Saturday, April 7, 2012

Nick Cave and the Dissection of Poetry

When I was in Mrs. Wilkes's class, she told us that poetry could be beautiful and meaningful, as long as it wasn't over-analyzed. She compared poetry analysis to frog dissection. If you dissect a frog, you can begin to understand the biological mechanisms, but the frog won't hop for you anymore. Good poetry is universal --it can mean different things to different people, who can still enjoy many facets of it.

Beginning in elementary school, we were forced every year (for a grade) to submit an original poem for the local Women's Club. I'm sure they were just trying to do their part for local education and fostering a love for poetry.

But telling a kid to write a poem without telling them how to do such a thing leads to frustration and tears. Well, it did for me, anyway. I didn't want to turn in lousy work for strangers to assess. And I only knew that poems HAD to rhyme at that age. Lol. I didn't get it. I didn't start to even enjoy poetry until I was in college. It made me not only hate poetry, but also "creative writing", which seemed to be teacher-speak for "Write something original and dazzling, or you will fail and worse yet, I will look down on you forever."

Not only did I doubt my ability to please, but I probably didn't have the skill and flair for entertaining writing. I'm not sure if I have it yet, but I know I didn't back then.

I've acquired more writing skills, but our general writing instruction in school went like this: "Write an essay on the causes of the Civil War." Would you believe that the first mention of the basic five-paragraph essay I received wasn't until I attended a University, and the teacher was actually bored with how limited it was?

Nobody praised me for good writing until I was in college. I can say that there was certainly nothing fresh about what I was told to write until then. It threw me for a loop the first time my instructor told me to write a persuasive essay on the topic of my choice. I floundered because I wasn't used to writing my own opinion after years of being told what I could write. Too used to regurgitating the teacher's personal opinion about a subject in a flattering light.

We dissected so many poems that I hated them. I never discovered all of the symbols and other figurative language items that the teacher said were supposed to just jump out at me. (Such as the plethora of Christian symbolism in _The Red Badge of Courage_. I thought it was just a war story. I missed the major symbols -- the sunset / blood, Jim Conklin / Jesus Christ, sun / holy wafer. I didn't even like the war story aspect of it. I tuned out. THAT teacher disliked me anyway. I've never understood why. She put me in the back of the room and allowed rampant cheating for her pets in the front. )

I never enjoyed reading poems because they were another chore at which I couldn't excel.

So it amuses me when I see people discussing the meanings of songs online, and they refuse to accept that the poetry of the lyrics could have multiple meanings.

Take this song, for example. "O Children" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. (I heard it in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1, and liked it. It seems to be trying to remind us to cheer up but gives the reason in such a mournful way. )

Pass me that lovely little gun
My dear, my darling one
The cleaners are coming, one by one
You don't even want to let them start

They are knocking now upon your door
They measure the room, they know the score
They're mopping up the butcher's floor
Of your broken little hearts

O children

Forgive us now for what we've done
It started out as a bit of fun
Here, take these before we run away
The keys to the gulag

O children
Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

Here comes Frank and poor old Jim
They're gathering round with all my friends
We're older now, the light is dim
And you are only just beginning

O children

We have the answer to all your fears
It's short, it's simple, it's crystal clear
It's round about and it's somewhere here
Lost amongst our winnings

O children
Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

The cleaners have done their job on you
They're hip to it, man, they're in the groove
They've hosed you down, you're good as new
They're lining up to inspect you

O children

Poor old Jim's white as a ghost
He's found the answer that we lost
We're all weeping now, weeping because
There ain't nothing we can do to protect you

O children
Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
And the train ain't even left the station

Hey, little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now I see
Have you left a seat for me?
Is that such a stretch of the imagination?

Hey little train! Wait for me!
I was held in chains but now I'm free
I'm hanging in there, don't you see
In this process of elimination

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
It's beyond my wildest expectation

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
And the train ain't even left the station

.....

So many interpretations. Some swear it is literally about the Holocaust. Others are sure it is purely about the Harry Potter story (no... Song came before the books but it does fit with it.)

To me it sounds literally like someone died rather messily by gunshot and they're being prepped for the funeral. Then their friends are there trying to comfort one another with the clammy blanket of "but now they're in Heaven and before long we will all be happily celebrating with them."

Hmm. Funny how that thought is rarely comforting to the people who just want their lost loved one back HERE. I remember when my mother died that I tuned out a lot of what people said to me, for fear they would unwittingly say something that touched a nerve with me, meaning well, but causing me to react inappropriately. I didn't want to be the cause of any hard feelings in my grief. So I received the expressions of sympathy but I tried not to listen to any specific words.

If it makes you feel any better, I remember shopping for the outfit they buried my mother in and I remember choosing her casket (her husband should have done a little of that -- he put it on me and my sister while he sat at home) but I can't remember at all what that casket looks like, three years later.

Anyway... The song has a more personal meaning to me.

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
And the train ain't even left the station

(Jumping on the bandwagon to get into Heaven and having such a blast jumping through man-approved hoops and impressing our fellow man to get to go. And it all seems a bit false and plastic in our devotion. But we look SO Christian to the onlookers.)

(And yet... How are you truly feeling on the inside? Is it just a show to impress people? God knows what's in your heart, I think.)

Hey, little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now I see
Have you left a seat for me?
Is that such a stretch of the imagination?

(Guess what? There are other people that will be in Heaven with you, though they didn't publicly prove they were doing the right things. They are enlightened as well, but weren't up on your party stage to share that they're just as good as you, without seeking praise for doing the right thing. Don't forget that they are coming along on the train even if they didn't go to your church with you. Don't be so surprised by their presence.)

Hey little train! Wait for me!
I was held in chains but now I'm free
I'm hanging in there, don't you see
In this process of elimination

(Sometimes a long life is like a prison sentence in chains. Some don't get life with any episodes of happiness or even respites of mild comfort. For them just hanging on and staying alive when they have the means to end it -- like the friend in the beginning who blew his brains out with the gun -- is a grim battle from the beginning to the end. Every reason to give up and not doing so because they feel compelled to stay the course no matter how miserable it is. They see everyone they love go away until they are alone. Always being promised that a tiny break is coming in their life, hanging on with a sweaty and weakening grip, until they die unfulfilled after all. But their chains are finally broken and they hope that train is still waiting after all that time and pain. I hope the train won't have gone already, after all that.)

See, something different to each person. It really seemed to underline that all of the bad things that happen are just a test to see if you can be the last one standing without totally losing your faith. It's not a "fair" or consistent test, but you get what you get. (So shut up about it already, or you'll scare the ones who got the "easy" version? I hear that a lot from those who obviously got the easy version of the test to begin with. :P. )

*sigh* The emoji icons don't work here.

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