Poetry in song: Indie rock music lyrics

My preferences in music lie in this general direction: good lyrics, good groove, good singing, complex instrumentation, but my tastes are much more specific. The truth is, I can be kind of a musical snob. I grew up learning the trombone, a little piano, and dancing and singing on the fly whenever I could. Learning how to read and listen to music for its parts opened the door for me to enjoy music in greater variety and depth, which made me a more discerning consumer.

I don’t tend to like mainstream pop. I go more for alternative rock, indie pop, New Wave, electronica, movie and TV soundtracks, jazz, and classical, or rock that incorporates combinations of these elements. Such as No Doubt’s use of ska or Kings of Leon’s and Glass Animals’ blues-heavy alt rock. See the glossary at bottom for genre definitions.

I’m also a sucker for the occasional nostalgic 80s pop tune and musical theater production. I listened to a A Chorus Line a lot as a kid and have memorized most of the Rent soundtrack. Growing up on Olivia Newton-John, Madonna, Prince, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Billy Joel took a dramatic turn in the early 90s with my exposure to alternative bands The Cure and Depeche Mode. I always liked U2, INXS, and Duran Duran.

Then, at age 13, I became a Tori Amos fanatic, with sides of Bjork and The Sugarcubes, Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, PJ Harvey, and Sheryl Crow through the next decade, much of which I’ve outgrown, though I do reminiscence. The story is similar with Fiona Apple and The Ditty Bops, and, earlier on, The Cranberries and The Sundays.

Today, some of my favorite bands include Young the Giant, Foster the People, Of Monsters and Men, Modest Mouse, Nothing But Thieves, Chvrches, The Killers, Bastille, and Cold War Kids. I went through a Florence+the Machine phase (Baroque pop), and I really like Hozier, Lorde, Jack White (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and The White Stripes), The Black Keys, Silversun Pickups, The Kooks, Muse, Tame Impala, Metric, Snow Patrol, Joywave, Big Data, Matt & Kim, Alice Merton, Phantogram, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Two Door Cinema Club, Vampire Weekend, Saint Motel, and St. Vincent.

I still groove to the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Interpol, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Incubus, Keane, Ra Ra Riot, Faith No More, Cake, Fitz and the Tantrums, Phoenix, Garbage, Soundgarden and Audioslave, Ben Harper, Over the Rhine, G. Love & Special Sauce, Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Beck, Metric, Gorillaz, Rilo Kiley, Passion Pit, Ben Folds Five, The Smashing Pumpkins, Tove Lo, Queens of the Stone Age, Siouxsie and the Banshees (keep hearing “Turn to Stone” in my head for some reason), and The Clash when they pop up. Alternative rock, alterna-pop, punk, funk, post-punk revival, and offshoots of those.

I also love the music of James Brown, Blondie, Sam Cooke, The Police, Bob Marley, The Pretenders, Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Prince, Donna Summer, and Michael Jackson.

I don’t like most of today’s streaming radio apps. I like to choose my own playlist of specific songs, not songs derived from the artist or song I chose. But I’m also still looking for a music player app that truly understands the definition of random shuffle. Open to suggestions.

Anyway, these somewhat rigid standards translate into listening to a lot of the same music on repeat–for years. Thus, the following throwback recommendation. As a send-off to National Poetry Month 2018, I’m sharing some poetry in modern musical form. 

One of my favorite bands for great lyrics is The Shins, described as an “indie rock” band by Wikipedia. Guitar-based, keyboard-infused, and vocally and lyrically focused, The Shins strike the listener with their dynamic melodies, pop sensibilities, and pleasing harmonies. With more keen listening, their wit and ennui emerge.

I only have a couple of their albums, but the songs are very singable and packed with meaning. In dance terms, they tend to be more for swaying and head bobbing. Wincing the Night Away (2007) is my preferred Shins album between the two I own, the other being Oh, Inverted World (their first record, 2001), which I bought second. Wincing seems to me to have a more consistent and polished sound across the album.

 

The song lyrics below form a representative example of the turns of phrase, ideas, mood, and rhythms in many Shins tunes, especially on Wincing the Night Away.


“Turn on Me” by The Shins (from Wincing the Night Away, SubPop Records, 2007)

You can fake it for a while
bite your tongue and smile
like every mother does her ugly child
but it starts to leaking out
like spittle from a cloud
amassed resentment pelting ounce and pound
you entertaining any doubts

(chorus) ’cause you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
though I knew you masked your disdain
I can see the change was just too hard for us
(hard for us)
you always had to hold the reigns (sic)
but where I’m headed you just don’t know the way

so affections fade away
or do adults just learn to play
the most ridiculous repulsive games
all our favorite ruddy sons
and their double-barreled guns
you’d better hurry rabbit run run run
’cause mincing you is fun
and there’s a lot of hungry hatters in this world
set on taking it over
but brittle thorny stems
they break before they bend
and neither one of us is one of them
and the tears will never mend

(divergent chorus/bridge) ’cause you had it in for me so long ago
(boy I still don’t know)
I don’t know why and I don’t care
well hardley (sic) anymore
if you’d only seen yourself hating me
(hating me)
when I’d been so much more than fair
but then you’d have to lay those feelings bare
the one thing I know has still got you scared
yeah all that cold ire
and never once aired on a dare

(chorus) you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
so I took your licks at the time
a change like that is just so hard to do
(hard to do)
don’t let it whip-crack your life
and I’ll bow out from the fight
those old pius (sic) sisters were right
the worst part is over
now get back on that horse and ride.


Note the unique word choices, robust lines of ideas, verb tense nuances, use of repetition in words (sonically a harmonized echo) and verse rhymes (aaabbbb, dddeeeexxffff), which has this unique “oh, and one more thing” effect, and chorus variations. Yet, the chorus also holds a fairly consistent rhyming pattern, especially between the last two: chorus 1, cdxdd; chorus 2, ghgxhhhxh; chorus 3, cacaaaxa.

The tune opens with a spare, rising and falling guitar line with slight reverberation in a minor key, there’s a medium tempo with fast lyric delivery, and the song ends abruptly after the last line.

The collective effect of the words, rhymes, pace, notes, and rhythm is a message of sad but insistent coming to terms with personal differences leading to relationship’s end, seemingly with a friend rather than a lover. It plays as a kind of overture to be frank with the former friend, not to be interrupted, not expecting it to be reciprocated (though knowing the other might heal if release were allowed), in order to reveal that the speaker was more aware of their dynamics than the other probably assumed.

The second verse portrays a sort of cat-and-mouse (or rabbit-and-hatter) game between the people in this relationship, only to dismiss it as pointless role-play that doesn’t befit them. Fans of Lewis Carroll and followers of my blog may notice the Alice in Wonderland references with “rabbit” and “hatters.”

There’s all this friction, tension, wasted aggression, and drama. He “took” the “licks,” put up with the contempt and attitude of “disdain” because of love. But now he sees their fracture was inevitable and releases the other from the struggle, by leaving it himself and encouraging their moving on without clinging to the pain.

It ends with a message, more to self than to other, to get on with life now that he’s said his piece and supposedly found closure in it. He’s trying his best. However, the very need to sing the song, the “oh, and one more thing” pattern in the rhyming lines, the abruptness of the ending (before the declaration has a chance to sink in even to the one making it), and the emphatic, staccato delivery of the last line collectively suggest there will always be some part of it that at least one, if not both, of them can never get over.

As a result, the title “Turn on Me” reads in two ways: (1) Here’s what you did and I never understood why (the question haunts me), and (2) here’s what I almost dare you to do, to respond whether to explain or keep battering away at me, even though my final words say “nevermind, I’m out.”

Even without being put to music, it’s a sophisticated piece of poetry as a whole, conveying a theme not often found in mainstream pop, using incisive remarks, clever yet concise phrasing, and raw but controlled emotion. Like most poetry though, of course, it’s made to be listened to.

Among songs on the album, I also really like the more well-known singles “Australia” and “Phantom Limb.” The tunes “Girl Sailor” and “Red Rabbits,” though not popular on Amazon, are additional favorites of mine based on the lyrics and, ultimately, Wincing‘s great sound. Although I find the tune a little too stripped down musically, I do like the lyrics to “A Comet Appears,” the album’s last song.

My introduction to The Shins was through their single “New Slang”‘s prominent role in the movie Garden State with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. That lovely single appears on the Oh, Inverted World album.

album-cover_Wincing-the-Night-Away_The-Shins_2018-Amazon

Cover of The Shins’ 2007 album Wincing the Night Away. Credit to image owner.

Notes on the text: I’ve based the lyrics above primarily on the album’s CD jacket text for the song. I forgive The Shins’ editors the CD jacket’s spelling errors, but I do mark them rather than correct them as some lyrics sites have. I’ve represented the lyrics without punctuation except for the abbreviations and contractions containing apostrophes, the hyphens, and the final period as shown in the jacket. I retain most of the line break model provided by MetroLyrics for ease of reading since the jacket has only 3 lines of text for the entire song, extending across two and a half page spreads. It’s one big run-on. To learn where each sentence really ends, buy and listen to the recording.

I restore lowercasing as shown in the jacket text and have re-broken stanzas according to my own sense of idea units and shifts in musical elements between verses and chorus. Per the original published text, I retain phrase truncation and omit question marks, though some lines are questions. I add parentheses around the echoed harmonies that MetroLyrics adds as separate lines of lyrics, as these are not in the original. I also correct several wording errors from the MetroLyrics text.


I recommend more music in these posts:


Glossary of Music Genre Terms

alternative rock, a.k.a. alternative music, alt-rock, or alternative – “a style of rock music that emerged from the independent music underground of the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. . . . as distinct from mainstream rock music.” Benefiting from “the groundwork laid by the independent, DIY ethos of punk rock from the 1970s,” the term has been used at times to describe underground rock artists that are seen to be descended from punk rock (punk, new wave, and post-punk).” (Wikipedia excerpts) In short, not mainstream rock but not easily defined.

Baroque pop/rock – a fusion of rock/pop and classical music with Baroque compositional styles and use of instruments commonly associated with this movement of the classical genre, such as harpsichords (as on Tori Amos’ album Boys for Pele), strings, and, in the case of Florence+the Machine, harps (paraphrase of Wikipedia)

electronica – a variety of “styles including techno, house, ambient, jungle, and industrial dance, among others” (Wikipedia)

electropop – “a variant of synth-pop that places more emphasis on a harder, electronic sound, revived in popularity and influence since the 2000s.” (Wikipedia)

indie pop – “a genre and subculture that combines guitar pop with DIY ethic in opposition to the style and tone of mainstream pop music.” (Wikipedia)

* indie rock – a genre of alternative rock that originated in the U.S. and UK in the 1980s, originally referring to their independent record labels, evolving into a style and further evolving as different genres and subgenres ebbed and flowed in popularity. Often seen as an underground movement stemming from grunge, punk revival, and Britpop bands, some artists described using this term moved into the mainstream as well. At one point used to describe music produced on punk and post-punk labels. (paraphrase of Wikipedia) In short, once a clear genre, now muddled.

funk – “a music genre that originated in African American communities in the mid-1960s when African American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). It de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions . . . and brings a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer to the foreground.” (Wikipedia) In short, sexy, groovy awesomeness.

post-punk (originally “new musick”) – “a broad type of rock music that emerged from the punk movement of the 1970s, in which artists departed from the simplicity and traditionalism of punk rock to adopt a variety of avant-garde sensibilities. Inspired by punk’s energy and DIY ethic but determined to break from rock clichés, artists experimented diversely with sources including electronic music and black styles like dub, funk, free jazz, and disco; novel recording and production techniques; and ideas from art and politics, including critical theory, modernist art, cinema and literature. . . .” (Wikipedia). In short, punk morphed into anything they wanted.

punk rock or punk – “a rock music genre developed in the mid-1970s in the U.S., UK, and Australia rooted in 1960s garage rock and other forms of what is now known as “proto-punk” music; punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock . . . typically produced short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics.” (Wikipedia). In short, angry protest rock.

Brief Book Review: A Passage to India

Just finished for book club: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. I hope to write a more thorough review in a future post. For now, summarized thoughts on the reading.

Probably a 4.5, maybe even 4.6 out of 5. Only minor lagging and minimal obfuscating text.

Brilliant in most every other way–from structure to theme development, to literary device use and turn of phrase, to character complexity and insightful omniscient third person point of view, to measured dramatic arc and lyrical, mystical realism, to vivid setting description, especially geology (one of my loves), to a tone of nonchalant cynicism (not indifferent nihilism) founded in secular humanism, i.e., brotherly love, and good intentions, while proving, through keen cultural understanding and storytelling, that in unequal, occupier-colonist relationships amidst racial tensions and in-country religious differences, good intentions are never enough.

Absorbing, educational yet not pedantic, and resonant well beyond its early 20th-century era and final page.

cover_a-passage-to-india

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies

In honor of Black History Month (and the birthday of poet Thylias Moss), here are some ideas and resources for exploring nature poetry–and uses of nature in literature–across the Black* and African diasporas of the Americas.

In nature poetry and environmental literature
Resource

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Camille T. Dungy, ed. Published by University of Georgia Press (2009). The review by Alexa Mergen at the Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing is undated. Here’s a basic description of the anthology, which I just ordered online:

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, provides 180 windows from 93 poets onto views of nature.”

Ideas
  1. Consider the role of nature in the history of American slavery and other forms of Black oppression and destruction. Examples: trees used for lynchings, rivers for trafficking slaves. Can you hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit?” Slave-driven American agriculture appropriated both nature and Africans.
  2. Natural race, racial nature: As with nature-based portrayals of women, white patriarchal literary and other traditions have used nature concepts and imagery to dehumanize, reduce and limit Black experience and existence, under the assumption that nature, too, is to be dominated. On the other side, feminists and scholars have theorized means of liberation through ecofeminism–a blend of feminism and environmentalism. I read Ecological Feminist Philosophies for a course during college. Perhaps I’ll look at nature poetry from a feminist perspective in the future. Jon Claborn recently published a nonfiction work titled Civil Rights and the Environment in African-American Literature, 1895-1941. Camille T. Dungy, referenced above, highly praises the book.
  3. Derek Walcott, an award-winning contemporary Black Caribbean poet, died in March of last year. His book-length poem Omeros, a work I also read–and loved–in college, weaves together language, rhythm, sea and island symbolism, myth, and allegory. The poem’s main purpose is to illuminate the history of colonization and the nature of post-colonial life in St. Lucia, the West Indies.
  4. Wild Africa: poems about nature in Africa, though not necessarily by African poets.
African American poetry resources

Moving beyond the subject of blackness: from the Modern American Poetry series at the University of Illinois, “Furious Flower: African American Poetry, An Overview” by Joanne V. Gabbin:

“Rita Dove, acknowledging her own debt to the Black Arts Movement, said that if it had not been for the movement, America would not be ready to accept a poet who explored a text other than blackness. Unencumbered by a necessarily political message, Dove in her Pulitzer Prize winning book Thomas and Beulah (1987) brings wholeness and elegance to the histories of her grandparents. Dove, who held the post of Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 until 1995, is representative of a large accomplished group of poets who published their first poems during the late 1970s and 1980s: Yusef Komunyakaa, Cornelius Eady, Melvin Dixon, Dolores Kendrick, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Gloria Oden, and Sherley Anne Williams.”

Dolores Kendrick, Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C., passed away last November. Here is an in memoriam from her southwest D.C. community, including her poem “Epoch.” The Poetry Foundation notes that Kendrick made connections through poetry. She said, “Good poetry does not belong to the poet.”

See also the Academy of American Poets interview with poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois,” which includes among its subjects the issue of real and perceived neglect of black writers by white anthologists. The absence of Gloria Oden (G. C. Oden) and Sherley Anne Williams from the the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites may speak to that neglect, though the Poetry Foundation does include Williams’ profile page. Below is the salient excerpt from the Brooks interview.

Angle: Do you think that the fact that you are a Negro placed you under any handicap in a writing career?

Brooks: If it has, I don’t know about it. Certain things might have happened that I don’t know about, but I can’t say that I have been hindered because of my race in the field of writing. I am not aware of this being true. I have written poems. I have submitted poems to editors and publishers. When the poems were poor they were returned (as a rule!). When they were other than poor they were published. Everything that I have written that I wanted to see published has been published, with the exception of one juvenile which needs a couple adjustments. And for many years I have had writing invitations from editors and publishers.

I have something further to say on the subject, however. I do believe that it is true, as Karl Shapiro says, that many white anthologists will not admit black writers to their pages. Mr. Shapiro wrote (in a foreword to Melvin Tolson’s “Harlem Gallery”): “One of the rules of the poetic establishment is that Negroes are not admitted to the polite company of the anthology. Poetry as we know it remains the most lily-white of the arts.”

There are exceptions to my exception, of course. Sometimes Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson may be found. Sometimes I may be found. Sometimes LeRoi Jones may be found, but never with his best work, which is the poetry of The Dead Lecturer. Never Kent Foreman, Don Lee, Dudley Randall, Margaret Danner, David Lhorens, Ted Joans, G. C. Oden, Julia Fields, Robert Hayden, Conrad Rivers, Owen Dodson, Margaret Walker. (You will find these people in the Negro anthologies, in Hughes’s and Bontemps’s anthologies.)

Poem by an African American

Finally, an excerpt of a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, the full text of which can be found through the Poetry Foundation and JSTOR:

Excerpted from "Blessing the Animals"
by Yusef Komunyakaa

. . . An elephant daydreams, nudging
ancestral bones down a rocky path,
but won't venture near the boy
with a white mouse peeking
from his coat pocket. Beyond
monkeyshine, their bellows
& cries are like prayers 
to unknown planets & zodiac
signs. The ferret & mongoose
on leashes, move as if they know
things with a sixth sense.
Priests twirl hoops of myrrh. . . .

Bibliography

Academy of American Poets. “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois.” Accessed February 27, 2018. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/we-asked-gwendolyn-brooks-about-creative-environment-illinois.

Claborn, John. Civil rights and the environment in African-American literature, 1895-1941. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Dungy, Camille T. Black nature: four centuries of African American nature poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Gabbin, Joanne V. 2004. Furious flower: African American poetry from the Black arts movement to the present. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. (listing: https://www.worldcat.org/title/furious-flower-african-american-poetry-from-the-black-arts-movement-to-the-present/oclc/52424044 )

“The Furious Flower Conference of 1994 represented the largest gathering of African American writers at one event in nearly 30 years. This work assembles a second selection of works by 43 Furious Flower participants covering three generations. It includes biographies and photographs by C.B. Claiborne of many of the Furious Flower participants.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Blessing the Animals,” Poetry, July 1997, 220-21.  Accessed February 27, 2018 through Poetry Foundation and JSTOR. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=170&issue=4&page=39.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. München: Hanser, 1995.


* Black – The term is here distinguished from “African American” to acknowledge the various groups of black people who (1) did not descend from Africa (any more than all of humanity does, which it does) but are in fact descendants of darker-skinned peoples relatively more native to different parts of, for instance, the Caribbean, in this “Americas” context, and (2) are neither geographically nor culturally American.

The term “Black” is here capitalized as a sign of respect for traditionally subjugated and marginalized groups, who, while not ethnically or culturally homogeneous, tend to have darker skin compared to whites and other people of color, and whom white, majority cultures have oppressed, over the centuries, in large part because of that darker skin. For more on the debate over color labels and their use in type, see “Black and white: why capitalization matters” by Merrill Perlman at Columbia Journalism Review.


My series on famous nature poetry:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1): Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Up next:

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?


To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.


Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:

square-rock-lichen-Nether-Largie-stone_DSCN3484_eds-2017-12-20

Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg


Two weeks later . . .

My eureka moment: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Scots: Living Language, Not Bygone Dialect