A Halloween gift for our readers. Edgar A. Poe’s To One in Paradise, based on the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar, performed by the author as a part of Folkswitch. www.folkswitch.com. Top image, Chatterton by Henry Wallis, 1856
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The topic of fictionalizing your life came up with a friend a week or so ago, and I found it very engrossing. It’s someone whose opinion I truly value, and she was warning of the dangers of it, and that of course forces a self examination. I think anyone who writes, sings or visual artists even, can have a penchant for that.
Do you start to believe your own mythology?
Most of us have one. It starts when we’re young, the stories that define us, that others tell, that we tell, when describing who we were, or into the present, who we are now. It’s only a shallow reflection of the self, but it’s what sticks with people. Our most outrageous or visible incidents. Dylan once came onstage and announced “it’s Halloween, I got my Bob Dylan mask on.”
Once people recognize the mask, the poet’s words become colored by that, and it’s very easy to color all their words through that filter. Years ago, I visited the college I used to attend, and was talking to a student there about it. He asked what year I was in the art department, and he asked if I knew Ozone. He explained this guy was stoned all the time, had his entire dorm room covered in a mural of a wizard and got expelled because he got everyone in his dorm stoned the night before final exams, and half of them flunked.
I was Ozone. And there was a germ of truth in that, enough germs to make a person sick in fact. But a lot of bullshit as well. It’s when I realized if you don’t want to be followed by your mistakes, you take control of your persona and make it honest.
It’s the recognition that who most people think we are, is really just a caricature, something we can slip in and out of at will. Unless you fall too deep into your character, as Bowie did with his. You get a sense he gave up characters out of a need for self preservation.
For those of us with more mundane lives, it lies in fantasy, daydreaming, wishing. If you’re successful in life and business, it’s called brainstorming, envisioning and executing. It’s just a question of perception. How do you see your life, and your place in it. Do you look at it and wish it was so much more. Or do you look at it and think, “what can I do with this shit to make something of it?”
It’s why many artists take pain and create art with it. Something as emotionally powerful as pain requires them to create something from it, to give it some kind of meaning other than “life sucks.” And so work does at times become somewhat autobiographical.
Poe knew a lot about the loss of people he loves. It started for him about the same time he started collecting memories as a child. And eventually it broke him. But he fought back through his art, in particular his poetry.
Yet Poe was more than a poet, his short stories were what brought him fame and something like income. He knew how to pander to his audience, and still retain that which made his work, art. Some would argue that much of his work is crap, but it’s all a question of taste. To the artist, if it reflects who you are, it’s art. The rest is just craft.
Poe was focused enough on his reputation to think he probably worked on his persona as well. It was through public appearance that he sought to solidify the fame of The Raven, performing it whenever he was invited and had the chance, on the hopes it would sell a few books. If he looked the part, and people saw him as the character from the poem, I’m sure he realized he sold a few more.
So does your art, then influence the life that inspired it in the first place? For Bowie, the character he portrayed in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth haunted his life for years afterwards, driving him to the brink of madness and death, before he finally broke loose from his own creation.
We do the same in our own lives. When you meet a new person, you’re a blank slate. If they’ve never heard of you, but only know through you through your art for instance, you can be the person you want to be. You’re not bound by the past. Sometimes you find that persona that you express to others is in fact, who you are. For others, it’s a chance to try on the role of a lifetime, and once the thrill is over, they discard it and go back to who they were before.
Some people live as artists, it’s innate. They see with an artist’s eye, even if they seldom create. Their thoughts still work that way, perhaps deep down, but there’s a poet in everyone. If you listen long enough, you start to hear it.
I was once given a poem, (which should show that at times my life didn’t need fictionalized) by Robert Browning, Meeting at Night …
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
Elizabeth Barrett, who became his wife wrote of her love for him …
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Isn’t that how we want to love? Isn’t that how we want to see life? And if we manage to succeed in that, and find it beautiful, is fictionalizing your life nothing more than seeing the best in your relationships and circumstances? In making the most of life?
A friend once described her relationship this way … “our spiritual selves dazzling each other in the burnt grey ashes of our daily lives.” and I thought, “wow,” I want to love that way. For some of us, it’s the only way. Life’s too short to settle for less, and there’s too much that can be done alone.
It’s just perception. You can choose to take the more modern approach when you think of love, but it’s not as effusive as people were in the past. I think that’s a shame, because it’s harder to stay in love now. You have more options, you’re less reliant on each other. And it’s too easy to let it slip away. Sometimes a bit of poetry expresses a depth of love to another person that melts their heart.
And why not live like it matters? Why not see it like your love is the center of your world? What’s more important? Your job?
I went through nine kinds of hell with the woman who sent me that poem, and I don’t regret a minute of it. Because when that spark took off, it did illuminate the heavens. But her spark faded and poetry stopped dripping from her lips … “hello darkness my old friend.”
For it’s the sounds of silence that is the downside of love, when the voice that played the melody of your soul no longer finds the breath for words. Poe knew more about the downside than the upside. He often had to express his love through descriptions of his misery at its loss.
Some argue, the BBC here, that a part of the British national consciousness, a tendency towards melancholy, now popular amongst devotees of the singer Ed Sheeran, actually got its start from 16th century composer and lutist John Dowland. “pressing into a vein of moping soppiness that made him famous, and has served English musicians ever since.”
Or to bring my point home “Like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, in other words, John Dowland the angsty musician was sometimes indistinguishable from his music.”
With both, it’s easy to see their life in their music, and we just expect that we’ll also see those tendencies in their lives. With just cause … Tom Waits did live in a seedy hotel for while, and Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel is autobiographical. But we shouldn’t get a sense that recognizing that means we know or understand either as a person.
We started recording “To One in Paradise” during one of the happiest periods of my life. Pretty much finished it, and at the time it was in no way autobiographical. The elements of the video were even in place – the images of Avebury in the introduction was there last spring – to knowing something was going to happen with the skeleton.
Times change, and it applies now more than then. The artist tries to put that into his art, though calling this video art could be a stretch. We needed a video for Halloween and this was the likely candidate. But that’s how an artist gets this shit out, through their art. Is it coincidental that those images of Avebury – the Cove, which honored the dead and remembered the lost, which at inception was an artist’s interpretation of lyrics, is now in life, a reflection of my day to day reality?
There’s truth in this song, in this video, and there’s also, like Poe himself who wrote these words, pandering to the audience who like it when we do strange things. It comes natural to us, so why not?
And if this way of thinking sometimes spills over into a person’s daily words, their thoughts and actions, if it makes them more passionate about life, about love, then that’s a good thing in my book.
A Republican member of Congress, Jeff Flake stood up today and gave a long, impassioned speech about standing for his principles, and announced his retirement because of that. That speech was art, it was wordy but he issued a warning about modern discourse, saying it is “threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters.”
Though Republicans aren’t usually known for it, Mr. Flake is a poet. Rather than resign with a few snarky sound bite length insults, he delivered an impassioned speech on the importance of right and wrong. Things like that, issues that are really important, that require compromise, working together and overcoming difficulties demand debate and discussion. It doesn’t matter if it’s amongst poets around a fireplace, debating Prometheus, the houses of congresses debating issues where lives are in balance, or something as simple as a brother sister getting along despite their differences.
That’s the kind of thinking that holds a person together when they’re doing the hard thing, for the right reasons, knowing the best that can come of it is perhaps, once in a lifetime your honesty and integrity is seen for what it is. Some will see Mr. Flakes as melodramatic, as dramatizing his life, and he’ll be attacked for that. But some of us will find the truth in it, and hopefully a few people will heed his words and think about it.
Making a person think is still the best way of changing the world. And if seeing your life in more poetic terms allows you to escape the “burnt grey ashes of our daily lives” into a world that not only you love, but those around you love, it’s worth a shot. It might fail, but at least it will fail spectacularly.