Versions of Songs, Versions of Weariness
Alicia’s post in tribute to Edward Thomas’s “The Owl” moved me. Especially so since it came after a terrible experience in a shopping outlet. My four-year-old and I were looking for snow boots and while we shared a sandwich in a packed food court I realized that I was only just starting to hear the pounding music in the backdrop: Christmas carols set to frenzied electronic beats.
My favorite carol this year has been O Holy Night. It's the music that makes the carol, and I've had fun dowloading different versions of it to compare. How to sing the words "Fall on your knees:" with soaring sternness like Bing Crosby, or hushed reverence like Josh Groban? You can chart a Melisma-meter with the versions on offer by Avril LaVigne, LeAnn Rimes, and Cristina Aguilera.
Steve Burt’s quote from Wallace Stevens’s letters (in Alicia's comments section) also sent me to its source. One of the reasons to go back to a favorite poet’s letters—and Stevens never disappoints in this regard—is to confirm to oneself how uncannily history repeats itself. Or to realize maybe that it’s not history repeating itself, exactly, but our sentiments about history, our relation to it, that remains glumly constant. I had to smile, rereading a passage that I might have written on a sour day:
In painting, as in poetry, theory moves very rapidly and things that are revelations today are obsolete tomorrow, like the things on one’s plate at dinner. Then, too, I rather resent professional modernism the way one resents an excessively fashionable woman. At the Museum of Modern Art they cultivate the idea that everything is the nuts: the stairs, the windows, the arrangement of the walls. After about an hour of it you say the hell with it. Is all this really hard thinking, really high feeling or is it a lot of nobodies running after a few somebodies? … But on the whole New York was a lemon. Instead of staying for dinner, I took an early train and got as much out of the ride home as out of anything. It made a long pleasant evening and, as I was tired and satisfied to sit and look out, it was as agreeable as anything that had happened to me all summer. (September 9, 1949)
And this, written a couple of weeks prior to the letter Steve quoted from:
Let me wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year even though it is difficult under the heavy weight of contemporary politics to feel very merry or very happy about anything. But I suppose that what Christmas really means, morally, is that we have to take hold of ourselves when things are at their worst and at least pretend that they are as good as they are ever going to be which, after all, may be true. (December 15, 1950)
Which brings me back to “O Holy Night.” It’s the music that makes the carol (like Alicia, I prefer modal and minor-key tunes) but within this passage is a particularly good conjunction of mood and music, the enactment of an awakening (funny how badly this scans without the music!):
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
What does it mean that “the soul felt its worth?” What’s the “it” here—the world or the soul? Does it matter?
It’s a constant, this sentiment of a “weary world” (and here I think of Hopkins’s and Wordsworth’s sonnets, with their emphases on “spent” and “spending”—like Christmas). Stevens felt it; I feel it; the carol speaks to it, though it is not easy to accept even a holiday from it.
I don’t know if “O Holy Night” was one of the songs odiously spun into electronica for us mall-shoppers—I think I deliberately blocked the memory of that epiphany—but after half a lifetime of hearing this carol in the background of countless Christmas situations, I only heard it—heard “and the soul felt its worth”—when I sang it. I don’t usually sing. But to be social, I can fake it (e.g., innumerable “Happy Birthdays”). So, I sang. The physical act of singing through a musical enactment of weariness and awakening had a profound effect, for that moment. Song lyrics can be instrumental. (Pun notwithstanding.) In their self-sufficiency, poems must work much harder to dissolve much weariness.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...