Monday, December 08, 2008

"we cannot cling/to the old dreams anymore"


I was, as per usual, reading late last night, when I came across what might best be described as a relic. It was with an odd feeling of recognition – “Oh, you’re still here, are you?” – that I read through Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving But Drowning’; strangely, I seemed to spend more time trying to work out her meter (there was none, as far as I could see) than absorbing it. The third stanza still strikes me as pathetically powerful (or powerfully pathetic, I’m not sure), and she pulls off extreme understatement a thousand times better than most poets attempting such a pose. It even occurred to me to post the entire poem up here, as some kind of less-than-subtle pointer about my (general) condition (“it was too cold always… I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning.”)
This was partially because of associations: there was a slight hubbub among a couple of blogs recently about The Smiths, and it just so happens that I first came across Smith’s work as an influence on Morrissey (mentioned in a Mojo article sidebar, alongside the usual suspects – Auden, Eliot, Larkin, Betjeman, etc.) Of course, if you go back to the beginning of this blog’s archives (don’t, actually, they’re far too embarrassing – I really should just delete the entirety of this bloody thing), you’ll notice that the rampant self-pity goes alongside constant Smiths references. Nowadays I can only just bear to listen to Hatful of Hollow, and then only for the wordplay and unsubtle queer antics (oh, and ‘Reel Around the Fountain’, of course), and, perhaps understandably, that kind of emotional tactic has gone the same way as my Smiths-love, thank fuck. Interestingly, Tom Ewing, the author of the Pitchfork review that catalysed said minor hubbub, wrote a column about how he “used” The Smiths in his adolescence as a marker of his own emotional condition: “At school, with a friend who I'd initiated, we would actually write out those lyrics and change words around to fit our current agonies. He was braver than me, and left the lyrics to ‘Girl Afraid’ sitting 'meaningfully' on a crush's schooldesk: the crush utterly and correctly ignored them… The band's appeal was linked, absolutely, to my misery. Their music and attitude offered a way of controlling and containing it, turning it into something I could use.” I found myself, of course, nodding at this in a distinctly amusing fashion, having written out the lyrics to ‘How Soon Is Now?’ and ‘I Know It’s Over’ on enough school-folder and exercise-book covers; they were, as a_ of Aloof From Inspiration puts it, a marker of difference (I suppose that, given the increasing critical focus on Morrissey’s queer sympathies, they still are). But to what purpose? Misery, emotional nudity, loud proclamations of dissent, as I seem to have learned, are not merely unattractive, but boring and crass to boot; “Boredom, arrogance, pride, disdain” might be ways of protecting oneself from the mental fetters of the mob, but ultimately they leave one further from life, closer to the grave which I’ve spent the last 3 years struggling to get free of; “the refusal of sexuality, relationships and work” are, ethically and politically speaking, the best options, but would, I think, prove the worst choice in the end.
What it seems to come down to is that one hopes, perhaps, to have ‘grown up’ in some sense in the last five (God, is it really that many?) years, and that would include, I suppose, gaining some measure of complexity in my relationship with the relics of culture, some measure of subtlety in the way one approaches the world and its creatures (why the hell else would I be reading so much bloody poetry?) Stevie Smith is just too bloody bald now.

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