Daily Archives: 17 September 2009

#46 “They Feed They Lion” (Philip Levine)

I have less than no idea what “They Feed They Lion” by Philip Levine is supposed to mean. I doubt if it would be much help to call up Philip Levine and ask him.

“The Feed They Lion” reminds me of one of those creatures on Star Trek: a being of pure energy. Its four main weapons are repetition, ferocious insistence, short attention span, and indeterminate reference.

“They” is undefined. “Lion” is undefined. But it has affinities with other large predators in English-language poetry:

somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs […]
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”)

The setting is undefined (middle America, Appalachia, the country, the poor, the desperate, some source of wicked and frantic power, but nothing definable). The intention of They Lion is undefined. There’s a sort of Old Testament prophetic feel in the invocation of They Lion, but no visible rhetorical target, no nation to be saved if we do the right thing. It’s a Jeremiad without a problem and perhaps even without an audience.

But what a ride. On the octane meter of poetic rhythm creating emotions from pure sound with almost no middleman of meaning, “They Feed They Lion” tops the charts.

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#47 “Some Other Spring” (Irene Kitchings)

“Some Other Spring” is one of the most enigmatic poems in the Countdown. There’s an astonishing amount we don’t know about the lyric, even though it’s listed at the site linked above as the 631st-greatest jazz standard of all time (jazz has its countdowns, too).

We don’t know much about the author of the lyric aside from her name. Seriously, if you try Googling “Irene Kitchings,” you enter a sort of twilight world of information where the usual Internet authorities are improbably confused. Irene Kitchings may or may not have been married to pianist Teddy Wilson, she may or may not have had other marriages and other surnames. She may or may not have written “Some Other Spring,” for that matter, and she’s associated with only one other jazz lyric, the Billie Holiday song “I’m Pulling Through,” which has a similar ethereal beauty. But what I can tell you for sure about Irene Kitchings and her relation to this lyric approaches zero.

I also can’t tell you the exact words of the lyric. I can do a little better than the Internet, though that’s not saying a lot. The version I have on my class handout reads:

Some other spring I’ll try to love,
Now I still cling to faded blossoms.
Fresh when worn, left crushed and torn
Like the love affair I mourn.

Some other spring, when twilight falls,
Will the nights bring another to me?
Not your kind – but let me find
It’s not true that love is blind.

Sun shines around me,
But deep in my heart, it’s cold as ice.
Love, once you found me,
But can that story be told twice?

Some other spring will my heart wake,
Stirring to sing love’s magic music?
Then forget the old duet,
And love in some other spring.

I think I’ve improved here on some versions that you can find on lyrics websites, like “Fresh from worn / Left chrushed and torn” or “Fresh when one left crushed and torn. / Like the love affair I’m on.” I have introduced the phrase “And love in some other spring” in the final line, but Billie Holiday sings “In love with some other spring,” which is also good. I’ve heard it sung both ways, and I prefer “and love in” – slightly. And after all, Billie Holiday shouldn’t be the expert here. On one and the same canonical recording, she sings “But can that story unfold twice?” the first time through the middle eight, and “But can that story be told twice?” the second time.

What is the text? And in the case of a song where we’re not even very sure of the author, and a musical genre where the singers are notorious improvisers, how can we ever be sure?

In the case of great modern song lyric, we are back in a situation that reminds me of medieval poetry: uncertain transmission, strong connection to music, semi-anonymous authors.

And potent, timeless themes. The connection of love to a faded blossom appears in many songs and lyrics. Wilhelm Müller’s “Trockne Blumen,” which was set to music by Schubert as one of his most famous “Lieder,” evokes the possibility that the flowers the speaker has received from a lover will fade, but still outlive him after he dies of a broken heart. Edmund Waller, in a famous English lyric from before our period, tells a rose sent to a lover to

die, that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee:
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair.

The theme is old, but the idea that spring will offer renewals even after we as individuals can no longer share in them is inescapable, and is perfectly captured in Kitching’s lyric. It may be not with the lover she so longed for, but she can’t but hope for “some other spring.” As Müller’s speaker, even beyond the grave, can’t help but answer:

Dann, Blümlein alle,
Heraus, heraus!
Der Mai ist kommen,
Der Winter ist aus.

Then, all you blossoms,
Come out, come out!
May has come in,
And winter is over.

#48 “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” (Stephen Spender)

Why teach poetry?

If you’re a conservative who believes that the main purpose of schools is to train people quickly to use skills in the service of economic growth, literature courses are at best a waste of precious taxpayer money, at worst an encouragement to the unskilled to dream their weekends away and become even less skilled.

If you’re a left-winger who believes that the main purpose of schools should be to catalyze rejection of capitalist ideology, literature courses are at best a waste of precious critical-thinking opportunities, at worst an indoctrination into how to buy pretty little leisure commodities like nice editions of Shakespeare instead of manning the barricades.

(Leave aside for the moment that there are fifty of the former for every one of the latter, and that legislatures and school boards are full of such conservatives and completely empty of such left-wingers.)

Between two such poles of thought, teaching poetry as poetry, as Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been said and thought in the world” or Aristotle’s idea of a work of art “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these
emotions,” seems pretty naïve. Neither route is going to help students succeed in the real world, as those who study the balance sheets of education (either financial or ideological) would like to define success.

In this context, Stephen Spender’s “Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” is a work of rhetoric in defense of poetry. Poetry, in Spender’s words, should “break the town,” but not in the sense of political revolution. We deserve poetry itself, as a source of beauty in the world, untied to direct political action or even to right-thinking.

The possibilities are unpredictable and unruly, involving the opportunity to “run naked into books.” But everyone, especially the less-privileged, deserves the chance to know such aesthetic pleasure. As someone tells Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “I don’t know why people who are better off always think that those less fortunate than themselves don’t want to have the good things—that they don’t want to listen to good music, eat good food or read Henry James” (NY: Random House, 2004: 221).

Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century man of letters, once asked a boy who was rowing his boat ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’ (James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, ch.21). We do not live by bread alone, or by computer skills, or by a subversive attitude toward ruling ideologies. Poetry keeps insisting on its role, useless though it may appear, in a happy and healthy life.