Roseability

Disclaimer: my middle name is Rose. This means nothing, as far as I’m aware. I have never received roses for Valentines (as far as I’m aware). What follows comprises an essay on what a rose is a song is a word is a rose(?), feat. the likes of Gertrude Stein, Idlewild, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, the French Symbolists and Lana Del Rey…

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Despite having two degrees in literary studies, a lot of my more convincing intellectual references were first encountered through music, not books. The Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible album introduced me to Foucault, Plath, Ballard, Nietzsche, Mailer and Pinter in one fell, aggressive swoop of a Richey Edwards lyric barked over the guttural shudder of Nicky Wire’s bass-lines. Gertrude Stein, the awkward goddess of modernism, first came to me via an Idlewild song—deep in some distant vestige of the noughties, when I still bought CDs. She’s mentioned in ‘Roseability’, the last single to be taken from the band’s 2000 breakthrough, 100 Broken Windows. It’s a typically angsty track, reflecting on the futility of being dissatisfied with the present and finding pathetic solace in the past: “stop looking through scrapbooks and photograph albums / because I know they won’t teach you what you don’t already know”. Say it and already you know, right? ‘Roseability’, like ‘Idlewild’, is a compound word, a mashing of nouns that seems to promise deep meaning as its very premise. But where is it pointing us? What of Stein and what of her roses?

Stein’s famous quote on roses, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, seems to do two things. Firstly, it indicates an essentialist perspective on semantics—circularity conveying the uselessness of further description. Secondly, it enacts a qualitative echo chamber by which the reader must question what constitutes this essence, this roseness which is the rose’s identity. The repetition suggests the elusiveness of this essence, deferring with dreamy assertion—the kind of beautiful aphorism you might coin on an acid trip, completely sure of your own new logic. There’s a sense, with every ‘rose’, of meaning’s possibility blooming. You want to wrap the sentence in a circle (as Stein did, selling the phrase on plates) and close a precious loop, devoid of full stops and fixed meanings. Is a rose a rose or the space between a rose and what a rose is? Swap Saussurian triangles for sweet hips and sepals, a new rose budding in the roots. Lose all fixity for the chance trellising of structure, turn attention to sunlight, rainfall, temperature and other environmental conditions. Acquire tautologies and promise of spring. A rose is a whorl, a loop; a delicate head so heady with beauty. Humans like roses share beds sometimes. Look too long into the corolla and maybe you’ll lose your mind.

Idlewild: the secluded meeting place in L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables
Idlewild: the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport in NYC
Idlewild: to idle wildly; to wildly idle; to idly go wilding.

You’ll always be, dissatisfied.” Perhaps the mere act of flicking through memories is a form of idle wilding. Making a wilderness of memory’s stasis. Depart only at airports; dwell between continental impressions of kisses.

100 Broken Windows marks a turn in Idlewild’s direction: from their 1990s brit-pop/punk roots to a more spacious, ambitious sound, influenced by the likes of The Smiths, The Wedding Present and R.E.M. When I first started listening to Idlewild, 12 or more years ago in those tender, pre-adolescent times, I sort of filed them as the Scottish version of Ash: they had that punk sensibility coloured by stadium choruses and a cheeky pop strain that balanced the anxious lamenting aspects. All sincerity, sure, but the lyrics were sharp enough to lift them from the sentimental pitfalls of subsequent contemporaries—the end of alt. history that was ‘Hey There Delilah’. Here we move into screaming emo or post-hardcore as inherent hauntology of the fuzzy rock club: the bourbon and sweat, the greasy hair, the frank, shuffling indifference of stoner punters. There were words that smouldered, sparked, then extinguished in the wind; but Idlewild had something different, a primitive attunement to human sorrow that cut through the gum-snapping cool of postmodern irony games, even as its affect blew up in a drumbeat or solo, the loquacious, Michael Stipe angst of Roddy Woomble’s voice. Think sonorous violins and a solid rock chorus, all the energy and wit being typically Scottish. Like the Manics before them, Idlewild did punk and guitar pop, did the stylised mosh and generic fusion, did the political and personal. The millennial malaise in their songs was very much of the times even as it seemed already tired of them:

It’s a better way to feel
When you’re not real, you’re postmodern (It’s not that one
dimensional, it’s not the only thought)

Cut out all feeling, except wait. There’s more. We don’t have to languish in the paralysing grunge of the nineties. The drama of strings would grace each melody electric and maybe you’ll find historic truth in this plugged-in homage to folk turned  on its head. If postmodernism is a Mobius strip of self-referentiality, that recursive collapse of linear progress (figured as a Scalextric set in the video for Idlewild’s ‘These Wooden Ideas’), then how to find meaning again, to find sense at all? Stand in a doorway and find yourself blasted with void fill, flick grapes in a wastebasket, count up your demons for the old stoned longing. Shrivel like raisins. The turn of the century has already happened, but maybe if you surrender to the chorus you’ll feel less jaded. There’s a reassurance. The thing about choruses, after all, is that they repeat.

As it does with choruses, algorithms and perennial blooms, repetition happens a lot in Tender Buttons, Stein’s infamously cluttered collection of prose poetics. With repetition and modulation, a queering of standard grammar, everyday objects become less the tools which underpin human existence, and instead things in themselves—the wasteful artefacts in excess of definition. Paratactical, concatenating assemblages which entangle like vines or else accumulate. Grapes on the carpet, styrofoam littering the floor, a word or two oozing through the backdoor…Am I far too close to the things I mistrust? Maybe there is always a stammering, a stilted stilling. I buy roses for the restaurant in which I work and the very act drags me into heteronormative time: the time of expensive dates, birthdays, weddings, funerals, candlelit dinners. What preference for the deep, luxurious, elusive bloom? Must lovers cut their tongues on thorns? I wonder, do those erect stems contribute their strange teleology…to what, to what…are roses always in excess of themselves—showering petals, shedding, being ever so much just roses?

I stopped and waited for progress”. Back in the day (2005), the NME rated Idlewild ‘a stolid group of trad guitar manglers’, whose new single ‘Roseability’ served ‘both as a rabbit-punch to the head of agnostics and a celebratory three-and-a-half minutes of safe, predictable, wholly generic, utterly brilliant rock ‘n’ roll.’ It makes me dewy-eyed to remember the magazine’s honest, scathing days. That insouciant, throwaway cool. Music criticism was pretty brutal when I grew up, and you basically had to tick every indie rock’n’roll formula (hello Alex Turner: snake-hips, haircut etc) to get consistently decent reviews. Or you could nail the attention on some eccentricity (The Horrors), or perhaps mediocre throwback to rock’n’roll times gone by (need I name every white boy indie suspect circa 2007). ‘Roseability’ is how it feels to be in your twenties, surrounded by people looking backwards; not quite in anger, but in nostalgia. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered something new as ‘utterly brilliant rock ’n’ roll’ in the transcendent sort of way Idlewild pull off—hardcore guitars, thrashing drums, literary references and all. Sweetness and thorns. Uneasy noise secretion. Tip your hat at tradition and then blast through the chorus, scatter your petals to cover the seams. What words in ‘Sacred Emily’ follow the roses? ‘Loveliness extreme’. I miss the NME, I miss being young enough to get lost this easily.

To veer into Idlewild itself, let’s wallow in passages from Anne of Green Gables:

You know that little piece of land across the brook that runs up between our farm and Mr. Barry’s. It belongs to Mr. William Bell, and right in the corner there is a little ring of white birch trees–the most romantic spot, Marilla. Diana and I have our playhouse there. We call it Idlewild. Isn’t that a poetical name? I assure you it took me some time to think it out. I stayed awake nearly a whole night before I invented it. Then, just as I was dropping off to sleep, it came like an inspiration. Diana was enraptured when she heard it. We have got our house fixed up elegantly. You must come and see it, Marilla–won’t you? We have great big stones, all covered with moss, for seats, and boards from tree to tree for shelves. And we have all our dishes on them. Of course, they’re all broken but it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine that they are whole.

That endearing, childish hyperbole, the absolute thrill of invention. The special grove in a ring of white birch trees, heart of the circle, the rose’s secret pistil. Place of germination. Fragments congeal as expansive imaginings, disappointment evaporates in hope.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough”. I’m not quite sure how Roddy Woomble, Idlewild’s lead singer, intended the Stein namedrop, but I take it as a reference to her poems’ weird loops of recursion. In the video for ‘Roseability’, Stein’s portraits are hung up all over the room; her face is even on the front of the kick drum, looking all knowing and stately. The video’s aesthetic has the feel of a 90s television set, all pop art circles whose colour has faded, sharp swivelling camera angles and hair swishes. The pop iconography of teenagers flooding the room with their plastic bracelets, braided hair and awkward moshing. It would be totally American if not painfully, most Britishly sincere—I mean just look at how the guitarist crushes into his own instrument, how Woomble wipes sweat off his face, paces around with the mic so close it could feel his breath. Loveliness extreme. When this was released, I wasn’t even a teenager. When I finally see him live, it’s in a church hall in Maryhill 2k17 and it’s utterly beautiful: how generous the set-list, how gracious a frontman with his small-talk and nods to the band, his thank yous. Watching the kids in the ‘Roseability’ video recreates that weird oscillation between feeling old and seeing in their faces the bizarreness of MTV ennui: the ghost of what I would temporarily become at thirteen, fourteen; cladding myself in discount Tammy girl, then Topshop, dying my hair pink and donning studded collars. With the hormones, you lose that ecstatic childhood imaginary hope; desire is amorphous and endlessly droning. You close your eyes and it seems the world has already ended. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes not. Maybe roseability simply means innocence.

‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ (Woolf). But customers rarely do. It’s up to me to ornament a room, to flourish a mood, to mark some milestone in another life that’s not mine, whose linearity’s not mine.

My mother bought rose-coloured roses for my eighteenth birthday, blush pink. Red when I turned twenty-one. I stopped acting sweet and rosy, dyed my hair red too. Fell through the whorls, the plush abyss.

‘Roseability’: the ability to be of roses, for roses to exist? Sensibility is, according to my laptop’s built-in dictionary, ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity’. Does roseability denote a similar sensitivity? When we think of roses we think often of Englishness: that angelic Laura Marling figure, a garlanded Bronte heroin, Paul Weller’s ‘English Rose’. We think tenderness, pastoral, a certain enclosure (marriage, gardens?) and guaranteed loveliness. She who coils golden hair round her porcelain finger, who knows how to talk to sheepdogs, who paints watercolours of the dawn. We think Shakespeare—‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’. But we also think north of the border, a little bit of the visceral made kitsch: Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’, whose unfortunate fate is to garnish every dishtowel bought on your granny’s last visit to Alloway (Roddy Woomble, perhaps not incidentally, is also an Ayrshire lad). The faint rose scent in a golden cologne, mingled with tobacco; the glistering sweetness of a youthful, drugstore perfume. Roses are roses, but roses are so many things, are poised on the lips of also…

The rose is a complex flower, a perennial whose species number over 100. Roses are typically ornamental, grown by those who know what cultivation means and spend their Septembers clipping away the thorny remains. An old man round the corner from my flat is out in all weathers among soil and stem: grafting, trimming, tilling for his roses. Perhaps he loves them more than his children. In summer, walking home on warm evenings you can smell them in the pale ambrosial air, a delicate bounty. If properly cared for, roses can live a long time, perhaps over and over, perhaps forever…what exactly does perennial mean?

The appropriately named Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, stands on Cumberland Street and opens a letter from Martha Clifford—a woman who responded to his newspaper ad requesting a typist. The Dublin postal system facilitates a sort of illicit exchange between them. Half-rhyme, consonance: petal/letter. The delicate thrill of letterly infidelity. She wants to know ‘what kind of perfume does your wife use’; the animal possession of scent. She attaches to her letter a flower, slightly crushed:

He tore the flower gravely from its pinhold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. […] walking slowly forward he read the letter again, murmuring here and there a word. Angry tulips with you darling manflower punish your cactus if you don’t please poor forgetmenot how I long violets to dear roses when we soon anemone meet all naughty nightstalk wife Martha’s perfume. […] Fingering still the letter in his pocket he drew the pin out of it. […] Out of her clothes somewhere: pinned together. Queer the number of pins they always have. No roses without thorns.

So many compound words, clustering in the mouth like so many attaché petals peeled off from a dress. He plucks them away, fingers the soft excitement of words: ‘naughty nightstalk wife’ with the luridly alliterative twist of fantasy. Libido vs. loss of life. What slips away with the pin? What does the pin pin together? Folds and creases, sleepless. Spike of cactus, nasty, phallic. Prick. Tulip. Coiled anemone: wild flower or tentacular sea creature? Connotations of slip. In her slip. Slippery. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, waxing lyrical about female genitalia:

I thought of what seemed to me a venturesome explanation of the hidden meaning of the apparently quite asexual word violets by an unconscious relation to the French viol. But to my surprise the dreamer’s association was the English word violate. The accidental phonetic similarity of the two words violet and violate is utilised by the dream to express in ‘the language of flowers’ the idea of the violence of defloration (another word which makes use of flowersymbolism), and perhaps also to give expression to a masochistic tendency on the part of the girl. — An excellent example of the word bridges across which run the paths to the unconscious.

Dear roses dear romance; violets are pale taste of childhood’s sweet naivety. Violets are blue and so are you. Things you can take away. Lines of flight, tangled stems and botanical echoes. Semantics. Lingering taste. The burgeoning rhizomes of the greedy unconscious. Lana Del Rey: “there are roses in between my thighs / and a fire that surrounds you”. The Metro calls it a ‘shocking new track’, but I’ve never heard anything so languid and dreamy and in love. Hungry. Sugar is sweet and…

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Angela Carter’s roses bite, don’t you? In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, the self-starving somnambulist—the ‘beautiful queen of the vampires’—is a figure for desire’s recursive, self-destructive appetite. Manifest as addiction, or withdrawal; the flesh-shedding lust of anorexia, its resistance to growth and fuel. ‘She herself is a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit’. Her dialogue billows round and round into absence. Like Stein’s rose, she is bound to the noun and the grammar of herself—the flickering inward structures of mind, matter. The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Clustering rootlets, trapped yearnings for impossible perfection. No rose can be the perfect rose; except perhaps Stein’s rose: the virtual rose at the end of the looping rainbow. Loopy, lupin, lupine, luminal. Devouring, emanating, alluring. The virtual rose, perfect by its very impossibility, like Mallarmé’s Book. So many leaves and words. The stain of ink and rain, imprinted teeth. Carter again: ‘I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave’. Those intoxicating roses, like Carter’s baroque, coruscating prose, cascade across the page, the white snow, the grave. La petit mort. In every petal the promise of a word, a breath.

Roseability. Faith in the unknowingness that is adulthood’s full blooming. Desire’s maturity bound in nostalgia, that noxious plague of your twenties; the ‘sense sublime’ of Wordsworth, five years later, experiencing ‘something far more deeply interfused’. Like the rose’s corolla, time rolls both round and onwards. It’s nauseating, an almost vortex. You’re always chasing that inward spirit, the thing that burns regardless: “They won’t teach you / what you don’t already know”—don’t Idlewild know it?

There is no roseability.” Enduring, complicated, hungry and sweet, it’s no surprise that roses are symbols for romantic love. Oh hallowed, protected cliché. Expensive hotels strew red roses on white bedsheets, a look that is oddly funereal. Share the ephemeral with melting chocolates. Reminiscent of menses, the blot of a clot in time. He got shot. She bled freely. Blood is like iron, a sharp metallic taste. What do roses taste of? What kinds of symbolic immersion might get at the essence? A bathtub of roses, a bedspread, a bouquet exploding for wedding celebration. Petals of confetti; a blossoming, artificial effect. White roses can be purity, lightness and marriage; or maybe undying love in death, restoration of innocence. I love you as the snowfall that closes Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. Sitting on the languid banks of a river in June, desecrating a rose with your sorrow: one petal, he likes me, two petals, he likes me not. Enough petals to fill a river, all the world’s worth of unrequited love. Red upon red upon blue. Flowing, felt in the blood. But no river is ever twice the same, no rose identical, no inflorescence—despite the algorithmic genius of plants—symmetrical. The beauty of roses comprises their subtly unique detail. ‘Lesser’ flowers, mere ornaments to weeds, clutter up close in mutual similarity. Maybe’s Gatsby’s Daisy could be anybody—she just had to be sweet and blonde, smelling of the damp rich old world, ersatz fresh, ready to decorate. The colourful shirts were mere petals for the true dark rose of his longing. Did Gatsby have blue eyes? I can’t remember.

I did a hard-drive search for the phrase ‘blue rose’ and found an old flash fiction piece I wrote years ago, called ‘Watercolours’. An extract:

The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by mixing blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.

Isn’t it strange, the seduction of fairy tale ecomimesis? Nature’s ekphrasis surrendering effortlessly to the same saccharine motifs; the kitsch aesthetic containing within its insistence a certain artifice, then the theatrical mists of deliberate illusion. I think of watercolours and I think of everything blurring. Colours decay in the rain, or do they saturate? And again, the roses and violets, whores and madonnas? What of the feminising of botany’s blushing ornaments, ‘captured’ by a (male) artistic vision? But time is ever more flowing, desire afloat, liquid and trembling as rain. What would it mean to anthropomorphise roses, to imbue them with certain abilities? Roseability. These would be the most precious roses, the memorialising and future-making symbols. The blue ones.

I also found a piece from 2013 titled ‘Blue Roses’ It’s about a botanical garden famous for its sky-coloured flowers. The narrator’s lover, Richard, laments the death of his mother and talks about what it would be like to be a carnivore plant. The narrator says: ‘“Those long, slow deaths would suck out your soul.”’ Was I reading Carter at the time? Nature (always capitalise to denaturalise) in this story is narcissistic, strange, devouring: stars are ‘aware of themselves’, the twilight forms deliberate ‘geometric patterns’, the rain ‘spilled out in oozing puddles that clogged the scum of the pavement’. Security patrol the blue roses in the glasshouses. It isn’t entirely clear what they mean in the story. Symbols for what? Eliding natural selection, these monstrous flowers blur into nothing but blueness—the exotic quantity, intangible mystery, possible infinitude. Despite the wholesomeness of the tale, I couldn’t help but think of the weird erotic undertones of its spooky botany. Blue rose, blue movie.

So yes, the very phrase ‘blue rose’ denotes something exceptional in Nature (in Twin Peaks, a ‘blue rose’ case is one which involves supernatural elements). In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, Laura (a character based on Williams’ mentally ill sister, the aptly named Rose) is nicknamed ‘Blue Roses’ on account of her fragility, her spiritual affinity with that which transcends the ordinary (and a childhoood attack of pleurosis). Laura dwells in a surreal version of reality; her very nickname harks back to André Breton’s ‘First Surrealist Manifesto’: ‘Cet été les roses sont bleues’ (this summer the roses are blue). Things have reversed and in their delirium remain quite beautiful. Roses, blue or not, are associated with a certain precious wavering between worlds both spiritual and physical; worlds crossed only by rare occurrences of romance, imagination, memory. He loves me, he loves me not…Laura is obsessed with a little glass unicorn, symbol of mythology, virginity. Preservations of the body for another world, or from another world? I go into the woods and find fairy rings made from small white flowers (I think of the inverse fable of extreme depression, the harp-sparkling Manics’ track, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’). While there is a lovely joy to the common daisy or meadow flower—an ethereal quality that recalls our initiating buttercup crushes—the deep lust of Romance must be associated with the scarlet plumage of the rose. Love is calculated on decadence, exception.

Is a rose as shatterable as glass, as a heart?

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I used to live in a house called ‘Daisybank’, but my friends always teased because there were roses painted onto the window, not daisies. What weird reverse supplement? The fat white dog daisies would spring up on the front lawn in summer, but they were always overlooked by those glassy roses. There’s a certain authority, majesty even, to the rose. You associate it with tragedy and great beauty: Lana Del Rey with her lips stuffed full with a rose, playing the calamitous heroine. Snow-White and Rose-Red. Shakespeare’s ‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’ is taken from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet convinces Romeo that it matters not that his name, Montague, is her family’s rival house. A rose is a rose; regardless of name it will always come up smelling of roses. Having graduated from Daisybank, I now find myself living on Montague Street…

‘Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?’ This is W. B. Yeats, probably writing to a woman he loved, Maud Gonne. He seems to set up beauty as life’s eternal opposite; where human existence is fleeting, beauty remains archetypal, enduring. Think of Keats’ ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. There’s a universality, a mythological underpinning to this beauty. In Yeats’ poem, the loved one embodies wistful figures of glory: Helen of Troy and Usna of ancient Irish history. Surely she slips between the shadows of comparison? Whether Yeats scorns the idea that beauty ‘passes like a dream’, or whether he ultimately reveals its truth, is unclear.

For Immanuel Kant (see, Critique of Judgement), the experience of beauty hinges on a paradox: since it seems that beauty is a property of the object—indeed, emanates from it—you’d think beauty itself was universal. Everyone should fall in love with that painting, that colour, that song. But not everyone does find the same things beautiful. It feels like a betrayal of reality when I play Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’ (where roses are swapped for “lollipops and crisps”) to a friend and their reaction is a casual ‘meh’ and a shrug, while all sorts of biochemical reactions of wonder and euphoria are swirling around inside me. Beauty, for Kant, is largely nonconceptual: that is, there’s an unspeakable quality to it, a thing you can’t put your finger on. In Realist Magic, Timothy Morton describes it as beauty’s ‘je ne sais quoi’. Being unable to pin down what it is that makes a thing beautiful is part of its beauty. You take a rose. You could describe its petals, its inward swirling whorls, its scarlet colour, the slenderness of its stem; but in doing so, you lose the rose itself. As ever in synecdochically applauding a woman you lose the woman. The love object. The love? Recall Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’? ‘Love is not love’; it’s what it is and it isn’t, and what’s left over as forever. 4Eva/4Real. Personally, I prefer Cate Le Bon’s take: “Love is not love / When it’s a coat hanger / A borrowed line or passenger”.  But isn’t everything stolen and temporary, in transit? How do you claw back the rose when the rose, maybe, is just this epic symbol for love? What moves in the static eternity?

I used to draw roses all the time; I’d always start in the centre, finding my way outwards with liquid ink. You see I had no conception of the rose’s shape, I was just following the shaky trajectories of layering lines. Important not to excise too sharply the arrangement of beauty, to impart onto nonhuman forms a reified taste. Eroticism preserved by ellipsis, meditation contained in the mysterious code of the senses. What was it Wordsworth said so long ago, in his famous tract against book knowledge: ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect’. Wordsworth would prefer you to go out and encounter the objects themselves rather than try to ‘dissect’ them through rapturous, scrutinising poesy. Being one of the great Romantic poets, distracted by words even when in Nature, Wordsworth is of course a filthy, (forgivable) hypocrite—up to his knees in Kant’s paradoxical beauty as much as the rest of us.

Making words of roses involves cutting their heads off, losing the essence, letting the adjectival rose oil leak into language’s dripping pores. Binding the immortal to time. That seepage is ink, is tense’s durational flow, is poetry’s cruelty. This is perhaps what Mallarmé means when he says: ‘Je dis un fleur, et le fleur est parti’—‘I say a flower, and the flower is cut/split/gone’ (translation: Tom McCarthy). To break the object of beauty down in writing is to incur a violence; as McCarthy glosses, ‘Things must disappear as things in order to appear symbolically’. What is perhaps most seductive is the remaining qualities, the deconstructionist’s milk and honey, the semiotic residue that clings between things. Spiderwebs, woven by first light, acquire a serene and gossamer gleam; but what is most seductive perhaps is the spaces between the lines, the way up close the lacing makes new frames for the real, the scenery behind and through.

Then we have Derrida’s ‘maddening’ supplement. For all roses refer to other roses, to every iteration of the word ‘rose’ throughout literary history. What a rose means can only lie in the space between these occurrences, and even then the meaning is temporary, contextual—there is no outside text, no place in which to hurl your roses to semantic abyss. We might hope for Love as some manifestation of the Lacanial Real, a pre-symbolic realm of pure emotion; but love too (as Roland Barthes reminds us) is discourse, perennial and yet bound to the fluctuations within language. ‘Rose’ is a noun, but it is also qualia: the subjective quality of something that cannot be objectively measured. Her cheeks were rosy, the rose-coloured sand (of the dream sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Red Desert), a rosiness to the air that spoke of July. By scaling tone, we might get a general sense of what ‘rose’ is (a quality defined by difference rather than identity), but we’d never get to see rose through someone else’s experience. What is ‘rose’ to one poet might be ‘pale and bloody’ to another. Rimbaud writes, ‘The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears’. Abstraction meets the concrete which itself is a spill through synecdoche. What music seeps, weeping, into the beloved’s ‘ears’? ‘Rose-colour’ becomes that synaesthetic property, the oozing, effulgent thing that cannot be pinned. For colour, like music, is perceptively subjective. What prompts a sudden spasm of imagining in you might send me to sleep; could we call both actions reactions to beauty?

‘It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world’. So goes the line in American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ 1999 suburban modern classic—a film about midlife crisis, inappropriate lust, neurotic materialism and the nuclear family under late capitalism. Where Ricky, the visionary, weed-smoking teenager, sees a sort of sublimity in waste, videoing a plastic bag’s leaf-like billows in the wind, Lester falls for his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela. The particular Gen X fatigue over cultural trash and consumer excess is recycled as a pared-back appreciation for symbolic indications of the world’s decay—little quotidian details which offer momentary redemption as beauty in tragedy. The old Kantian adage of beauty’s je ne sais quoi. Lester’s misplaced infatuation for Angela is represented by motifs of lurid red roses, flowering outwards like bloody snowstorms of feminine intensity. The chase falls cold when they kiss IRL, and he realises she is just an insecure teenage girl. Tell me I’m beautiful. Interpreting the film is as tricky as trying to clasp onto any one of those whirling petals, to kiss a single tear on an eyelash, a dew-drop clung to the flesh of a rose. Joni Mitchell, in ‘Roses Blue’: “I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles / I think of rain, I think of roses blue”. A lyricist’s ability to make pearls of emotion. Superhydrophonic. Is this another symbol, listless, transient, glistening?

The Symbolists were mostly French poets of the fin-de-siècle, the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire (whose flowers were assuredly evil), who probably drank quantities of absinthe and wrote symbols that emblematised reality itself, rather than merely inward feeling. All that absinthe had to come out somewhere, idly wilding in the streets of Paris (pronounce it the French way). Where abstraction reigns often in the world of emotion, meaning accumulates through the repetition, modulation and pattering of these symbols. While Mallarmé’s poetry indulged in dreams and visions, it’s a certain patterning of associative power that provides the stitching behind his fashion for aleatory. The poetics of chance may still have a structure of sorts, something you can trace like the veiny trellises within a leaf. W. B. Yeats, the Irish Symbolist, loved a good rose: just see ‘The Rose of the World’ and ‘The Rose of Battle’. In his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, Yeats makes frequent comparisons between symbols and music, describing the ‘musical relation’ of sound, colour and form as constitutive of symbol.

At a workshop I’ve been running with homeless people, a girl who shares her name with Stein’s favourite flower reads out a piece she’s written in ten minutes flat. It’s a typically tragic tale of abuse, of a family torn apart by pain, drugs, death and violence—written from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl, perhaps her daughter. She reads it with a stilted west coast accent that picks up its confidence and lilt as the sentences run on. Somehow in those sad and wilting lines, strewn with the accidental detritus of truth, there’s hope. It blooms so unexpectedly in all the despair. A ten-year-old girl sees the world very clearly and pure. I can only paraphrase, of course. I’m sad that I don’t get to see my mother, but she says that it’s okay because if I look at the moon I know that she’s looking at it too. This part struck me harder than any other—it seemed an echo from elsewhere. The whole piece became suddenly a buildup to that single, simple, irresistible image. When Yeats presents Burns’ ‘perfectly symbolical’ song of the moon and time, he misquotes him. Translation falters to glitch, like with lossy compression. The moon as a symbol, as something to be shared, a white chocolate button broken in two. Except you can’t split the moon. You can only imagine what the other person is seeing. I wonder what they were looking up to.

Where metaphors ‘are not profound enough to be moving’, symbols move in both senses of the word: they act through motion, the accumulative or associative arrangement of sound and meaning (as opposed to metaphor, which acquires meaning through more static, straightforward comparison), and they prompt affect in the reader. Such affect is not just the temporary indulgence of an artwork’s emotional value, but can indeed alter how the world is discursively understood. The rosy words thrown upon some poetic zephyr recalibrate reality as we know it. As Yeats puts it:

Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in colour or in sound or in form, or in all of these, and because no two modulations or arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and musicians, and in a less degree because their effects are momentary, day and night and cloud and shadow, are continually making and unmaking mankind.

The construction of feeling through symbols, then, institutes the substance and gaps that structure how we relate to ourselves, others and nonhuman objects. A very delicate, precise, imagist poem like William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has effectively changed how we relate to both the colour red and wheelbarrows more generally (never mind the ‘white / chickens’). Symbols can charge our perception with fresh emotional channels. Music relates a bit differently, of course, but only because it literalises Yeats’ musical relation metaphor—there’s a more physical intensity, maybe. Like a river (you can never dip your finger twice in the same river), a piece of music cannot be played the exact same way again—a truism owing to the arbitrary dynamics of individual players, environments, acoustics or subtle interruptions of duration. A breath or a sneeze, a chance sigh in the background, a trumpeter who can never quite pace her crescendo. You experience the opera differently from me, even though we watch the same one (I have never been to the opera). My hearing is slightly muted, along with my interest in self-congratulatory coloratura; while you have perfect pitch, ears that ring with pleasure as the high notes hit. Though the same in one sense, comprising a shared duration, our encounters are completely different. Music’s durational function is made explicit with the likes of John Cage’s music concrète, composed of sounds rather than notes and thus retaining elements of chance within a certain duration. The process becomes more about selection, sampling and curation, rather than composition according to tones, melody, chords.

If anyone idled wildly, it was the notoriously languorous aesthete, Oscar Wilde. The decadence of roses is also associated with a certain concretisation of language, a making material of words, a honing of time and world. Consider the opening line of The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses’. The way assonance works, subtly wafting its chiming vowels through ‘filled’/‘rich’ and ‘odour’/‘roses’, creates that musical relation that Yeats so fetishised. Poetic techniques such as alliteration and assonance abound in Wilde’s novel, where prose becomes musical, lilting, exactly honed upon sensory detail, the vivid relation of objects. Roses that fill a studio, that pungently glow with lavish scent. There is a heady, ambient quality to much of Wilde’s descriptions, giving off the impression that we are perhaps perceiving how objects seem to one another, filtered through the opium vapours that so penetrated Dorian’s accelerating decadence: ‘In the slanting beams that streamed through the open doorway the dust danced and was golden. The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.’ Objects are at once anthropomorphised and ornamental; that play between movement and stasis, however, cuts across binaries between human and nonhuman. The world of Dorian Gray is sprawling, random, a chase through meshes of entangled desire. A straightforward death drive is diverted by all sorts of sensory encounters, plastic morality, visionary beauty. And words? Words in Wilde are the petals that swell and unfurl into Yeatsian symbols:

Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?

Words have (re)active potential. Each one shivers with the weight of its every use, alive with subtle magic. Be careful what you write.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough (I know that that’s not enough now)”. Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. She said it first in ‘Sacred Emily’ (1913), and later wrote, in ‘Poetry and Grammar’:

When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.

What do we swap for tautologies? Love is tautological; love justifies itself. It means everything and nothing. There’s isn’t any escaping the reifying loop, the ring with its symbolism of marriage. That which encapsulates and closes. The hermeneutic circle. Stein makes us linger, ponder the grammar of each rose. Ring-a-ring-‘o-roses. What does it mean to ‘caress’ a noun? To render the erotic potential of language by gesture of touch, extend into physical… Idlewild: a word whose internal rhymes fold together, whose l sounds caress the roof of the mouth.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough.

Lana Del Rey: “You always buy me roses like a creep.
Also Lana Del Rey: “And then you buy me roses and it’s fine.

There’s a surfeit of petals and sex, a gluttonous economy of symbols which Stein stamps out with the simple carousel of her musical roses. Sing it slowly. Tell me what you mean.

Luce Irigaray, from This Sex Which Is Not One:

Your body expresses yesterday in what it wants today. If you think: yesterday I was, tomorrow I shall be, you are thinking: I have died a little. Be what you are becoming, without clinging to what you might have been, what you might yet be. Never settle. Leave definitiveness to the undecided; we don’t need it.

Lana Del Rey, reading from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

I pass between worlds and names and symbols. Every lipstick stain is another iteration, each kiss the palimpsest of the first, and even photographs fade in the sun, faces dissolving like planes behind clouds. Of ‘cappuccino pink ranunculus’—not roses—Colin Herd writes: ‘They’re at their most ravishing and / ethereal the day before they expire’. I imagine a white corridor imprinted with all your flickering dreams. Between realms, the soft wilt allures more even than it does in bloom. Images become sentences: long thorny stems of sentences, stretching and snarling a confusion of brambles and briars. The more you write, the more you grow your beautiful garden. I tear my wrists and fingers, trying to get to it: ‘There is a forcible affect of language which courses like blood through its speakers. Language is impersonal; its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal’ (Denise Riley). This garden I make is not really mine and daily it grows stranger. The roses offer their pretty heads, then droop in winter. I hear their beautiful words in arterial melodies, sprawling among shadow, platitude, the skeins of a letter letting loose through my pores.

Roseability: the quality of forever chasing roseability. File under qualia, noun/rock, the poetics of etcetera.

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gif. credit: : : Douglas Pattison

Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric

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Source: BBC

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.

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Bob Dylan / / Source: Rolling Stone

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?

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Source: lettere-persiane.blogspot.com

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.

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Gillian Welch / / Source: Born to Listen

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”.

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Source: pinterest

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.

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Source: crystalinks

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.

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Source: pinterest

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.

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Source: YouTube

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.

*

American Lyric playlist:

A Voicemail for Some Scots Poet

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A Voicemail for Some Scots Poet
(scrawled in bed on the morning of Burns Night)

Your thatched roof I hid under with a jar
of rhubarb & custards, birthday gift for a friend
of the old-fashioned sort. Hiding my anxiety
with the pishing rain and roses for eyes,
I tried not to cry with the waiting.

Alloway was never the place for me,
though tourists once snapped my photo
sitting at the bus stop in my pinafore; maybe because
the bus never came as before and I seemed to them
an exhibit of the idle, plaited poet, crouched
and concrete with schoolbag and notebook.

I tried then to draw out my longing
but the salt water was sore and washed
each sketch away. At fourteen I took blackouts in the park
with the help of old Glens and Bell’s whisky.

Now they keep putting pictures of your face
under the hair of Che Guevara but my wi-fi
is shite as I look farther for the secrets
of some revolutionary conspiracy
known only to Twitter.

You were the smell of burnt haggis
in primary school kitchens, the passion
of incompetent, childish longing;
every January blackened for lack of snow
or a coffee topped with Irish cream
and dreams of home.

I’m trying to make you more of a meme
but the birds sing merrily of some Scots
that got tangled in my mouth, made a scandal
of the girls slinging glittery hooks
against the Ayrshire weather, dreich and pitiful
in the stench of manure and nicotine.

You made poetry from head-lice and folktales
while I’m starting out on madness and palm trees
and the single best beat to snatch, ecstatic
from a still calm sea. Dylan loved you
and god knows I share your fetish for roses,
though mine are long-glitched out of semantics
or flourishing poesy. The inevitable middle name;
the rose is a dead rose, a broken cable.

Every time they sing Auld Lang Syne
the spell snaps tight like the cutting of tartan
on a slut’s dress as she readies herself legendarily
for bewitching auld Ayr’s errant men. I love her
with the crimson candled extravagance
of the urban occultist, dull and lonely. She’s got legs
enough to kick them in the Doon when she’s finished,
chortling like a slot machine.

A match, perhaps, for the farmers of the toon
who tossed my friend in a hedge when he tried to join them at school
in talk of fags and cattle and the internet equivalent
of cutty sarks. It’s a fell swoon for the rest of us,
with ardent cries for freedom
from the trendy alt-truths of southern politicians
and the armies of bagpipes swarming the park
to practice for every month of fucking summer.

That hot breath steaming the January air,
some promise for Scots blood running cold in the veins
of my milky Englishness. I’d swap it all
to be back there, sugar-tongued and sweeter
in teenage confusion, rain spilling off
the thatched roof, every drop fused
with a purer kind of truth     like the shape of your words (Romantic).

Can you call me dear Rabbie,
if you’re able? I’m waiting, but the rose
is a dead rose, a broken cable.

Reciting for Burns Night

 

In the room of primary colours and paper
I stood up, small, to read my piece;
shaking like a frond of heather
caught on a hillside breeze, unable
to stop the bite of a lip, the sweat
spreading my skin with its heat.

The vowels didn’t come out right;
I failed to master the harsher diction,
the bouncing consonants, flying fricatives
and tongue rolled r’s luxurious.
Words were tangled in my mouth
like a lump of food I couldn’t eat.

I felt a hundred eyes feast on me.
From the depths of the gym hall,
they watched hungrily
for my stops and splutters, my hesitancy.
For I was different, not like the others.

My English accent rubbished the nuance,
missed the beat of every lilting iamb.
Still, I stumbled on,
falling off the lines like Tam himself,
drunken on his horse, ready to cross
that brig over black water,
taking a final leap from stanza to stanza.

Finished at last, I fiddled with my tartan headband,
lifted my head to slow applause,
felt at once a strange inclusion.

Later, in the playground, I stared out
at the Carrick hills, their mist of violet rain,
and for the first time
I knew a perfect moment,
the one that burns then goes forever,
quotes a song then comes again.

A Wee Note for Burns Night

source: prweb.com
source: prweb.com

Growing up in Ayrshire – in fact, pretty much anywhere in Scotland – you will find that the poetry of Robert Burns is ingrained in your mind from a young age. A chance to make children reflect on both their literary heritage and the Scots language (that nowadays they often find themselves alienated from amidst the overwhelming discursive presence of Standard English), learning Burns’s poems is, I suppose, a great activity for a primary school child. But what about the likes of myself, Hertfordshire-born but Ayrshire-bred? As I grew up in a school just a few miles from Burns’s birthplace, I found myself trying to wrench and drill my sullen Southern accent into a lively Scottish dialect that just wouldn’t fit.

At primary school, I used to dread the month of January because it meant Burns recitals for our annual assembly. Each class would be given a poem to learn off by heart. Sure, there would be explanatory footnotes, but I still struggled over every syllable, my normally sharp reading abilities dulled against the quick wit of Burns’s verse. Every year my mum used to make me practice reading the poem aloud at home and every year I found my tongue tangled over the abrasive turns of impossible pronunciations. I can’t roll my r’s and I can’t make that rasping in my throat that seems to adorn every gruff recital of a Burns poem. I would watch the more dazzling of my classmates stand up and confidently perform the chosen poem, their voices catching all the jokes and lively intonations, and I would feel very stupid. I guess I just didn’t get it.

Until one year, when for no particular reason, it clicked. Oh, I’m sure my accent really was terrible (in fact, I cringe inside thinking of it now), but I decided that year to give as good as I could get. I think the poem we had been set was ‘The Sair Finger’, a relatively easy one, with the kind of rhymes that make sense and dialect words like ‘skelf’ (splinter) with which I was actually familiar. I practiced it over and over, determined not to suffer the humiliation of previous years when I was forced to stand up and read it out in class. Every year, the teacher had to pick someone to read their class’s poem aloud in our Burns Assembly. In our class, it was always the same two boys who were chosen every year (and deservedly to them too), but this year something was awry as the teacher quietly offered it to me. Probably, I think she only offered it to boost my confidence, but even if she genuinely was impressed by the improvement on my Scotticisms, I had to turn it down. The thought of standing up in front of my whole school in my mum’s ill-fitting tartan skirt, shakily twisting my vowels, was just too much.

I guess, in that sense, Burns and I didn’t get off on the best foot. But although I struggled with the linguistic detail of his poems, there was something about the mythology of ‘Tam o’Shanter’ that I’ve always been drawn to. The strange tale about Tam and his horse Maggie and the orgiastic goings-on in the old Alloway Kirk is a gorgeous example of Burns’s mastery of the interplay between dialect and Standard English. In a way, the chief pleasure of ‘’Tam o’Shanter’’ is in the mode of storytelling itself. We get the intimacy of the narrator’s shared perspective with Tam – his empathetic appreciation of Tam’s drunken debauchery – alongside incisive lines in Standard English which both emulate and mock the antiquarian tradition of collecting folktales. Burns’s attention to local detail really put Ayrshire on the literary map – even Wordsworth and Keats made a pilgrimage to so-called Burns Country to pay their respects to the influential poet. I should add here that my flatmate and I have a longstanding rivalry about what exactly constitutes ‘Burns Country’. My flatmate’s from Dumfries, and both Dumfries and Ayr like to milk the Burns Factor when it comes to upping their tourist game. Nobody really knows who has true claim to the title. Also, I should add that the Tam o’Shanter Experience in Ayr (the one before it got renovated) used to be the site of a lovely afternoon hot chocolate on Sundays after a stroll around Rozelle.

Anyway, another interesting point about ‘Tam o’Shanter’ is its weird ending. It isn’t Tam whose punished for voyeuristically dropping in on the Satanic revelries in the old kirk, but his poor horse, Maggie. While watching the dancing witches, Tam (in the only speech he has in the poem) cries out excitedly, “Weel done, Cutty Sark!”, which translates roughly to “Well done, mini skirt!” in modern day parlance. Tam finds himself chased by the vengeful witches over the bridge, but, as servants of the devil, they cannot pass the running water. So Cutty-Sark reaches out for Tam and instead grabs his horse’s tail, pulling it clean off to reveal a bloody stump. The narrator ends the tale (tail) with the strange moral:

No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,

Ilk man and mother’s son take heed;

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,

Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,

Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear –

Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

So next time you decide to be a lecherous male, spying your pervy eye on a coven of witches, remember that your horse might lose its tail. I guess there’s phallic implications there, what can I say?

Painting of Tam o'Shanter by Alexander Goudie, source: south-ayrshire.gov.uk
Painting of Tam o’Shanter by Alexander Goudie, source: south-ayrshire.gov.uk

But ‘Tam o’Shanter’ isn’t just a poem of comic revelry and uncomfortable sexual punishment; it also contains some beautiful picturesque passages that establish their author as a definite early Romanticist, who went on to inspire the likes of the great Romantic Celebrities (Wordsworth and Keats being key players here):

But pleasures are like poppies spread,

You sieze the flower, its bloom is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white–then melts for ever;

Or like the borealis race,

That flit ere you can point their place;

Or like the rainbow’s lovely form

Evanishing amid the storm.–

Here Burns blends his beautiful floral metaphors with the quiet violence of time’s transience, captured in the image of the fleeting rainbow. There is a simple spirituality here that connects the human world of consciousness and experience to that of the cosmic and natural worlds, and all condensed into a handful of lines. Although Burns, like William Blake, has often been left out of narratives of the Romantic movement – his work and style, laced as it is with literary and political ambiguities and tensions – I think it’s important to reclaim Burns within our conceptions of this exciting cultural period. While the likes of Wordsworth were in awe over the rugged sublimity of Scotland’s impressive landscapes, Burns was busy recording the authentic idiosyncrasies of its culture, humour and people. These days, when questions of what it means to be Scottish loom large over the rarely dull political skies, Burns remains as important as ever. While Sir Walter Scott (I’m sorry for making the sort of sweeping statements that rile the marker’s red pen in essays) added to the mythology of Scotland as a place of both legal, political, social and supernatural intrigue, Burns chipped in a great deal by immortalising Scots in the kind of deceptively simple but actually complex poetry that warrants his frequent comparisons to Blake.

So in a way, I’ve come full circle towards Burns appreciation. These days, I’m almost always wearing some kind of tartan (largely unconsciously, unlike the obligatory tartan headband I used to wear to school on the day of Burns Night), I work in a restaurant adorned with beautiful paintings of Burns and his myriad lovers, and I’ll be studying his work along with other Scottish Romanticists (indeed, the likes of Walter Scott) for my Romantic Lit course later this semester. Although today, on Burns Night, I forgot to buy whisky, and had toast instead of haggis for tea, I like to think this little article is a tribute of sorts from me.

Find out more!

http://www.rampantscotland.com/visit/bldev_visit_burns.htm

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/burns-night-2015-what-is-it-and-how-is-it-celebrated-in-scotland-and-around-the-world-10001133.html

http://www.visitscotland.com/about/robert-burns/