Specificity in poems and songs
Rambling a bit about songs. The other day someone giggled when I referred to a “mix tape” and I barely even meant “mix CD”, I believe it was a constructed playlist that I’d made. But in my mind and language a personally edited collection of music will always be a mix tape, probably made clunkily from breathless moments trying to catch the beginning of a song from the radio to cassette tape (on a modern gramophone or victrola) without getting a DJ talking, and maybe going from that tape to a second tape for even worse quality sound.
I was thinking about how it is disconcerting in songs when there is a very specific reference clearly personal to the singer. I’ll be happily singing along, or adding the song to a MIX TAPE meant to convey a mood, and then I get jarred by the singer’s reference to their friends or girlfriend or some private joke of the band’s. Sometimes I just edit it out mentally, bracketing the specifics that I will never know about and trying to see it as a charming instance of the mood of the song.
It is a bit like the iconic quality of comics or images that Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics. The more generic the image of a person, the easier it is for us to imagine ourselves into that artwork, in some ways. We might encounter the specifics as alienating or difficult as readers or listeners.
Sometimes I like the specifics and sometimes I edit them out when reading or listening. Or when writing.
Other times these details are the entire point especially if that point is the unknowability of the details of another person’s experience. Or, if part of the point is to make you wonder and work to figure those details out, to find them out.
This year I am aiming to put my old poetry books and anthologies from 10-20 years ago up as ebooks or reprint them in paperback. A few of them are up already. The one that led me down this path of thought is Woodbird Jazzophone, which is basically me from 2003 or so rambling in a notebook about lying in a forest meadow watching the birds at a sort of poets’ retreat in a beautiful redwood cabin somewhere probably in Marin. I re-printed it without re-reading it closely, but it does have some obscure specifics that will never merit footnotes – about the history of the cabin that one of the neighbors in the woods explained. Even when I can’t remember those details, I remember the mood of that time.
Echoes in the poem that would not be immediately apparent – I spent long hours wrapped up in blankets on the front porch, in a lot of pain, watching the fog come off the redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains some years before that, and watching acorn woodpeckers fly around putting acorns into holes in the trees. They share their caches of acorns, pretty cool cooperative birds. I couldn’t get around very well, and the sound of the neighborhood, birds waking up in the grey morning, people in cars leaving for school and commute, acorns and jays and hawks doing their thing, then cars coming back as people came home. It was an entertaining part of the day, a soundscape to go with the lightscape. I was thinking of those times and the good but bitter memories that can come from physical impairments and pain. Another echo from the woodpeckers goes back to my happy years in cooperative housing. I don’t think any of that would be apparent in the poem, which comes off like someone rambling free form about an afternoon in the woods.
The song earworming me as I write this is Always Give Your Love Away by Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom, an Austin band from the late 80s/early 90s that does that specificity trick pretty well. Though I think that song stays general.