Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ever to confess you're bored means you have no inner resources... (What's That Song About?)

I am notoriously bad at the lyrics for songs. So bad that I actually thought there was a reference to Ramen noodles in the song "Pour Some Sugar On Me" by Def Leppard (and so stubborn that you can't convince me that there's not.)

 I said: Can't.

It's all a conspiracy.

That badness at lyrics stems from a couple of things.  First, I think I'm not all that good at hearing, which seems weird because doctors tell me that my hearing is fine but I swear it's not because I can barely hear anything but second, and probably more importantly, I'm not very good at listening, and so most of the time I'm not really paying much attention to what I'm listening to, except for when I really really listen, and then, usually, I am left in a state of wonderment:

Is that really what they say?  I think to myself, and then:

I wonder if anyone noticed that all these years I've been singing it about Ramen noodles.

(The answer to  that latter is "Doubtful, in that I rarely sing in public anymore.")(Rarely.)

Anyway, one day I was listening to John Allyn Smith Sails, by Okkervil River (subject of one of my most successful tweets ever, in which I said that if you know who Okkervil River is you are not cool enough to know who Okkervil River is.  That was retweeted, like, five times, matching the height of fame I had the day Mike Birbiglia retweeted me and I picked up a bunch of followers.  Then I made fun of a joke Mike Birbiglia told on Twitter, and he stopped retweeting me, forever, even the time I entered his contest about what movie Jesus would see that weekend.)*

Here is John Allyn Smith Sails:

and as I listened to that one day, I realized that the song (A) included snippets from Sloop John B, by the Beach Boys and (B) that was one of the reasons that I'd downloaded the song in the first place, so I really should have remembered that but I didn't and (C) who downloads a song solely because it includes snippets from an earlier song?  Me. That's who.  You may disagree with my methods.  You may even call them madness.  Where was I going with that? Not sure.

Here are two little-known (Probably?) facts about Sloop John B:

1.  I can play the song on the guitar.  It's a fun song but if you only know how to play rhythm guitar, i.e., strumming chords, it gets kind of repetitious by the end of the song, and

2.  Sloop John B featured prominently in the Spellsinger book The Day Of The Dissonance,

by Alan Dean Foster.  I read all of his Spellsinger books and loved them, and lately I've been thinking I should go back and re-read them out of nostalgia.  That might be a thing I do this year: re-read some old books I read once.  I've already started doing that, a bit, re-reading American Gods,  not out of nostalgia but because I heard Neil Gaiman is releasing a new book this spring that might be kind of a sequel to American Gods, which was a masterpiece.

In Dissonance, the Spellsinger has to create a boat so he can travel somewhere else, and he sings Sloop John B, creating a yacht, and then he makes someone else the captain of the boat, making him the first mate and instantly making himself drunk, because the first mate, he got drunk.

I don't remember anything else from that book, but I do remember that part which goes to show you the power of a song, I suppose, is where I was going with that.

Listening to John Allyn Smith Sails, I was reminded of that book and that line and then I got to wondering:  Who is John Allyn Smith and why would he be relating his story to the Sloop John B.

So I search engined it.

And man am I glad I did.

Most of this comes from Wikipedia, and all of it deserves more reading.

"John Allyn Smith,, Jr." was the original, birth name, of the poet John Berryman, whose dad killed himself when Berryman was little.  His mom then remarried to a man also named John, and Allyn Smith changed his last name to Berryman.  Got all that?  So John Allyn Smith, Jr., was named after his father, and then took his stepfather's name.

Berryman made a career out of teaching and writing poetry, beginning with his first book, The Dispossessed, which was criticized for being too much like W.B. Yeats.  Poets, it seems, get criticized in the most obscure ways.

After The Dispossessed, Berryman wrote a book titled Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in which in the title poem he (as himself) has a conversation and interacts with Anne Bradstreet. 

Here's a snippet from that poem, which you can read here:

thy eyes look to me mild. Out of maize & air   
your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,
from the centuries it.
I think you won’t stay. How do we   
linger, diminished, in our lovers’ air,   
implausibly visible, to whom, a year,   
years, over interims; or not;
to a long stranger; or not; shimmer & disappear.
Anne Bradstreet, I didn't know until I looked into this song, was "America's First Poet," and was the first woman to have a book published in America.   Berryman's poem about her reminds me of Ulysses: lots of references to things I barely or don't know about at all, and a hard-to-follow syntax.  I didn't read it all.

Bradstreet wrote simpler poems, like this one:

By Night when Others Soundly Slept 

By night when others soundly slept 
And hath at once both ease and Rest, 
My waking eyes were open kept 
And so to lie I found it best. 

I sought him whom my Soul did Love, 
With tears I sought him earnestly. 
He bow'd his ear down from Above. 
In vain I did not seek or cry. 

My hungry Soul he fill'd with Good; 
He in his Bottle put my tears, 
My smarting wounds washt in his blood,
And banisht thence my Doubts and fears. 

What to my Saviour shall I give 
Who freely hath done this for me? 
I'll serve him here whilst I shall live 
And Love him to Eternity. 

 I have never thought of praying for my own insomnia.

I wasn't able to find out why Berryman was so fascinated, if he was, by Bradstreet.  Most of the websites that talk about him concern themselves with the effect of his dad's suicide.The Poetry Foundation says Berryman's father shot himself outside Berryman's window when the boy was 12, which helps explain (maybe) the extreme traumatic effect that action had on Berryman.

Should it matter that a poet's work comes from an area of heartbreak, or despair?  Should the fact that Berryman's works may have been inspired by his father's death -- or were at least affected and shaped by them-- matter?  It seems like it should.  It seems like if you write an entire book of poems about your father's death, or inspired by your father's death, then  it matters more if your father's death was real.  Or, put another way, poems about death somehow seem more inspiring if they are about actual death.  A series of poems from me about a father's death might not seem as dramatic if you know my father is alive, and well, and had a lengthy conversation with me yesterday about the merits of the McDonald's breakfasts.  (We both approve.)

(On a similar note I can't seem to shake, does that help explain why Manti Te'O might fake a girlfriend and her dramatic death, to tap into that feeling that any accomplishment is more so if it is inspired by a death?  Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman have a very good epistolary article on Grantland that discusses why death and sickness and sports seem to go hand-in-hand and questions why we readily accept a sports figure making decisions that seem heartless outside of sports.  We seem to eat up the idea that a touchdown is more than a touchdown if it is done, say, a week after one's dad died than some other time.  So a poem written about a real dad really dying seems like it should count for more than one written about a fake dad fake dying.)

Berryman's work about his dad's suicide seems to have mostly worked out through his "Dream Songs," lyrical poems with odd rhyme schemes that are all narratively related -- remember, I learned this all this morning and may not have the gist of it yet -- and all told from the perspective of "Henry," the main character.

Dream Song 14

By John Berryman
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy   
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no   
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,   
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes   
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.   
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag   
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving            
behind: me, wag.
Henry, and the Dream Songs, got Berryman acclaim that is hard to picture nowadays for a poet: he was in Life magazine and invited to dinner with Lyndon Johnson.  (Berryman declined as he was in Ireland.)  Henry was seen as an alter ego for Berryman, who acknowledged the resemblance but denied it was true in this memorable line:

"Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax; Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and they stall in my hair — and fuck them, I'm not Henry; Henry doesn't have any bats."

Dream Song 29

By John Berryman
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart   
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time   
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind   
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,   
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;   

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.   
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

That escalated quickly.  That last stanza is haunting, isn't it?  Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.  Nobody is ever missing.  I read as many as I could find online and I may go buy the book.

(Incidentally, if you look for John Berryman on the Kindle you'll come across a sci-fi writer by the name of John Berryman, who is apparently no relation.  But I downloaded a couple of his books as they appear there for free.)

So back to the song, which is what this is about.  Why does John Allyn Smith sail?  And is it meant to be about Berryman,  or his suicided-dad, John Allyn Smith, the original?  Seemingly not.  In an interview with NPR, the band said that the song was inspired by a visit to the bridge where the poet Berryman committed suicide himself in suicide by jumping off, in 1972; Berryman had an alcohol problem and had been married and divorced several times and had undergone a religious conversion in which he began to see God as directly involved in people's lives -- which, if you are depressed, might be hard to take.  Imagine feeling that God takes a personal hand in your life... and you are sad anyway.  What kinds of further depression would it inspire to think that God wants you, personally and directly, wants you to be sad?

"I wanted to give that character, that's my imaginative re-creation of John Berryman to the best of my ability, have the chance to explain his actions," [Okkervil River's lead singer] says. "And write a song about that that's not only not condemning, but that looks at death as a kind of mystical thing, something that's special. Which is not necessarily how I feel, but I just wanted to do that. It felt frightening to me, and so for that reason I was drawn to it."
Here, the lyrics to the song:

By the second verse, dear friends
My head will burst, my life will end
So I'd like to start this one off by saying
"Live and love"

I was young and at home in bed

And I was hanging on the words some poem said in '31
I was impressionable, I was upsettable

I tried to make my breathing stop

Or my heartbeat slow
So when my mom and John came in I would be cold

From a bridge on Washington Avenue

The year of 1972, broke my bones and skull
And it was memorable

It was half a second in, I was halfway down

Do you think I wanted to turn back around and teach a class
Where you kiss the ass that I've exposed to you?

And at the funeral, the university

Cried at three poems they'd present
In place of a broken me

I was breaking in a case of suds at the Brass Rail

A fall-down drunk with his tongue torn out
And his balls removed

And I knew that my last lines were gone

While, stupidly, I lingered on
Oh, but wise men know when it's time to go
And so I should, too

And so I fly into the brightest winter sun

Of this frozen town, I'm stripped down to move on
My friends, I'm gone

Well, I hear my father fall

And I hear my mother call
And I hear the others all whispering, "Come home"
I'm sorry to go
I loved you all so
But this is the worst trip I've ever been on

So hoist up the John B. sail

See how the mainsail sets
I'm full in my heart and my head
And I want to go home
With a book in my hand
In the way I had planned
Well, this is the worst trip I've ever been on

Hoist up the John B. sail

See how the mainsail sets
I'm full in my heart and my head
And I want to go home
With a book in each hand
In the way I had planned
Well, I feel so broke up, I want to go home

You may, as I did, wonder why the reference to Sloop John B by the Beach Boys in there.  Turns out that Sloop John B was itself based on a folk song collected by Carl Sandburg in a book.  The poem was The John B. Sails:

Come on the sloop John B.
My grandfather and me,
Round Nassau town we did roam;
Drinking all night, ve got in a fight,
Ve feel so break-up, ve vant to go home.
So h'ist up the John B. sails,
See how the mainsail set,
Send for the captain—shore, let us go home,
Let me go home, let me go home,
I feel so break-up, I vant to go home.
That song, itself, is of questionable validity; Wikipedia says that it might have been entirely made up, a not-real folk song that appeared as supposedly-real folk song in a novel, Pieces of Eight, published in 1917.  (You can get that book here for free if you're so inclined; it seems to be kind of a Treasure Island-y book.)

(Sandburg said the song was both a real folk song, and practically an anthem in Nassau, and that there was a real John B.)

As an imagining of what John Berryman might have been thinking when he threw himself off that bridge -- hearkening back to when a young John Allyn Smith, Jr., would try to slow his breathing and make himself die before his mom and stepdad found him -- the song is haunting, a dirge-like introspection on what it might have felt like to be purged, at the end, of all the creativity inspired by one's demons, and be left with only those demons.

Maybe it's that act of creation, the ability to put into words the awful, and wonderful, and terrifying and elating emotions we feel, that helps people like Berryman stave off the horrors of existence that people with his afflictions feel; maybe for all his life he carried with him those awful feelings -- the worst trip he's ever been on -- but he was able to keep them at bay by ascribing them to Henry,  and other alter egos, and then, at the end, maybe he really did have nothing left to fight them with.  Maybe, his words all gone, used up in achieving him success and stability for years, his inner torments ironically creating his outer success, maybe when that was all gone and he couldn't fight anymore, maybe then he hoisted the John B sails, and flung himself off that bridge, and thought about how his own, longer, fall mirrored that of his own father's falling to the ground when he was young, and maybe he was both sad to see the life he'd left behind go, and happy that it was over.

I never really thought about this song before today, and now I can't get that image out of my mind:  Poor John Berryman,  twisting as he falls to look behind him at the bridge he has just jumped off of, thinking that he knows it's time to go because he's used up his last lines, his tongue is gone, both happy and sad, and leaving, as his last words, "Live, and love."

And here is one last poem with some haunting lines in it, written by Berryman in 1950:

The Ball Poem

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over--there it is in the water!
No use to say 'O there are other balls':
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight,
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

That is a dark note to end on, and I don't want to be sad all day, so here is the footnote to that Mike Birbiglia thing:

*That is a true story except for the part about I don't know, really, if Mike Birbiglia is deliberately ignoring me.  The rest is true.  This is the sequence of events:

I wrote about how I liked the 140 character limit on Twitter because it forced me to be concise; the joke was that the tweet cut off before it was finished.  (I know.  It's hilarious.  Works on a lot of levels.)

Mike Birbiglia retweeted that.  This was pre-Sleepwalk With Me Mike Birbiglia but he was still famous-ish.

Later on, Mike Birbiglia made a joke about The Shins (remember them? No, nobody else does, either, the Shins haven't been famous since Natalie Portman got paid to hype them [probably] in Garden State:

NOTE: I am not sure that's the clip I was looking for.  I got bored watching it.

Anyway, Mike Birbiglia made a joke about The Shins, for God's sake, and I tweeted back to him something like "2004 loved that joke," which was itself conceptual, in that I was using an old joke to make fun of a joke I said was an old joke... try to keep up with the layers of comedy here... and then I never heard from Mike Birbiglia again, and he didn't even respond the time I found a picture of shampoo at the health club that reminded me of a joke of his, and he didn't respond when, at Christmas, he had a contest of sorts to see what movie Jesus would go see that weekend and I tweeted "Les Mis,but only because his girlfriend is making him."  And there was a typo, which I then tried to make up for and I made a joke about getting the home game, etc., and he never even responded.

The point of this is that Mike Birbiglia really likes The Shins, and he can really hold a grudge. [Probably.].


PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

Now I wish I knew who Mike Birbiglia was. And ever listened to the Beach Boys except for that Kokomo song which I always think of because there's a Kokomo Indiana where we have an office. I'm pretty sure that's not the one mentioned in the song.

Andrew Leon said...

Gaiman does have a novel coming out in June: The Ocean at the end of the Lane (I think I have the title right). I'm pretty sure it's completely unrelated to American Gods. He also just had a children's book come out, but I'm not remembering the name of it.

I have the Spellsinger books (some of them, anyway), but I've never read them. I did really like the Pip and Flinx books when I was teen, though.

I'll have to come back and actually read the poetry later. I mean really read it. I didn't have time to make my way through it right now.

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