Wednesday, November 30, 2022

'A World I Never Made'

"This was a favorite phrase of mine from the poet A.E. Housman, and I was always determined to write a lyric around it, without paying much attention to what his message was, really.” 

The unexpected speaker here is Doc Pomus, nĂ© Jerome Solon Felder (1925-91), the prolific songwriter whose credits include “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love” and “Little Sister.” The song he adapted from Housman’s line and co-wrote with Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) was “A World I Never Made,” recorded by B.B. King and Johnny Adams. Pomus lifts the line from XII in Housman’s Last Poems (1922): “I, a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made.”


Larkin called Housman the “poet of unhappiness,” though his true nature as a poet was more nuanced than that. Housman’s dramatized stance of solitude owes something to his homosexuality. By nature, Housman was stoical. He worked hard to remain unruffled. That he felt things deeply is apparent to anyone reading A Shropshire Lad (1896). Housman wrote and collected the verses in Last Poems after learning that Moses Jackson, whom he had loved unrequitedly since university days, was dying. Larkin writes:


“To be more unhappy than unfortunate suggests some jamming of the emotions whereby they are forced to re-enact the same situation even though it no longer exists, but for Housman it did still exist. If unhappiness was the key to poetry, the key to unhappiness was Moses Jackson. It would be tempting to call this neurosis, but there is a shorter word. For as Housman himself said, anyone who thinks he has loved more than one person has simply never really loved at all."


XII, usually identified by its first line, “The laws of God, the laws of man,” is by Housman’s customary standards heavy-handed. The line Pomus chooses to adapt is evocative but much of the poem comes off like a second cousin to Henley’s “Invictus” or third-tier Kipling. In the passage at the top, Peter Guralnick is quoting Pomus in “Call the Doctor: The Further Adventures of Doc Pomus, Part 1,” collected in Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing (Little, Brown and Co., 2020). Pomus goes on about the line he took from Housman’s poem:


“[L]et me tell you something, to Dr. John I think it meant something different. You see, there’s two ways of approaching that thing. One way it just means you had nothing to do with the making of the world, right? And the other approach is, ‘It’s a world I never understood.’ Which is a subtle difference.”


[James T. Farrell titled his 1938 novel A World I Never Made and Bob Dylan dedicated The Philosophy of Modern Song (2022) to Doc Pomus. Larkin’s “All Right When You Knew Him,” a review of Richard Perceval Graves’ A.E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (1979), is collected in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (1983).]

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