There’s healing power in music. Sometimes it’s the right lyric, or the drumbeat, but it’s usually a combination of the two that does it. In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby mentions his mum’s derision at the T. Rex lyric, “Get it on / bang a gong”, touching on the lyrics v. poetry debate. I mostly think it’s daft; whichever angle you’re coming from, there often seems an unconscious (or conscious) elevation of poetry woven into the parameters of the comparison. Are those lyrics poetry? Who cares? And while we’re here, “More than a woman” is not a man! I couldn’t write a decent lyric if PJ Harvey stood over me with a feathered whip. Glyn Maxwell suggests that music is to lyrics what white space is to poetry. If some lyrics retain their power when you lose the music, does that make them poetry? Does that make them better lyrics? Or worse? We don’t measure the value of a poem by taking away the line breaks and seeing if it holds up. Even so, if I were going to buy into this, and some days I do, I’d offer Leonard Cohen’s lyrics (not his poetry?!) –
Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love
The words hold their own beauty. Does this make them poetry? Maybe. I might listen to them walking Burbage Edge, or sitting on the Cholera Monument behind the house I grew up in, looking out on the city shrunk to a more manageable size. It will gently get you through most days.
But if you really need to feel better, sooner or later you have to get up and dance around like a curiosity. Carly Simon has a song, “Attitude Dancing”: “And it don’t really matter / what steps you choose to do / only one thing matters / that’s your attitude.” This was the power of the Leadmill nightclub. Lyrics still mattered. Look up the words to “99 Red Balloons” or “Baggy Trousers”. They say stuff. But they’d say it to a beat I could throw myself into, and although I’d be barged by all the other vodka-mixer-for-60-pence-fuelled youth of the day, the gratification was in being fiercely yourself, and to hell with everyone else. Listen to the Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection” – that opening drumbeat’s filling your chest with the screw you factor, isn’t it? Then add, “Don’t waste your words, I don’t need anything from you / I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do.” Arms up and singing to the delayed refrain of “I am the resurrection” is about as much pure joy as you can get in life.
The whole being yourself thing is a struggle. Other people aren’t merely mirrors, but we do see ourselves reflected in them. We build relationships with the people in who we see ourselves most clearly. Maybe they show my best side. Or you might choose those who confirm your flaws. But sometimes you spend so long looking at the reflection, you forget that’s all it is. This is when you need the song.
“Silentium”, by Fyodor Tyutchev (trans. Chandler), describes this act of self-reclamation:
Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.
Let dreams move silently as stars,
in wonder more than you can tell.
Let them fulfill you – and be still.
It ends: “Hear your own singing – and be still.” The poem might work differently to the song, have its own sense of musicality, but it’s an experience as physical as any bass vibrating through you. Here, stillness is made visceral. The simplicity of the language and rhythm, the weight of the rhymes, slow me down and send me into myself. The imperative to step out of the world lends nerve to the poem’s assumption that I am enough. I am. To be still, here, is an act comparable with dancing irreverently. I’m memorising it. It’s wonderful. But Rosemary Tonks’s “Addiction to an Old Mattress” enacts the struggle I’m thinking of:
No, this is not my life, thank God …
… worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;
obsessed first by one person, and then
(almost at once) most horribly besotted by another
“This is not my life” suggests it’s someone else’s, and thank God she doesn’t have to live it, with its crippling “brain-fag”. Brain-fag! But she is living someone else’s life, and it hardly matters whose. This randomness of who she might fall for is what defines obsession; it’s not them as people that takes her over – it’s dispossession itself. Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby, describes us as stories, telling and being told, as threads woven into the fabric of the world. That balance between connection and autonomy is essential to our sense of self, I think. When we lose control of our story, we become dispossessed, but also if our thread winds loose from the pattern. This makes stepping out of the world sound less desirable, though we all want to run away from it sometimes. Maybe it works for a while, as a way to relearn your story, to narrate a new one. At some point, though, we need it to be heard.
Anyone can become dispossessed of self, by society, abuse, love. Solnit says that your suffering doesn’t mark you as special, “though your response to it might”. You might react by being still. I might sing the Stone Roses in my kitchen (but I am special …). For the speaker here, without herself, her personhood, her own story to tell, what else is there but the other, any other. Even the month belongs to them and not to her:
These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,
they belong to the people in the streets, the others
out there – haberdashers, writers of menus.
potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know, it’s unforgivable
for this is not my life
but theirs, that I am living.
And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.
I’m excited by how feisty the lines are. The fight in them gives me hope for the speaker. The middle stanza opens, “Salt breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!” and with its fractured rhythm and exclamations (the line break, the white space), it sounds as full of contempt as the “Barometers […] controlling moody isobars”. Even the “lemonades and matinees” are scorned alongside the “sumptuous tittle-tattle” of the summer crowd they feed. The sheer attitude of the poem makes me want to write, but it’s so strong, so ironically full of identity, I end up writing someone else’s voice: this is not my life …
The violence in the lines confronts the heteronomic forces being imposed on her. She can take it: “… I live on … powerful, disobedient”. I love her for this. But how can she be powerful, when she seemed so overwhelmed by her obsessions? This is the struggle I mean. Her power, I think, is in her disobedience and comes back to notions of dispossession, and being outside societal norms. We think we’re more in control, more separate, than we are. We’re moved by those around us. We want to belong, to be recognised, and this makes us vulnerable, so we toe the line. If you’re isolated, rejected, unseen, it becomes possible (necessary?) to reject, and perhaps there’s strength to be found in that – if you can’t relate to the haberdashers and their climate, screw them!
There’s such violence in the last line, too: “And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down …”, but here her anger seems directed inwards: this is what I do, and what I do is unforgivable. There’s much conflict in the poem: between the self and the other, yes – in one reading the other dominates. In another, the speaker is powerful, more autonomous (or disobedient) for her social death. She’s not merely consumed by the other. In the end, she actively consumes it. But the poem’s perspective is the speaker’s, and I think the real struggle is going on internally. Perhaps her strength is only an act. Or perhaps you have to act as though you’re strong, as though you’re enough, do some “attitude dancing”, before you can feel it, before you can retell the edges of yourself; is she consumed, consuming or rejecting? Is she giving the world the finger or looking for forgiveness? And if forgiveness, then from who? You? No … to hell with you …
Angelina D’Roza discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ here, and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Elephant is Slow to Mate’ in ‘Hotel California’ (three earlier posts in this series). Rosemary Tonks’s “Addiction to an Old Mattress” appears in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds is out now from Longbarrow Press.