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Loosening the Grip

A songwriter finds poetry through her ears.

No, I don’t read much poetry these days. There’s just no need for it, because I get enough through my ears, and from the mess that’s already reverberating around my skull.

When I was thirteen, I used to get high on Dylan Thomas, Blake, Wilde, and Yeats. And I wrote poetry incessantly. It was a personal meditation that had very little to do with anything that went on at school. I was entranced by form, motif, and repetition. It makes sense that I became a songwriter.

As a teenager, I remember reading somewhere that The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde was considered one of the most perfectly constructed poems in the English language. (Of course it was Morrissey and The Smiths that led me to read Wilde in the first place—their song “Cemetry Gates” refers to him.) The idea of perfect structure and execution fascinated me, and how structure in songs is tempered and tried by lyrical rhythm—that is to say, how well it can be said out loud or in your head.

My friend Brian Miller wrote a whole album’s worth of music to Yeats’s poems, called Yeats Is Greats. I covered one of those songs, “Wandering Angus,” on my first album, Catalpa. Those well-constructed English ballads held up perfectly to the necessities of the music. They had more flow and balance than a lot of the lyrics that are designed as such.

But like I was saying about getting it through the ears, I want to tell you that this very instant, as I have set myself down at the corner bar to have dinner and write in my journal, I hear these words from a seventies Jamaican recording coming in over the speakers:

There is a land far far away
Where there’s no night, there’s only day.
Look into the Book of Life and you will see—
That there’s a land far far away.
          — From “Statta Massagana,” by the Abyssinians

Through my experience of this Rastafarian chorus, I remember Emily Dickinson’s very useful definition of poetry: that which makes one feel as though the top of one’s head has been taken off. I feel exactly what she was describing. To be very clear, the sensation is like having an acupuncture needle placed at one’s crown point, at the top of one’s head. That same sort of physical cue is exactly the kind of meter I check when I’m deciding about music. My friend Tim Freeman in Texas says, “You can tell whether it’s good music or bad depending on whether it loosens or tightens ‘the grip of obscure emotions.’”

Just as dinosaurs didn’t really disappear but became birds, poems have become songs. I have no interest in bemoaning the fact that the poetry most widely consumed these days is oral: the roots of our poetic literature are in Homer, who chanted or sang his words.

I remember how one especially ignorant (white) critic of Zora Neale Hurston complained that a sermon she’d written into one of her books was too fanciful to have come out of the mouth of an “uneducated” black preacher. But our Zora, a pioneer anthropologist, had recorded and quoted said sermon verbatim. Let us not forget she was present and influential at many of the great recording sessions that Alan Lomax conducted. The Lomax recordings of the Georgia Sea Island Singers contain, to me, some of the most important American poems:

Adam in the garden  
Picking up leaves
God called Adam
Picking up leaves
Adam wouldn’t answer
Picking up leaves
God called Adam  
Picking up leaves
“Adam!”
Picking up leaves
Adam wouldn’t answer
“Adam! Where art thou?
Called, “I’m ashamed”
God called Adam
Adam wouldn’t answer

The group stomps and claps while they chant “picking up leaves,” and the leader, in a strong voice, calls out the alternating words. This is a beautiful group meditation on the mythic material, which describes the first moments a human being ever felt shame. If we can imagine the first moment a person experienced shame, we are given the opportunity to imagine a psychological space that existed before shame. It is a profoundly restorative and useful meditation, improvised within a community that could shelter and amplify one’s experience. This song, these words (without musical accompaniment), are some of the flowers of American oral culture.

I believe I am so moved by a good gospel song partly because it tends to the experiential. I know that song is designed to be of use, to move people, to move one’s energy. Like Emily said, to take the top of your head off. Words on the page that can do that for me are few and far between. Songs that have that power are likewise few. A lot of songs and poetry are emanations of souls that have no power of internal motion, and therefore can provide no inspiration for anyone else. Certainly, a lot of people are interested in music and poetry that doesn’t crack open the top of their heads. But I don’t have room here to discuss why terrible music and poetry have been popular.

I don’t know how to talk about what poetry is, except to talk about the experience. It’s good to have your hand on the rudder, and know when the current is moving powerfully. One thing I’ve enjoyed noticing is that both classical Zen haiku and my favorite American music have at least one little trick in common. I’d describe the way that classic Zen haiku works in this way: The poet describes the world, and describes his own mind, in one deft and beautiful stroke. It’s like a report of what’s in front of and behind the eyes. Here are a couple of sweet Basho poems that do this:

temple bell
also sounds like it is
cicada’s voice

*     *     *

On a journey,
Resting beneath the cherry blossoms,
I feel myself to be in a Noh play.

And now check out how this verse by Gram Parsons works:

We flew straight across that river bridge
last night half past two.
Switchman waved his lantern “goodbye and good day”
as we went rolling through.  
Billboards and truck stops pass by the grievous angel, Now I know just what I have to do.
          —From “Return of the Grievous Angel”

I love how that last line comes out of nowhere. It is so direct and big-souled.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Loosening the Grip

A songwriter finds poetry through her ears.

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