296 words. Pay attention.
For many years, I’ve taught young writers that there are only two things that matter, two things they need to learn, and that the entire universe of literature is contained within those elements: images, and (honest) emotions. Now, it seems, I’ve been proven correct:
Notably, readers did not at all agree on what poems they found appealing, an outcome that supports the notion that people have different tastes; nonetheless, there is common ground—vividness of imagery and emotional valence—in what explains these tastes, even if they vary.
It’s always fun to see the academy catching up to that which artists and musicians have known for, oh, fifteen thousand years?
In the present day – when places called cafés are springing up everywhere, drawing in thousands of idle people with money to squander, when male and female students behave so shockingly in streetcars that it has become necessary to segregate them – men have lost all trace of that fervor that drove their ancestors to accept the most frightening challenges. Now they are good for nothing but to flutter their effeminate hands like dry, fragile leaves shaken by the merest puff of air.
…from Spring Snow, by Yukio Mishima, who in his 45 years wrote 34 novels, 50 plays, 25 short story collections, 35 books of essays, one libretto, and a single film, and who, upon completing his masterpiece Sea of Fertility tetralogy in 1970, led his own private militia to invade the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, gave a speech intended to inspire a coup (for which he was brazenly mocked), then calmly walked into the commandant’s office, drew his sword, and committed ritual suicide.
Clearly, Mishima had issues.
Yet even so, it’s hard to deny the vision of a writer who could render the turmoil of a broken era so clearly in the flaming scarlet maples reflected on a calm pool of water.
There’s a dream I keep having, where my momma comes to me
And kneels down over by the window, and says a prayer for me
Got my own way of praying, but every one’s begun
With a southern accent, where I come from
…Thanks, Mr. Petty.
It’s that bluegrass sound, but with a little bit more edge to it. It’s something I’d want to listen to, sound-wise, growing up in this area. The Appalachian culture and the way the people in this region talk, the sayings they have, it all lends itself to good songs. Everything they say is a song line.
…Kentucky singer-songwriter, Tyler Childers, in this Rolling Stone article, whose new album Purgatory was produced by the mush-mouthed sage Sturgill Simpson, as well as David Ferguson, sound engineer for Johnny Cash‘s iconic American Recordings, and which at times sounds as raw and haunting as Ray LaMontagne singing at a country funeral.
High heel lady spitting at the Nickajacks
Business man with a needle and a spoon
Coyote chewing on a cigarette
Pack o’ young boys going howling at the moon
…text can’t convey how good these lyrics are. “Sleeping On The Blacktop,” by Colter Wall, who even though Canadian possessed the good sense to name his EP “Imaginary Appalachia,” and who looks about ready to hike outta Bold Camp and go pick fights at a Wise County football game.
She’s certainly bewitched me
with her innocent airs.
As light as blown glass, her figure,
her bearing seems like a figure off a screen.
But she instantly frees herself
from the glossy lacquer background.
This little butterfly flutters and
settles with such silent grace,
That I am overtaken by the urge to pursue her,
Even if I have to tear off her wings.
Blue, blue is the grass about the river
And the willows have overfilled the close garden.
And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth.
White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.
Slender, she puts forth a slender hand;
And she was a courtezan in the old days,
And she has married a sot,
Who now goes drunkenly out
And leaves her too much alone.
One of my father’s real social skills, however, was carving out space in a crowded bar. Someone would pivot slightly and there he’d be, one elbow on the mahogany, clearing somebody’s highball glass out of the way with a sophisticated sleight of hand, a twenty-dollar bill materializing in its place. Given this small opening he then managed somehow to look for all the world as if he’d been right in that spot since the building was erected. The illusion was so overpowering that those he displaced often apologized when they discovered him there.
He began to pace every room, like a happy lunatic, waving his hands and reciting the film in great shouts. We listened to him, dazzled, and it seemed we could see the images, like flocks of phosphorescent birds that he set loose for their mad flight through the house.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
For those (like myself) who still read Twain with a kind of absorbing awe, and also those (not like myself) who read academic writing, I’m quite proud to point to this month’s issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, which features a lengthy work of mine titled “The (Magical) Voice of Community in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger,” in which I argue that Twain was America’s (and perhaps the world’s?) first magical realist novelist, and also that magical realism itself is little more than…well…how southerners talk.
In the clearing around the shack were high mounds of junk. There were stacks of bald tires, car bodies without hoods, rusted hubcaps, foaming car batteries, splintered wooden ladders, broken sheets of fiberglass, brown bed springs. It was interesting to look down from the top of the embankment at all that junk, because a lot of it you couldn’t even identify and it was fun to see if you could figure out what it had once been used for. Sometimes stray dogs found their way into that clearing and sniffed among the mounds, looking for the right place to lift a leg. When you tossed pebbles down from the embankment, they believed in God.
…from The Risk Pool, by Richard Russo. Years ago, my friend Ramon (a lanky man with a startling gaze, chaotic hair, and a philosopher’s taste in video games) handed me this book in a Hong Kong beer joint. It took me half a decade to read. The lesson, as always, which I should have remembered from the decaying, hungover afternoons of our youth in Southern China: when Ramon hands you a book with the both of his hands, read it immediately.
Strait’s version, the only one that most people will ever hear, is masterfully plain. He occasionally approaches a syllable from above, using a mournful grace note, but he has an easy, conversational way of putting a melody across, as if he were singing to keep from talking.
The first section of this New Yorker article on George Strait contains some of the most enlightened music journalism I’ve ever read.
He’s come to make love on your satin sheets
Wake up on your living room floor
He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours
…decades later, and this song still makes me want to start a band. Hard-Core Troubadour, track 2 from Steve Earle‘s 1996 album, I Feel Alright, which is Lesson #1 in Rock & Roll Songwriting, both for its lyrical content and for containing all five of the Top-5 Greatest Drum Punctuations in history.
I like men who have known the best and the worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip. Storms have battered them, they have lain, sometimes for months on end, becalmed. There is a residue even if they fail. It has not been all tinkling; there have been grand chords.
Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.
…from a tedious book about a fish.
There was a game he liked that he had once played all the time. It was who could get you to cry in the fewest words? There was a line in The Three Sisters: “You mean, I’m being left behind?” But Irwin always quoted the article by Gay Talese about Joe DiMaggio: On their honeymoon in Tokyo, Marilyn Monroe had gone off on a USO tour and come back and said, Joe, there were a hundred thousand people there and they were all cheering and clapping; you’ve never seen anything like it.
Yes, I have, DiMaggio said.
I try to summon her and all the letters with their girlish script, the pleas and admonitions, gossip of friends, endearments, exaggeration. Sometimes it seems that all that has happened since is less vital than what we were, and the luster of her eighteen years, the tawdriness I wanted to immerse them in, to stain their glory and make them immortal. She was, for a season, mine, and I was drunk with it. I had the hussarlike luxury of being bored by the genuine thing, and though places have vanished, where she stands is where she has always stood and I carefully place her story where it belongs, before the rest.
At the Grammy’s last year, “Burning House” by Cam lost Best Country Solo Performance to the regrettable “Traveller” by Chris Stapleton, the dull lyrics of which somehow, miraculously, manage to be emotionless and sentimental at the same time (though perfectly crafted for shallow listening), and the title of which is spelled incorrectly (unless you’re British).
“Burning House,” however, is a magically crafted song, and a wonderful example of why mainstream Nashville songwriting teams exist. It’s beautiful, precise, and never says more than it needs to. It’s clearly based on real human experience. Its arrangement is in perfect harmony with the soul of the song. It’s the type of song I wish we only received from Nashville.
Nevertheless, I’ve been racking my brain for the last half hour, trying to determine why songwriter Cam, not to mention her two co-writers, left the final line of the chorus hanging…
I’ve been sleepwalking
Been wondering all night
Trying to take what’s lost and broke and make it right…
I’ve been sleepwalking
Too close to the fire
But it’s the only place that I can hold you tight…
In this burning house…
Tonight? Why not fulfill that rhyme? It’s easy, obvious, and satisfies the circularity extended by “night” in the first line of the chorus. Yeah yeah yeah, silence and longing and desire and all that, but if that’s what you’re going for, why not only leave it hanging at the very end of the song? Why not give the listener that sense of auditory fulfillment in the middle, and then leave them hanging at the end? Would it create too much space before the beginning of the next verse? To me it’s the difference between a sad thread of hope…and utter despair. To me, it leaves the listener staring, instead of crying.
And no, it’s not a valid argument that the song would then be indirectly rhyme-linking “night” and “tonight.” They’d be at opposite ends of the chorus, with a plangent beat of silence before the resolution. Trust me, no one hates more than I when a song rhymes a word with itself. That’s not the case here.
Really, though. I love this song…but why? What drove that decision?