Monday, February 01, 2016

`I Find Out How Little I Know'

One is gratified when a rock musician can link subject to verb to object, and the result is coherent let alone witty or memorable. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a rock hater. Dylan, The Beatles and The Band fill out much of my internal soundtrack. But one doesn’t listen to rock music for the “poetry.” At their best, the lyrics are not self-indulgent gibberish. One can make a fairly solid case for Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin being songwriter/poets; not Dylan or John Lennon. But I have a larger point to make. I know from experience that rock musicians, unlike their cousins in jazz, tend to operate on the dim side of things. Only rarely are they bright or articulate people (there are exceptions: Tom Waits), and the same could he said for pipefitters and home-ec teachers. That’s not why anyone listens to rock, and it’s unfair to judge them by the standards of eloquence, linguistic sensitivity and intellectual complexity that we bring to poetry. Dylan is not Donne. 

Thanks to Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry for linking to an unexpectedly interesting piece apparently written by Iggy Pop, né James Newell Osterberg, Jr. I say “apparently” because fraud is legal tender on the internet. Pop recounts his reading of Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first in an abridged edition and later the full six volumes. Pop lists five benefits from reading Gibbon’s masterwork, the most admirable being No. 4: “I find out how little I know.” That’s precisely the reason ambitious readers read -- less to learn than to be reminded how small and inadequate is the knowledge we already possess. I hope Pop has gone on to read the volume often lost in the shadow cast by Gibbon’s History, his Memoirs with their beguiling introduction: 

“In the fifty-second year of my age, after the completion of an arduous and successful work, I now propose to employ some moments of my leisure in reviewing the simple transactions of a private and literary life. Truth, naked, unblushing truth, the first virtue of more serious history, must be the sole recommendation of this personal narrative. The style shall be simple and familiar: but style is the image of character; and the habits of correct writing may produce, without labour or design, the appearance of art and study.” 

[See Joseph Epstein’s recent essay devoted to Gibbon: “The true subject of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is human nature, and, in Gibbon’s recounting, it’s a far from pretty picture.”]


Brian said...

Dylan is not Donne; but in the same spirit, Donne is not Dylan. I was just reading the lyrics to Dylan`s impressive `When the Deal Goes Down` seconds before reading your post. As you suggest, it is a good thing to have both. Tom Waits reminds me of Hopkins in the way he loves particular words. I sense that he finds them delicious in the saying of them.

Thank-you for the link to Epstein. The ongoing fertility of his mind gives one hope.

Denkof Zwemmen said...

There are a ton of crap popular songs. But I think that in two or three hundred years academic literary critics (if there are such creatures) will look back on the 20th century as a second Age of the Troubadours -- based, first, on the sheer volume of songs and, second, from the great number of them which are poetry. The 1920's through 1940's will probably be seen as the apex of the period, with another high point in the 1960's and 1970's -- thanks not only to Bob Dylan. It's personal quirk, but the lyrics of The Stones' "Paint it Black" give me the same thrill that comes with the best of Donne, Marvell, Blake.

Colville said...

Iggy Pop's article on Gibbon published in the University of Dublin's Journal.