When I was in middle school I kept a poetry journal. Not mine, mind you. Like most middle school girls, I DID write poetry but it was pretty pretentious and crappy. I kept a journal of other people’s poetry and I set a lot of it to music when I was in high school and early college. Interestingly, once I stopped writing music, I also stopped keeping a poetry journal.
Well, when I started writing a few years ago, I decided to make a new journal. I love a beautiful turn of phrase and I think you can get away with much more lyrical language in poetry than in prose (not always true, I know). I went to a writing conference and heard Monte Schulz speak (This Side of Jordan) and one of his major themes was that there shouldn’t be this huge linguistic divide between commercial and literary fiction. Just because Stephen King doesn’t use poetic language doesn’t mean you can’t. He suggested keeping a journal of beautiful lines from any and all sources to use as an inspiration and so I did. In an ironic aside, I hated his book. He talked about finding the voice of a period (This Side of Jordan is depression era) and using the language as it’s own character. While I loved that as a theory, I only got half-way through the book before I got so annoyed at the stilted dialogue that I gave up (and I rarely give up on books). Oh well. He was still one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever heard and I felt like he’d given me permission to wax poetical even though I was writing in a commercial genre.
Looking through the new incarnation of my journal, I am finding a lot of song lyrics. You know how tunes get stuck in your head sometimes? I have this problem (perpetually) but I also get text stuck in my head (it’s even more tenacious when its a line with a lovely tune, too). So I thought I would maybe use these mini-lyric-obsessions for blog topics.
This week, I am listening to the King is Dead by The Decemberists. They totally cheat in the beautiful/evocative lyric category because their lead singer/somgwriter is actually an english professor somewhere. And the songs are not about normal modern song topics. They’re about british serial killers and highwaymen and the seventeenth century Spanish monarchy and Stalin-era genetic engineering. This album is about war in all its myriad forms and there are a handful of lines that I am haunted by. I’m curious how they communicate without the music – I can’t separate my feelings about the words form their tunes in my head so I’m not impartial. Here they are, in no particular order:
“This bulkhead’s built of fallen brethren bones” & “There’s plenty of men to die, you don’t jump your turn” Rox in the Box
What a creepy image. If you think about it literally, you can imagine a soldier sheltering under the bodies of fallen comrades. I get the idea of those dead protecting the speaker and I think its such a beautiful way to say something that could be described very prosaically – like, “I was sheltering behind the dead bodies”. But the “fallen brethren bones” is so evocative. It gives so much mood but it keeps the image clean (there’s no decaying flesh or steaming entrails). And the second phrase makes me think of that character trying to die to avenge the other soldiers? Taking too many risks out of fear or despair or anger? I have a whole story in my head from just those two lines, but that story is only intimated. It gives me so much creative license and the language is so beautiful it really encourages me to make that story – and make it beautiful.
“I lived a childhood in snow” January Hymn
This one is both literally descriptive and figuratively stirring. Again, I could write a whole character just from that phrase. This song happens to be very singable, and I love the way this line feels when sung. I just want to roll it around in my mouth.
“You’re standing on the landing with the war you shouldered all the night before” June Hymn
Can’t you just see this character? I actually get an image of Anne Shirley in Rilla of Ingleside when she finds out that her son is killed in WW1. Again, this phrase is beautiful and I get such an immediate flash of who it describes. The rest of the song describes flowers and birds and to have this line in the middle of a pastoral description is a cool effect – it almost gets lost, like you can be in a beautiful place and almost forget the horrors of the world. Almost. It also has a lovely sense of renewal – the war was “last night” and now the world is new and the birds are still singing and the vines are still in bloom. Delightful.
“A barony of ivy in the trees; expanding out its empire by degrees” June Hymn
Thats just a really cool metaphor.
“Come attrition, come the reek of bones” & “Bride of Quiet; Bride of all unquiet things” This is Why We Fight
Again, so creepy. And what active and interesting word choice! And the video is really neat – in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.
So anyway. That’s what I’m in the grips of this week.