31 Songs | Angelina AyersPosted: June 5, 2013
When I read Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs, as much as the essays, I enjoyed sourcing the songs they were about, so I could make a mix tape. I still make mix tapes with cassettes; the record/pause kerchunk between songs is a real addition, I think. Hornby’s list is definitive, in that there’s no 31 Songs: The Remix full of mind changes and new material. When you make your own playlist, at least some of the point is that it’s temporal, a reflection of you and what’s doing it for you today. There’ll always be need of another mix tape. But there are some songs you’ll keep coming back to, and when you hear them elsewhere, in a pub, perhaps, you know the DJ is playing them for you: no one else gets it, but it’s worth telling whoever’s listening why they should. These are your 31 songs. I’d love to steal Hornby’s idea, but I won’t. That is, not quite: 31 Poems.
This isn’t a chart. It’s not my Top 31, so there’s no pressure to find obscure epics that will make me seem astonishingly well read, esoteric and obnoxious. Reading poetry wasn’t big at school, but I was a good honest Catholic, and prayers had rhythm:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
My memory of saying this prayer might be pre-school. It might have been once, or it might have been nightly. Memory is a really poor way of remembering stuff. I’m sitting on the knee of a woman called Sandra. She was a relative (still is, I expect), in the way that some families have relatives in every corner of the globe, and several spare ones at home. I am in my dressing gown, and I can see behind her the red quilted back of a 70s sofa. She’s prompting me to remember the words: “Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep”. And that’s the end of the memory – though, I now find, not the end of the prayer.
Hornby says that if you hear a song and love it, you’ll listen to it over and over, until the initial memory of where you first heard it fades. The idea of a song reminding you of some one/time/place, suggests that the song doesn’t really do anything else for you. As much as I love Eagle-Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight”, and happy as I am to hear it on the radio, I don’t own a copy because that’s not the point. It reminds me of getting ready to go out with my student nurse friends in 1998. My marriage had failed, and it was a time of taking control, overcoming stuff, and the song was getting a lot of airtime. I don’t want to overuse this song. I want to be taken back when I hear it, to feel how I felt, the confusion of being alone and the roller-coaster stomach-churning excitement of moving on.
The prayer is my first recollected experience of poetry, but it’s the recollection that makes it significant, rather than the words’ effect on me. From now on, the poems are the thing.
If I’ve to start somewhere, I have to start here: “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath. In playlist terms, it’s equivalent to “Dry the Rain” by The Beta Band: not their best song, maybe, but it was my way into their other stuff. It’s easy to like; the harmonies are memorable. But for all its catchy riffs, this isn’t disposable pop music; it has an underbelly of dissonance, accidentals slipping between major and minor keys, and a vocal that’s on the edge of something. “Morning Song” is often anthologized, but I like it best as the opening poem of Ariel. I think of collections as albums, Selected Poems as “Greatest Hits” and anthologies as “Now That’s What I Call Music”. So the order of a collection, the word it starts on, is immutable (whatever thought you put into your mix tape, there will be other orders, new tapes). In Frieda Hughes’ introduction to the Restored Ariel, she describes how Plath felt the significance of starting her collection with the word “Love” and ending with “Spring” (not true of the 1965 edition, which ends with “Life”. Perhaps this is where album reissues come in). “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” is a fine way to begin, with its great physical forward rush. I have an image of the watch, in all its fat nakedness dangling by its ankle as the midwife slaps the crap out of its cogs. “Fat” is a great word to say. “Fat”. I say it often.
I’ve got this poem by heart at the moment. I’ve memorized it at least three times, which means I’ve forgotten it again twice. After a while the words start to fade. Is it a watch or a clock? Is it a Victorian nightgown or nightdress? What I’m left with is the opening line, more or less, moth-breath, a floral cow? and balloons rising into a night sky. “New statue” sticks, and I wonder why. Perhaps it’s the puzzle of these words as their own sentence: “Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.” In my copy of the Restored Edition, the full stop after “statue” is missing, so it suddenly seemed I’d been reading it wrong. And linking with the following clause makes sense: “New statue / in a drafty museum, your nakedness / shadows our safety.” I went to flick through some other editions in the house, and no. There’s a full stop. But in these two minutes of uncertainty, I understood how important the surprise of that full stop is, how I missed the potential for puzzling over this sentence fragment, its isolation.
“New statue” forms part of a Plath language system that extends beyond the poem. In “Barren Woman”, the statue is absent from the museum, in the same way it is present in the draughty museum of “Morning Song”: “Empty, I echo to the least footfall, / Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticoes, rotundas.” I like the idea of appropriation, building a language where images, words and myths have been internalized and reinvented, stabilized through use, so that any instability within that system is interesting.
Clouds come up in other poems, but perhaps they’re more ambiguous as symbol or signifier, so that the “sun-clouds” in “Poppies in October” don’t so clearly inform the clouds in “Morning Song”. The cloud stanza here is hard to memorize, perhaps because of that long line:
I’m no more your mother
than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
effacement at the wind’s hand.
I always thought of this puddle reflecting the mother as she ages, similar to the personified looking glass in “Mirror”: “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.” But it’s “effacement”, not decay, in “Morning Song”. The mother is rubbed out, and it’s this she sees in the child. Only now that my son is an adult do I notice how much I am defined by him. I am obscured. I obscure myself. I read the poem with new appreciation.
The darkness of these stanzas, the cold of the wind and echoing museum, is itself obscured by other, more positive imagery in the poem, but it creates an undercurrent (an underbelly of dissonance) that raises questions around expectations of motherhood; how we cope with the physical and emotional upheaval that comes with it. The poem problematises an experience that society presents as the most natural thing in the world, without saying that’s what it’s saying. Clever.
But motherhood is a TDK D90 of two halves (except your Walkman changes sides without warning, and it takes more than a pencil when things unravel). The second half of the poem moves from cold museums to “flat pink roses”. Even her nightdress is “floral”. This living imagery suggests something much closer to what we think about when we think about babies, so the stars are “dull” in comparison. I don’t know whether reading this poem helped me deal with anything. The poem isn’t for that. I think there’s often an inverse correlation between how much a poem seems for something, and how much a poem does something. This poem does something. Not when your child’s crying at 3am and you don’t know what the hell they want from you, or when they’re 16, demanding freedom, accusing you of everything from not understanding them to the demise of My Chemical Romance. When your child’s screwing you into the ground, a poem won’t do. But later, when he buys you a Turkish Delight, in lieu of an apology, this poem knows where you’re coming from.
Click here to read ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath.