POETRY MAKES NOTHING HAPPEN?
One of the things we looked at in this session was the way the use of music, both as tune for the voice and as instrumental accompaniment allowed two particular writers (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) to extend the possible meaning of words and metaphors far beyond their usual boundaries without apparently becoming obscure or even particularly challenging to their audience. Perhaps the presence of music relaxes us into being receptive to different kinds of meaning? Perhaps there are possibilities of meaning within words that can only be released if we surrender to the spells of incantation and of song? Or perhaps we simply don’t require words in alliance with music to ‘mean’ in the same way we expect them to ‘mean’ when they stand alone?
The famous Bob Dylan protest songs were also interesting in another way. There was a time and a generation when surrendering to Dylan’s familiar runs of hallucinogenic images, and singing along with his memorably meaningless refrains were taken as the equivalents of political statement. As though attending a concert, even owning the recording of a concert, humming the tunes and knowing the words of the marvellously contagious songs were in themselves active forms of political engagement with the issues of the day.
Singing together appears to discover/creates the illusion of common ground.
Whether it is a psalm, a hymn or a song, it is essentially an optimistic act. During the singing, barriers and distinctions seem to disappear, just as they do on a demonstration or a march. For all the unanswerability of the questions in the verses of Blowin in the Wind, singing along with the refrains is contagious and comforting. The same is true of Leonard Cohen’s famous songs Anthem and Hallelujah with their subtle balancings of light and dark. The singing appears to offset the pain.
We took Bertoldt Brecht’s poem When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain (1935) as an alternative way of engaging with the anguish of the world. On the surface, the poem seems to have much of the verbal innocence of song. Its central idea – that by failing to speak out against evil, good people allow it to thrive and spread – is used by Dylan in the recitative which precedes his angry Masters of War. But unlike Masters of War, Brecht’s poem insists on our individual responsibility for evil and tells us what we must actually be prepared to do if we want to keep it at bay.
Brecht challenges us to act against the first signs of intolerance and political tyranny. Written in 1935, when Hitler was already German Chancellor and Nazism was already Germany’s dominant political ideology, Brecht’s poem was a reminder how uncompromisingly painful good poetry can be when the palliative effects of music are denied. Bleak, powerful, uncompromising, immediately relevant – but in the historical event, ineffective. Whereas ironically there is an argument that mass demonstrations, galvanised by much less intellectually rigorous protest songs, might have helped drain America’s will to continue to prosecute the Vietnam War.
Poetry makes nothing happen?
The day after the Writing Day, one of the poets mailed me a link to a feature article in THE ATLANTIC about the role being played by protest song in the contemporary tragedy of black American disaffection following the run of police shootings of black citizens in the USA. After the Dallas shooting, Dallas police chief David Brown read the words of Stevie Wonder’s song As to the huge audience who had gathered to pay tribute to the dead. The words are only loosely associated with ‘meaning’. They address no political or social problem. But they were the kind of words the huge audience yearned to hear. They ‘worked’.
I’ll be loving you
Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky- always
Until the ocean covers every mountain high- always
Until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea- always
Until we dream of life and life becomes a dream- always
Until the day is night and night becomes the day-always
Until the trees and seas up, up and fly away- always
Until the day that 8x8x8x8 is 4-always
Until the day that is the day that are no more- always
Until the day the earth starts turning right to left- always
Until the earth just for the sun denies itself- always
Until dear Mother Nature says her work is through-always
Until the day that you are me and I am you
I’ll be loving you always
Now ain’t that loving you
PERHAPS IT IS AFTER THE HAPPENING THAT WE MOST NEED POETRY?