I never used to read poetry; it was somehow a symbol of everything I didn’t know, and could never learn. Steve Swallow’s album “Home” is built around Robert Creeley’s poems, but at the time it was the musical forms, endlessly rotating yet deceptively simple, that attracted me. Listening to Steve Swallow’s music is like a familiar face that always appears new, yet retains its identity, as if one views it from a different angle each time.
But then I started looking at the poems – strange fragments of conversation, no long words, there was nothing I didn’t understand, but I couldn’t find its meaning; it was confusing and yet something about it drew me in. I decided to investigate, eagerly amassing volumes of his work; like buried treasure, I had a feeling I could dig it up in the future, and age might render it even more beautiful, perhaps I might even understand some of it. Along with The Beatles, Beethoven late string quartets and making my own jam, it was something I could save for later life.
Several years on, I am in many ways none the wiser. I must say I don’t know what Creeley’s on about most of the time. But I keep going back to him, there is so much to enjoy even without understanding, it’s taught me to listen to words both written and spoken as I would to music. I want to understand it, and in the meantime am happy just to read it. And every so often, a quote will jump out at me, and a meaning presents itself. Here’s one, from a poem called “En Famille”.
“Somehow it’s sometimes hard to be a human.
Arms and legs get often in the way,
Making oneself a bulky, awkward burden.”
I love the way the words are not only describing a feeling, they are doing it. Reading these lines, I feel like my mouth is reliving the actual experience, the consonants piling up and making a spluttering mess of what should be a perfectly normal sentence. No long words. At the same time, I think it expresses a feeling that many artists, writers and performers have; the need to somehow transcend the limits of physical body. One often hears of people who feel they are “a woman trapped in the body of a man”, or vice versa. Well I am a man trapped in the body of a man. My arms and legs often get in the way, and so does everything else to be honest. I feel that music temporarily removes the physicality of being alive and translates into a pure energy, or perhaps an energy “outside” of one’s body.
If I’m playing, and especially if it’s going well, it’s “flowing”, I’ll get to the end of a tune and it will feel like someone waking me up. It’s like falling asleep at the wheel, but with the physical danger removed. This is not a cosmic, hippyish assertion; it means that as a player, one enters the realm of the listener. The closer you can get, as a player, to the listener’s world, the more the music will seem to compose itself. Of course, the stuff “under the bonnet” needs to be working too in order to get there, but I am loathe to talk about the fuel injection to someone who just wants to see a good race.
In essence, music, both in its making and its appreciation, is an out-of-body experience. (It is also, a lot of the time, an out-of-money experience.) I feel like the occasional alienation one experiences as an artist, the often structureless form of the weeks, every one different and yet similar, busy and empty in strange alternation, the “What do you do I’m a musician oh that’s glamorous what kind of music jazz mostly….(silence)…does jazz still happen now that you can’t smoke indoors?” conversation – all of this is compensated for the intensity of the out-of-body experience. The precarious existence of a musician, envied by many, sits uneasily with the sea of rampant consumerism where a desperate lunge for the shops seems the only way to stay afloat. The escape needs to be real, not just a discussion about what is possible or not possible, it has to be physical, tangible, living. At that point one might see a shadow not of one’s former self, but of the one that is here now. Maybe not even a shadow, maybe a reflection. Here’s another Robert Creeley poem, “Histoire De Florida” and it opens like this;
you were younger,
while there’s still time