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Hi, Howard, I’m back

By Stephen Burt

Frankly, Jessie and I don’t get out that much this year. We did, however, manage to see a reunion of the terrific indiepop and indie-rock bands Honeybunch and Small Factory on Saturday night in Pawtucket. Stop reading now if you don’t want to hear about them.

Honeybunch play brilliantly organized, melodically rich, and thoroughly written pop songs, a bit like the Scottish band Orange Juice, on occasion sedate but truly entirely charming, and I’m not going to say any more about them here even though their set was picture-perfect. OK, one more thing: singer and guitarist Jeffrey Borchardt still performs looking thoroughly dapper, wearing a suit.

As good as that set was, it’s Small Factory I’ve been thinking about a lot– not just because I [heart] their music, but because they managed to do so many things, emotionally and viscerally, with their songs, even though they weren’t complicated in any obvious musicological way. I’ve been thinking about how they changed so much over a couple of years , even though they seemed so simple at the start and at the close of their career: and I’ve been thinking about how much they mattered to me when they were a live act I’d see again and again in the early 1990s, about how what they did with their remarkably restricted formal toolkit might say something about that other restricted art form, poetry.

When Small Factory started out they were deliberately childlike—”twee,” some called it—avowedly high-energy, committed to making each song fun: you had to listen to the words to see the perverse resentments they sometimes described. They were unparalleled live, in 1991-93, and you could see what made their sound stand out: drummer Phoebe Summersquash handled the false endings well and kept things upbeat, while bass player Alex Kemp and guitarist Dave Auchenbach played electric-acoustic instruments, very fast, with no distortion and maybe no other effects. Auchenbach, despite or because of his sad-sack demeanor, tried hard to keep the sound light; Kemp, far more extroverted, belted some lyrics and came near a whisper in others (all three members sang). The first single, “Suggestions,” insists that we have a good time—the first verse even says “I don’t want to grow up,” and the band means it the more for the undercurrent of desperation—”If we stay here for too long they’ll get to know us and the next thing they know we’ll be six feet under.” Dozens of people I know can sing it to you; I could sing it to you myself, if I could sing.

As the band moved from singles to albums, from living rooms to elevated stages, they moved from that amplified-folk sort of instrumentation to more conventional rock textures, and the songs took on more and more of Alex’s lanky angst. The last album, recorded during that slice of the 1990s when indie bands often rose high and fell very fast, records two dozen kinds of disappointment: Alex and sometimes Dave and Phoebe describe catastrophes of twentysomething romance along with vaguer fears that they’ve let down their friends. Sometimes they sound like they’re straining against the limits of the chords that they know how to play; sometimes they sound like they’re straining against the limits of any ordinary life.

Small Factory mattered, on record, not just for the individual songs but for the emotional range among and within them. The early joy had watchsprings full of anxiety underneath, and the later, louder angst-rock propelled itself on the memory, if not the renewed possibility, of recent happiness. And they mattered the more for their very restricted means: the songs were just not very intricate, perhaps not even very interesting, in sheet music, chords-and-arrangements, pop-musicological terms. You can isolate moves they liked to make—vocal lines that repeated one note for a while; quick strumming; sudden soft bits and false endings—but those moves don’t do enough to explain why they’re special. Nor do their words, which could sound just like notes on the fridge—one of their best songs was called “Hi Howard I’m Back.”

How did they do it? I’m not sure that they even know: I’m sure I don’t know, and I am sure that what they did depended on small cues of attitude, on the tone and the grain of the three performers’ voices, on aspects too fine-grained to copy or to notate, so fine-grained that you couldn’t explain them without saying what made Dave Dave, Alex Alex and Phoebe Phoebe. In Pawtucket those cues and those aspects were sure on display, albeit in late-model, angst-driven, electric mode: they highlighted Dave’s understated song “Happy to See” (which Alex called the soul of Small Factory’s work), sped through “What to Want” and made it almost aggressive, whiffed “Hi Howard I’m Back” so badly that they had to stop twice, closed the set with “Suggestions” (the audience loved it but clapped through the false ending), and chose to end the encore with “The Last Time That We Talked,” whose last words are “It’s not over for me, in fact it’s just begun.”

What does all this have to do with poems? The show and the songs had me thinking about when and how poets benefit from sounding naive; when and how a poet can work by seeming to lack technique, by seeming amateurish, by seeming raw. Who makes that sort of impression work? An obvious answer is William Carlos Williams, not the found-poem fridge-note minimal Williams nor the modernist maker of the epic Paterson, but the writer of sketches, dedications, verse-essays, rants and other pieces for simulated speech in what he liked to call the American language. (Nobody English could have written them, but nobody else in America could have done, either.) They look so democratic as to seem artless, and they repeat themselves too: they eschew old, recognizable, virtuosic techniques, and they put forward their own technique instead. Unsympathetic readers still complain that Williams, as against Eliot or Keats or indeed Marianne Moore, was a raw, good-natured amateur, repeating himself (like Small Factory) and not really able to play his instruments as well, as thoroughly, with as much connection to some long tradition, as his rivals and peers could show.

And those readers are wrong in one way and right in another: Williams invented a way to write without older techniques, because he made so many new ones. To say why his poems work so well you need to get inside, not just his sensibility, but his many varieties of enjambment, the shapes of his sentences, his command of various American and especially American immigrant (what people used to call hyphenated-American) dialects: you need to be able to talk about the cadence of the speech the lines reflect, as well as about changes in their visual field. Some smart people have tried, inside the academy by explicit analysis, and outside it, in part by emulation, but it’s work that hasn’t been done; as with any author of Williams’s powers, it’s work that keeps changing under an attentive eye, work that will never give up all the last secrets of its emotional and its technical force.

And it’s also work that differs from (for example) “Suggestions”—and from most other examples of great rock performance, of songs you want to hear again and again but probably wouldn’t want your band to cover—because Williams’s poetry consisted first and last of the words on the page: the poem is a score for performance, aloud or sotto voce, by attentive readers, who may memorize it and keep on hearing it in their heads, but everything finally significant and aesthetically effective about that poem is there on the page to be read. You know you’ve got a pop song, or some other sort of performance, and not a poem of the kind that Williams (and also Keats and Elizabeth Bishop and Terrance Hayes and James K. Baxter) wrote, when the nuances of the performer’s voice, the tiny decisions and non-notated inflections made by the performers and their bodies, are an integral part of why you love it.

And that’s quite a difference between read poems and sung songs, if not between written poems and performances in general. All memorable poems have some technique, and you can describe it in principle by reference to the words on the page you can read; all the best rock songs have something, but it’s something that might not come across if you wrote down everything you could write down about that song, in a (wholly imaginary) piece of sheet music, or in some other kind of acoustic analysis, or indeed in a concert review, a description of how it felt to hear the band perform, a description like this one. I do hope that we get to hear them again.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, April 16th, 2012 by Stephen Burt.