Brain Surgery

When I go looking for stories about the writing process, I don't generally hit up the New York Times, but there's a piece today by Rosanne Cash that I found fascinating. There are, of course, major differences between writing poetry and writing songs--the music is an integral part of the effect of the lyrics, and does much of the emotional heavy lifting. All you need for proof of that is to listen to the ways various bands cover the same song, the way their musical styles infect the meaning of the lyrics. A classic example is "With a Little Help From My Friends." Ringo Starr's singing galumphs along, and the song has a jaunty feel to it, while Joe Cocker's live performance from Woodstock reaches down into your cockles and gives them a good squeezing. Same lyrics--different interpretation.

But when it comes to inspiration, I get the feeling that really good songwriters and really good poets are coming from the same places. From Rosanne Cash's piece:

The instrument has a lot to do with the order of inspiration. Sometimes. And sometimes the fragment of a conversation, the color of the sky, the image in a dream, has everything to do with where the song begins....

On vacation recently, there were some Christian fundamentalists at lunch at the next table and I felt the tension and constriction of their religious beliefs wafting off them like a perfume. That is my own projection, I’m sure, but I thought of something a friend used to say about that particular brand of religion — that it was like “looking at the ground with a flashlight when the whole universe was around you waiting to be noticed.” Walking to the beach later, I was thinking about how my own idea of God was so mutable, and that even though I pray, most of the time I haven’t a clue to whom I’m praying.

And I like it that way. Sometimes God is Art, Music and Children and that is more than good enough. Ruminating on these things, I thought of a phrase — “the pantheon of my religious desires” — and I wrote it in my notebook. That line is probably too sophomore-English-major precious, but this is how songs begin for me. Sometimes.
I can relate to that a lot, in part because for most of my life, I was one of those people looking at the ground with a flashlight instead of looking at the universe around me. And it's no surprise to me that once I gave up hat view of the ground, I started writing poetry again. I'd written in high school, painful, angsty stuff like most poets, but had given it up once I'd gotten married. After my divorce eight years later, and after I'd left the church, about the middle of my second semester, I started writing again--bad, angsty stuff as well, but highly charged with a wonder of the universe that I had never experienced as a Jehovah's Witness. Suddenly I had questions instead of answers, and poetry was a way of meditating on that.

I heard a dear friend and fellow poet once say in conversation that she felt that an atheist couldn't be a poet, because there's a need to be able to feel the sublime and the transcendent. At the time--and this was several years ago--I wasn't sure how to take that. I was agnostic at the time, and pretty secular, and discounted the need to believe in something larger than myself. But now, even though I disagree with her statement, I know what she's talking about. Artists do have to search for the transcendent in the universe if they are going to have a hope of reflecting and translating that into words or paintings or sculptures or music or dance or any other artistic form. Some call it god. I don't, but I search for it all the same, and I find it at times, as Cash does, in "Art, Music and Children." Oftentimes I find it on a road, or in my memories, especially those of Louisiana, in the smells of certain meals, in the vocal accents that echo through time, in headlines and textbooks. It's there--you just have to notice it.

Crossposted at Brian-Spears, my blog on poetry and writing.

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