writing

The Object of Poetry

A quick note:  this post originally appeared on an old blog of mine.  Hearing the song that it is about made me want to re-post it.  -Tom

PHOTOGRAPH
Michael Stipe & Natalie Merchant / Night Garden Music ©1993
I found this photograph
underneath broken picture glass
tender face of black & white
beautiful, a haunting sight
looked into an angel’s smile
captivated all the while
from her hair and clothes she wore
I’d have placed her in between the wars

Was she willing when she sat
and posed a pretty photograph
to save her flowering and fair
for days to come
for days to share
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

I found this photograph
in stacks between the old joist walls
in a place where time is lost
lost behind where all things fall
broken books and calendars,

Letters script in careful hand,
the music to a standard tune by
some forgotten big brass band

From the thresh hold what’s to see
of our brave new century
television’s just a dream
of radio and silver screen
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

Was her childhood filled with rhyme
or stolen books of passion crimes?
was she innocent or blind to the
cruelty of her time?
was she fearful in her day?
was she hopeful? did she pray?
were there skeletons inside
family secrets sworn to hide?
did she feel the heat that stirs
the fall from grace of wayward girls?
was she tempted to pretend
in love and laughter until the end?

Born to Choose cover

The cover of the “Born to Choose” compilation, the CD released to benefit NARAL upon which “Photograph” appeared.

Over spring break, I was talking about R.E.M. with a friend of mine for a future episode of his podcast, and over the course of our conversation, this song that the band recorded with Natalie Merchant in 1993 (which is around the time the band was riding the success of Automatic for the People and Merchant was nearing the end of her tenure as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) was mentioned and while we didn’t spend too much time analyzing it, we both agreed that the song is excellent

After the conversation, I wound up listening to “Photograph” again, and while there are a lot of times when R.E.M.’s lyrics border on the indecipherable, the lyrics here are actually more clear even if they are pretty complex. My first thought, upon first hearing it, was to compare it to the Jackson Browne song “Fountain of Sorrow,” but giving it another listen, I realized that the beauty in this particular song is that neither Merchant nor Michael Stipe know who the person in the photograph is.

It all reminds me of the early 2000s when I would waste time at work by looking at things posted to Found Magazine, which was devoted to trying to tell the story of objects that users had found. Many times, they related the circumstances that led to finding and keeping the object; other times, they were more about trying to tell that object’s story, in the same way that the lyrics are doing here.

The English teacher side of me loves this song, as does the writer side, because it lends itself to such a great multifaceted writing exercise. Of course, there’s the idea that I could take the time to tell the story of the photograph and answer the questions that they’re asking, similar to how I have often used Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” as a springboard for a writing assignment. There’s also the possibility of describing the photograph based on the questions–as in, what about that photograph would lead someone to ask those questions?

And then there’s the objects that we own or don’t own that have stories behind them. Granted, you don’t need to study this song in order to create that assignment, but this would serve as a great model for any student looking to write the story of an object. If it’s something a student already owns, there is description and there is reflection; if it’s something the student doesn’t own (i.e., I gave them a photograph of people they didn’t know without any context), there is indulgence of curiosity and creativity, and also perhaps some self-reflection of the way that we judge people based on what we see.

I think poetry as a genre works really well, especially in this case, because it forces a person to stretch themselves. I could provide a prompt with a journal response, but that’s too simple and might result in some sort of bland description. This song, “Photograph,” and other poetry about the objects in our lives, goes deeper than that, asking questions that may not have answers and providing answers because it’s in our nature to want to do that.

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We Were Only Freshmen

thevervepipe-thefreshmanFor the life of me, I cannot remember why I ever liked “The Freshmen.”

Okay, that’s not true.  I just needed a way to start this post and thought I would try to be clever.  Obviously, that doesn’t always work.

Anyway, I have been on a Nineties music kick lately and in my listening came across The Verve Pipe’s only hit, a song my nostalgia for probably bears explaining.

Originally recorded in 1992 but rerecorded and released as a single in January 1997, “The Freshmen” peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in June of the same year and was a complete anomaly in the Top 40, which featured “Mmmm Bop” by Hanson and at least one song by The Spice Girls.  This was not the morose grunge-dominated early 1990s, this was the happy, dawn-of-The-Millennials late-1990s and there were few straightforward rock acts making any dent.  Even I had abandoned most of rock and roll for punk and ska at this point in my life and spent the better part of a summer annoying my girlfriend with The Mighty Mighty BossTones before moving on to a full-blown 1980s pop nostalgia trip.  But I happened to be headed to Charlottesville from Baltimore during spring break in March of ’97 and heard “The Freshmen” on WHFS and thought “This is a song that I need to listen to.”  In fact, I’m pretty sure that I went to The Wall in the Barracks Road shopping center that weekend and the paid full $2.99 or $3.99 for the cassette single.  That is how much I felt I needed “The Freshmen.”

If you’re unfamiliar with it, the song is basically a four-and-a-half-minute-long lament sung by the band’s lead singer, Brian Vander Ark, who wrote the lyrics.  In the song, he hints that something terrible has happened and he feels guilty, although he seems conflicted about whether or not he should be held responsible, especially since everyone involved was so young.  At least that’s what I understood in 1997 when I was playing the song in my Hyundai Excel’s tape deck and the video was being played and replayed on VH-1 as well as on the radio at work that summer where I remember one day we tried for the better part of an hour to figure out what the lyrics meant.  I seem to recall my boss, Joe, thinking that the song literally was about someone falling through ice on a lake and dying.  My guess was not as exact but I was pretty sure someone was dead.

Thanks to the Internet, I now know that Vander Ark wrote the song about feeling guilty over his ex-girlfriend’s suicide.  The lyrics also contain something fictional about an abortion, and listening to it nearly two decades later (I lost the cassette single years ago, however), I hear that.  I also hear why I liked it so much at the time–in 1997, it was a throwback to the bands I had been listening to when I was in high school, like Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots.  Granted, The Verve Pipe was probably more on the level of Candlebox, but that’s how my mind worked.

Anyway, “The Freshmen” also reminds me of a time when I took myself way too seriously as a writer because I thought that is what writers did.  In fact, I don’t think I fully realized that angst just isn’t my style until after I graduated college because at the time the song was popular, I was still trying to write serious fiction … and was doing that pretty badly.  I mean, we’re talking attempts at drama from someone who had one of the most drama-free and “non-dark” lives in history.

But writing class will do that to you.  You are someone who loves to write and don’t have much to worry about in life, and the sappy crap you wrote about your pookie got old during freshman year (as well as extremely embarrassing), and everyone else in your workshop group has an eating disorder, an alcoholic parent, a dead friend, or an inspirational story about finding God.  Smart-assed commentary about Star Wars or short stories that were inspired by John Hughes movies just didn’t seem to hold up in my mind.

Which is kind of a shame, when you think about it, because that means I found my strengths in writing by demonstrating my weaknesses in writing class–thankfully, I was writing a column in the student newspaper at the time, so I could build on those strengths.  But when you think of it, I shouldn’t look fondly on a time when I wasn’t very good at something.  Then again, there’s something about that time in my life when I tried to be deep on purpose and nothing says that more than the forced earnestness of “The Freshmen.”