Dylan’s Lyrics: Written for the ears not the eyes

On a recent episode of the charming Start the Week BBC Radio 4 program we heard Frances Wilson, Salman Rushdie and Simon Armitage discuss the rehabilitation of DH Lawrence and the relationship between the writer and their work. In the closing minutes (approx 37:00) host Andrew Marr asks Armitage about an essay that claims Bob Dylan’s lyrics “don’t really hold up as great poetry, you have to listen to the songs in order to understand the interleaving of the music and the words….can you tell us what you think doesn’t work on the page? Is it repetition, is it sloppiness of the language, evasiveness?”

Armitage responds that in a poem “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really…it has to be done with the alphabet.” Whereas songwriters can “write the lyric and even ‘la-la-la’ might sound very good if you put it to the right chord progression. It can be utterly transcendent if it’s working well with the music and if you’re wearing the right cowboy boots and if you’ve got the right voice.”

He reports taking Dylan lyrics into his poetry class where younger students (unfamiliar with the tune) might appreciate the poetic aspects, nevertheless see cheesy rhymes, repetition, tautology and other elements “that you can’t get away with on the printed page.”

Speechwriters as songwriters

In many ways Armitage is stating the obvious. Songs are created to be listened to, not read (as rewarding as a close reading of Dylan’s lyrics can be). As with great songs, so with great speeches.

Speechwriting authorities Nancy Duarte and Bob Lehrman drive home the message that speeches (like songs) need to be written for the ear not, (as are poems) for the eye.

Sparklines

Nancy Duarte’s seminal 2010 book Resonate focuses on visual storytelling. With the use of what she calls ‘sparklines’ she graphically illustrates the arc of a speech and maps the emotion and delivery by tracking the laughter and applause alongside the words (lyrics) of great speeches such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It would be fascinating to apply a sparkline mapping audience reaction to live musical performances.

Political speechwriting

Political pundit and speechwriting professor Bob Lehrman (literally) wrote the book on speechwriting. In examining why persuasive speeches work, he lists the various forms of repetition (anaphora, epistrope, antimetabol, and climatic order) and forms of vivid language (simile and metaphor, understatement and irony) that work on the heartstrings, not just the head space, of the audience.

While these techniques can be employed by poets, they resonate differently when delivered by a compelling speaker.

In the beginning was the word

In claiming that “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really” Armitage overlooks the pre-literate origins of poetry, when bards of old, the minstrels of Medieval times, recited epic poems which the tellers knew by heart. The literary techniques they used provided aide memoirs for themselves and for their listeners.

Writing in the New York Times, history professor Molly Worthen notes:

Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine.

Sorry, Simon, the origins of the poem are with the word, not the page.

Desolation Row

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889

Dylan’s recording of Desolation Row was the longest track (at just over 11 minutes) on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. While I can’t remember the first time I heard it, it’s been in my head for most of my adult life. It’s one of my defining anthems that, together with Roy Harper and Leonard Cohen’s songs, I love more for the lyrics than the melodies. It’s pure poetry set to music.

The Getty Museum owns the Ensor painting and paired it with Dylan’s song with it in the book The Superhuman Crew, noting

Ensor’s huge, vibrant, and startling canvas presents a scene filled with clowns, masked figures, and barely visible amid the swirling crowds the tiny figure of Christ on a donkey entering the city of Brussels. “Desolation Row,” from Dylan’s classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, presents its own surreal portrait of modern life in strangely similar terms.

That “surreal portrait of modern life” becomes more appropriate with each passing year. As I listened again to the song I know so well, themes emerged. It is a song rooted in the time Dylan wrote when cracks were appearing in 50s America, and those with open eyes and ears witnessed the “chimes of freedom flashing.”

Dylan sings of the contrast between two world-views: those embracing emerging freedoms and the guardians of the old order. He paints this contrast in both stark black and white terms (Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”)  as well as shades of grey.

There have been endless interpretations about the meaning of the lyrics.

This is my response to what I hear.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown

The dystopian scene is set. Repression, autocracy, and violence rule in a time when hangings were public events. These might be images of lynching’s in the Deep South or scenes from The Handmaids Tale. What sort of society trades in picture postcards of the dead? One where individual identity is subject to a brown-out. Arguments about the color of passports were part of the Brexit debate that consumed Britain. Painting passports is something “they” do to restrict our liberty to travel and escape the dystopia. Internal passports restricted movement in apartheid-era South Africa, North Korea, and modern China.


The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Yet, the scene is not monochrome. There’s a rambunctiousness in a world where the sailors (presumably men) fill the beauty parlors, and the circus is in town. Dylan sets the scene in a port city–one he visits again in 1974 when he tells of a man who “Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in” (Simple Twist of Fate from Blood on the Tracks). What would groups of sailors want in a beauty parlor? More than a haircut. Hello sailor! Perhaps some eye shadow, a waxing, or lip gloss? Anything to juice up their shore leave.

The opening two lines contrast repression with freedom, heralding an awakening sense of personal expression at the dawn of the ’60s. Soon enough, many would choose the option to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free (Mr. Tambourine Man--recorded six months earlier.) Meanwhile, the representatives of the old order are on parade, like Shriners striding down Main Street in Anytown, USA.


Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

The first of the old order makes an entrance. I see the blind commissioner four rows back in the Ensor painting — the man with the handlebar mustache, center stage. An authority figure (perhaps the port commissioner?) who is both literally and metaphorically blind. Blind like Lady Justice holding her scales. Except “they” (the ones selling postcards of hangings and painting passports) have him in a trance. Hypnotized. In their power. Unable to function.


One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

Not only blind and hypnotized but bound. Guided by the tight-rope walker from the circus, accomplished at balancing in his own way, just as Lady Justice balances her scales. He is leading the blind commissioner, who is all the while pleasuring himself with his free hand. While some might see his free hand resting innocently in a trouser pocket, the words “in his pants” always implied something far raunchier to me — long before Borat filmed the blind commissioner Rudy Giuliani in the hotel room with one hand in his pants.


And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

Three years before the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention and decades before the last US President stirred the restlessness of his own rioting squad and suggested somewhere they could go (down Pennsylvania Avenue and up the steps of the Capitol), Dylan has the measure of the inherent restlessness of the enforcement arm of the old order.


As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Meanwhile, above it all, the poet sits with his “Lady” looking out over the unfolding nighttime scene, not “on” but “from” Desolation Row. The home of the residents of the emerging zeitgeist. I see Desolation Row as the New York apartment Dylan writes about in Visions of Johanna:

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

They look out over the dystopian landscape of blind commissioners and riot squads, perched on an island of sanity, observing the crazy world.

Lady is the mythical companion of the Tramp in the Disney film of a decade earlier. Dylan as the Chaplinesque Everyman “Tramp” alongside a woman who might be slumming from the aristocracy in those timeless dystopian times.

Desolation Row might also be a knowing reference to California’s Cannery Row, described by Steinbeck as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” The sardine industry had collapsed, in desolation, a decade before Dylan wrote his song. Cross-referenced with Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, which declared, “Everything’ll be all right, desolation is desolation everywhere and desolation is all we got and desolation ain’t so bad.”

Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style

Alongside Lady, Cinderella is another Disney character, an archetype of emerging freedom. She is ignored by her establishment sisters, standing free, knowing the power of her sexuality. A woman who only “seems so easy” (as in easy to seduce, or perhaps at her ease?) acknowledging others (like Dylan?) who hold the same appeal. Insouciant, seductive, captivating. Someone who would have turned heads in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village.


And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave.”

Cinderella’s anthesis arrives on the scene. Romeo sans Juliet, desperate to own whatever woman he can find. Down on his luck, off his game, and “moaning.” A visitor from the dark side. His inappropriate advances earning a rebuke–not only to put him in his place but to tell him, with the threatening tone of a nightclub bouncer or mobster’s bodyguard, that he needs to leave. The two lines of dialog tied together in rhyme are polar opposite in intention. Those who claim ownership (capitalists, The Man?) having no place in the communal world of Desolation Row.


And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
.

And so we come to the end of Act One. The sirens are silenced. The riot squad has done its worst. Chaos has reigned off-screen. We’re witness to the cleaning-up operations, with Cinders doing what her stepmother required — sweeping up the broken glass on the street. Indeed, it must be broken glass. After all, if it was just the

empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights.

The Waste Land, Fire Sermon, lines 177-178

of Eliot’s Fire Sermon, we wouldn’t hear her at work.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide

The night is growing darker, colder, older. Clouds are moving in.


The fortune-telling lady has even taken all her things inside

Another circus refugee has called it a night, signaling the transition from one part of the day to another. Her tarot cards, crystal ball, and tasseled gown are now inside whatever she calls home – gypsy caravan, tent, or tenement building. Minus the fortune teller, the future is an unknown.


All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
/ Everybody is making love or else expecting rain

But wait, not everyone has quit the scene. Three more archetypes of the old order are introduced. The brothers from the Bible and Quasimodo –monsters in their own way–are the exception to others, engaged in the trivial and the profound. When is making love as trivial as expecting rain? Family members from my English childhood often commented on the weather. They rarely spoke about lovemaking. Depending on which group of people this describes the juxtaposition either challenges the romantic ideal of lovemaking as no more significant an option than commenting on the weather (“Do you want to make out or put on your Wellingtons? It’s all the same to me…”) or the hipsters are making love while the squares look to the cloudy sky. Dylan is unclear about which “everybody” it is — everybody in the apartment, everyone on the street, or the whole world? Shades of grey.


And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row

Again, a contrast. While the fratricidal boys in the Bible represent murder and martyrdom, the Good Samaritan signifies freedom, preparing for the evening’s entertainment (the night is young). Whether the “show” is something the circus is putting on or the carnival Ensor painted is unclear. However, Desolation Row seems like the fun side of town, more benign than the disorder in the debris-filled streets.

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row
.

Switching back to Shakespearean archetypes, Dylan notices Ophelia beneath the window (that Lady and he looks out of, standing where Romeo would have wooed his Juliet on her balcony). He’s empathetic, concerned, aware of the limitations playing out in her young life. A tragic career woman (her profession’s her religion), she is a lifeless “old maid” — one of Shakespeare’s ‘cold maids’ in Ophelia’s death scene:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them

Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7

She’s fixated on her namesakes’ romantic death, armored against feelings of passion, or trapped like youthful Polio victims in an iron lung? Her goal cemented by Old Testament certainty:

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

Genesis, 9-13

Ophelia is missing the mark, the juice having been squeezed out of her life, denying her true feelings, but trying to make a break, curious about what she’s missing. Despite being an uptight career girl, she can’t help “peeking into Desolation Row.

This echoes Dylan’s admonition in the opening track on the album (Like a Rolling Stone) to embrace our feelings, recognize our freedoms:

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

While there are those like Ophelia who sense the possibility of freedom and might be tempted to overcome their fears to experience it, other sad unfortunates have been destroyed by madness. Among them, as Ginsburg noted, “the best minds of my generation.” (Howl, 1956). What more impressive mind than Einstein?

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk

Archetypes nest like Matryoshka dolls. The father of relativity, whose theories upended the certainties of space and time itself, now disguised as the folk-hero of Sherwood Forest, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, accompanied by Friar Tuck. There’s a nod to Einstein’s lot as a refugee, forced to stay in the United States in the 1930s to avoid Hitler’s Germany, who would have no doubt have a store of photographs and diaries from the Europe of his youth in a trunk.


Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet

This heroic figure is down at heel, a hobo like those who rode the rails Dylan’s mentor Woody Guthrie sang about. As disheveled as he might be, he appears “immaculately frightful” (a state of dishabille that perfectly describes a street person I once saw in Paris, where a sense of fashion doesn’t desert those without the means to buy new clothes)—now compelled to neurotically sniff drainpipes and recite the alphabet—a far cry from authoring the Theory of Relativity.


You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
.

Just as you’d say about any down-and-out who was once a person of note, “you would not think to look at him, but…” he was once a banker, school principal, a respected member of the community, Nobel Laureate in Theoretical Physics. Or, in the case of a musician like Dylan, a violinist he shared the stage with before things took a turn for the worse.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up

We now come to one of the central characters on the dark side of the street. Dr. Filth is a name straight out of a Marvel comic book. The leather cup could be an athletic support cup around his manhood that his “sexless patients” are trying to blow (pun intended?). Or it could be a leather liar’s dice cup sitting on a barroom counter that the patients want to dynamite. Anyone who needs to keep their world inside anything as small as a cup must have a paranoid need to keep it safe. Like memories in a trunk, they might well be keepsakes. Or patient records. I wonder what HIPPA regulations require? What insecurities drive this?


Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul.”

The doctor’s assistant is “some local loser”—more likely to be found working as a waitress in a greasy spoon or matinee movie theatre attendant than as a qualified nurse. She guards (and administers?) a toxic substance whose only use in emergency medical situations is to effect a rapid decrease in blood pressure.  She’s also representative of the local losers recruited to administer gas into the cyanide holes above the Nazi death camps’ shower stalls. Coupled with overseeing the cards that judges read from when pronouncing the death sentence, we are firmly in a dystopian hell realm.


They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

These nightmare characters (Dr. Filth and the local loser employed as his poison dispensing, capital-punishment enabling nurse) create discordant noise blowing on penny whistles—discernable when you “lean your head out far enough” to catch the vague traces of the distant spinning wheels of sound.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast

Back in the low-rent district (Greenwich Village being affordable back then), neighbors nail curtains across their windows–cheap privacy for their nighttime feast.  Neighbors who also feature in Visions of Johanna:

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough

Next, we meet the Paris opera house’s ghost, invited to the feast to berate Casanova, given form as a man of God, able to dispense judgment. Introduced in a line that hangs suspended in the song, held back for a beat.

The Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest

Casanova–an archetype of masculine power and a master of seduction is reduced to the level of an invalid needing to be spoon-fed assurances.


They are spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words

He’s destined to be sacrificed on the self-improvement altar of positive thinking, poisoned by the words of authors such as Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill.


And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get outta here if you don’t know.”
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row

The Phantom is reanimated, announcing that Casanova’s transgression is to have crossed over from the conventional world and embraced Desolation Row’s freedoms. His audience is the “skinny girls” who might welcome Casanova’s attention, but, like Romeo before them, have to leave. The stage is set: a group of girls, the Phantom and Casanova with his attendants. This echoes Deputy Duperret’s advice to Charlotte Corday in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play The Marat/Sade. Both women are ignorant of the politics of revenge and repression.

Dearest Charlotte you must return

Return to your friends the pious nuns

And live in prayer and contemplation

You cannot fight

The hard-faced enemies surrounding us.

The Marat/Sade, Act 1

Casanova, Jean-Paul Marat, the Marquis de Sade—three European libertines at odds with Middle America’s morality.

At midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do

The dystopian frenzy is unleashed at the stroke of midnight. Scenes similar to those portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and lived by the victims of the Chilean dictators and Hitler’s brownshirts. Victims of a group of the Übermensch who accompany J. Edgar’s agents. The deplorables against the elites. The revenge of the conspiracy theorists against those with knowledge of the facts. Punishment Park a possibility.


Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders, and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.

Conformity is enforced on the salt of the earth workers, whole-life policies for those with no life to live. Orwell’s’ 1984. Dictates from the mansions of the one percent keeping the workers from their freedom. A theme explored by John Lennon five years later:

As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
‘Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

~~

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear

~~

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
.

Working Class Hero, 1970.

The conclusion, but not the coda, is in the next six lines.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”

The emperor who fiddled while Rome burned sets sail on the doomed liner. The pretentions of the entitled end up at the bottom of the ocean. Division in the land – Red states and Blue, Proud Boys and Antifa, them and us. Is any of it more than rearranging the deckchairs?


And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row.

Ivory tower intellectuals battle for supremacy while artists and artisans celebrate life in the wonderous watery reaches of this blue planet, an ocean of bliss, feeling without limitation, freed from analysis of current and future conflicts.

After an interlude on the harmonica, Dylan delivers a footnote, responding to a letter the mailman delivered.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.

While the battle between the forces of good and evil rage, trite domesticity occupies others. He confesses that he sang about the people he knew, anonymized with archetypes and aliases. He admonishes his correspondent to stop sending trivial news. And only write if, and when, they have stepped out of their suburban cocoon.

Take a listen

If you’ve got this far in my endless screed about the song, you deserve a treat. Take a listen to Dylan as he sings the lines that so inspired me.

A Nightingale sang…

A decade before Charles Joseph Minard famous chart that portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812, which Edward Tufte claims was “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn”, English nurse Florence Nightingale created a “rose diagram.”

In 1858 she published Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. Presented by Request to the Secretary of State for War. This work contained a color statistical graph. Her “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East” showed that epidemic disease, which was responsible for more British deaths in the course of the Crimean War than battlefield wounds, could be controlled by a variety of factors including nutrition, ventilation, and shelter. This was, believe it or not, denied by the medical establishment of the time.

Rose chart showing the causes of mortality in the Crimean War

Nightingale went on to develop other statistical graphics in her reports to Parliament, realizing this was the most effective way of bringing data to life.

Statistician Hugh Small explains how the ‘rose chart’ works:

The circle on the right has 12 sectors going clockwise representing the first 12 months of the war. The circle on the left is the second 12 months. The superimposed dark shapes show the monthly death rates. The diagram illustrates how the Sanitary Commission, sent out in the middle of the war, dramatically reduced the death rate. The length of the radial line in each month is proportional to the death rate, but both the text and the appearance imply that it is the shaded area that is proportional to the death rate, rather than the length of the radial lines. Florence recognized this error and inserted an erratum slip, but then replaced this diagram in later documents.

Indeed, the 19th Century was a time of great progress in data collection.  In 1837 the General Registry Office at Somerset House, led by William Farr who later helped Nightingale with her Crimean statistics, began to systematically record births, deaths, and marriages in the UK.  While census data had been collected every ten years since 1801, the 1841 census was the first to list the names of every individual. This gave researchers the opportunity to examine new cause and effect relationships using registration statistics.

Here’s another chart created by Nightingale:

Hugh Small comments on the ways in which this chart is designed for maximum emotional impact:

The title ‘Lines’ (in ornate script in the original) makes it sound like a poem, as in  Lines on the Death of Bismarck.  There are four pairs of bars, when actually the message is clear from one pair alone.  There seems to be a kind of repetition, as in a chorus.  This effect is increased by the words, repeated at the end of each line, English Men, English Soldiers … It sounds like a funeral march.  Second, the red bar for the soldiers would certainly make some people think of the  ‘Thin Red Line’ which had become famous in the Crimean War when a two-deep row of red-jacketed British infantrymen stopped a Russian heavy cavalry charge, something that was thought to be impossible.  The thin red lines on Nightingale’s chart represented these same heroic soldiers who were now dying unnecessarily because of bad hygiene in their barracks.

The variation of death rates due to differences in hygiene was very important to reformers like Nightingale because it showed that even the civilian death rate could probably also be improved by better hygiene. 

Her goal with these charts was not just to inform, but to change hearts and minds.

In our time

In recent weeks, a number of temporary field hospitals have sprung up across Britain for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Named “Nightingale Hospitals,” they pay homage to the famous “lady of the lamp.” Florence Nightingale’s pioneering approach to sanitation changed the understanding of public health in Victorian Britain and laid the foundations for the profession of nursing as we know it.

In our time of “mask deniers” and people who doubt the safety of vaccinations, or even that the pandemic is “real” and not a “Plandemic“, we need the persuasive power of modern-day Nightingales more than ever.

Ring out, wild bells

An astounding reading of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ring out, wild bells’ by actress June Spencer (aka Peggy Woolley on BBC Radio’s The Archers) sent me to the words of this 19th century poem.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

https://poets.org/poem/memoriam-ring-out-wild-bells

Perhaps every generation since this was first published in 1850 have found allusions to their own era. Certainly these were suitable words to mark the beginnings of 1919 an 1946, when many would have felt the “grief that saps the mind/For those that here we see no more” as two World Wars ended.

The relevance to the start of 2021, with hope for a better year to come, especially in the United States, seems clear:

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;

  • As Democrats and Republicans stare across the aisles of Congress:

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;

  • As lines of cars snake for miles around food banks across the country:

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
 
  The faithless coldness of the times;

  • As Trump prepares to leave office:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;

  • As the vaccine becomes available:

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

  • As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prepare to take office:

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Garbage Language

Obfuscation is alive and well in the corporate world. Molly Young writes in New York Magazine about the ways the Millenial generation of white-collar workers replicate the communication patterns of the organization man and woman.

Silicon Valley

She reviews Anna Weiners’ memoir Uncanny Valley about life in San Francisco during the current tech bubble:

…the scent of moneyed Bay Area in the mid-2010s: kombucha, office dog, freshly unwrapped USB cable…the lofty ambitions of her company, its cushy amenities, the casual misogyny that surrounds her like a cloud of gnats.

Wiener describes watching her peers attend silent-meditation retreats, take LSD, discuss Stoicism, and practice Reiki at parties. She tries ecstatic dance, gulps nootropics, and accepts a “cautious, fully-clothed back massage” from her company’s in-house masseuse. She encounters a man who self-identifies as a Japanese raccoon dog.

Only, as they say, in San Francisco. Or is it? Her description of the language employed is universal:

People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.

Weiner’s term for this is garbage language. More accurate than jargon or buzzwords since it is produced mindlessly and stinks. She notes how these terms warp and impede language, and permeate “the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers.”

Etymology

Down the years, Weiner notes, garbage language has taken different forms:

  • In the 1980s it smelled of Wall Street: leverage, stakeholder, value-add.
  • The rise of high-tech introduced computing and gaming metaphors: bandwidth, hack, the concept of double-clicking on something, of talking off-line.
  • In the 1990s Clayton Christensen introduced the term disruptive.
  • By the turn of the century, New Age terms arrived: lean-in, conscious choices.
  • Then there are aviation terms: holding-pattern, discussing something at the 30,000-foot level.

Further characteristics include:

…verbs and adjectives shoved into nounhood (ask, win, fail, refresh, regroup, creative, sync, touchbase), nouns shoved into verbhood (whiteboard, bucket), and a heap of nonwords that, through force of repetition, became wordlike (complexify, co-execute, replatform, shareability, directionality).

WeWork

Young takes the WeWork SEC prospectus to task for it’s “fidelity to incoherence” — a 200,000-word tomb that overflows with windy passages such as:

We are a community company committed to maximum global impact. Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness. We have built a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success.

Why CEOs speak like idiots

In a passage worth quoting at length, Young zeros in on the dilemma those in the C-Suite face:

Edith Wharton[wrote a] story where a character observes the constraints of speaking a foreign tongue: “Don’t you know how, in talking a foreign language, even fluently, one says half the time, not what one wants to, but what one can?” To put it another way: Do CEOs act like jerks because they are jerks, or because the language of management will create a jerk of anyone eventually? If garbage language is a form of self-marketing, then a CEO must find it especially tempting to conceal the unpleasant parts of his or her job — the necessary whip-cracking — in a pile of verbal fluff.

Author Jessica Helfand lists commonly abused words and phrases, which she claims younger workers cling to because they give the illusion of authority. She classifies them as:

  • Hyphenated Mash-ups (omni-channel, level-setting, business-critical),
  • Compound Phrases (email blast, integrated deck, pain point, deep dive), and
  • Conceptual Hybrids (“shooting” someone an email, “looping” someone in).

Delusion as an Asset

Young concludes by quoting Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

The German philosopher made the ironic suggestion that we drop all pretense at ‘functional’ speak and resort to poetry. Something, Young concludes, that would be less of a threat than the garbage spoken in the corporate world today, where:

The meaningful threat of garbage language — the reason it is not just annoying but malevolent — is that it confirms delusion as an asset in the workplace.

Fuck Me!

Marina HydeAs I’ve noted before, the UK’s Financial Times has none of the reticence of other publications such as the WSJ in employing good Anglo Saxon terms where appropriate. Unlike American publications, they will print the work ‘fuck’ in articles.

I see this is a word that’s also freely employed by The Guardian. In her May 31, 2019 opinion piece on the current British Brexit brouhaha, columnist Marina Hyde outdoes the FT in the unrestricted use of the word:

Across all candidates there is an absolute refusal to admit Brexit is a mass Tory sex game that’s gone badly wrong. See modernity’s Matt Hancock, who this week attempted to attack Boris Johnson with the words: “To the people who say ‘fuck business’, I say fuck fuck business.” Gut response to this is: life, no parole. But for those who believe Matt’s crime should be in some way understood, this grammatical construction is known as the “double fuckative”. Contrary to assumption, there are policy positions beyond it – for instance “fuck the fucker of fuck business”, and “fuck fucking the fucker of fuck business”. Don’t ask what they mean – just let them mist you like three fragrant sprays of Matt by Matt Hancock.

My response to such robust commentary in a ‘proper’ English newspaper: Fuck Me!

Hay, Hey, Hay!

Hay Fesitval SignIt’s over dozen years since I first profiled The King of Hay-on-Wye and then listed the Top 197 Tweets from the 2008 Hay Festival. I’ve finally made the pilgrimage to the little Welsh-border village where books are celebrated. While Richard Booth is no longer King, having sold his various properties and suffered serious health challenges, the village has thrived and the festival grown enormously from the first event in 1988 that attracted a few thousand, to the hundred-thousand plus who attend today.

Woodstock for the Mind

President Bill Clinton famously compared the festival to the seminal 60’s rock festival. Absent mud, drugs and nudity, Hay delivers a high to bibliophiles. The loos are clean, the food exquisite, the literature wide-ranging.

Over a three day period, I heard presentations from:

That, and a compelling hour of some of Britain’s finest actors reading Speeches That Changed the World — which I’ll review in a separate blog post.

Whites Only?

Hay Fesitval AudienceThe British do this kind of thing so well. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the festival appealed almost exclusively to a certain demographic — the educated Hampstead Thinkers lampooned by Private Eye were there in large numbers. Radical chic was everywhere. I doubt many voted for Brexit. Any mention of Trump elicited chortles. And it was, without doubt, the whitest audience I’ve seen in a long, long time. While there’s obviously no White’s Only policy, one did wonder where the authors of color and their audiences were.

In Praise of Hay

Town of Hay-on-WyeAway from the Festival crowds, the delightful village of Hay-on-Wye offered great food in a range of pubs and cafes, bookshops everywhere, and pleasant riverside walks. The weather was glorious. Since I slept in a yurt in a farmer’s field this made the experience tolerable.

How The Light Gets In

My one regret this visit is that I did not know about a companion festival held May 24-27 at Hay. The How The Light Gets In festival (named in honor of a Leonard Cohen lyric) is billed as the world’s largest philosophy and music festival. This might be to the Literature Festival what Burning Man is to Woodstock. For those who like their Hay with a nightly rave thrown in.

Hay Player

For anyone curious about the content of the Literature Festival, an annual subscription to the online Hay Player costs just £10.00 and allows you to play as much audio and film from past festivals as you like. Considering the average ticket for just one talk at the Festival is around a tenner, this is a great bargain.

Plus, you won’t need to sleep in a yurt.

Speaking of fascism: ‘Bigmouth’ exposes the use and misuse of rhetoric

BigmouthThe Chicago Tribune has reviewed the play ‘Bigmouth’ (created by the Antwerp, Belgium-based SKaGeN) currently on stage in Chicago. It’s a one-man tour de force by Belgian actor Valentijn Dhaenens who delivers extracts of political speeches from the time of the Greeks to the 21st century. Dhaenens speaks in English, German, Greek, Flemish, French, Italian and the unique patois of Ann Coulter.

He appears onstage behind a table configured with nine microphones, reciting a script composed of the words of the Grand Inquisitor, Nicola Sacco, Socrates, Joseph Goebbels, Gen. George S. Patton, Pericles, Baudouin of Belgium, Patrice Lumumba, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Louis Farrakhan, Osama bin Laden, Frank Vanhecke, George W. Bush and, finally, Coulter.

The Tribune observes that

There is no greater tool in the promotion of hate, disarray, retribution, racism, disunity and fascism than lofty rhetoric. Most of the speakers, of course, did not promote such things, but some did… What makes this show so daring is how Dhaenens works to show you the similarity of rhetoric devices across ideologies or, to put that another way, how history teaches us that it is near impossible to separate good and evil people merely by listening to the words they choose to deliver. Why? Because, as Dhaenens shows us by pairing, say, Goebbels with Patton, the fascists long ago learned the soft-pedal tricks of rhetorical power.

The performance reveals how the tricks of rhetoric have remained unchanged since the dawn of language. They can be deployed both for good and bad purposes.

If you’d like to sample the show check out this interview with Dhaenens:

Cannon fodder

FT ExtractI’m continually amazed by the hidden gems buried in the pink pages of the Financial Times. Today’s edition has a fascinating article on the manner in which auto companies protect their fleets of new vehicles parked in the open at distribution centers in places at risk of hailstones.

It seems VW and Nissan have installed cannons which fire shockwaves into the air that can actually prevent the formation of damaging hail stones that might rain down on the new vehicles.

Unfortunately, the weather-altering technology has deprived local farmers of much-needed rain, causing droughts. The farmers are suing.

In the spirit of compromise (perhaps learned as a result of the unfortunate emissions scandal) VW are silencing the cannons and installing protective “anti-hail nets” above the cars.

Business Insider notes that the use of cannons to influence the weather goes back to the time of the Romans

Herodotus and Caesar made note of the fact that barbarian tribes tried to shoot arrows at oncoming storms. In parts of Europe, guns were used to shoot at storms, until Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa prohibited the practice in 1750 — apparently, it was a source of complaints by neighbors of the storm shooters, who were upset about the way the weather changed as a result.

If the technology is so effective, one wonders why Flanders was so darned wet when the guns of August split the air during the First World War.

Adult Entertainment

I’ve noted before that the Financial Times — the British equivalent of the Wall Street Journal — isn’t reticent about treating readers as adults and using four-letter words when appropriate.

The latest example from today’s edition is in a wonderful review of the Womad festival where they mention French singer Camille did a cover of the Dead Kennedy’s song “Too Drunk to Fuck”, and, yes, the title was printed in the British financial newspaper in full, not F*** as most newspapers would, leaving us to guess: Too Drunk to Feel? to Flow? to Fake?

Perhaps, as someone once told me, it’s because with a British accent even “Fuck” sounds profound.

FT Womad Review

Click picture to enlarge..

Anyway, here’s Camilla, clearly not too drunk to sing.