In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby talks about listening to a song over and again, the need to solve it, to listen until it’s given up its mysteries. And then what? It gets old, worn out? This doesn’t seem to worry Paul McCartney, who still turns up every Queen’s birthday to close the proceedings with an extended “Hey Jude”. If you’re going to say you like The Beatles, and I do, you should maybe talk about “Revolution Number 9” more than “A Hard Day’s Night”, if you want to seem culturally engaged, rather than out for easy (and so, meaningless?) monophonic gratification. For certain, some songs give up their mysteries less readily than others, and “Revolution Number 9” remains unresolved for me. But “A Hard Day’s Night” – that perfect polished nugget of pure pop in two-and-a-half minutes – retains some mystery, doesn’t it? The opening chord, its twangy dissonance, has generated decades of debate, from 12-string conspiracy theories to mathematical analysis. It’s one of the most recognizable sounds in pop history, and although I’ve heard other songs open similarly, I don’t remember what they’re called or who they’re by (Pixies aside). They’re only memorable for not being “A Hard Day’s Night”.
“Glory be to God for dappled things” has always struck me as one of the most memorable opening lines around. I think it’s to do with the pomp and glee of “Glory be to God”, against the earthiness of “dappled things”. It’s almost funny, isn’t it? Except Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line doesn’t make me laugh; it makes me happy. I’d say the line loudly, whenever I was out running on Rivelin Valley Road and starting to feel my legs getting tired. It perked me right up. Or when I’m worrying about life, the universe and everything, it works then, too. Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and as with anything en trend, has had a whole money-making industry grow up around it. But mindfulness is free, and this seems as good an approach as any. It takes my mind out of myself and throws it at the dappled stuff in front of me. Sometimes there are skies of couple-colour. There’s rarely a brinded cow, however.
That contrast within the opening line embodies the whole idea of “dappled”. It sets the poem up as an example of its subject, and is an ode to the nature of beauty, as much as to God. These two themes are inseparable for Hopkins, but praising God gives me the willies, in case the lapsed Catholic in me bursts into hymn. You can insert whatever does it for you, if God isn’t your thing, and still get the thrill of it. Beauty is for everyone, and Hopkins is pretty good on the topic. In his On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue, an Oxford professor talks about a sycamore leaf; that the beauty of it isn’t in the symmetry of its shape (so when you fold it lengthways, one side answers the other), or the asymmetry of the diametrically opposed leaves (big leaves diametrically opposite small leaves), but in the relation of one aspect to the other. I had some trouble picturing this, and, to my shame, had to Google “sycamore leaf”. But the next day, I went for a run round Endcliffe Park, and guess what I noticed all over the path, not to mention “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”.
Those compounds of his are special, like he wants you to experience everything about a thing all at once. The compounds and the rhymes woven through the poem create this tight, coherent whole in ten and a bit lines – or two-and-a-half minutes in pop terms. Perhaps its own coherence and memorability, its relative accessibility, undermines itself. Perhaps there’s more mystery to solve in “Wreck of the Deutschland”? But “Pied Beauty” still retains mystery for me. Reading it now, I notice that I’ve never thought about “fathers-forth”, but I’ve an image of God shimmying to the front of stage (looking like Ted Neeley from Jesus Christ Superstar), as he presents all of creation with a ta-da!
And then those brackets in the eighth line: “Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)”. I’m generally suspicious of brackets in a poem; they seem to lack conviction by their own parenthetic nature. For a long time, I wanted to ignore the aside, like when you go to a reading and the poet interrupts themselves to qualify the bit they just read with a shrug or anecdote. Maybe it jars because the “I” is barely present elsewhere – but I’m starting to think that’s the point. Self-effacement is in keeping with Hopkins’s Jesuit doctrine, but I think he’s so fired up about his subject, he’s (accidentally?) bubbled over onto the page. I might love him for this, and even though I’ve been ignoring him, in effect, that human intervention is probably why I keep going back to the poem. It stops it being just a psalm to God or nature, and makes it about the man, how he negotiates his relationship with them, which is such an abiding experience: how can it get old?
Angelina Ayers’ sequence The Strait appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. You can read ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins here. Ayers discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’ (an earlier post in this series). Click here to access Angelina Ayers’ website.
“All the leaves are brown” is impossible to say without lilting into the melody of “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas. It’s a song about being homesick for L.A., where it’s “safe and warm” compared to the New York winter. There are sounds my brain can’t work out; I can’t reduce this song to the sum of its parts, but I think their sadness is in its harmonies, the accidental A minor chords, and the alto flute, breathy, flightily slipping between notes, but subverting our flute-ful expectations with its low register melancholy; it sounds like nights drawing in and stew on the stove.
I can hear the cusp of autumn and winter – I recognize the minor chords, but I don’t experience them as sadness, sad as they are. Much of my childhood narrative is knee-deep in knitwear and all shades of bronze (the leaves are not all brown). Summer memories have merged into one long blond day, with everything on hold, too hot for movement; I hear change in those autumnal harmonies, and as I walk along the river this month, I can’t help singing along, mostly in my head, though some bits slip out. I do this every year, as is the way with the Earth’s seasonal tilt.
To affect any real sorrow through the seasons we have to lose sight of the cyclical patterns of renewal, and superimpose the linear passage of human time. Emily Bronte’s “Fall, Leaves, Fall” does this through its ambivalence:
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
There’s tension between the surface, the smile and the bliss, and the undercurrent of “wreath”, “decay”, the normative “rose should grow”. It’d be ok to give the rose the winter off; seasons allow for this, but Bronte doesn’t. The rose “should” grow. Summer has been usurped, rather than merely giving way to autumn, and “the drearier day” ushered in through the lengthening night is an ending, it’s permanent. So why is she looking forward to it? I think that’s in her body of work, rather than in the poem – the question is more important than the answer.
So how do we negotiate our single, linear life against a backdrop of revolution? November 2012, I walk past a bench overlooking the river. It’s inscribed: One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. It’s gone a sort of mud-moss-green, rain-soft and rickety. Something black and wet is growing, filling-out the gouged-wood lettering. I sit and watch the water. The bench is in memory of a man who died in 1995, but I know him from this view, the stream high and mighty today, the weekend’s storm carving its way through the earth to low ground and the stone weirs stepping it down towards town; from the trees towering behind me, the pair of blue tits dipping between branches. And all these leaves. As I walk deeper into the woods, I see they’re everywhere different, and realize I don’t know an oak leaf from a sycamore. I start collecting the less sodden shapes, tracing their various outlines against my palm, take five-point-stars and teardrops home, so I can learn their names. I did this, and am better (though not great) at recognizing trees by their leaf because of this stranger, who must have known them all… Actually, when I passed the bench again, I noticed the man was born in 1962; he was much younger than I’d imagined, and it then seemed likely the man in my head was there already.
I’d like to say that when I’d written the first draft of “The Bench”, I took the dead bronze slop of leaves back to the woods, so it could fuel the next generation. But I won’t lie. I am thinking of starting a compost heap, however.
‘The Bench’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems by Angelina Ayers, James Caruth, Mark Goodwin, Rob Hindle, Andrew Hirst, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite published by Longbarrow Press on 30 October. Visit The Footing microsite for more information about the anthology. Listen to Angelina Ayers reading ‘The Bench’ on location below:
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.