in the sea
In the sea

I will eat you alive [x4]
There’ll be no more lies [x4]
I will eat you alive [x4]
There’ll be no more lies [x4]
I will eat you alive [x4]
There are no more lies [x4]
I will eat you alive [x3]

 

Now, I really don’t know what Thom Yorke had in mind when he wrote this, and any interpretation I can give it doesn’t quite add up. For example, it’s easy to interpret the lyric Where you, you left me alone, as being spoken by someone missing a loved person who has died; but the earlier lyric I am up in the clouds doesn’t make sense in that context – that sounds like the person who has died speaking. And what can I make of the last lines, I will eat you alive, there are no more lies? – I have no idea.

So whatever is meant by the song as a whole, I don’t know, but what I get from it is a theme: separation, ending, being left alone, and, possibly, that the cause of this separation and loneliness could be death.

The thing is, I hadn’t stopped to analyse any of that the first time I listened to the lyrics. I was just listening along -and probably chopping onions – when I heard Thom’s ethereal voice sing, about an octave higher than the previous verses, X’ll mark the place, and as soon as I heard him sing that line, I felt a jab at my heart.

I don’t care what interpretation anyone else gives the song, or that line. For me the change in the tune, the lifted octave, the lyric itself, all helped to convey that X marks a place where someone has departed from someone else’s life. In the moment I heard it, that line conveyed a new image to me: an imaginary X, that will mark forever the place where my brother died, and an X that will mark the place where I was when I heard that he had died.

The weakness in that logic is that those imagined X’s mark two physical places, but there must be one final X. That is, after all, the point of an X that marks a place. You don’t have treasure maps with two Xs on them. You didn’t do algebraic equations to find out what two different Xs equalled. (At least, not in high school maths.)

I guess for me that final  X must mark a point that exists on a metaphorical timeline, the point when my brother departed from life, while I continued on living.

*

*Have I ever mentioned that I grew up listening to my dad’s Clancy Brothers albums? I’m sure there was a song that went “O, ro di diddly dum, o ro di diddly dum, de diddly diddly diddly dum, de diddly diddly diddly dum.”

(And yes, I could sing that if you don’t believe me.)

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4 Comments

  1. I regard art much as I regard food: not everything pleases me but I have my favourites. Other people have different tastes in art as they have different tastes in food and it is not up to me to say their taste is stupid nor should I bow meekly to their saying that mine is.

    There is a conspiracy, mounted by art critics and dealers, to make you think that you need to “understand” art and that if you don’t like a particular work then that’s your fault for being ignorant and not “understanding” it. That would be laughable bilge but for the fact that many honest people buy into it and don’t dare to say what they feel about a work of art for fear of appearing “ignorant”. This is wrong: if you don’t like a work of art, you have every right to say so. Don’t call it rubbish, because someone somewhere may find it meaningful; just say “It doesn’t do anything for me” and move on. Respect others’ opinions but hold to your own.

    Art has evolved hugely in modern times. For one thing, we now have “abstract art”. This has affected not only the plastic arts but also literature. It has become acceptable to write stuff that has no obvious meaning. This has provided a wonderful cloak for would-be poets who have nothing to say but pour out reams of meaningless prose divided into lines as though it were poetry. Rock song writers are far from innocent of this. If a poem or a lyric is incomprehensible to you, you are perfectly entitled to say so. If it means something to another person, good luck to them.

    Finally, one should not be afraid to change one’s mind. Art that is meaningless to us today might make sense next week or next year. When it happens, it is something to be pleased about, not to be ashamed of.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • That’s a great approach! I think you’re right, and it would be great to think that all of us are able to change our minds about a work of art (poem, or lyric) that we originally dismissed as meaningless or even (privately) downright ridiculous. Just the way that many of us had foods that we didn’t like when we were young (for me, milk, and mushrooms, both made me feel nauseous) and then developed a taste for later in life (I still hate milk.)

      I can recall an example where my perception of a work of art changed. It was The Tree Of Man, a novel by now-deceased Australian author Patrick White. I had to read it for Year 12 English Literature, & thought it the most boring thing I’d ever read. However after a year of studying English Literature with a teacher who opened our minds to the ideas and themes that could be hidden in a text, I was fascinated with how many levels of complex ideas ran through the book. I now count myself as a fan of White and have read about 2/3 of his books….you can’t rush them! They are definitely an aquired taste. I can fully understand anyone who might read one for the first time and say, “but nothing happens. Someone catches a bus, and someone else gets old and dies. Boooring”

      That was a very interesting point, thank you. I might even make a post out of that idea! (of course you should feel free to, as well!)

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      Reply
      • As we live and experience more, our understanding broadens and what seems incomprehensible at one stage may seem meaningful and deep at a later stage. When I first started looking at art ‘seriously’, I dismissed a lot of stuff out of hand (I still do!) but more recently, some works I would once have dismissed have called to me in a way that they wouldn’t have done before.

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  2. weebluebirdie

     /  July 29, 2015

    I too am inclined to skim over poetry. (Nor can I fathom opera) When I was 17 and immersed in English, my teacher thought it was inspired to divert me from Ted Hughes and on to his wife. This of course was a huge mistake; the least of it being my reams of nihilistic poetry which makes no sense to me now. I used to pride myself on being able to recite “Daddy” and I’ve just remembered that I never returned the slim volumes I borrowed from the school library.

    Having said that, one of my favourite podcasts is Garrison Keillor’s daily Writers’ Almanac which always closes with a poem. When poetry is said aloud, it strikes more of a chord with me. And I do like the discipline of Haiku!!

    Liked by 1 person

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