Monday, June 20, 2011

Of Downbound Trains and Poetry Manuscripts

I spent some time yesterday with Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA CD.  Long ago, I'd have been listening on vinyl, if I was near the record player, or on cassette tape (homemade) if I was in the car.  Now I finally have cars with CD players and it's time to update everything to MP3s.  It's probably too late--there's probably new technology out there that will ensure that as soon as I get a bulk of material converted, the new technology will take over.

But I digress.  What I really wanted to say:  what a perfect song collection, regardless of delivery format.  The whole thing hangs together thematically, tonally, in every possible way.

I first bought this collection years ago.  It was 1984, and I was getting back to campus.  Although my school was in South Carolina, my dorm was unairconditioned.  I think about schools today with their fancy gymns and resort-like residences--ha!  Bunch of soft students.  We lived through the end of a South Carolina summer with NO AIR CONDITIONING!!!  One of our classroom buildings had no air conditioning.  It was brutal.

So, off I went to the local Wal-Mart to buy a fan.  While I was there, I picked up the new Springsteen album.  I listened to it non-stop through the fall of 1984.

I haven't listened to it in a long time, but it still seems so relevant.  All those songs of people losing their jobs, losing love, losing everything.  As I listened to "Downbound Train," I thought about how that song describes the situation of so many in this country.  Grim.

If anyone ever asks me how I learned to put together a poetry manuscript, I shall answer that everything I know comes from analyzing record albums.  I used to listen to records obsessively, poring over lyrics, thinking about how the songs fit together, deciphering the narrative arc as the album moved from song 1 to the final song.  I delighted in noticing symbols and figurative language that linked and informed each other.

Of course, some record albums were better teachers than others.  Some record albums resembled what first book poetry manuscripts used to be:  a good collection of songs, nothing else.  I suspect there aren't many first book collections like that anymore.  The competition is too fierce.

But I loved the record albums that had a larger vision, a wider scope.  I loved best the record albums that hung together as a work of art.  If I had had friends with musical talents and similar visions, maybe I'd have gone the musical route.  But I didn't, not that I knew of at the time, and so I started down the more solitary poetry path.

It was good to mourn the death of Clarence Clemons by listening to the music he created.  I'm so glad he had a long life.  I'm grateful that so many of the artists who were important to me got to live long lives--many of them still very much alive, still vital even as they live on into their 70's making the best music of their careers (Paul Simon's new CD is never far away from me these days).

What I'm really saying is that I'm glad my artistic goal doesn't rely on my youth.  It would be tough to have ambitions as a ballerina and to be in my 40's.  As a poet, I still hope to have many productive decades left.  Bruce Springsteen likely has some "Downbound Trains" left to compose.  So do I.


Kathleen said...

Great advice!--organize the manuscript like a great album!

Hannah Stephenson said...

I love this idea. I'm also interested in the time period in which songs are written/recorded by an artist---many times, it seems that there is a much smaller window of time from which songs come (as opposed to a collection of poems). Not true of every album, of course...

Another lesson seems to be the balance between "do what you do well" and "take some risks." I think of one of my fave. artists,an Damien Jurado, who is super prolific....he sounds just like himself, always, but in each album there is some stretching and risk.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Thanks Kathleen, and Hannah,I've been pondering your comment since you wrote it--ah, the balance between doing what I do well and taking risks! It's harder and harder for me to take risks or even just to play with new forms, new directions. Thanks for reminding me to do it.