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This is a test video for a series of video-podcast discussions of poems and of media for my courses this fall. In April, for National Poetry Month, I decided to discuss and then read one of my favourite poems, the sonnet “Fourteen” by Marilyn Hacker. (A blog post here re-types the text of the poem.) There is plenty that I leave out in what I say: the poem is a brilliantly complex and resonant piece of writing, a kind of “presentation piece” as Hacker might have put it. The last line always moves me in ways that are difficult to capture in any formal analysis. And here I don’t really broach the difficult gender-politics that the poem interrogates. I have taught this poem a number of times in first-year lecture courses, introductions to literary studies, so the video is pitched as a kind of introduction to the text.
[This essay, focusing on Patti Smith’s early songs, emerges from teaching and writing I’m doing around an undergraduate course on the poetics of song lyrics and pop culture studies.]
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006 is more than an anthology of lyrics, and it’s also hardly complete. Patti Smith’s writing – along with her music and photography – is marked and informed by an essential contrariety, by a conflictedness suggested ironically in the book’s blandly generic title, which gestures, I’d say, toward an admixture of excess and fragmentation, of spontaneous overflow and fraught insufficiency that drives her thinking around the making of poems and songs and around her performance style. She frames this set of contradictions, her sense of voice and of self as embodied contradictions, in the snippets of memoir and reflection scattered throughout the book; commenting on the lyrics for “Birdland,” a track for Horses spontaneously and collectively realized by her and her band in the recording studio, she says that the “concept of improvisation” – and it’s worth nothing that she says concept, rather than practice – “has long repelled and excited me, for it contains the possibilities of humiliation and illumination,” that is, both of the degrading and the vatic. “Sha da do wop da shaman do way sha da do wop da shaman do way,” she sings at the close of her extemporaneous soliloquy; song, as contingent melody, emerges (as in “Land”) off-and-on in the piece from passages of loosely narrative spoken word; the final gently looping chorus blurs doo-wop girl-group nonsense syllables into a vestigial chant of the word “shaman,” and it’s as a kind of nascent and androgynous rock’n’roll shaman that Smith wants here, at the outset of her singing career, to position herself. In a New York Times review of her 1978 collection Babel, a precursor to the “complete” collection we’re now reading in our course on song lyrics and popular culture, Jonathan Cott nicely encapsulates the contradictions that inhere in Smith’s stagy shamanism as he traces out the complexities of her performance persona, of her onstage self-fashioning:
Patti Smith has taken this magic amalgam and manifested it in what she calls “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word,” claiming that rock-and-roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” . . . [B]y adopting a paradoxical theatrical stance – one that confuses male and female roles and that combines the acoustic magic of Rimbaud and the Ronettes – Patti Smith has been able to develop, explore and create a certain shamanistic presence that has eluded many aspiring rock-and-roll seers and heroes.
Counterpointing bits of scripture with caustic fragments of French symbolist poetry, her performative “magic” emerges as an uneasy blend of what she calls – ventriloquizing Jean Genet’s poem“Le Condamné à mort” on the back cover of her 1979 album Wave – a doubling of menace into prayer, of prayer as menace. (In the pages of her Complete, the crux of the line – “Use menace, use prayer.” – becomes an epigraph to the section reproducing the lyrics for Easter .)
The infamous first line of “Gloria” – the first track and the first single from her first album, Horses – combines the liturgical and the blasphemous along this same trajectory: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” As an opening gambit, her declaration doesn’t simply articulate what sounds like a resiliently agnostic, existential individualism, but also voices an entitlement – hers, “mine” – to her own deliberate marginality. Her rock-and-roll “magic,” understood as a gestural negation, isn’t so much about belief and shared redemption as it is about disturbance, about a faith – a belief both in and as resistance – that wants uncompromisingly to test its limits and to refuse any vestiges of comfort or assurance. While never quite rejecting Christian iconology and aesthetics (especially the ritual of Roman Catholicism, as the tone poem “Wave,” for example, makes abundantly clear, as well as a very recent photograph of her meeting Pope Francis) Patti Smith describes her Jesus, in the wake of viewing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, as a “revolutionary figure”: “I began to see him in another light – a teacher, a fighter, a guerrilla” (96). Her Easter is closer to an Easter uprising, a rebirth in turmoil that implicates her in an uncompromised, if not violent, self-remaking. As she appropriates and repurposes the glorified masculine desire that informs Van Morrison’s (as one of Them) original 1963 single “Gloria” (“And oh, she looks so good. Oh she looks so fine / And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna make her mine”), the subject position that defines itself in a tirade of possessives (“And I’ve got to tell the world that I made her mine made her mine / Made her mine made her mine made her mine made her mine”) degenerates into a repetitive chant that pulverizes poeisis, making, and diegesis, telling, into thudding particulate phonemes: her voice, the “I” that sings and by singing both hails and possesses its feminine other, becomes drumming, becomes unclosed, brutal and primeval rhythm, a beating. Liturgical responsorial from the Latin mass – gloria in excelsis deo– is both secularized into an erotic object and pulled apart, as she intones each letter of Gloria’s name, into the molecular fragments. The song at once catalyzes into insistent, thetic syllables and disintegrates into undifferentiated verbal noise: pronouncing and dismantling a beloved name that, through the poetic agency of the lyric itself, becomes simultaneously both mine and not-mine, supplement and other.
This double move is, I think, characteristic of many of Patti Smith’s lyrics, which often assert a confidently singular subject while gesturing to the iterative, collaborative and unsettled character of that voice, of her voice. The sexual ambiguity of “Gloria,” for example, as Patti Smith’s lyrics overtake and then fall into a cover-version, a repetition with difference, of Van Morrison’s original (sung, as the lyrics claim, to “twenty thousand girls” at an imaginary stadium concert), disturbs any clear sense of the erotic narrative in the song: Is this a woman ventriloquizing heterosexual desire? Does the song become a queer paean to same-sex desire? The indeterminate androgyny of Patti Smith’s stage persona unknits any normalizing of the dynamics between man and woman, suitor and ingénue. “Because the Night” (from Easter, two or three years later) thematizes desire as belonging, assembling want and succor into an amalgam of contrarieties that becomes more a testament to faith than its deconstruction: “Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us.” Notably, that belonging is shared, ours instead of mine. Smith describes herself as reluctant to listen to a demo cassette of an early version of the song, supplied through producer/engineer Jimmy Iovine from its composer, Bruce Springsteen. Taken by what she describes as its “anthemic quality,” she finishes the lyrics and “somewhat begrudgingly” presents it to her band to record (100). The resulting hit song, she says, is a “testament to Jimmy Iovine’s vision and the co-writer’s New Jersey heritage,” which is also close to her own. As with “Gloria,” what emerges on record isn’t so much a cover or a version of someone else’s song as much as it is a collaborative mix of voices and articulations. For instance, one line that I take to be closer to Smith’s idiom than Springsteen’s (though who can tell or separate them out?) offers in an archly poetic inversion a strong disavowal of the imperious first-person singular: “Have I doubt when I’m alone.” While such a declaration might easily be taken as an avocation of conquest (and assertions in the lyric about “the way I feel under your command” would likely only reinforce such a reading), it seems to me that what we also hear – given the ambiguity and even absence of gender markers for example – is an unsettled and androgynous collaboration, an affirmation that belonging consists in shared desires rather than in their satisfaction through erotic subjugation. When the song asks us to feel and to heal through touch, to “touch me now” in its performative moment, subject and object are inverted in the imperative form, as “I” becomes “me.” Demand and uncertainty produce a temporary hiatus, an almost: contact suspended in the looping repetitions of the refrain. For me, as a listener, this persistence of desire sounds itself in the rhythmic phase-shift of the chorus; because of where it’s placed metrically, “becáuse” becomes “bécause”, and the song gently but persistently jostles against its own formal limits.
Smith’s songs, though, are hardly ever so gentle. (There is nothing, nothing gentle about “Rock n Roll N****r,” an in-your-face provocation that offers a sort of blasphemous flipside to “Because the Night.” [The actual b-side on the 45 was “God Speed.”] I can’t bring myself to type the word without self-censoring: to me, it’s unredeemable and ugly, a verbal violence out of which Smith draws an insurmountable and irresolute alterity, a brutal vocal enactment of Rimbaud’s grammatically fraught claim that “Je est un autre.” There is a good discussion of much of the background to Smith’s reappropriation of the term n****r here.)
The sequence “Land” (also on Horses) begins with a spoken-word piece “Horses” that builds from rubato free-form narrative to four-on-the-floor incantatory, blistering rock. “Horses” sketches a tale of Johnny and his mirror-image, a nameless boy, who confront each other in an unspecified hallway. This doubling is also echoed, literalized, in the restrained overdubbing of another vocal track by Smith, out-of-synch with the lead, her words softly clashing and crashing into each other, as her delivery becomes more emphatic. As the boy approaches, “a rhythm was generating” the song tells us. Johnny is penetrated by the boy as he’s pushed against a locker. (Is this a high school hallway?) The boy disappears, but Johnny starts crashing his own head against the locker, a violence that seems to produce either delusion or vision, concussion or transcendence: either way, the “rhythm” Johnny now sees and hears with increasing intensity in his head, in his ears, sounds like the hoofbeats of fire breathing horses, a pounding verbalized in a chant-like repetition – similar to the chorus in “Gloria” – of a single word: “He saw horses horses horses / horses horses horses horses horses.” The surging drums and guitars behind Smith’s vocal reach a vatic climax – these are versions of the horses of the Christian apocalypse – only to find release into a high velocity version of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
As with “Gloria,“ the group inhabits in the fierce present tense of their performances a dynamic trajectory through rock’n’roll history. The apocalyptic horses transform, in the first line of Wilson Pickett’s top 40 hit, into one of a set of teenage dance crazes: “Do you know how to pony like bony maroney” Smith wails. Whoever her Johnny might have been, as a representative disaffected teenager, he now appears to find a moment of catharsis and of shared vitality in the song’s hypnotic repetitions: it’s an old song recovered and made new, and it also asserts an insistently driven 4/4 rhythm in which you can’t help getting caught up and pulled to your feet – “Got to lose control and then you take control [. . .] Do you like it like that like it like that.” Spontaneity and self-control collide and smash; what you (not I and not even we, but the vocalist’s externalized other, her audience) . . . what you get to like in this music – liking taken both as likeness, as in the mirrorings and identifications inherent in popular music, and as Eros, as liking what you feel – what you get to like in this music are the conflicted pleasures of its own creative unmaking, its audible gristle.
For our second class of English 228B here at the University of British Columbia, I drafted a short lecture on reading – on beginning a close reading – Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” a song which I had used as an introductory example in the first class, on pop music and lyrics. The students had been asked to look at the video, and to look at the “parody” done by Carly Rae Jepson with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. I decided to write out some lecture text – the preferred mode for the class, I’m imagining, will be workshop discussion – in order to give something of a firm anchor point from which to begin thinking about how reading takes place. The class took place on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. An audio capture of the lecture portion of the class (hosted on my SoundCloud page) is attached below. (Just a note – in the audio, I credit Eve Kosofsky Sedwick with the term “heteronormativity” [I am thinking of her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet], but the term seems to have originated with Michael Warner.)
The protagonist of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity, Rob Fleming, defines his self-awareness in terms of his record collection, an accumulation of popular music he inhabits and that gives him a second-hand voice: “Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.” Following on our initial reading of Carly Rae Jepson’s song “Call Me Maybe” at our first class, I want to suggest some of the ways we can begin to address what I called the “cultural work” of popular music, how (in more contemporary terms) the playlists of favourite songs – a version of what Rob Fleming and his record-store colleagues call their “top five“ lists – both produce and define their listeners as subjects, and speak to the welter of value systems – taste, morals, desires – through which we circulate.
For this course, I’m suggesting that we concentrate on the poetics of song lyrics, on the kinds of texts that popular music articulates but also on the cultural contexts in which those words operate. One of the things to notice in the passage from Nick Hornby’s novel – which we’re not reading in this course, and which I’m unlikely to mention again – is its utopianism: text and context intersect to form an ideal “whole world,” a world that appears to promise comfort and escape but that also presents a qualitatively better, richer position from which to view our contemporary world critically. (This is, as a matter of fact, one of the ways in which the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch understood the transformative political impetus of utopian, as offering what he calls “the principle of hope,” as an instance of the “not yet.” ) In class last day, we arrived at a what seemed like an essential conflict in our assessments of “Call Me Maybe” – both the lyrics and the video – that suggests that the song might either encourage conformity to an illusory middle-class heteronormativity (the romantic idealism that manifests itself in clichés that come from other pop songs and romance novels – “I trade my soul for a wish”) or that it might be a critically-minded parody of those dangerously mindless delusions, that it does in fact see the boy-girl, romantic-rescue scenario it thematizes as “crazy” and disempowering (some of you noted, for example, how the song appears to invert the terms of agency, so that the stereotypically passive ingénue becomes the one who is actively seeking an erotic encounter, thus undermining heteronormative gender hierarchies – an inversion marked in the video, although not in the song itself, by the singer’s disappointment when it’s revealed that the object of her desire, of her gaze, is gay). We might appear to have reached a bit of a stalemate: which reading of the song is right, or at least to be preferred? Is the utopianism of the song’s vestigial “romance” narrative self-reflexively critical or does it merely reproduce coercive mass-culture escapism?
I want to look at the lyrics to try to work our way through this dilemma, and to think about how popular song interpellates us as listening subjects. By “interpellate,” I mean what Louis Althusser describes as “hailing,” when the apparatus of the state or of “ideology” calls out to us. Althusser’s famous example is a policeman’s “Hey, you!” but I want us to think for a moment about how this song calls us, maybe. The trope in the title is the phone call, after the persona behind the lyrics has given her number to a prospective lover. That number is, if you think about it, a marker of personal identity, like her name. To be called at your number is to be recognized, to be desired back, and, as the title indicates, to be hailed as a “me,” as somebody who’s seen, whose gaze (“I looked to you,” “I wasn’t looking for this”) is returned, who gets noticed, seen herself. Not to be noticed, in this schema, is to be nobody.
The song remains, however, in a kind of state of abeyance around this possibility. We don’t know if her call or her gaze is answered, if she does get interpellated by her prospective “baby.” The title (which is also the tag line of the chorus) indicates this uncertainty in its clipped and tenuous syntax – it doesn’t feel like a proper sentence – but it can also be read as the persona naming herself: her name, what she’s called, is Maybe. Her sense of self consists in the dilemma we’re contingently trying to resolve here. She’s an aggregate of her own desires, uncertain of the terms in which those desires can articulate themselves. Her sense of the rightness of her object of desire, the “foresight” she seems to have, attempts to firm itself up in the circular repetition of the chorus and the bridge – “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad” – but in the temporal paradox that she voices here, that sureness and that feeling of (his) presence are effects of desire, of want, of absence, of “missing,” which in turn suggests that her maybe-ness is the only space she has, a fractured assemblage of clichés and skewed grammar that is as catchy as it is troubling.
During a question and answer session between readings from his most recent books (one just published, one to appear in September), Neil Gaimanconfessed to a sold-out Vogue Theatre in Vancouver last Thursday that he seemed to have graduated into some next level of fame, when people who hadn’t actually read his work still knew something about who he was and what he did. I have to confess, too, that I haven’t actually read too much Neil Gaiman (some Sandman and a little Coraline,— and I have watched the two Doctor Who episodes he scripted in the last three years), although I’m keen now to read much, much more. I was there not so much as a fan, but just to see and hear him. What started to become compelling about this public appearance were the ways in which he both enlivened and managed his fans’ expectations. They adore him, and every time he (pretty expertly) name-dropped the title of one of his books, at least two-thirds of the audience hooted and cheered. He’s now much more than a cultish comic book and fantasy writer, but he assiduously and warmly cultivates connections with his readership, with his audience, around their willing buy-in to his myth-making: the mythworlds of his fiction, yes, but also the myth of Neil Gaiman, author and impresario of a set of collective subcultural imaginings.
His performance was excellent, and well worth the modest ticket-price. It combined reading from recent work, as I said, with him answering questions audience members had submitted on cards ahead of time. (He told us our – Vancouver’s – questions were the best he had had for the whole tour, probably an untruth, but a nice appeal to our west coast intellectual vanity.) He stayed after the reading for at least three hours, signing books and chatting – briefly, given the numbers – with his keen readers. And that extra willingness to stay on, which was anticipated in media build-up to his appearance, is the first part of his myth: he gives you the sense not of distraction but of caring engagement with his readers, making sure that they have some modicum of contact with him, that they feel that he’s present to them. Neil Gaiman takes considerable pains to offer his audience a feint of intimacy, disclosing what felt like private details of his life particularly around his relationship to femrocker Amanda Palmer – Amanda Fucking Palmer (“No Neil Fucking Gaiman tonight,” he joked) – which were the kinds of details he also occasionally lets slip via Twitter. (He recently tweeted about his happiness waking up in bed beside her, for example.) Now we all do this kind of thing on Twitter, mingling public and private idioms for an indiscriminate readership, but given the extent of Neil Gaiman’s following, as it shifts from cult to mass, it’s this feeling of access, of closeness, that seems to firm up his fan-base, to keep them attached to, immersed in, his writing.
This autobiographical myth-making particularly both frames and informs his new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which bears the dedication “For Amanda, who wanted to know.” (Indeed, it’s precisely I’d say the idea of an intimate knowledge – or of a knowing intimacy – that started to become an issue here, as Gaiman read to us, in person. What exactly was it that Amanda wanted to know? How much access were we, as listeners, as over-hearers, being given to that knowledge? Something is described in the book, he told us, about his past, his childhood. This book, he said, came about because he missed his wife and wanted to make her love him by giving her a short story (which developed into a “novelette,” then a novella, then a short novel) with “something me-ish in there,” some small “slices of real life and one slice of imagination when I was a child.” Slices, maybe, like the slices of burnt toast in the passage that he read from the second chapter, which begins with the narrator’s depiction of his detachment from the world – “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else” – but which, through the slow careful accumulation of descriptive detail (like that toast), gradually reconnects the observer to what seems to be going on around him at a remove, even without him.
The narrator’s doubled perspective – a forty-year-old man recalling what he experienced as a seven-year-old – reinforces the essential interestedness (as opposed to detachment, objectivity or disinterest) of the narrator, his being-with as opposed to standing apart-from, those around him, which is how he’s positioned, or positions himself, at the discovery of a corpse (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers) in his father’s car:
I don’t remember who said what then, just that they made me stand away from the Mini. I crossed the road, and I stood there on my own while the policeman talked to my father and wrote things down in a notebook. (18)
Writing, here, is limited to sparse note-taking, and the limitations of perspective and memory are candidly foregrounded; we can’t even read over the policeman’s shoulder to see what he has written down. Intimacy or closeness, in other words, remains denied to us, Gaiman’s committed readers. He’s withholding, through the device of an unreliable juvenile focalizer. Generational dictions meld throughout the chapter (adult vocabulary often mingling with childish self-interest, for example), but you can also hear, even in this short excerpt, Gaiman’s inclination toward austerity and directness: how committed to the matter being described here is the voice doing the describing? How involved or how removed?
This point-of-view feels like objectivity, but during his presentation Thursday, when asked about the differences between writing for adults and for – or perhaps about – children, Gaiman asserted that what makes for good writing around children is to “make every word count.” (I’d suggest, too, that there is something of that directness cultivated in his writing for television and especially for graphic texts.) What we might take for empirical distance here, in other words, is shaped by close child-like observation, by the directness and directedness of a child’s eye and ear (not just for descriptive detail, but also for details of speech, of words themselves). While our narrator waits, he thinks back on his father’s constant burning of toast:
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. [The American spelling is original to the edition I have.] When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, and had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.
The doubled age of the voice in this passage, audible in the mixed diction, also maps onto a personal mythopoeia around burnt toast and the simultaneous demythologizing of those intimate patrilineal memories, as his whole childhood begins to feel “like a lie” (although likeness, it’s worth asserting, isn’t the same as it’s being a lie). The with-ness of interest, of the narrator’s and the reader’s inter-esse, is caught up in this double movement of Gaiman’s narrative, which both intimates and debunks.
I mean to approach, just so briefly, something of the dynamics of fandom that inhere in Gaiman’s own writing, and in his performance – his reading – last Thursday. The declarative clarity, the confessional candour that circles through his speaking subjects, his voice(s), isn’t so much a masterful feint as it is a self-conscious address to the capacities of language itself to disclose, to tell. Or, perhaps more clearly put, to give us what we want to know. Gaiman’s success, in this terrific new book, strikes me as in part enmeshed in a virtuosity of disavowal: the well-honed verbal craft of making his readers keep wanting, even as he gives them more of the feeling of intimacy, of personal proximity, that they crave. In a very peculiar and particular sense, what Neil Gaiman offers us all is a species of mythical close reading, a closeness both inand as reading. It’s what must keep us coming back to his work, even if it’s for the very first time.