Prose from Poetry Magazine

Written in Rock Candy

On sweet shocks of language.
By Momus

I love the artistic use of short bursts of language. Give those a name and a role, though — “poetry,” for instance — and you risk rebuilding some of the things their freshening surprise ideally threatens to destroy: guilds, codes of conduct, etiquettes, habits.

Language is forever threatening to become sclerotic: a boring, repetitive, normative, legitimizing thing, a descriptive system with prescriptive and proscriptive aspirations. But language is at its most charming when it abandons the will to power and substitutes pure play. A lyric Paddy McAloon levered into an early Prefab Sprout song springs to mind:

Words are trains for moving past
what really has no name.
— From Couldn’t Bear to Be Special

If that were poetry in the most limited definition, it would be mere words on a page. But the way I remember it, the elegant phrase is hollered out, slowly yet violently, on a vinyl record. It sounds like an existential cry of pain, but there’s a giddy sense of freedom edging through. The irreducible otherness of things has a fierce beauty that language can never capture. And maybe language can be a beautiful thing-in-itself too.

There’s poetry in my family: both my great-grandfather and his father won the bardic crown at the Hebridean festival known as the Mod. As a child I played with the silver laurel crown, draping my head with its ripped blue velvet covering. Sadly, as a non-Gaelic speaker, I can’t read their poems. One, I’m told, is about the steamer my great-grandfather piloted up and down the Clyde. He must’ve scribbled his verses on the bridge. In that sense, he wasn’t a professional poet, even if the crown conferred the qualification of “bard.”

Writing lyrics for songs, I feel as if I’m continuing an amateur tradition in which words are just one element in a whirling and impure confluence, a confection of many media. Here, words only come alive when animated by a specific voice, and instruments, and visuals.

When I was first impressed by glam rock figures like Marc Bolan and David Bowie, it was partly their physical beauty that snared me: they had an obviously charismatic sexual grace, a way of dressing and of moving that appealed enormously. But they also used words in an intriguing way: over atonal stride note clusters, Bowie would sing elegaic cabaret songs (“Sake and strange divine / You’ll make it”) while Bolan would write fairytale doggerel (“Light all the fires, it’s the king of the rumbling spires!”)

In retrospect, such stuff was the next logical step from childhood pantomime and the poems my mother would read me — cautionary or lunatic tales by Hilaire Belloc and Edward Lear concerning Matilda or “The Dong with a Luminous Nose.”

When I was twelve I heard two pieces of poetry set to music that 
absolutely boggled my mind. One was “Façade” by Edith Sitwell, with jazz-age music by William Walton. Mr. Head, my music teacher, sat us down in a dingy classroom and played the whole thing on an enormous wooden record player. I particularly liked the lugubrious passages:

Cried the navy-blue ghost
Of Mr. Belaker
The allegro negro cocktail-shaker:
“Why did the cock crow,
Why am I lost
Down the endless road to Infinity toss’d?”

The music — a spectral waltz — was absolutely integral to my experience. It meshed perfectly with Bowie’s pantomimic readings of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

The other revelation was hearing a brass ensemble accompanying a reading of Eliot’s “Prufrock.” One of the housemasters at my boarding school had written it. The injection of evocative words into a colorfield of sound was exactly what I loved about the music of Bolan and Bowie, but Eliot’s lines mingled the known and the unknown much better, melding a universal melancholia with glimpses of privileged and exotic interiors:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.

Soon I would be written through like rock candy by the phrases of poets. Poems didn’t just supply musical phrases, but narrative tricks that other media pulled off much less elegantly. Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” for instance, demonstrated that a poem could be a dramatic, icy-spined monologue with an unreliable narrator:

    I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise?

Robert Lowell’s “I watched for love-cars,” or “A savage servility / 
slides by on grease,” or “Renoir, paralyzed, painted with his penis” 
showed me how powerful the confessional mode can be. And in case romanticism carried me away, Brecht’s brilliantly unsentimental Handbook for City-Dwellers spoke in an ironic voice of cold 

Without looking at you
(I apparently fail to recognize you,
Your particular manner and difficulties),

I address you merely
Like reality itself
(Sober, incorruptible, thanks to your manner,
Tired of your difficulties),
Which you seem to me to be disregarding.
— Tr. by John Willett

I was haunted, too, by the brilliant non-sequiturs of Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”:

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

And Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which seductively suggested that perhaps we (poets? or human beings in general?) are only here

for saying: house, bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit-tree, 
window — at most: column, tower ... but for saying, realize, oh, for a saying such as the things themselves would never have profoundly said!
— Tr. by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender

But Rilke — with his conflation of poets and humans, and his celebration of an apparently sacred duty to name the nameless — strays perhaps too far into the hubris of professional poetry. Today 
I might draw just as much verbal pleasure from a Tumblr feed called Curatorial Poetry, which presents “found poems” from the pages of art catalogues:

Very exotic foliage, resembling palm trees, with oversize parrots and dragonflies. The upper portion of the box contains a pattern of white stars. Printed in pink and varnished green on 
a yellow ground. Very faded.

That’s all I need, and my brain races.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2015

Momus (Nick Currie) was born in Scotland in 1960. Since the early eighties Momus has been releasing literate singer-songwriter albums on independent labels. He has published books of speculative fiction and appeared as a performance artist, offering “unreliable tours” and “emotional lectures.”

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  1. August 20, 2015

    Would love to read more essays
    like this one. It is
    Gives voice to someone outside
    the often drabby,blabby poetry-world
    of, as he says, professional poets . . .