Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Figure A Song Makes (Homage to Robert Frost)

I re-read one of my favorite creative essays recently. It holds up well, and it applies perfectly to great songwriting.

"The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

Frost's point is that as artists we are not merely recorders of life and fact. We must be more inventive than journalists, whose job it is to tell an accurate story. Accuracy isn't art. Art is wild.

There's a difference between detail and fact. Details can describe the way a red scarf blows in the breeze. Facts can tell us exactly what time of day that breeze came along. Details can intrigue, facts can impose.

All too often I'm listening to a song and suddenly, out of the blue, comes a fact that ruins my interpretation of what's going on. I was riding on my own current within the song and hit a crosscurrent that the writer didn't know he/she had set in motion. That's why a song is best felt rather than contemplated. We rationalize too much anyway. Better that there are some mysteries rather than unsatisfactory explanations.

Frost also says in this same essay,"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." One could write volumes about this simple truth. Extrapolate this quote and apply it to songwriting, and it's still true : No tear for the writer, no tear for the listener. No hair standing up on the back of the writer's neck, no hair standing up on the listener's neck. The lesson is "Feel what you write and allow for the unexpected."
"Half the moon is shining tonight, and half the moon is pitch black
I've got half a chance that you might turn around and come back"
(Hugh Prestwood - Half The Moon)
You can tell a story from a safe distance, or you can climb inside and feel what the character in the song feels. Allow yourself to be surprised by what floats to the surface. This is usually accompanied by a limbic reaction-- the rush you get when the line feels perfect. Remember to allow for the madness (see my previous post here)
"I'm just one man, sometimes I wish I was three
I could take a .44 pistol to me
Put one bullet in my brain for her memory
One more for my heart, and I would be free"
(Mickey Newbury - Nights When I Am Sane)
It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

I hear too many logical lines in the songs I evaluate. Throw out logic sometimes, cross the threshold and dare to look for something more mystical.
"I wanna wrap the moon around us
Lay beside you skin on skin"
(Tony Lane and David Lee- I Need You)
Many writers get confused about this when they take their songs to Nashville. People tell them "it needs more imagery", "it needs furniture", "it needs edge", "it needs to be more clever", "it needs more attitude", and yet they never say, "you've got to surprise me with the emotion", which is the very thing that most people respond to in a song.

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

Allow the song to take possession of the process and become what it wants to become.
Go along for the ride and be willing to risk it all on an impulse. For it to be vital, you must invest yourself in it. If you merely invest time in it, there are no guarantees that it will mean anything at all in six months. If you invest your soul and your emotional fiber in it, maybe it will also move others the way it moved you. We must have faith that our emotional involvement during the creative process will leave its mark on the work.

And we should remember that whatever is worth writing, is worth writing well.


Anonymous said...

If this is not part of the process of a writer, it should make the hairs on his next stand up and should become a part of the process.


Tim McMullen said...

Great concepts; in fact, they are ideas that have reverberated through your blog: a thing snatched from an old to a new order; they won't feel it if you don't feel it; it must be a revelation for the poet as well...

Frost was also one of the most eclectic of poets. Most poets hit a style early on and stick with it. On the contrary, he had all sorts of experiments in rhythm and form; he was much more akin to the experimental romantics like Browning and Longfellow than his modern contemporaries. Free verse, of course, eluded him for the most part; he said it was "like playing tennis without a net." Though marvelous in the hands of the true poet, the formless devolves quickly into self-indulgent drivel.

Your distinction between fact and detail is also significant. In one of his shortest poems, Frost said,

"It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling
To get adapted to my kind of fooling,"

and he was right. The "simplest" little pastoral narrative about a pony or a firefly or an ant or a tree or a forest transform themselves with a turn of phrase into profound observations of universal truths. Only Dickinson could match him for the deepest thoughts and profoundest ambiguities in the apparently homely homily.

Poems of brooding darkness filled with whimsy; comical little couplets fiiled with hemlock and crows or Einstein and cavemen: he teaches us with humor, satire, sorrow, and passion how to feel and how to write what we feel. He said, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches”; I say one could not do much better than to be a reader of Frost in both his poetry and his prose.

Pardon this pastiche of one of his best known (and greatest) pieces, "Fire and Ice," but I couldn't resist (By the way, it uses his rhyme scheme).

"Frost Fire"
Frost favored fire instead of ice,
An amusing choice:
Shall we be cryogenic mice
Or MEN who’ll wield the Great Device?
Why—there’s no need to raise our voice.
Metaphysics? Speculation?
Our leaders speak, and we rejoice,
“You’re a nation
In a Rolls Royce!”
©1983 Tim McMullen
All Rights Reserved

I think he would have appreciated the pun in the last lines.
I admit that it hasn't happened to me very often, but that unexpected tear splash on the paper as the final words pop into the poetic receptor and get scribbled down is an incredible experience.

Thanks again for trying to drag (coax) that out of us would-be writers!