Recent Publication: Maryland Literary Review

I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem in the inaugural issue of the Maryland Literary Review. It’s called “We Sleep However We Can,” and it’s an ekphrastic poem inspired by Fernard Léger’s Animated Landscape, a 1921 painting in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. I lived in Baltimore for almost three years while pursuing my MFA, so it’s nice to have a poem published that can rep for the Old Line State.

Special thanks and good luck wishes go to Nathan Leslie, the editor of the Maryland Literary Review. May your new journal find its audience!

You can read “We Sleep However We Can” by clicking here, and you can see the BMA’s listing for Léger’s painting here.

Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”: An Analysis

Something that makes Emily Dickinson a poet worth revisiting is the sheer quantity of her output. In his 1998 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems, R. W. Franklin identified 1,789 different poems to include in the collection. Even if most of her poems are on the short side—the piece we’re going to look at today is only eight lines long—that is a vast amount of material for the reader to appreciate. Once one gets tired of “[Because I could not stop for Death –]” and “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” and all the other classroom staples, there’s still so much more of Dickinson’s work to discover. And the fact that so much of her poetry has survived for our enjoyment has some bearing on the poem I’d like to look at now.

In Franklin’s numbering, this is poem 930; if you prefer the older Johnson numbering system, it’s 883. Either way, this is a slightly lesser known entry in Dickinson’s bibliography: “[The Poets light but Lamps –].” Let’s give it a quick read-through before we start pulling it apart.

            [The Poets light but Lamps –]

            The Poets light but Lamps –
            Themselves – go out –
            The Wicks they stimulate
            If vital Light

            Inhere as do the Suns –
            Each Age a Lens
            Disseminating their
            Circumference –

If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, you’ll know that there were two big ideas that possessed her, that she returned to time and again in her poetry: death and immortality. We see both of those obsessions on display in this poem, as the speaker grapples with the question of how, or whether, art can endure when the ones who create that art are mortal beings. And, if you’ve been following my poem analyses for the past few months, this problem should be a familiar one.

Back in July, I covered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” and I made much of how his poem complicates the traditional narrative of achieving immortality through art: the statue of the great king Ozymandias is a near-ruin, and the speaker’s account of the monument is filtered through multiple layers of hearsay. The reader is thus denied the consolation that comes from a poem such as Edmund Spenser’s “[One day I wrote her name upon the strand],” which promises that one may live forever through verse.

Like the speaker in Shelley’s poem, Dickinson’s speaker is not content with the easy comfort of that traditional poetic narrative, but I think her argument is more optimistic than the one we find in “Ozymandias.” One would not suspect as much, though, from reading the opening lines. We are told that “[t]he Poets light but Lamps” (line 1)—and as it turns out, a lamp is a complicated metaphor for poetry.

On the one hand, lamps are a source of illumination, of literal enlightenment, which is just what readers come to poetry to find. They even have some divine connotations, as seen in the Beatitudes: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15, King James Version). On the other hand, lamps are a fleeting source of illumination. True, they provide a more sustained source of light than an uncontained flash, or a stray spark from a flint. But candles are only so long, and fuel, when it burns, is spent. It would seem, that from the starting premise, the immortality of art is in doubt.

What’s not it doubt is the mortality of the poets, for “Themselves – go out” (line 2). To say that they “go out” is, I think, a surprisingly stark way of putting it. They are not “put out” or “snuffed out” by some external force. There is no dramatic, violent end to the poets’ lives, in the way that the statue of Ozymandias makes for a striking ruin. Nor, if there is no external force at work, is there any obvious way of preventing their demise. No, the lives of the poets simply cease when the last drops of life energy are used.

So, if the poets “go out” and their works are “but Lamps,” that is, if neither is immortal, then how can one say that Dickinson’s poem is optimistic? The key is that the speaker, after laying out these rather bleak premises, finds an unexpected continuation to the argument: “The Wicks they stimulate / If vital light // Inhere as do the Suns” (lines 3-5). Dickinson has set up a whole domain of images around the theme of illumination. On the one side, we have the temporary “Lamps” and “Wicks,” and now opposing them, we have “Suns.” At least relative to all human affairs, “the Suns” are an everlasting light source, and are themselves divine rather than being symbolic of it.

Perhaps your first response is to say that Dickinson’s speaker has just contradicted herself: the poets cannot both “light but Lamps” and have those “Wicks they stimulate” be like “the Suns.” But the speaker might respond that she is not stumbling into a contradiction, but is rather setting up a deliberate tension.

First, let’s take a look at that word “Inhere.” “Inhere” is the verb from which we derive the more common word “inherent,” a synonym of words like “intrinsic” or “essential.” Grammatically, “inhere” requires an adverbial complement: X does not “inhere,” but rather “inheres in Y.” Yet Dickinson’s poem does not present us with an obvious adverbial complement for the verb; Dickinson is never one for unambiguous syntax. We know that the wicks inhere “as do the Suns,” but that describes the manner in which they inhere, not what they inhere in.

I would be most tempted to say that “vital light” is part of the intended adverbial complement here, with the word “in” elided for the sake of the ballad meter. This reading has a certain appeal. To call light “vital” not only says that it’s important, but also that it’s life-sustaining (especially given the context of “the Suns”). If the works of the poets inhere in that light, then perhaps it doesn’t even matter if their work will never be immortal, for it will always be necessary. That would, in a sense, be its own kind of immortality.

I find this reading a little unsatisfying though, and that dissatisfaction hinges on one word: “If.” That word presents two potential problems for what I’ve suggested in the above paragraph. First, the more natural reading of lines 3-5 is something like, “If the Wicks they stimulate are vital light, then they inhere as do the Suns.” This reading still leaves the adverbial complement of “inhere” unclear. Second, the phrase “if vital light” is conditional; there is the logical possibility that the light may not actually be vital. But if the light’s vital nature is conditional, then how exactly can it be an essential or intrinsic feature of anything, whatever it’s supposed to inhere in?

The effect of lines 3-5 is to unsteady the poem, as well as the reader’s progress through it. The pat message suggested by lines 1-2, that poets and their work are both immortal, no longer seems tenable, at least so baldly stated. But the rebuttal that lines 3-5 appear to offer, that the poets’ works will always be life-sustaining, proves illusory, because the speaker presents that suggestion in conditional and ambiguous language. There are only three lines left in this poem, and we seem to be further from the answer than when the poem began.

Here’s my proposal for how to proceed. That whole business about finding the adverbial complement for “inhere”? That was a feint, an act of misdirection on the author’s part. In addition to poems about death and immortality, Dickinson was also fond of riddles, and a good riddle needs to temporarily lead the reader astray before they find the solution. In the case of this poem, the word “inhere” makes us consider inherent properties. We’re tempted to ask questions like, “What property of poetry might make it immortal?” or “What property of light might make it vital?” As it turns out, those questions are simply of the wrong sort.

Lines 6-8 are where the riddle makes it last-second, clarifying snap. Instead of thinking about an object’s inherent properties, we need to think about its relational properties. What matters is not what poetry or light is like, but what they are like in relation to something else: the observer, the audience. “Each Age,” the speaker tells us, is “a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference.” In the same way that a lens will focus or disperse sunlight, “Each Age” (i.e., each generation of readers) will interpret the poets’ works in its own way. Something of the original intent may be lost through these interpretations, but the speaker’s use of the word “Disseminating” reminds us that something survives the process, too.

In the end, Dickinson’s poem is neither the celebratory ode to immortal art seen in the traditional narrative, nor is it the ominous counter-narrative that we find in “Ozymandias.” Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the importance of poets’ readerships in preserving their work. To perhaps extend her metaphor beyond its purpose, the poets’ lamps may go out, but maybe the audience can replenish the oil. Dickinson’s own work, it’s fair to say, has survived in the exact same manner.


But what do you think? What are your thoughts on “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem that you wish got more attention? Either way, feel free to share in the comments!

Normally, there is where I’d link to another post of mind of that is tangentially related to what you just read, but in this case, I’ll just point you back to that analysis of “Ozymandias” that I linked above. I spent weeks thinking my way through that poem before I felt comfortable analyzing it, and the result is one of my favorite posts on this blog.

And as always: thanks for reading!

On Paying to See Free Shakespeare

I was already aware of the line-standing business—people getting hired to stand in lines on behalf of others—before I picked up Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. But I had only heard about it in the context of American government, mostly in the form of lobbyists hiring homeless people to wait in line for seating at the Supreme Court or Congress. Sandel brought another place where the business has bloomed to my attention: getting tickets to Free Shakespeare in the Park.

Free Shakespeare in the Park is a New York City civic tradition dating back to the 1950s. It is, as the name suggests, free to the public, but because Central Park’s Delacorte Theater has a finite number of seats, tickets are given out on a first come, first served basis. Some folks, who either can’t or don’t want to stand in line to get tickets, have taken to employing line-standers to do the waiting for them. According to Sandel, the price for a line-stander in 2010 was “as much as $125 per ticket for the free performances” (p. 21). A lot of people, including the festival organizers and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, have criticized the trend. So why don’t we talk about it some? Why does paying someone to wait in line for free Shakespeare tickets strike so many people as wrong?

On their website The Public Theater, the organization that produces Free Shakespeare in the Park, puts forth their dedication to “to developing an American theater that is accessible and relevant to all people.” The fact that tickets are free is vital for both of those goals.

Accessibility is obvious: not charging for admittance removes one of the biggest material barriers to seeing live theater. So long as one has the time and the ability to go, anyone from the richest to the poorest can attend. In terms of making theater relevant: how relevant can theater possibly be if the great majority people are, for practical purposes, barred from seeing it? You could put on the most perceptive, challenging, socially-conscious production of The Taming of the Shrew, a production that would meaningfully contribute to conversations on gender relations in modern and period societies, but its impact will be limited if only the most elite members of society can afford a ticket.

On top of all that, Sandel would add that charging money for public theater not only thwarts the festival’s goal of making theater accessible and relevant, it fundamentally corrupts the whole enterprise:

The Public Theater sees its free outdoor performances as a public festival, a kind of civic celebration. It is, so to speak, a gift the city gives itself. Of course, seating is not unlimited; the entire city cannot attend on any given evening. But the idea is to make Shakespeare freely available to everyone, without regard to the ability to pay. Charging for admission, or allowing scalpers to profit from what is meant to be a gift, is at odds with this end. It changes a public festival into a business, a tool for private gain. It would be as if the city made people pay to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. (p. 33)

(Upon reading that last sentence, I said aloud to myself: “Sandel, don’t give people ideas!”)

Moving past the ethical implications of paying people to stand in line for Shakespeare in the Park, which I find distasteful, I find myself wondering what this phenomenon says about our attitudes towards Shakespeare.

On the one hand, I’m absolutely heartened that Shakespeare is still popular enough that people are willing to pay actual money for a chance to see a free performance of his work. There’s still a demand for his alchemical mixtures of drama, humor, character and poetry. There are still plenty of people who want to see his plays put on stage, who may find themselves inspired to delve deeper into his work, to further adapt it, to challenge or rebut it, and to spread it to subsequent generations. That a public festival for Shakespeare draws such interest warms me further: in an era of infinitely many niche audiences, it’s nice to hang on to the few common touchstones in English literature.

On the other hand, the fact that some people are willing to pay to see free Shakespeare doesn’t mean that those people necessarily value it more than those who aren’t. One suspects that the wealthy are most likely to pay for this sort of service, and the marginal value of a dollar is just so much lower for them. Sandel hints at this point when he draws an analogy to another gathering of the masses, a baseball game:

[T]he people sitting in the expensive seats at the ballpark often show up late and leave early. This makes me wonder how much they care about baseball. Their ability to afford seats behind home plate may have more to do with the depth of their pockets than their passion for the game. They certainly don’t care as much as some fans, especially young ones, who can’t afford box seats but who can tell you the batting average of every player in the starting lineup. Since market prices reflect the ability as well as the willingness to pay, they are imperfect indicators of who most values a particular good. (pp. 31-32)

For the people in the luxury boxes and the seats behind home plate, going to a baseball game is more of a status symbol or a networking opportunity than an expression of actual interest in the sport. I’m not sure theater works in quite the same way. But now I’m thinking of the first episode of Slings & Arrows, in which the VIPs in the crowd are listening to a hockey game during a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m starting to see that scene as less comically absurd than I’d first taken it.

But what do y’all think? What does the line-standing trade for Free Shakespeare in the Park tell us about our relationship to Shakespeare? Is it good or bad, both or neither, or at least interesting? Let me know in the comments!

The Inspired Unpleasantness of “M”

The notion that art can be aesthetically successful without giving the audience pleasure, as conventionally understood, is nothing new. We’ve been crowding into horror movies and tear-jerkers since the silent era of cinema. We’ve been grappling with the paradox of tragedy since Aristotle’s Poetics. I’ve even mentioned the problem on this blog before when discussing my love of murder mysteries. In most great artworks to which the paradox applies, though, one seems to derive something that resembles a traditional pleasure from them: excitement, emotional connection, even enlightenment. I don’t get any of that from (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931). What I get is pure, life-draining unpleasantness.

When I call M an unpleasant film, I’m not really talking its subject matter, though that too is disturbing. The film follows a German city’s attempts to capture a serial killer (played by Peter Lorre) who has been targeting young girls. The police, the citizenry, even the crime bosses: everyone has an interest in bringing the killer to justice, yet he has eluded their capture for months, and as the film starts there’s been no progress on the case. We enter the story to see a world already in a constant state of alert, a world where the killer’s presence is so pervasive that children sing counting-out rhymes based on his exploits.

When written out in like that, the premise of M reads more like a particularly bleak episode of Criminal Minds than like a probing work of psychological horror. Granted, most crime procedurals don’t boast the acting talents of Peter Lorre, who is capable of transitioning from controlled calculation to bulging-eyed mania so gradually it’s difficult to notice. (His near-meltdown trying to order a drink at a café is just as powerful as his total meltdown during his trial-by-angry-mob.) Nor do such shows capture an entire city’s paranoia so well as this film, in which the accusation “Kindermörder” (child murderer) is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, waiting for the slightest provocation to slip out.

But M is not remotely graphic in how it handles the killer’s violence. In fact, it doesn’t even depict his crimes, only the build-up and the aftermath. The filmmakers observe a certain level of bienséance here (or whatever the German-language equivalent is). There is little luridness beyond the premise; all such material is left to suggestion. We are not shown, for example, the actual murder of Elsie Beckmann at the start of the film, but only the evidence that she’s gone: her ball rolling in the fields, her balloon entangled in the power lines.

Of course, that bienséance ultimately makes the killer’s work more horrifying, not more palatable. We as viewers are denied full knowledge of the murders, and are thus forced to imagine how they were executed, or else force the thought of doing so from our minds. We may know the killer’s identity, but in terms of confronting the full truth of the murders, we’re hardly better off than the grieving parents and the police commissioner. Unnerved and unenlightened, what can we do but speculate about what happens in that mysterious world off-screen?

“Off-screen,” as it happens, is a very important location in M. Not only is that where most of the film’s violence occurs (either during the story proper or as part of the backstory), but also it’s where much of film’s dialogue is spoken. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film, and with it Lang experimented with the synchronicity, or rather the lack of it, between sound and image. Famously, Mrs. Beckmann’s calls for Elsie when she doesn’t come home from school carry far beyond her body, out in to the vacant city streets—a common technique today, but a novel one for 1931. Conversations between characters in the “here” and “present” play out over imagery from “there” and “the past,” leaving the audience uncertain as to where we really are in time and space. Few things are so unpleasant as such disorientation.

Just as pioneering (and upsetting) as the mismatch of sound and image are the places where Fritz Lang omits sound entirely. Street scenes will play out with no audio track whatsoever: no dialogue, no ambient noises, no sound effects, no even a score. We see people walking about, cars rushing by, matter slamming into matter, and we expect some response from the universe. Instead, we hear nothing, and one wonders whether even the laws of physics have been corrupted in the city’s panicked state. To hear the killer’s trademark whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is almost a relief in these circumstances. It is reassurance, for a moment, that the world is not wholly broken. At least, it is until you remember what that whistling portends.

Finally, one cannot escape the context in which was produced. Politically: the Nazis were only a few years away from seizing power in Germany, and the film takes a rather dim view of the masses who would enable their rise. (To quote Roger Ebert’s appraisal: “In searching for words to describe the faces of the actors, I fall hopelessly upon ‘piglike’.”) Artistically: I learned from Ben Mankiewicz’s post-screening remarks on TCM that Lang was not always humane to his actors; for M he had Lorre thrown down a stairwell a dozen times for the sake of the getting the best take. Lorre never forgave Lang for that, and I’m skeptical that film history ought to forgive him, either.

There is nothing exciting about the horror of M, nothing like the sudden gasp of a haunted house jump-scare or the rough jostling of a roller coaster. It is film that deadens the audience, fills it with a dread that the members will carry with them beyond the theater. is a fantastic film. But if someone claims to have enjoyed watching it, I’ll be struck dumb.

*         *         *

Thanks for reading! I’d you’d like to read more of my thoughts on film, then you might enjoy the piece I wrote about how Stagecoach establishes its interpersonal conflicts.

Oh, Where Have You Been: A Chain of Influence from “Lord Randall” to Iron & Wine

For this post, we’re going to look at three songs which I think share a pretty direct lineage. I encourage you to give all three tracks a listen if you don’t know them already. (And if you do know them, give ’em another listen anyway. They’re all good songs!) Some of the similarities and differences will likely be apparent even going in cold, while others I think become clearer after some discussion.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s start our deep dive.

I. “For it’s now that I’m dying…”

The first song is the early-modern English folk ballad “Lord Randall.” As with basically all folk ballads passed down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the song that you can find. I’ve gone with Jean Ritchie’s recording because I’m fond of her voice, but what I’m about to say applies to pretty much any version of the song that you might come across.

“Lord Randall” tells the woeful tale of its title character. Our young man has been in “the wild wood” with his true love, who made him “eels boiled in broth” for dinner. This dinner appears to have had an ominous effect, because his bloodhounds “swelled and they died,” and upon returning home his mother deduces that he’s been poisoned. In his final breaths, Lord Randall wills his possessions to his parents, while to his true love: “I’ll leave her hellfire,” for she is the killer. It’s an old-fashioned murder ballad, and one that turns on a mystery to boot.

To get a good handle on the song’s form, let’s take a look at the first stanza.

“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh, where have you been, my handsome young man?”
“I’ve been to the wild wood. Mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary with hunting, and I fain would lie down.”

On a skeletal level, “Lord Randall” uses a loose variation of long meter, where each line of the quatrain has four strong stresses (“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?”) I say “loose,” because the third and fourth lines of each stanza arguably have five stresses each, but as Ritchie sings them the middle-most accents (“Mother” and “and,” respectively) don’t get the same emphasis as the others. Also of note: “Lord Randall” doesn’t rhyme, but rather uses consonance to link the ends of each line sonically. The constantly changing vowels may sound awkward to modern ears, but I’d argue that the lack of perfect rhymes fits the tragic subject matter.

One might also note that “Lord Randall” is dramatic in nature, by which I mean it presents itself as a dialogue between two characters. Each stanza begins with Lord Randall’s mother asking a question about her son’s recent journey, and ends with Lord Randall’s response and a plea that he’s tired and “fain would lie down.” In this song, much of the conflict is driven by an imbalance of information: the mother is in the dark, and her son is reluctant to tell her the whole truth.

A final noteworthy aspect about the song’s structure is its heavy use of refrains. The second halves of both of the mother’s lines are repeated in each stanza (“Lord Randall my son,” “my handsome young man”), as is most of the son’s dialogue with some variations. This heavy repetition makes the song’s dialogue highly stylized, if not ritualistic, but it also gives the song’s narrative an interesting progression. Even though the mystery continues to unfold in the listener’s ear, it simultaneously keeps turning back to previously stated niceties. The story is both linear and cyclical.

In terms of the narrative, what I find most compelling about “Lord Randall” is the gradual change in the title character’s attitude from start to finish. It’s easy to read the son’s responses to the mother’s questions as attempts to end the conversation. “Let’s stop talking,” he seems to say, “I want to go to bed.” Once the fact of his dying comes out, though, he stops trying to shut down the dialogue. Instead, he starts speaking performatively, his words assigning goods and fates upon his relations. At the moment of his death, he finally takes action.

II. “I’m a-goin’ back out…”

Let’s jump now from early-modern England to the mid-20th-century United States. Released in 1963 as part of the seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” occupies a unique position in Dylan’s early discography. The song is a mixture of Dylan’s three primary impulses from this period: the socially-conscious songs that made him famous, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”; the impressionistic, more personal lyrics he would start fully exploring on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964); and, our main focus here, the canon of English-language folk songs that drew Dylan to the Greenwich Village scene in the first place.

As we did with “Lord Randall,” let’s take a look at the opening stanza to get a sense of the form:

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?”
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains.
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
I’ve been ten thousands miles in the mouth of a graveyard.
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

The influence of “Lord Randall” should be apparent. Just like the earlier folk song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a piece of dramatic poetry, between an unidentified parent and their “blue-eyed son” who has been out in the world and experienced a great deal. The parent’s dialogue in particular calls to mind “Lord Randall,” with the repetition of “Oh, where have you been” and the affectionate terms for their child.

When the blue-eyed son starts speaking, though, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” starts to deviate from its model. While Dylan’s song maintains the loose, four beat rhythm, it does not bother with the strict consonance of its predecessor; in fact, it forgoes similar end sounds entirely. Instead, the song’s organizing principle is parallel syntax: each line begins with the same construction of “I’ve + [verb]” (except in the final stanza, which includes “Where…” statements as well). More so than popular song, the piece resembles free verse poetry in the vein of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. It’s an unconventional choice, but that syntactic repetition still gives the piece a strong sense of musicality.

Further, as you’ve no doubt noticed, the son’s dialogue in each stanza is far more expansive and variable than it is in “Lord Randall.” In the folk song, the son always speaks two lines at a time, and if you factor out the refrains his responses are quite curt: “I’ve been to the wild wood,” “I dined with my true love,” etc. By contrast, the son in Dylan’s song is someone given to rambling. Not counting the closing refrain (more on which later), the son’s parts in each stanza range from 5 to 12 lines. The strictures of the folk song literally cannot contain this character’s speech.

And just what does the blue-eyed song have to say? Well, as is often the case with Dylan’s lyrics, there isn’t really a coherent literal scenario. This is no murder ballad, with a clear and causal narrative. Instead, the poem is organized around a series of associative leaps. It’s not a travelogue, but a creatively arranged list of impressions. Still, one can often see links between one image and the next. The first stanza, for instance, uses number as a jumping-off point (“twelve misty mountains,” “six crooked highways,” “seven sad forests”), while in the second stanza the “black branch with blood” precedes hammers “a-bleedin’.” As with much of Dylan’s work, the point is not to pin down one true meaning, but rather to play around with what has been suggested.

Still, the song does end on one clear note: the speaker has to keep telling their story. There is some bleak event on the horizon, that “hard rain” the speaker keeps returning to in the closing refrains. What that hard rain signifies is, of course, not stated, but whatever it is, it calls for a response. Thus, in that last stanza, the conversation shifts from the past to the future. “Oh, what’ll you do now?” the parent asks, and the son says he’s “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” He will return to the world, as grim as it is, and deliver his message:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.

Like “Lord Randall,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” ends on an active note for the speaker, in this case, laying out a plan for the future. But the tones seem quite different. There’s no resignation present here, no reluctant acceptance of death. The son does not give into that hard rain, does not say he “fain would lie down.” Instead, it ends with optimism, so much so that the verse even indulges in some concluding slant rhyme couplets. Dylan has taken the raw materials of “Lord Randall,” and used them to tell a totally different story.

III. “I dreamt of that sound…”

The link between “Lord Randall” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is pretty : the latter directly lifts the structure of the former. The link between “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and our final song for today, on the other hand, is more speculative on my part. A quick Google search tells me that I’m not the first to make this connection, but it’s entirely possible that the similarities here unconscious rather than intentional.

With that disclaimer out of the way: let’s move up to January 2011. It’s my senior year of high school, and I’ve been conversant in Bob Dylan’s music for about two years. Sam Beam (better known as Iron & Wine), a singer I’ve just become familiar with, has released his fourth studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean. The lead-off track, “Walking Far from Home,” is an emotional power-bomb of song—one that still gives me chills—but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard something like it before. A few listens later, and it hits me: it’s a rewriting of “Rain.”

Like Dylan’s song, “Walking Far from Home” strings together an associative list of images detailing a journey out in the world, with heavy use of parallel syntax to organize things. The speaker has seen everything from “children in a river” whose “lips were still dry” to “a bird fall[ing] like a hammer from the sky.” Once again, there’s no clear narrative here, but rather a series of impressions building to a climax.

Yet for all the similarities in content, there are some significant differences in structure. Take a look at the opening stanza here:

I was walking far from home,
Where the names were not burned along the wall.
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small.

First off, for the first time in our discussion we have perfect rhyme in a stanza, with “wall” and “small” helping to form an ABXB rhyme scheme. This already sets it apart from both “Lord Randall” (consonance) and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (unrhymed). Second, while it’s possible to squeeze or expand lines into the four-beat pattern of its predecessors, that involves stressing words against the manner in which they’re sung. It’s a rhythm perhaps reminiscent of the ballad, but not committed to it. Third, the use of refrains only survives in the “echoing” final lines of each stanza, so the effect of cycling through a linear story has mostly been cut.

But the most significant structural change can only become obvious when the song is viewed in totality: there’s no dialogue. The speaker is the only one, well, speaking in the piece, and they’re not even implied to be addressing anyone in particular; there is a “you,” but the relationship between speaker and addressee is left vague. In that regard, Iron & Wine goes further than Dylan in making the “Lord Randall” narrative ambiguous. Not only is the content of their speech rendered impressionistic, as it is in Dylan’s song, but also the circumstances of their speech are left unstated.

I think this move, turning the dialogue of the previous two songs into an internal monologue, helps to explain the shift in how this song ends. The speaker in “Walking Far from Home” doesn’t conclude with a performative utterance like Lord Randall, nor does he resolve himself to a future course of action like the blue-eyed son. Instead, he uses the final verse to suggest that he’s come to a personal revelation because of his travels: he “saw a wet road form a circle / And it came like a call, came like a call / From the Lord.” What was once a movement toward external-facing action has now become the spark for inward-facing change.

IV. “Join me in song…”

To wrap this all up: why should we care about any of this? What difference does it make if we can trace contemporary indie music all the way back to early-modern folk songs? Isn’t this all just academic, all just trivia?

Well, partially. I did start writing this because I merely found it interesting. But I do think these songs offer us a lesson in how to use past works for inspiration. You’ve likely heard the expression, “Everything’s a remix,” that is, all art is a reworking of something that came before it. I think that’s true in the broad strokes, but it can miss the most important part of remixing: making what’s old into something new.

We can see that in these three songs. A 17th-century balladeer’s tale of murderous betrayal and motherly affection helped Bob Dylan to write a impressionistic call to action in politically stressful times. In turn, that song may have sparked Iron & Wine to write about an intimate form of salvation along a similar journey. These songs are, ultimately, in conversation with each other. But “in conversation with” does not mean “repeating.” There is little “remaking” here, and much more “making new.”

So, if you find yourself in a writing rut, you can look to a past work, figure out what makes it tick, and then write your own version of it. Just don’t be afraid to go unexpected places with it.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece and would like to hear me yammer on some more about Bob Dylan, I wrote another blog post last year about the use of masculine and feminine rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” that you might find interesting.

The Dark Comedy of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”

Until recently, if you had asked to me summarize the mood of George Orwell’s writings in one word, that word would be “terrifying.” In his two best-known works, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949),  Orwell’s depictions of totalitarian regimes are so plainly stated, with his prose possessing the bare minimum of ornament, that each spirit-crushing event in those novels comes across as inevitable. One leaves those books with a dull pain all around the heart, even if it’s accompanied by the urge to resist the coming catastrophe.

Homage to CataloniaRecently, though, I’ve started to revise that assessment, now that I’ve read through what is probably his third best-known book: Homage to Catalonia.

First published in the United Kingdom in 1938 and in the United States in 1952, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s personal account of his time spent fighting against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Given the dire subject matter, I assumed that the mood of the work would match that of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And indeed, Homage to Catalonia often leaves me despondent and feeling brutalized by the progress of history.

But it also shows, somehow, that Orwell is also quite adept at dark comedy.

I don’t want to say that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are entirely devoid of humor. The former in particular has some nice comical moments—I mean, it is a satire, after all. In particular, I’m thinking of Squealer’s justifications for the privileges the pigs seize for themselves, which read as though he’s crossed Pravda with Pangloss. But that humor takes place on the level of language; there’s not much humor on the level of situation. And, one may ask, how can there be? Those situations are rather deathly.

Yet in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell finds exactly that: scenarios which, by their sheer absurdity, get the reader to chuckle, though perhaps with a deep, doubtful sigh right afterward. I first noticed this fairly early on, near the end of Chapter III, where Orwell recounts a few instances where, by carelessness or miscommunication, he and his comrades almost die from friendly fire. Each near-miss merits a muted trumpet in the mind’s ear. The last sentence of the chapter neatly summarizing things: “In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible” (p. 37).

Now, in a war narrative, the presence of dark comedy is not exactly a revelation; the literature of war is riddled with spots of black humor, with the jokes soldiers tell as temporary relief from the strain of duty. What makes Homage to Catalonia interesting, I think, is how it uses that humor for more than just comic relief or satiric commentary. These moments of dark comedy are pivotal to understanding Orwell’s personal journey in the book.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from near the midpoint of the work, just before the turning point of Orwell’s fortunes. In Chapter VII (or Chapter VI in later editions which turned Chapter V into Appendix I), Orwell recounts a significant military operation he participated in, a mission to attack and raid a Fascist redoubt as part of the effort to capture the city of Huesca. After Orwell’s party manages to break through, Orwell spots a “shadowy figure,” one of the Fascists, and gives chase:

I started after him, prodding my bayonet ineffectually into the darkness. As I rounded the corner of the hut I saw a man—I don’t know whether or not it was the same man I had seen before—fleeing up the communication-trench that led to the other Fascist position. I must have been very close to him, for I could see him clearly. He was bareheaded and seemed to have nothing on except a blanket which he was clutching round his shoulders. If I had fired I could have blown him to pieces. But for fear of shooting one another we had been ordered to use only bayonets once we were inside the parapet, and in any case I never even thought of firing. Instead, my mind leapt backwards twenty years, to our boxing instructor at school, showing me in vivid pantomime how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles. I gripped my rifle by the small of the butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out my reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little distance we proceeded like this, he rushing up the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there—a comic memory for me to look back upon, though I suppose it seemed less comic to him. (p. 92)

First, let’s consider this passage in isolation. Even if you don’t find this scene especially humorous, one can still see the elements of solid farce here: Orwell bumbling about with his bayonet, the possibility of mistaken identity, and the fact that the man Orwell is chasing “seemed to have nothing on except a blanket.” And the chase itself, with the two men running on different levels as Orwell keeps coming oh-so-close to stabbing his target, wouldn’t feel out of place is a silent slapstick movie. Throw on the understatement at the very end of the paragraph—no kidding “it seemed less comic” to fleeing Fascist—and the result is a sustained moment of comic relief. It’s the sort of anecdote one could whip out at a party without causing much consternation in the audience.

Within the context of the narrative as a whole, though, the humor of this passage is less relieving than it is deflating. On multiple occasions leading up to this sequence, Orwell states that one of his desires in fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War is to kill a Fascist. In Chapter IV, after he realizes that in his first three weeks in Catalonia he’s fired a grand total of three shots, he remarks: “They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist” (p. 41). He’s less contemplative there than impatient, an impatience that reappears near the end of Chapter V/Appendix I: “When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist—after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct—and I had killed nobody yet, had hardly had the chance to do so” (p.70).

So here finally comes Orwell’s chance to do his part in the anti-Fascist cause: no more waiting around in the trenches, no more risking enemy fire just to gather firewood. He’s part of an assault on a Fascist redoubt, he finds an enemy combatant ripe for the gutting…and it’s a guy who appears to be fleeing from him half-naked. I obviously can’t know how exactly Orwell envisioned his first chance to kill a Fascist, but I’m fairly certain that running around like a farmer chasing a fox off his property with a pitchfork was not part of the fantasy.

But that implication of the passage is merely disappointing. There’s another aspect to it that strikes me foreboding, perhaps even tragic. Up to this point, I haven’t touched on that peculiar flashback Orwell has before he begins his thrusting campaign in earnest, the one where he remembers his boxing teacher telling war stories. On first read-through, I wasn’t sure what to make of that little diversion, but after thinking through the context some more, I think I have an angle on it.

First, there’s something trivializing about that flashback. At the moment Orwell has a chance to capture some military glory, his thoughts turn not to, say, the heroes of ancient mythologies, or to some iconography from war propaganda, but rather to a memory of schooling. Instead of going high and noble, he turns low and common. Further, the flashback represents how most people encounter combat: in abstractions, either secondhand through testimony (the war story), or in ritualized, rule-bound contests (the boxing lesson).

Second, the boxing instructor’s war story, while framed as a personal triumph, comes in the context of ultimate failure. The instructor tells (or rather, pantomimes) of “how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles,” referring to the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916, which was a notable exercise in futility for the Allied forces in World War I. They spent almost a year attempting to seize control of the Dardanelles, the strategically-important strait connecting the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, en route to capturing the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, before giving up after having gained virtually no ground following the landing at Gallipoli. One can see a parallel between Orwell’s situation and the instructor’s: while the raid on the Fascist redoubt is a minor success, the greater anti-Fascist cause will prove a bloody calamity.

Bringing up the Gallipoli campaign also highlights the tragicomic irony of war. As Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” (p.7). The Gallipoli campaign was supposed to be easy—aren’t all such operations?—as the battle would be waged against Ottoman forces that UK leadership believed were wildly inferior to British might. The result was a costly, diseased-ridden quagmire. By the same token, Orwell enters the Spanish Civil War with such simple purpose: he’s going to kill a Fascist and help defeat Fascism. Only after living with the conflict for some time, after enduring the bitter cold nights and the injuries of war and the Communist Party’s sabotage of the anti-Fascist effort, does Orwell learn the complexity beneath that simple purpose.

It is not for nothing that Chapter VIII, a summary reflection following the successful raid on the Fascist redoubt, ends with the bleak sentiment: “And after that the trouble began” (p. 107). In the subsequent chapters, Orwell will live through the street-war for the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona, the suppression of the P.O.U.M. and the mass arrests of its members, and a bullet through his throat that almost robs him of the ability to speak.

Yet for how bleak this all sounds—and is—the mere presence of dark comedy in Homage to Catalonia suggests one final thing about Orwell’s work here: there is still room for hope. This isn’t Nineteen Eighty-Four, where one suspects Newspeak is a language incapable of intentional comedy as well as political dissent. That Orwell can find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom. Indeed, while Orwell grows disillusioned with the Communist Party as an institution, his time spent in the P.O.U.M. camp makes his “desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before” (p. 105). Even when the fight is hopeless, a cause may still be worth pursuing.

If you enjoyed this look into the literature of war, you may also be interested in my analysis of Thomas Moore’s Irish melody, “The Minstrel Boy.”

Murder Mysteries and Relaxation

I don’t watch very much in the way of television, so I don’t know what it says about my taste that Father Brown is one of my favorite shows. Inspired by the detective stories of G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown follows the adventures of the parish priest of the fictional English town of Kembleford (played by Mark Williams). As someone who spends much of his day inside a confessional booth, Father Brown is well-versed what drives people to commit heinous crimes, and he uses that insight—along with some genre-requisite sleuthing—to crack the case and, hopefully, save the guilty party’s soul.

This being a detective show, Father Brown has meddled in a fair number of police investigations. As of 2018, there have been 70 episodes of Father Brown. That’s 70 crimes for the priest to solve, which is an absurdly high number for a village in the English countryside. And the majority of those crimes are murders, which means that on a “homicides per capita” basis, the Cotswolds of this universe might as well be a war zone.

Now, it’s a common joke among mystery fans that, if all the murders on these British detective shows happened in real life, the countryside would be completely depopulated within the year. That the premise for a show like Father Brown in ridiculous is neither a new observation nor an interesting one. Rather, I’m more interested in my emotional response to all this murder.

A murder mystery can elicit all sorts of emotions from the audience. For one thing, the whodunit arouses one’s curiosity—even the name of the genre is a question. For another, there’s some vicarious thrill-seeking in following the detective as they track down the killer, aware of the peril they potentially face. There’s even an element of escapist voyeurism to murder mysteries, as they tend to involve aristocratic families in very fancy houses. All these are reasonable sounding guesses for what I might get out of Father Brown, but none of them hit the mark. No, I just find the show relaxing. This demands the follow-up question: how can a murder plot be relaxing?

The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. My mother, to name just one example, will binge through reruns of Criminal Minds or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when she’s home sick from work, or she’s just finished unpacking and is tired from the trip. Why would my mother and I, when looking for a show to unwind to, pick, out of all possible subjects, murder?

A big reason, I suspect, relates to the form of a murder mystery. An episode of a show like Father Brown or Criminal Minds is a self-contained entity: it starts with a crime, ends with an arrest, no loose ends or hooks for the next episode. There’s no feeling of confusion going in or unsatisfied curiosity going out. These episodes will also follow a fairly set formula for getting from crime-to-arrest: a cold open showing or setting the stage for the crime, the detective or cops arriving on scene, the ups and downs of the investigation, the reveal, etc. If you watch one of these shows when it’s first broadcast, you can practically set your watch based on where you are in the narrative. That predictability may sound boring, but I think of it as more like the progression of rhymes in a sonnet: comforting in how it chimes.

Still, that only explains the appeal of formula television, not murder mysteries specifically. The same principles would apply to a medical procedural or a multi-camera domestic sitcom. What gives a murder show its particular soothing charm?

Brianna Rennix offers up a possible answer to that question. In a recent essay for Current Affairs, Rennix, who also finds murder mysteries relaxing, suggests that the appeal of a show like Poirot (her detective show of choice) lies in how it presents the act and effects of a murder:

[T]he Genteel Murder Mystery is about taking something horrific and making it charming, cushioning it in several layers of gauze, blunting all its sharp edges. It’s about shielding ourselves psychologically from a spectrum of human experience that, if we were fully conscious of it, would probably poison whatever sense of hope or pleasure we derive from our luckier experiences.

In Rennix’s view, when the audience for a Genteel Murder Mystery watches these sanitized depictions of murder, they can come to see the fact of murder as “an anodyne triviality,” which is much easier to deal with than, say, the six o’clock news. Why not unleash untold suffering upon the fictional Kembleford if it makes living in the actual world more bearable?

I like Rennix’s essay quite a bit, and I think that this “anodyne triviality” angle has some legs to it. One potential problem, though, is that it might be too generalizable to other genres of television. For example, might we say that a medical procedural does the same thing to life-threatening ailments that whodunits do to murder, making a certain “spectrum of human experience” more palatable? If there are people who turn to medical procedurals rather whodunits to relax, then I’m not sure Rennix has identified something inherent to murder mysteries, but rather to a particular style of storytelling.

We might be running up against a problem in philosophy known as the paradox of tragedy: why is it that we often derive from pleasure from representations of things we would find displeasurable is real life? It can be difficult to come up with a solution to the paradox of tragedy that isn’t applicable to art in general (e.g., we can draw pleasure from the skillful narrative craft of a tragedy, but that’s true of all stories and not just tragedies). A few years ago, Philosophy Tube made a video about this paradox as it applies to the horror genre, which frames the debate in an approachable way.

We’re not going to resolve the paradox in a casual blog post, so I’m going to leave this one open to you. Do you find murder mysteries and the like relaxing, and if so, why do you think that is? Let me know in the comments!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another post about Father Brown that I need to get around to writing.

If you liked this post, you might also like this older piece I wrote about the ethical experience questions I had while playing the idle game classic, A Dark Room.