Saturday, June 25, 2011

Aimless Reading: The N's, Part 10.1 (Alice Notley)

Notley, Alice
Mysteries of Small Houses

I think I bought this online a couple of years after it came out. I have a memory of intending to purchase it, of staring at it on bookstore shelves, but never pulling the trigger, as they say. Not sure what kept me from it.

Anyhow, last night I met with a group of writers who get together a couple of times a month to discuss each other's work. It was a very different atmosphere than the writer's group I attended 20 years ago -- in a good way. At one point, as sort of an icebreaker, we started talking about different poets and so forth who were important to us. I started scribbling down a few sentences about this and it suddenly dawned on me that more important to me initially than poets were song writers.

As a kid my emotional connection to the world was mediated by movies, television and music, the latter more so as I moved into my teenage years. My parents were very strict about letting me out of the house unsupervised, so at night and at those times when I had no organized activity in which to participate, like a soccer or basketball game, I sat in my room and listened to music.

This was the late seventies and early eighties and I think the first band whose lyrics I started listening to was Pink Floyd. I loved 'The Wall' and I can recall sitting in my room listening to it over and over again. I remember the lyrics were written on the record sleeves in the same chicken-scratch graffiti font that the album title was written in on the cover. Even knowing the lyrics I found the songs very strange and wonderful. Before long I had committed the whole album to memory.

As I was writing this down last night for the group it dawned on me that this pretty accurately describes my early interest in language. I would listen to something relentlessly until I knew all the words and once I did I would puzzle over them seemingly forever trying to understood what they meant. Sometimes the puzzling was over what the words spoken actually were, as not every album came with the lyrics written down and there was no internet and rock and roll singers were notorious for garbling the words that they sang.

I have moments even now when I hear a song from that era and its once-garbled lyrics suddenly become clear to me thirty years on. There's a kind of continuity there that I think the engagement with art brings to one's life.

I was especially fond of long story-telling songs when I was a kid. The hot song in sixth grade was 'The Devil Went Down To Georgia,' by the Charlie Daniels Band. I memorized all of it. (There was also the added pleasure of owning the record with the uncensored lines, "I told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best there's ever been," which had been altered to "son of a gun" for airplay.)

And then there was 'Alice's Restaurant' and later the long, rambling surreal narratives of Bob Dylan's songs like 'Tangled Up in Blue' & 'Isis.' All of this comes before poetry for me and my experience of that music and the words of those songs, of memorizing and interpreting and so forth, forms the foundation for my later love of poetry which, as personal and profound as it is, does not quite share the primal fire those early encounters with music once had.

But I can see the continuity there, the love of musical language remains as I move quietly into middle age.

Here's Alice reading 'Hematite Heirloom Lives on (Maybe December 1980)':

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