This time last year, ‘I would look up, intermittently, through a canopy of light-filled leaves’. The unrealism of a momentary viridian, admitting I could not partake in. The nights went on and on in those days, there was a quality of sorry-not-sorry to the usual erasures. And asking for numbers, and watching shambolic ones fall into chairs and windows; the ceiling tilted.
Serotonin is my friend. I want to invent a character. The pressure front hurts my head.
We enter the gallery and there are the nymphs, the lilypads. You have told me a dream in which you ascended the lilypad stairs to heaven, was it heaven, and each one made a satisfying sound and sway when stepped on. I am thinking of Deku leaves and swirls in the ochre night. Here we go with synonyms. ‘There may be lunch’, Anne Carson says, ‘Or we would eat / many more paintings’. As it stands, I order jasmine tea. The paint drips green from the edge of the lilypad, chromium oxide staining the lake. At some point I refused to live without sleep. I surrendered to what its depth could do. A man told me, every time you blink, you refresh your thoughts. I have my muscles set to Command+R with cool deliberation, but all that fluttering won’t get me served. The rain washed all the mascara away. So I order into warmth again. Tequila Maria, something bloody with spice and celery, black pepper’s vast and negentropic heart. Did I mean to say negative calories. Tom McCarthy has this essay about Toussaint called ‘Stabbing the Olive’: ‘We don’t want plot, depth or content; we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want patterns’. A flat asymmetry of energies. I used my pinkie to lick the rim of red dust from the glass, like the last of a meal. Circumferential intimations of love. I was hungry, the night was not warm. Moments of aloneness. Who is McCarthy’s ‘we’? All these lit-critics, clamouring to borrow the spirographs of the twentieth century. I lose a pen.
Thom Yorke is getting on a subway somewhere.
I thought that taste itself formed an interval, a thickening of presence. Crocheted objects appear on my wall like the lacery of untranslatable dreams. Red, blue and yellow. These are the primary materials of my current research:
Gifted books with signatures
Colours of sky and cloud
The question of ambience in poetry
Absences in friendship
Paranoia is former. As if I could not align the tulips to the complementary turquoise wall, the lilt, the residual. The animals depart when we start writing, a narcissism for darkest_.
In the late Tesco he jumped me, the former doorman, halfway through a dj shift with the Haribo fizz and the bottles of whisky. I wondered what music he would play nextdoor. If you could make a vinyl of sunlight, how I would live for the interminable patterns of notches, solarity catching and catching on loop. Fingers tracing sugar dust over the records, a sourness in his mouth. I was wearing this purple-pleated skirt, five years ago, and a man outside Tesco, another Tesco, asked if I was pregnant. I only wanted the placenta of his mean stare and I wanted to salt it and eat it hard. My twenties recede without drop.
She describes the effects of gluten as a sanding down, an erasure; inside her the tangles made desert. We want clustering, sway of villi, performance. I eat bread and think less; my head fills up with fog.
Soreness in coccyx equals aporia. I awoke to the pent-up throb of the washing machine. Let’s talk about the arbitrary constraint of 30 days. Clusters of black tights as the serpentine symbols in Turner.
Something from a solar poem, a thing for the solstice:
if I go
drunk in June
it’s just sky
in our lungs
What I meant was, maybe something in the difference between the length of our breaths, and is this a question of the daylight hours, a quantified tiredness, or is it the smoke. My laconic lungs suck in. The grass comes away in tufts where we pull it, like the fluff from a dog’s back in moulting season. I have this dream about reaching the end of a lawn, like I’m staying in a house where the garden is seen from the window only, it looks unreal. You could not exhaust it. Anne Carson says a pilgrim always seeks a horizon, is never satisfied. The dog I had would run round and round, until the grass wore down into dirt. There would be a ring, a halo of ruined earth. She was not looking for anything particular. Instead, she ran around.
I remember the basement party where I sat between two boys, holding a sparkler and watching the smoke trails recede.
I am thinking about foam, immortality, fractal gifs. Coffee opens me up, so I don’t have to look.
No-one knows. On Fridays I listen to Gardeners’ Question Time, I cut rice cakes into quarters.
There was this girl, she lived in the orange-painted room. Her name sounds something like citrus. A long time ago, I wrote a story about her. I was in the library with a stack of philosophy books. I can’t do it. She skips ballet class to eat blueberry muffins in the local café, to flirt with the waiter. She wears a yellow raincoat, even when it’s sunny, and he calls it her famous raincoat. She never gets the joke but she likes how he twists a smile at the same time as he twists his break-time cigarette into something thin and perfect. He always wears blue, regardless of uniform. She wants to be that cigarette, she wants to be rolled into one straight line, but she likes her sugar too much. His smile, surely, is for her alone; it looks delicious. She imagines the taste of ash, smouldering in her mouth if she kissed him and the trace of the cigarette and the one before that would glow like the orange in her room.
Adrianne Lenker sings of ‘fragile orange wind in the garden’.
Should we go outside? And for what.
There was a time when every story had to end, which was fiction. Poetry is getting to have your loops, to sweeten and eat them profusely with silver spoons: imitation privilege. I could keep stirring and stirring until they melt into milk, this miasma of found words, of nourishing.
Everything is so agreeable, tangential, so light
Tangerine, all pungent with its leaves intact.
The way the egg yolks look when they split, the shit on a watch face, the intimate pixels of a harp up close, a part song. Selective arpeggio carriage to morning. I’m so grateful I’m basically grapefruit, this single devourable bauble of flesh. My skin is thick and explicit. It’s a time in the month. That there, that’s not me. You can peel off the sticker to see.
In the park, the weekdays fill up with hormones.
I played Everything. I was a mushroom, a jet-ski, a palm tree, a planet, a hawk and an oil rig. I rolled and shuffled; scale itself became a sort of music. At once, I soared in threes and sevens. My favourite world was streaked with pink, cacti and celadon rivers. Time was a trick of the hard-drive.
We collect the cherry-chocolate cake. Later he says something like, The ocean is an orca. Which is much better than, We are all Earth; or, I am what I eat. The literalism is looping its way around cornfields and train delays, better to solder the evening with marmalade light and a buttery spread of new messages.
I have hardly been listening to music at all.
The weather was briefly incidental. Vague plans to read Plato’s Timaeus scarpered by the way the roses look in ache, my dream alarm of cascade is softened by limbs and transport. We take a lot of time to take the river in us, hungering girls in old movies as though they could speak the end of a call, prior to numbers. We eat plainly in several vegetal airs, our cutlery shines like a weather vane. The intermediary function of skin is just this much. You glow inside a tentative plan, the sparkle of re- grettable voice. I paint my nails a venus flytrap green. Who decides what grows inside you. Should eat.
We reply, that it is the receptacle, and in a manner the nurse, of all generation. I have spoken the truth; but I must express myself in clearer language, and this will be an arduous task for many reasons, and in particular because I must first raise questions concerning fire and the other elements, and determine what each of them is; for to say, with any probability or certitude, which of them should be called water rather than fire, and which should be called any of them rather than all or some one of them, is a difficult matter.
The secret mysticism of nicknames and particle physics. If we are just water. And what if this water never smells like shame. And what if the water turns red like Topshop lipstick, or the gilded cover of my Kathleen Fraser. Chili flakes assemble upon the soft lawn of your fruit, a stone falls out in lieu of the heart. I try particulars: 99p filter coffee, office politics, the milk chocolate bunnies on campus. I mean they were real as morning. Star power. When the beach breaks out to cure, the lovely scrambling of a darkness shared. Say a soundtrack feels special because it bristles. I fell asleep in the workshop. My hair all huge in the hotel mirror. We collect red words for green and call it geometry. The trad effects of earnestness and other lyric qualities of indie I tried to recede like my twenties I tried halloumi, salt, breakfast vodka. The longest day of the year was shorter than anything I could bother to write.
On my birthday we visited the island, eight of us on the ferry. Kitsch displays of gifts without crystals, trying to fit ourselves into the minigolf. We shared red wine on a jetty, alas not spiralled; we wrote a poem, according to the economy of one red word for a sip.
sultry walks seem elusive to those players of croquet taking milliseconds out of capitalism or inducing epilepsy, throwing linguini into darkness and leaving finite symphorophilia to the gannets
The water was cold and clear, the barnacles softened the soles of my feet. The sky broke an almost symmetry of peachy leakings, yellow colours spilled on the sea. Gloria stood with her scarf to the wind; we brushed the horizon on the swings. I sang and sang. We ran for the last ferry, in usual fashion, salt and Tennents. The tide came in.
We sat on the picnic bench of the terminal, singing ethereal Judee lyrics. Heavy in my throat, a halo; the mists. A pleasurable tiredness.
A. describes how the glaciers are moving. The surface of the planet rearranges itself, and my impression of the continents sinks like wax. I melt the very edge of a tectonics, craving stories. The citrus girl is so much older and younger, she exists as though only in song. Her raincoat is made of honeybees.
A rushing sound I attributed to rain but then not.
She sits in three kinds of tree and fingers her decorative suggestion of dawn, worn as a necklace. I can’t sleep for the gulls and the lines of unmannered flight, the concept of ‘politics’ filling the air of my kitchen. The pearls burst everywhere. I draw a radio silence around each project, I try to choose.
Never have I ever asked Siri.
I get stuck on a train. We move south, but only gradually.
Pip Blom – Daddy Issues
Holiday Ghosts – Thinking of You
Bat for Lashes – Kids in the Dark
Katie Dey – Solipsisting
Jay Som – Superbike
Beach Fossils – Be Nothing
Hop Along – Waitress
(Sandy) Alex G – Gretel
Jai Paul – Do You Love Her Now
Thom Yorke – Twist
Gross Net – Gentrification
Sylvan Esso – Die Young
DOPE LEMON – Salt & Pepper
Crake – Glycerin
Big Thief – Orange
Silver Jews – The Wild Kindness
Jessica Pratt – Mother Big River
Claire Cronin – Wolfman
Yo La Tengo – Green Arrow
Galaxie 500 – Summertime
Kelly Moran – Water Music
Yohuna – Fades to Blue
Karen Dalton – Something on Your Mind
Judee Sill – The Kiss
Manchester Orchestra – My Backwards Walk (Frightened Rabbit cover)
I always have this sensation, descending the steps at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, of narratives colliding. It’s a kind of acute deja vu, where several selves are pelting it down for the last train, or gliding idly at the end point of an evening, not quite ready for the journey home. The version that is me glows inwardly translucent, lets in the early morning light, as though she might photosynthesise. I remember this Roddy Woomble song, from his first album, the one that was sorrow, and was Scotland, through and through as a bowl of salted porridge, of sickly sugared Irn Bru. ‘Waverley Steps’, with its opening line, ‘If there’s no geography / in the things that we say’. Every word, I realise, is a situation. Alighting, departing; deferring or arriving. It’s 08:28 and I’m sitting at Waverley Station, having made my way down its steps, hugging my bag while a stranger beside me eats slices of apple from a plastic packet. I’ve just read Derek Jarman’s journal, the bit about regretting how easily we can now get any fruit we want at any time of year. He laments that soon enough we’ll be able to pick up bundles of daffodils in time for Christmas. The apples this girl eats smell of plastic, of fake perfume, not fruit. I’m about to board a train that will take me, eventually, to Thurso and then on via ferry to Orkney. I wonder if they will have apples on Orkney; it’s rumoured that they don’t have trees. Can we eat without regard to the seasons on islands also?
I needn’t have worried. Kirkwall has massive supermarkets. I check my own assumptions upon arrival, expecting inflated prices and corner shops. I anticipated the sort of wind that would buffet me sideways, but the air is fairly calm. I swill a half pint of Tennents on the ferry, watching the sun go down, golden-orange, the Old Man of Hoy looming close enough to get the fear from. Something about ancient structures of stone always gives me vertigo. Trying to reconcile all those temporal scales at once, finding yourself plunged. A panpsychic sense that the spirit of the past ekes itself eerily from pores of rock. Can be read in a primitive braille of marks and striations. We pick our way through Kirkwall to the SYHA hostel, along winding residential streets. I comment on how quiet it is, how deliciously dark. We don’t see stars but the dark is real, lovely and thick. Black treacle skies keep silent the island. I am so intent in the night I feel dragged from reality.
Waking on my first day, I write in my notebook: ‘the sky is a greyish egg-white background gleaming remnant dawn’. In the lounge of the hostel, someone has the telly on—news from Westminster. Later, I’m in a bookshop in Stromness, browsing books about the island while the Radio 2 Drivetime traffic reports of holdups on motorways circling London. Standing there, clasping Ebban an Flowan, I feel between two times. A slim poetry volume by Alec Finlay and Laura Watt, with photographs by Alastair Peebles, Ebban an Flowan is Orkney’s present and future: a primer on marine renewable energy. Poetry as cultural sculpting, as speculation and continuity: ‘there’s no need to worry / that any wave is wasted / when there’s all this motion’. New ideas of sustainability and energy churn on the page before me, while thousands down south are burning up oil on the London orbital.
When we take a bus tour of Mainland Orkney’s energy sources, we play a game of spotting every electric car we see. Someone on the bus, an academic who lives here, knows exactly how many electric cars there are on the island. There’s a solidarity in that, a pride in folk knowledge, the act of knowing. On the train up to Thurso, I started a game of infrastructure bingo, murmuring the word whenever I spotted a pylon, a station or a turbine. Say it, just say it: infrastructure. Something satisfying in its soft susurration, infra as potential to be both within and between, a shifting. Osmosis, almost. The kinesis of moving your lips for fra, feeling a brief schism between skin and teeth. A generative word. Say it enough times and you will summon something: an ambient awareness of those gatherings around you, sources of fuel, object, energy.
The supermarkets in Kirkwall seem like misplaced temples. This was me idealising the remoteness of islands, wanting to live by an insular, scarcer logic. The more we go north, the more scarcity we crave—a sort of existential whittling. Before visiting, I envisioned the temperature dropping by halves. On the first night, warm in my bed, I write: ‘To feel on the brink of something, then ever equi-distant’. The WiFi picks up messages from home. Scrolling the algorithmic rolls of Instagram, I feel extra-simultaneous with these random images, snapshots of happenings around the world. Being on an island intensifies my present. In Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016), a memoir of recovery and return on Orkney, Liptrot writes of ‘waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages’. On the whims of billowing signal, we wait for news of the south to arrive. Maybe I was an island and I wanted my life elsewhere to vanish, disappear in a wall of wind; I wanted to exist just here, in a hullabaloo of nowness.
I say an island, but of course Orkney is more an archipelago. And I’m on the Mainland, home to the burghs of Stromness and Kirkwall. Here for the ASLE-UKI conference, there wasn’t time to visit the harbour at Scapa, or the neolithic village of Skara Brae or the stone circle Ring of Brodgar. I spend most of my time in the town hall opposite Kirkwall’s impressive, sandstone cathedral, aglow by night with fairy lights strung in surrounding trees. Yes, trees. Orkney has trees. They are often gnarled-looking and strange, stripped by wind or held up inside by steel plinths. Anthropocene arboreal hybrids. But still they are trees. Using my plant identification app, I find hazels and birches. Autumn is traceable in the swirls of thin leaves that skirt the pavement, tousling our sense of a general transition.
At one point in the trip, we visit the Burgar Hill Energy Project in Evie, alighting from the bus to stand underneath several massive turbines. The sound is wonderful, a deep churning whirr that feels like the air pressed charge on repeat. Under the chug chug chug of those great white wings we gathered, listened, moved and dispersed. I watch as our tight knit group begins to fragment; we need time apart to absorb this properly, little cells bouncing off and away from each other, quietly charged, loosening dots of pollen. Some of us finding the outer reach of the hill, looking for a view or panorama, leaning back to snap a photograph. I film the shadows windmilling dark the rough green grass. Capturing the turbines themselves seemed almost obscene. I don’t know why I was making them into idols, afraid to reduce them to pictures. It was easier to glimpse them in pieces, a flash of white, synecdoche. My friend Katy and I agreed the best photos were the ones out of focus, a bird-like blur against the blue.
Places I have been hit by wind:
The cloisters at the University of Glasgow, a wind-tunnel roar to blast out your thoughts post-exam.
The hills of Aviemore, my first and last time attempt to ski.
Ayrshire beaches in winter, icy particles of hail cast into my eyes and ears.
The last day of the Wickerman Festival, wrestling with tents that needed drying and folding, the wind blasting against my cliff of a hangover.
On the deck of a ferry, mascara stinging the black black veil of my lashes.
I am an air sign, Gemini, and there is something about losing your breath to elemental forces. I think I once finished a poem with a phrase like, ‘lashing the planetary way of all this’. We used to stand in the playground at school, brandishing our jackets like polyester wings, letting the wind move us forward, staggering in our lightweight bodies, our childish intuition of the way of the world. The pleasure in surrendering. Making of your body a buffeted object. Returning to Glasgow, I soon find myself hit with a cold, preemptive fresher’s flu; a weight on my chest, a diaphragm lag. A sense of my body heaving against itself.
On Orkney, I can smell the salt from the sea. Earlier in the summer, I was struck with wisdom tooth pain, the kind that requires salt-water rinses every half hour, not to mention agonised gargles of whisky. Wasting my precious bottle of Talisker. Amid the haze of those painkiller days, I felt closer to an elemental heat. Metonymically, I was inhaling islands. The taste of self-preservation, of necessary self-sustenance, is never as strong and unwanted as when you want a part of yourself to be wrenched out of you. Pulling teeth is an easy metaphor for lost love, or other forms of psychic distress. Breaking apart, making of the self an archipelago. There’s that song by The National, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, which always sticks in my head in granular form, occasional line. Refrain of refrains, ‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’. I never knew whether Matt Berninger was singing about preservation or pain, but I saw myself lying down in a kelp bed, child-size, letting the waves lap over my body, salt suffusing the pores of my skin. Begin again, softer.
The rain here is more a tangential shimmer. I wake up to it, dreaming that my window was broken and no-one would bother to fix it. Fear of boundaries loosened, the outside in. The future as a sheet of glass, a shelf you could place your self on and drink. Salt water rinse and heat of whisky. We leave the hostel early and wander beyond the Kirkwall harbour, to the hydrogen plant bordering an industrial estate. Katy and I discussed our fondness for industrial estates as homely reminders. She would go running, and wherever she ran the industrial zones were inevitable. As if in any city you would reach that realm, it called you in with its corrugated fronts and abrasive loneliness. My love for the canal, biking up through Maryhill where the warehouses watch serenely over you, loom behind trees, barely a machinic rumble disturbing the birds. We traced the edge of a man-made waterfront, a crescent curving lip of land. The way it curled was elliptical, it didn’t finish its inward whorls of land upon water, but still I thought of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the cinnamon buns I bought from the Kirkwall Tesco. Finding a bench, we ate bananas for breakfast, looking out at the grey-blue sea, our fingers purpling with the cold. I like to think of the banana, Katy said, as a solid unit of energy. Here we were, already recalibrating reality by the logic of pulse and burn and calories. Feeling infra.
I love the words ‘gigawatt’, ‘kilocal’, ‘megabyte’. I like the easeful parcelling up of numbers and storage and energy. I am unable to grasp these scales and sizes visually or temporally, but it helps to find them in words.
We learn about differences between national and local grids, how wind is surveyed, how wave power gets extracted from the littoral zone. My mind oscillates between a sonar attentiveness and deep exhaustion, the restfulness gleaned from island air and waking with sunrise. I slip in and out of sleep on the bus as it swerves round corners. I am pleasantly jostled with knowledge and time, the precious duration of being here. Here. Here, exactly. This intuition vanishes when I try to write it. A note: ‘I know what the gaps between trees must feel like’. Listening to experienced academics, scientists and creatives talk about planes, axes, loops and striations, ages of ages, I find myself in the auratic realm of save as…, dwelling in the constant recording of motion, depth and time. Taking pictures, scribbling words, drawing maps and lines and symbols. We talk of Orkney as a model for the world. Everything has its overlay, the way we parse our experience with apps and books and wireless signals. Someone takes a phone call, posts a tweet. I scroll through the conference hashtag with the hostel WiFi, tracing the day through these crumbs of perspective, memories silently losing their fizz in the night.
I grew up by the sea, in Maybole, Ayrshire (with its ‘blue moors’, as W. S. Graham puts it), but a lot of my thalassic time was spent virtually. I loved video games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the narrative happened between islands, where much of the gameplay involved conducting voyages across the sea. The interstitial thrill of a journey. There were whirlpools, tornados, monsters rising from the deep. On Maidens Harbour, I could hardly reach that volcanic plug of sparkling granite, the Ailsa Craig, or swim out to Arran; virtually, however, I could traverse whatever limits the game had designed. The freedom in that, of exploring a world already set and scaled. Movement produced within constraint. In real life, mostly our bodies and minds constrain. What excites me now is what I took for granted then: the salt spray stinging my lips, the wind in my hair, the glint of shells bleached clean by the sea; a beautiful cascade of cliches that make us.
‘To wake up and really see things…passages from a neverland.’ Back in Glasgow, fallen upon familiar nocturnal rhythms, I find myself craving the diurnal synchrony I achieved in Orkney. Sleepy afternoons so rich in milky light. The vibrational warmth of the ferry’s engine, activating that primitive desire for oil, the petrol smell at stations as my mother filled up the car for journeys to England. My life has often been defined by these journeys between north and south, born in Hertfordshire but finding an early home in Ayrshire. Swapping that heart for air, and all porosity of potential identity. Laura Watt talked of her work as an ethnographer, interviewing the people of Orkney to find out more about their experiences of energy, the way infrastructural change impacts their daily lives, their health, their business. Within that collaboration, she tells us, there’s also a sense of responsibility: stories carry a personal heft, something that begs immunity from diffusion. Some stories, she says, you can’t tell again. The ethics of care there. I wonder if this goes the same for stone, the stories impregnated within the neolithic rocks we glimpse on Orkney. Narrative formations lost to history’s indifferent abstraction, badly parsed by present-day humans along striated lines, evidence of fissure and collision. All that plastic the ocean spits back, co-evolutions of geology and humans. Plastiglomerates along the shore. But Orkney feels pure and relatively litter-free, so goes my illusions, my sense of island exceptionalism. I become more aware of the waste elsewhere. The only person I see smoking, in my whole time there, is a man who speeds his car up Kirkwall’s high street. Smoke and oil, the infinite partners; extraction and exhaustion, the smouldering of all our physical addictions. Nicotine gives the body a rhythm, a spike and recede and a need.
We learn of a Microsoft server sunk under the sea, adjacent to Orkney. There’s enough room in those computers, according to a BBC report, to store ‘five million movies’. And so the cloud contains these myriad worlds, whirring warm within the deep. Minerals, wires and plastics crystallise the code of all our text and images. Apparently the cooler environment will reduce corrosion. I remember the shipyard on Cumbrae, another island; its charnel ground of rusted boats and iron shavings. The lurid brilliance of all that orange, temporal evidence of the sea’s harsh moods, the constant prickle of salt in the air. The way it seems like fire against all those cool flakes of cerulean paint. I wrote a blog post about that shipyard once, so eager to mythologise: ‘Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…The quietness recalls an abandoned film set’. Does tourism lend an eerie voyeurism to the beauty we see, conscious of these objects, landscapes and events being photographed many times over? Perhaps the mirage of other islands and hills glimpsed over the blue or green is more the aura of our human conceptions, archival obsession—the camera lights left buzzing in the air, traced for eternity.
I come to Orkney during a time of transition, treading water before a great turn in my life. Time at sea as existential suspension. There have been some departures, severings, personal hurts, burgeoning projects and new beginnings. A great tiredness and fog over everything. ‘Cells of fuel are fuelling cells’. At the conference, my brain teems with this rich, mechanical vocabulary: copper wires and plates and words for wattage, transmission, the reveries of innovation. There is a turning over, leaf after leaf; I fill up my book with radials, coal and rain. My mind attains a different altitude. I think mostly about the impressions that are happening around me: the constant flow of conversation, brought in again as we move between halls and rooms, bars and timelines in our little human estuaries. We visit Stromness Academy, to see Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’: a seven-metre rendition of lunar sublimity, something to stand beneath, touch, lie under. I learn the word for the moon’s basaltic seas is ‘Maria’, feel eerily sparked, spread identity into ether. We listen, quietly, in the ambient dark, taking in composer Dan Jones’ textures of sound, the Moonlight Sonata, the cresting noise of radio reports—landings from a future-past, a lost utopia.
On Friday night, Katy and I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Sleep on my cinema seat has a special intensity, a falling through dreams so vivid they smudge themselves on every minute caught between reading and waking. Jarman’s gardens enrich my fantasy impressions, and I slip inside the micro print, the inky paragraphs. I dream of oil and violets and sharp desire, a pearlescent ghost ship glimmer on a raging, Romantic sea. Tides unrealised, tides I can’t parse with my eyes alone; felt more as a rhythm within me. Later, on land I will miss that oceanic shudder, the sense of being wavy. I have found myself like this before, chemically enhanced or drunk, starving and stumbling towards bathrooms. We share drinking tales which remind me of drowning, finding in the midst of the city a seaborne viscosity of matter and memory, of being swept elsewhere. Why is it I always reach for marinal metaphor? Flood doors slam hard the worlds behind me. There are points in the night I wake up and check my phone for the time, noticing the lack of GPRS, or otherwise signal. I feel totally unmoored in those moments, deliciously given to the motioning whims of the ferry. Here I am, a passenger without place. We could be anywhere, on anyone’s ocean. I realise my privilege at being able to extract pleasure from this geographic anonymity, with a home to return to, a mainland I know as my own. The ocean is hardly this windswept playground for everyone; many lose their lives to its terminal desert. Sorrow for people lost to water. Denise Riley’s call to ‘look unrelentingly’. I sip from my bottle, water gleaned from a tap in Orkney. I am never sure whether to say on or in. How to differentiate between immersion and inhabitation, what to make of the whirlwinds of temporary dwelling. How to transcend the selfish and surface bonds of a tourist.
The little islands of our minds reach out across waves, draw closer. I dream of messages sent from people I love, borne along subaquatic signals, a Drexciya techno pulsing in my chest, down through my headphones. My CNS becomes a set of currents, blips and tidal replies. A week later, deliriously tired, I nearly faint at a Wooden Shijps gig, watching the psychedelic visuals resolve into luminous, oceanic fractals. It’s like I’m being born again and every sensation hurts, those solos carried off into endless nowhere.
Time passes and signal returns. We wake at six and head out on deck to watch the sunrise, laughing at the circling gulls and the funny way they tuck in their legs when they fly. These seabirds have a sort of grace, unlike the squawking, chip-loving gulls of our hometowns, stalking the streets at takeaway hour. The light is peachy, a frail soft acid, impressionist pools reflecting electric lamps. I think of the last lecture of the conference, Rachel Dowse’s meditations on starlings as trash animals, possessing a biological criticality as creatures in transition. I make of the sky a potential plain of ornithomancy, looking for significant murmurations, evidence of darkness to come. But there is nothing but gulls, a whey-coloured streak of connected cumulus. The wake rolls out behind us, a luxurious carpet of rippling blue. We are going south again. The gulls recede. Aberdeen harbour is a cornucopia of infrastructure, coloured crates against the grey, with gothic architecture looming through morning mist behind.
Later I alight at the Waverley Steps again. Roddy in my ear, ‘Let the light be mined away’. My time on the island has been one of excavation and skimming, doing the work of an academic, a tourist, a maker at once. Dredging up materials of my own unconscious, or dragging them back again, making of them something new. Cold, shiny knowledge. The lay of the heath and bend of bay. I did not get into the sea to swim, I didn’t feel the cold North rattle right through my bones. But my nails turned blue in the freezing wind, my cheeks felt the mist of ocean rain. I looked at maps and counted the boats. I thought about what it must be like to cut out a life for yourself on these islands.
Home now, I find myself watching badly-dubbed documentaries about Orkney on YouTube, less for the picturesque imagery than the sensation of someone saying those names: Papay, Scapa, Eday, Hoy. Strong names cut from rock, so comforting to say. I read over the poems of Scotland’s contemporary island poets, Jen Hadfield for Shetland, Niall Campbell for Uist. Look for the textures of the weather in each one, the way they catch a certain kind of light; I read with a sort of aggression for the code, the manifest ‘truth’ of experience— it’s like cracking open a geode. I don’t normally read like this, leaving my modernist cynicism behind. I long for outposts among rough wind and mind, Campbell’s ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’: ‘This is where the drowned climb to land’. I read about J. H. Prynne’s huts, learn the word ‘sheiling’. Remember the bothies we explored on long walks as children. There’s a need for enchantment when city life churns a turbulent drone, so I curl into these poems, looking for clues: ‘In a fairy-tale, / a boy squeezed a pebble / until it ran milk’ (Hadfield, ‘The Porcelain Cliff’). Poetry becomes a way of building a shelter. I’m struck with the sense of these poets making: time and matter are kneaded with weight and precision, handled by pauses, the shape-making slump of syntax. Energy and erosion, elemental communion. Motion and rest. My fragile body becomes a fleshwork of blood and bone and artery, hardly an island, inclined to allergy and outline, a certain porosity; an island only in vain tributary. I write it in stanzas, excoriate my thoughts, reach for someone in the night. I think about how we provide islands for others, ports in a storm. Let others into our lives for temporary warmth, then cast ourselves out to sea, sometimes sinking.
Why live on an island? In Orkney we were asked to think with the sea, not against it. To see it not as a barrier but an agential force, teeming with potential energy. Our worries about lifestyle and problematic infrastructure, transport and connection were playfully derided by a local scholar as ‘tarmac thinking’. Back in a city, I’ve carried this with me. The first time I read The Outrun was in the depths of winter, 2016, hiding in some empty, elevated garrett of the university library. I’d made my own form of remoteness; that winter, more than a stairwell blocked me off from the rest of existence. Now, I read in quick passages, lively bursts; I cycle along the Clyde at night and wonder the ways in which this connects us, its cola-dark waters swirling northwards, dragged by eventual tides. I circle back to a concept introduced by anthropologists at Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘sister cities of the Anthropocene’: the idea that our cities are linked, globally, by direct or vicarious physical flows of waste, energy and ecological disaster. This hydrological globalisation envisions the cities of the world as a sort of archipelago, no metropolis safe from the feedback loops of environmental causality, our agency as both individuals and collectives. On Orkney, we were taught to think community as process, rather than something given. I guess sometimes you have to descend from your intellectual tower to find it: see yourself in symbiosis; your body, as a tumbled, possible object: ‘All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home’ (Graham, ‘Three Poems of Drowning’).
Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric
What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.
Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.
Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability. However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.
Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.
Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?
Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.
You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.
On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.
Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.
I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.
Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.
But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico”. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.
Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.
But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.
Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.
‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.
America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.
A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.
But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.
My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.
My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).
One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.
Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.
It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.
One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.
Last Thursday I had the pleasure of a day trip to Irvine to check about Moira Buchanan’s exhibition ‘All Washed Up’ down at the Harbour Arts Centre. Now I must say, although I was brought up in South Ayrshire I haven’t actually been down to Irvine since I was a kid – the days when we used to go swimming at the Magnum, or on school trips to the Big Idea (which is now sadly closed).
It was a bright and breezy wintery day and as soon as I stepped off the train that lovely clean briny smell filled my lungs and it was a bit like coming home. Irvine’s a fair pleasant town, once a port. You can walk along the harbour where ships still rest and along the front there are little gift shops and cafes with tinsel in the windows and the smell of coffee wafting out onto the street. I unzipped my jacket to feel the sun on my skin. It was midday and hardly anyone was around, but when I got to the Harbour Arts Centre there was a nice wee bustle about the place.
The focus for Moira Buchanan’s exhibition is, as the title suggests, things which are washed up onshore. There is a pleasing openness to the exhibition. It’s light and airy, the pieces nicely balance a white sparseness with the intricate details of natural forms splayed upon the (handmade) page. Actually, it’s quite difficult to differentiate the natural from the unnatural here. Buchanan uses materials found along the beach to make her art, from plastic to twine and string, to seaweed and driftwood. Instead of simply presenting such materials as found objects, Buchanan’s reworking of their unique structures emphasises the beautiful details and aesthetic value of that which we might consider waste – environmental, human or otherwise. She uses an understated, organic palette and a combination of wispy, delicate lines and bold ink blurs to suggest perhaps the swirls of the tide and the sense of being washed out.
The exhibition has a pleasing, nostalgic feel to it; a favouring of simplicity and the fragile loveliness of form, the childlike excitement in finding beauty amongst tiny, insignificant things. Dotted around the exhibition are little poetry chapbooks made from handmade parchment. Each poem feels like a miniature gift, a token gleaned from the coast and the sea and someone else’s memory. I think in today’s world, where global warming feels like something vast, incomprehensible, beyond our understanding, it’s so important to focus on the little things. The material details that remind us that we are part of this environment, that the ocean gives back what we put into it. There’s a feeling of salvage to the pieces, whose composition seems to perfectly balance the artful openness to chance at the same time as reflecting a careful attention to arrangement and applied form and texture. Everything seems precious.
The more monochromatic tones of the video exhibit suggest something starker, more emotionally arresting. The poems on display recount strange dreams, the changing weather and shape of the coastline, the turbulence of time and human perception. Between the poems are black-and-white closeups of items washed up on the shore. There’s a sense of borders overlapping, of the lush fronds of the clear water coming up to drag back the wisps of shadows and words and memories. I think of black ink pouring on a page, printing through layers of paper like the epidermis of skin. Sinking, achieving a kind of sticky permanence. I think of oil spills coating the northwards ocean. Each poem afloat on the water, the black background of oil, achieving purity in white ink as if blanched that way by the sun and the waves, as seashells are bleached by the tide. Moonlight pouring on still waters at night.
Responding to an ad on Creative Scotland, I sent in a poem I wrote called ‘Fort of the Yew Tree’. It’s kind of channelling a few of the mythical elements of a novel I wrote which is set in South Ayrshire (titled, with some irony, West Coast Forever). ‘Fort of the Yew Tree’ is said to be the Celtic derivation of the name ‘Dunure’, which is a fishing village on Scotland’s south west coast.
I feel very privileged that one of my poems is on that video. This thing that I wrote, a strange and baroque wee baby, has floated out to sea and there it is, somehow washed up in Irvine, travelled through the channels of WiFi and email and typed back out onto some distant slideshow, time cycling in loops and repeating, each image and word again returning like a message in a bottle tossed out to the waves. I wonder who will find it.
Anyway, you can check out my poem along with many others in the video below, made by Moira Buchanan and existing as part of her exhibition. ‘Fort of the Yew Tree’ starts at 2:35 and it spans four slides.
Every year the Glasgow University Creative Writing Society run a wee challenge called ‘POVEMBER’, the cleverly punned name really digging the whole poetic playfulness thing of course. Anyway, the basic point is to set guidelines or prompts to encourage you to up your poetry game during the month of November. Week 1 was Haiku, the Japanese form which is typically constructed as a 3 line poem with 5 / 7 / 5 syllables. Above I’ve written out a bunch of daily haiku which are all unedited and a bit messy and weird but were nevertheless fun to write. I like the idea of haiku having a cumulative effect and I’m not sure how well the above ones fit together but maybe they do something when thrown out on a page like that.
Anyway, it’s a fun process and super easy to have a crack at so encourage everyone to have a try!
You can check out more information on POVEMBER here.
Wordsworth’s The Prelude is a pretty formidable poem, not least due to its length. I initially encountered it in my first year of studies as an English Literature undergraduate, within a course entitled ‘Writing & Self’. There was no obligation to tackle the entire poem – we just had to look at a few extracts and try to get to grips with Wordsworth’s philosophy on the relationship between nature, memory and selfhood. Selfhood. That elusive concept; you think you know it, but no – the post-structuralists, modernists and Samuel Beckett have something radically different to say about it. Not going to lie though, I really enjoyed it in the end. The really long poetry? Not so much…
At the time, I was disinterested in the seemingly repetitive obsession with the natural world, what seemed like bland blank verse, and the endless length. However, after studying more recently Milton’s marathon-of-a-poem Paradise Lost, with all its mythical references beyond my grasp,Wordsworth’s doesn’t seem so scary. In fact, I felt the urge to go back to it and think about how my perception may have changed. What interests me about it now, with (hopefully) a little more intellectual maturity, is not only the poem’s emotive value but also the way it sheds an interesting light on some theories I’ve been looking at recently.
Roland Barthes, in a famous essay called ‘The Death of the Author’, argued against the Romantic conception of author as god-like genius held by writers such as Wordsworth:
[…] a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.
The idea that no writing is original, but instead a ‘tissue of citations’ borrowing meaning from the myriad of texts and other references (written or oral) floating in the social world of language has profound consequences for the way we approach literature. The notion that literary texts do not contain a single, ‘intended’ meaning released by the authorial author was posited by the New Critics of the early twentieth-century, Wimsatt and Beardsley. In ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that good criticism shouldn’t try to decipher an author’s intended meaning but instead look at how the poem succeeds in creating meaning through its form, claiming simply that ‘judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.’ Their definition of what ‘works’ in poetry was that style contributed to substance; in other words, the poem’s metre, rhyme and metaphor evoked the feelings and understandings appropriate to the poem’s meaning – a meaning that should be deciphered, then, not in reference to the author’s intentions but in reference solely to the text on the page. The New Critics, however, differ from Barthes in that they believe a text contains a complete, unified meaning that can be ‘unlocked’ by studying the text, whereas Barthes is saying the text is inherently plural, due to the unstable and intertextual nature of language and literature.
Going back to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, an epic poem defined by its status as the autobiographical unfolding of a poet’s personal and artistic growth (a quest for self-expression famously rewritten by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh from a female perspective), seems problematic within the context of twentieth-century New Criticism. How are we to approach a poem that is concerned primarily with the poet’s mind and experience? A poem that Wordsworth has literally put himself into? The poet himself described The Prelude as ‘a poem on the growth of my own mind’. Is it possible, then, to ignore his presence, and relegate the autobiographical context of the poem to a shadowy distance?
I think the two positions can be reconciled. Wordsworth’s poem may delve into personal experience, but he is by no means the only poet in the world that does so – let alone the only poet interested in the relationship between art and nature. Criticism is used to finding inventive ways of looking at a poem that may or may not involve the poet’s self and life. We could, in the following of Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’, consider how his use of blank verse constitutes an Oedipal struggle with his predecessor Milton. We could examine the more political elements of the poem, and how they relate to the cultural and social context of the time, or even the complex philosophical ideas Wordsworth espouses.
I myself am interested in the poet’s voice: the way he narrates fragments of experience to build up to the whole of his self, his artistic vision. I am also interested in the fluctuating effects of self-estrangement and unification, and the evocation of memory that permeates the text. Here is one of my favourite extracts of The Prelude:
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
A New Critical reading here could look at many poetic elements and examine how they contribute to an overall meaning. Indeed, I think the New Critical approach always has great value in unlocking the text – not in the sense of unlocking some kind of hidden meaning – but in unlocking the nuanced structures and framework of techniques that produce particular effects. Yet this kind of close reading can also go hand-in-hand with considerations of writerly subjectivity and creation, especially for an overtly autobiographical work like The Prelude. Although Wordsworth termed poetry ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, he also noted that it was ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’; in other words, poetry comes from the self, from a kind of organic inspiration caused by worldly experience, but it is only upon reflection and considered reconstruction that good poetry is created.
Of course, whether poetry comes from the self or not is irrelevant to New Critics, and for Barthes, this notion is flawed since all language is social: ‘it is language that speaks, not the author’, he claims in Image, Music, Text. It is, however, worthwhile to perhaps consider the ‘ghostly’ presence of the author in the text. Barthes himself admits in The Pleasure of the Text that the reader’s idea of the author plays a fundamental role in his/her reading of the text: ‘in a way, I need the author, I desire his presence’. This intimacy between reader and author is enacted as a kind of strangely corporeal, erotic relationship – where the reader desires the author’s body, in a kind of strip-tease effect as the text is unravelled before the reader’s eyes; but also by the reader, as the text is ‘played’ – as it offers up its ambiguities and gaps for the reader to fill in with his/her own meaning. The presence of the author is the promise of meaning. When I read Wordsworth’s poem, and look for meaning, I am not just thinking of the words on the page – inevitably I have some hazy conception of the writer who writes them, the man wandering the Lake District with words whirling round his brain like blossom caught in the wind. Without my sense of the author, I feel as I open the cover of a book, the text seems hollow; I need to conjure his/her presence to enter the threshold of fiction, and of meaning.
This of course applies to certain texts more than others. If I have no real knowledge of the author, I am able to approach a text with a ‘pure’ mind, but even then, I unconsciously scan for clues as to the possible links the text has to other writers and traditions. The text, then, seems always to be situated in some intangible web of meaning, and only sometimes is the author present, a spider or spectre creeping elusively around my reading of the text.
So, back to the ghostly presence of Wordsworth in this extract. Who is he – who and when and where is the speaking ‘I’ – is it Wordsworth, the physical hand, gnarled with old age (and those trips to the Alps) writing the poem, Wordsworth the young boy (returned to in memory or literally re-living his younger self?), Wordsworth the imagined author, behind a desk in Dove Cottage, conjured by the reader’s imagination…Or perhaps all of these, an uncanny amalgamation of identities? Wordsworth himself never lived to see the poem published; indeed, he was revising it again and again until his final years. So we can’t even be sure which temporal Wordsworth was writing these lines. Which words came at which age? When reading, I feel the fragmented sense of time come together in the quiet and consistent flow of the iambic lines. It seems like the author’s true identity, his ‘true’ intentions or involvement in the poem, slip away under the seduction of the poetry and language.
Milan Kundera in Art of the Novel mentions a distinction between poets with and without history. Wordsworth might here be difficult to classify because he wrote both intimate, lyrical poems and also ones which dealt with the politics and history of the time, such as the Industrial Revolution. In the above extract – a mere snippet of the whole poem, which does at points get historical – I’d like to consider Wordsworth a poet without history; the ‘I’ of the speaker merged with both the poet and the young boy who steals the boat. Memory has transformed the experience into a sublime perspective on the transcendent greatness of the world, the ‘familiar shapes’ evolved into ‘huge and mighty forms, which ‘do not live / like living men’. In other words, forms that will not breathe and change and die like humans, but remain in a powerful position of natural supremacy – an existence that to Wordsworth as a developing poet and young man was almost formidable, ‘a trouble to [his] dreams’. Kundera points out that ‘pure lyric poetry lives in feelings’ which ‘are all given to us at once’, but intensify in the mind of a poet. I feel that Wordsworth’s moving account of the transition of the landscape reflects this, particularly as the weighty blank verse and enjambment create that sense of moving, progressive and natural feeling.
Yet it is also a strange feeling, the sensation and memory of terror that recalls in the eye/the ‘I’ of the poet’s mind. The emotions experienced as a boy are part of the bank of material that builds up to produce poetic inspiration. And yet memory is not a film-tape, recording past events with absolute accuracy. It is malleable, subject to revision, always related to the present moment in which it is recalled. Wordsworth called these ‘spots of time’: moments where some flash of previous existence will burst into consciousness – a thought, a memory, a feeling, a scene from a novel, a line of verse, a melody from a song. This strange release of the past into the fiery now of the present can not always be explained, but they are essential, in Wordsworth’s philosophy, for the development of self. As Locke argued, the self is a continual being only through the continuation of consciousness, and it is through these ‘spots of time’ – gaps in the fabric of our present that catch some thread of our past – that our identity continues to be woven together into a coherent selfhood.
And so, in slight relation to selfhood, the idea of genius, or a poet without history. Barthes has destroyed genius, in his destruction of authorship. We can accept the theoretical ‘truth’ or weight of this, but still acknowledge, at least psychologically, some kind of notion of genius. Genius doesn’t have to mean brilliance, but as Kundera’s book suggests, it conveys something special and unique about creative writing, in that it is inevitably in some way produced by feeling – and this feeling is inextricably related to one’s personal experiences, even if the writer is not aware or rejects this in their writing. Personal experiences are unique, and even though language is not, it is our individual way of assembling language in direct relation to feeling and consciousness that makes writing something special, perhaps magical; that makes writers not merely what Italo Calvino in ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ calls ‘literary machines’, churning out elaborate patterns of words from the dictionary.
Moreover, and this may link with Barthes’ writings on readerly pleasure, genius can lie in the reader too. A genius that transcends language, the feeling of what Barthes calls ‘jouissance’ or bliss, that occurs when a text ‘imposes a state of loss’ upon the reader. For if the reader is involved in producing meaning from this lost, he/she too has some kind of genius. When faced with the lines: ‘For so it seemed, with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing, / Strode after me’ we are struck with the sudden, lightning bolt connection between past and present. ‘Seemed’ highlights the idea of visual recollection, of memory recalled in the present. The uncanny anthropomorphism of the ‘huge peak, black and huge’ recalls a childhood terror, but also the adult’s terror of the unknown. Wordsworth, the writing poet, cannot recall exactly what made the peak so terrible. It is merely ‘huge’, ‘huge’ – a monstrous presence burgeoning repeatedly in his memory and thought. This strange severance between feeling and meaning is a kind of bliss, and a kind of fear. The loss is what is left out in the mind; just as Wordsworth’s recollection is a distortion of childhood fright and adult ‘trouble’, the reader’s perception of that looming black peak is the facing of an abyss: ‘there hung a darkness’. An abyss of possibility. What is the nature of the child’s fear, why can Wordsworth recall it – what is it in his present moment that brings back that memory? The only way to find out is to trail the poem’s entirety, searching endlessly for clues that connect the ‘stars’ of the poet’s psychology, of the poem’s constellation of meaning. Yet there will always be these chasms, where it seems that meaning is lost – where, as the black peak separates the ‘I’ from the ‘stars’, the reader faces an aporia, a non-road separating the word on the page with its meaning, its interpretation. The author’s intentions are lost, and the dictionary fails us.
I have tried to compare Wordsworth’s experience of nature with the experience of reading, as an activity profoundly connected with both loss and creation, with darkness and strangeness but also the ‘sparkling light’ that seems to seduce us into the bewitching land of literature.
‘To give an Author to a text,’ Barthes argues, ‘is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’. I don’t think this is entirely true. I think that if you allow the author’s presence, at least at some ghostly level – and this has been discussed somewhere in Derrida’s writing in a much more sophisticated way than I have here – you can open the writing. For the author creates more problems, as a character not quite inside or outside the text. The uniting of the reading and writing self; navigating the text and giving it meaning; facing up to the strange array of images and sounds that lead a meandering path through the poem – that is poetic genius.