Saturday, February 09, 2013

Nothing in this Life: Nick Cave Among the Poets

The wonderful literary journal Horizon Review has, I've been told, suffered the inevitable fate of most wonderful little journals, and come to an end.  It's inaccessible now, the issues disappeared, the website gone dark—all very sad, since the affair began with great promise.

Since it's no longer available, I'm posting my own contribution to a 2011 Horizon, an essay on Nick Cave and poetry called "Nothing in this Life."  It will appear in somewhat different form in The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, a book of my essays that will come out later this month.


A pair of young poets once approached me and asked if I’d like to contribute to an anthology they were editing.  I write prose quickly, but I’m a slow poet, and don’t keep much ready-to-publish material on hand, so I was a bit wary.  “What’s the theme?” I asked, as a series of possibilities for an anthology in which I might belong flickered through my head. Rapidly graying poets? White guys who could lose some pounds?  The last generation of poets to get on the tenure track before the general derailment of academe?  It turned out to be none of the above: the young poets wanted to put together an anthology of poetry inspired by Nick Cave.
            When I mentioned the project to the Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden, he didn’t miss a beat.  Nick Cave?  Lumsden had written a poem for Nick Cave and, through a series of events too complex and unlikely to present here, he’d heard from an octogenarian friend who’d lunched with Cave that the great man himself had pored over the little chapbook in which the poem appeared—pored repeatedly, apparently fascinated, but inscrutable.  There seems to be some special connection between Cave and the poets, and I think I know what it is.

            It was in December of 1983—right around the time Cave’s early band The Birthday Party was breaking up—that I first put my hands on a scuffed-up bootleg cassette of “Prayers on Fire,” an album the band had cut in Melbourne a couple of years earlier.  I remember clamping the headphones of my Walkman on—that’s the verb that seems most right for the kind of willful, teenaged, cutting oneself off from the world that those headphones represented—hitting play, and hearing the familiar tape-hiss (oh sound of my generation!).  But how to describe what happened after that?  I think Emily Dickinson’s words may be the only way to get at it: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” said Dickinson, “I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way?”  Somehow, during that cold night on the Canadian prairies, the top of my head was indeed taken right the fuck off.  We can actually calculate how long it hovered there: between the 2:38 of “Zoo Music Girl” and the 2:03 of “Just You and Me,” my scalp, with its lamentable gel-tipped spikes of hair, took some 29 and a half minutes to reattach to the rest of my thunderstruck self.  I’ve been able to count on a similar effect from Cave’s music—at least from a track or two from every album—ever since.
            I think at least part of the connection I felt, and still feel, to Cave’s music, comes from the one—and, really, only one—fundamental similarity between us.  We’re both the progeny of provincial culturati—which puts us into the same metaphorical shoes, even though his literal shoes are savagely cool black cowboy boots and mine are, more often than not, dopey looking sandals or grubby sneakers.
            Cave was born in Warracknabeal, Australia—a boondock town of some 2,000 souls midway between the glittering metropolises of Wycheproof and Dimboola, a place known mainly for its statistically improbable abundance of highly freckled redheads.  His parents, though, were great lovers of literature—his father was an English teacher, and his mother a librarian.  Later, the family moved to Wangaratta, another small town, one best known for being near the site of the outlaw Ned Kelly’s last stand.  As the son of an art professor in western Canada, I like to think I know a little bit about what this means.  It means a certain division of loyalties, even a kind of dislocation.  On the one hand, you love the place you’re from with the kind of intensity that only the provinces can inspire. The love of a great metropolis like New York is different, more sophisticated and perverse, and tends to take the form of a kind of hatred—would any real Manhattanite be caught dead in an un-ironic “I heart New York” tee shirt?  The love of the provinces is a simpler thing.  On the other hand, you feel connected to a set of high cultural traditions that have their deepest roots somewhere else.  It’s not that there aren’t serious readers in Warracknabeal, or art lovers in Winnipeg—it’s just that, if that’s your thing, you know you’re a little at odds with the dominant local culture. A colleague of my father’s once complained that there could never be much of an art scene in Winnipeg because there was no money to support it.  “There’s enough money,” my dad replied, “but it doesn’t get spent on art—it goes to fishing boats, cabins in the woods, and hockey tickets.”  Nothing wrong with that—but it can leave a young aesthete feeling vaguely dislocated.
            And this brings us to the Romantic poets—the first great laureates of artistic dislocation.  Much ink has been spilled trying to define the nature of Romanticism.  Carl Schmitt argued that Romanticism was all about the individual's “subjective occasionalism,” a kind of fetishizing of the moment of individual spontaneity—one might think of Jack Kerouac, hopped up on Benzedrine, and clattering away on his scroll-fed typewriter, or shouting “Go, man, go!” at Ginsberg's Six Gallery reading of Howl as the late-blooming apotheosis of sort of Romantism.  The Encyclopédie Larousse assures us that it's really all a matter of form, of artists who “freed themselves from the classical rules of composition and style”—one thinks of Paganini cutting loose with defiantly flashy and unruly solos.  M.H. Abrams said it's all a matter of emphasizing the visionary imagination, with the mind seen as a light-casting lamp, not a mirror reflecting the world as it is.  Morse Peckham said it was all a matter of self-assertion, and so did Bertrand Russell. Irving Babbitt went a step further, saying Romanticism was an “anarchy of the imagination,” such as you might find in Rimbaud. But Karl Mannheim went the other way, saying Romanticism was fundamentally conservative; dead-set in opposition to the ever-rising “bourgeois-capitalist mode of experiencing things”—if you've had a look at Wordsworth's depiction of Bartholomew Fair in The Prelude as a Dantean circle of hell, you've seen this kind of Romanticism.
            Since Romanticism can appear in so many aspects, it's no wonder, really, that Arthur O. Lovejoy shook his head in despair and said we should give the term the chuck.  I was almost willing to join him, until the great Franco-Brazilian sociologist Michael Löwy set me straight.  What holds all these loose strands together, for Löwy, is their opposition to modernity, their sense of not fitting at a comfortable angle vis-à-vis industrialism, the quantification and rationalization of all things, technocracy, and the general disenchantment of the world.  Anarchists? Backward-looking reactionaries?  Imaginative visionaries? Stylistic malcontents? Individualist outsiders?  Come on in, people—Löwy's bigtop is a commodious place.  But its inhabitants all have one thing in common: the modern world has left them homeless—sometimes literally, in the form of the poète maudit kicked out of his garret by a greedy landlord—but usually in a more metaphorical way.  It makes sense.  Think about the state of things when the first generations of Romantic writers came of age: the arts, long the handmaidens of church and state, had lost that affiliation in the breakdown of the old social order, and had yet to find a new one in the gaudy commercial world that would take its place.  Displaced from their old social roles, Romantic writers would leap into invented worlds, like Blake did.  Or they'd dream of a transformed future world, of revolution and Utopia, like P.B. Shelley.  Or they'd look to what they imagined as a lost, better world: like childhood, or village life deep in the provinces—Wordsworth's great themes.  Sometimes they yearned for the fuller, more organic social life in the middle ages, the period of the romances that gave the Romantic movement its name.  If they were particularly bright and observant, like the nineteen year old Mary Shelley, holed up in Switzerland with her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and their egos, they might dream of monstrous outsiders whose great minds and open hearts meant nothing to the torch-and-pitchfork bearing peasants who drove them to endless wanderings.  The world did not fit, felt these dislocated artists and intellectuals, and wherever they looked, it was to turn away from the modern bourgeois world of getting and spending that seemed to have no place for them.  Perhaps Baudelaire got at the situation best, when he called for a voyage going “anywhere out of the world.”
            Of course all this mattered for the kind of art these writers produced.  Earlier poets, sitting comfortably on the knee of aristocratic patronage, knew their audiences, and how to write for them.  When Lord Godolphin asked Joseph Addison for a poem commemorating the battle of Blenheim, Addison knew the political point of view, the formal norms, and the level of readability his patron expected, and for which he would pay.  Even when the market began to make its first inroads into the old patronage system, the world of paying readers was small enough that Alexander Pope knew exactly what they'd want—commonly shared views elegantly expressed in digestible couplets; or, as Pope put it, “what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.”  But how to write in conditions when no patron, no institution, and no real market exists for the poet's work?  What to do, that is, in the Romantics' position?  Well, if there's nothing left to lose by way of worldly reward, there is, at least, a compensating freedom—a freedom for art to get as freaky as it wants to be.  And so with the Romantics we enter the world of cryptic symbols (what does Coleridge's pleasure dome stand for?); we launch off into the deep space of visionary dreams (have a look at Blake's Book of Urizen, but only after you strap yourself in for a long, strange trip); and instead of the clear, crisp pronouncements of Pope, get ready for Keats' negative capability, with its refusal to settle down into a clear statement of fact.  From here to Surrealism is just short ride on the Metro. 

            If we ride that same train a few more stops, we arrive at the early concerts given by Nick Cave and The Birthday Party.  I was too rusticated in the provinces to see them, and too young to get in even if I'd been in the right places.  But Duane Davis, the great bearded guru of rock history and presiding spirit of Wax Trax Records in Denver, Colorado, was kind enough to clue me in about those shows.  Here's what he said about them in Waste Paper #30 some 20 years ago, in prose he has since come to see as a bit hot-house (“I was deep in the grip of Bataille and Baudrillard,” he told me, when he sent his article my way):

The intensities of experience, the desire to act out a daily suicide in the face of an uncertain and questionable re-birth, the compulsion to burn away all the wicker of the socially woven masks our families and communities demand we wear, the immersions in pain and pleasure that take brute feeling past all points of endurance and the arrogance of total marginalization, the refusal of a Utility that measures the individual only to determine his/her productive capacities: somehow Cave has survived all this -- and more: is still searching for a performance that is a language at once private, personal and interior that can be understood by the audience, the Other, that haunts his darkest, most solipsistic, nightmares.

That's the Romantic stuff: implacably opposed to the modern, utilitarian world, and acting out its alienation in intense, dark ways.  “Everything that was him is mere charcoal and waste;” says Davis, “what is left standing is monstrous and alien.”  This is Cave as Childe Harold, as Frankenstein's monster, as Baudelaire's disheveled nighttime-wanderer in the city streets.
            Unlike a lot of rock Romantics, Cave never really left that alienation behind.  Instead, he made it the bedrock of his career.  Consider the lyrics to “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 2004 double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, a song I've chosen more or less at random (it came on my iPod Shuffle when last I hit the treadmill).  The song makes all the big Romantic gestures.  Here's the opening:
The wintergreen, the juniper,
the cornflower and the chicory,
all the words you said to me
still vibrating in the air.
The elm, the ash and the linden tree,
the dark and deep, enchanted sea
the trembling moon and the stars unfurled
there she goes, my beautiful world,

There she goes, my beautiful world,
There she goes, my beautiful world,
There she goes, my beautiful world,
There she goes again.

Well, it's certainly cryptic—the opening imagery is a bit hard to parse, but I do think there's a unifying theme to it.  Cornflowers were traditionally worn by young men pining for love, the idea being that their hopes would wither with the flowers.  Chicory was used in times of deprivation to substitute for coffee, and wintergreen was similarly used as a substitute for tea.  And the juniper?  Well, it was in a juniper tree that the prophet Elijah found shelter.  So we're dealing with a time of deprivation, a time when we need shelter and sustenance to get by.  The notion of the prophet in hard times is important, too: as we'll see in lines to come, the thing that Cave is missing here is his muse, so he's presenting himself as a kind of Romantic poet-prophet deprived of inspiration, which had been the only thing that made the world a beautiful, bearable place.  And, like a true Romantic, Cave sees the best world as something in the process of disappearing.
            Things become a bit clearer as the song goes on, introducing a catalog of outsider writers producing their work in a world that doesn't care for it, or for them:
John Wilmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox;
Nabokov wrote on index cards,
at a lectern, in his socks;
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box;
and Johnny Thunders was half alive
when he wrote "Chinese Rocks"

John Wilmot, better known as the Earl of Rochester, the man Lord Byron wished he could be; Nabokov, the amoral émigré aesthete; San Juan de la Cruz, mystic and martyr; Johnny Thunders, prototypical rocker junkie—Cave's given us a roll-call of alienated creative visionaries.  It's sort of perfect, and only an odious, ink-stained pedant would point out that it was Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell, not Johnny Thunders, who wrote “Chinese Rocks.”
            Let's send the pedant away, then, and get on with the song.  The next bit is where we see that it is of the muse Cave sings:
Well, me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears.
Me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears.
Me, I'm lying here, for what seems years.
I'm just lying on my bed with nothing in my head.

Send that stuff on down to me,
Send that stuff on down to me,
Send that stuff on down to me,
Send that stuff on down to me.

The world offers nothing: only inspiration from on high matters.  We hear this, and then we hear about more alienated visionaries enduring, or failing to endure, in an uncaring world:
Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles
while writing Das Kapital.
And Gauguin, he buggered off, man,
and went all tropical.
While Philip Larkin stuck it out
in a library in Hull.
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in
St. Vincent's hospital.

At home or abroad, these are exiles, displaced, working without hope of worldly reward, and sustained only by a kind of autotelos, a commitment to one's private muse.  The fate of the artist deprived of this one sustaining thing is made starkly clear with the invocation of Dylan Thomas' inglorious end.
            The next verse shows with absolute clarity the Romantic bargain: utterly alienated from this mundane world, the disciple of the muse receives something eternal instead:
I will kneel at your feet
I will lie at your door
I will rock you to sleep
I will roll on the floor
And I'll ask for nothing
Nothing in this life
I'll ask for nothing
Give me ever-lasting life

“Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes in holy dread,” say the townsfolk, when they see the poet-visionary at the end of Coleridge's “Khubla Khan,” “for he on honeydew hath fed / And drunk the milk of paradise.”  Cave offers the other perspective, that of the visionary who's turned his back on the quotidian.  He'll ask for “nothing in this life,” but that's not because he's unambitious, it's because, to paraphrase Lord Byron, he aspires beyond the fitting medium of ordinary desire, and aims at the eternal.
            With this vast ambition comes the dream—perhaps the delusion—of the outcast visionary or Romantic prophet:
I just want to move the world,
I just want to move the world,
I just want to move the world,
I just want to move.

In the first three lines, we're not just out to free ourselves from an uncaring, mundane world: we're out to transfigure it with the power of the muse.  I've always thought there should be a band called the “Unacknowledged Legislators,” since there's such a powerful strain of mystical world-changing desire in rock music, just as their was in Shelley's dream of a world secretly remade by poetry.  Greil Marcus wrote, in Lipstick Traces, about the strange feeling one gets at a great rock show, the sense that something powerful is happening, that the disenchanted world outside the club doors is somehow about to be transformed forever.  He knew what he was talking about.  But Cave does him one better, with the change we see in the last line of the verse.  It's a confession of sorts, an acknowledgement that the world won't be remade by the song.  But the singer might be, and the deliriously dancing audience in front of him—at least as long as the spell lasts.
            As we move toward the end of the song, there's a further acknowledgment of limitations, along with a kind of affirmation:
So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet,
brother, and blow it.
If you've got a field, that don't yield,
well get up and hoe it.
I look at you and you look at me and
deep in our hearts know it —
that you weren't much of a muse,
but then I weren't much of a poet.

The muse, it turns out, wasn't some celestial goddess, but merely a real person.  The song wasn't earth-shattering prophecy.  But that doesn't mean we should give up in resignation.  It just means we'll have to carry on, doing the best we can with whatever means of creation we have available in this otherwise fruitless world.  It's important, as Cave makes clear in the closing lyrics, still addressed to the muse despite his understanding that she is, to some extent, the creation of his own imagination, a projection onto the real person at whom he's looking:
I will be your slave,
I will peel you grapes,
up on your pedestal,
with your ivory and apes
with your book of ideas,
with your alchemy.
Oh come on,
send that stuff on down to me,

send that stuff on down to me,
send that stuff on down to me,
send that stuff on down to me,
send that stuff on down to me,
send it all around the world.
'Cause here she comes, my beautiful girl.

There she goes, my beautiful world…

The double movement at the end's the thing, isn't it?  The muse arrives—but at just that moment the vision slips away again.  That's the real Romantic state, burning with passionate intensity that can never slip into complacency, because the better world for which one wishes is always in the process of vanishing, and the merely mundane world from which one feels alienated—the world of Coleridge's farmer from Porlock—is always ready to intrude on the evanescent realm of the visionary.
            So.  When I think about all the poets I know who love Cave's work, and all the poets I don't know, whose poems on Cave will soon fill an anthology, I think I understand the connection.  Poets, more than novelists or playwrights or memoirists, are out on the fringes of the utilitarian world we live in.  “Give up verse, my boy, there's nothing in it,” said Mr. Nixon, the successful novelist in Ezra Pound's “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.”  That was 1920, and the world hasn't become less commercial since.  If you're plugging away as a poet nowadays, odds are you're in some sense a Romantic.  And I bet when you hit the treadmill (since only the most Romantic of Romantics aims at an early death), you've got Nick Cave on your iPod.