an apt distance

After reading J. Niimi’s entry in the “33 1/3” series on Murmur, which discussed the influential role of Walker Percy’s essay “Metaphor as Mistake” on Michael Stipe’s lyric-writing ideas, I followed up by reading that essay. Not only because I’m a geek, but also because I’m intrigued by the way language works, by its insistent metaphoricity. Okay, because I’m a geek. Anyway:

Percy refers frequently to what old-school critic R.P. Blackmur called a “heightened sense of being” created in the presence of striking metaphor. (Incidentally, a separate essay could be written on the productive re-exploration of outmoded critical thought – rather similar to the way it’s always worth re-exploring outmoded musical genres…) Percy explicates Blackmur’s phrase in part by pointing out the most striking metaphor is often difficult to parse literally, whereas boring, mundane (and hence not striking) metaphors are quite readily mappable from tenor to vehicle. (The “tenor” is the named object upon which attributes of the “vehicle” are mapped: in “her eyes were a blue million miles” (Captain Beefheart), “her eyes” is the tenor, while “a blue million miles” is the vehicle. I read once that the Greek subway system is called the Metaphoroi – literally, the word means to carry from place to place.)

Returning to Percy: “clouds were fleece” is a coherent metaphor (the visual similarities between clouds and fleece are apparent to anyone), but it falls utterly flat in sparking thought. Its literality is too confined, too pinned down, in a harsh, shadowless, and unambiguous light. Poetry and art are not like a legal document, wherein everything must be distinguished in its specificity from every other similar but non-identical something else; it needs that space of play and uncertainty in order to breathe.

The example Niimi draws from Percy is that of the “blue-dollar hawk”: Percy describes a young boy, seeing a particular bird’s striking flight, “its very great speed, the effect of alternation of the wings, its sudden plummeting into the woods,” who asks “what is that bird?” That’s an odd question, Percy points out, in that the boy “has already apprehended the hawk in the vividest, most plenary way…. What more will he know by having the bird named?”

And though Percy doesn’t directly say so, I suspect the answer has much to do with the artistic instinct generally – and perhaps why those with less developed such instincts are puzzled by artists. “That painting looks nothing like its subject” – well of course not: the subject’s already there, what could be more redundant than attempting to duplicate its presence in paint? Elsewhere, Percy notes that poetic naming, though it cannot merely describe what’s already literally there, also can’t be merely random (as in surrealism) and still sustain itself. (A bit unfair to surrealism: in fact, surrealism claimed seemingly random correspondences were the key to unlocking the unconscious – in which, of course, apt but previously unthought similarities dwelled beyond the realm of cliche.) Words randomly smashed together may produce sparks, but ultimately what’s lacking is the notion of an apt distance: neither too close and literal nor arbitrarily distant, but some middle figure that illuminates, that reflects some aspect of the object and the namer’s experience of the object. Percy writes that “poetry validates that which has already been privately apprehended but has gone unformulated” for both the poet and reader.

Percy notes the curious fact that although conventional theories of language deny any but an arbitrary relationship between the word and what it designates (with the exception of onomatopoeia), it would seem that language itself argues otherwise. His example is the cluster of words in Indo-European languages around the syllable sta (which relates to the notion of “standing”) and plu (which suggests “flow”). Analyzing the obscure metaphor “a white shire of clouds,” Percy observes that a class of words connoting “segmented or sectioned or roughly oblong flattened objects” coheres around the sound /sh/, for example shape, sheath, shard, sheet, shelf, shield, shire, shoal, shovel, shroud. Thus, “a white shire of clouds” seems more apt than, say, “a white dictum of clouds” (to choose a word semi-randomly from elsewhere in Percy’s book – although having chosen it, naturally I now try to figure out a context in which that phrase might make sense…).

In the final sentence of his essay, Percy uses a figure that’s personally striking to me – because it’s very close to one I’ve used for years to describe some aspects of my tastes. He writes that humans “must know one thing through the mirror of another.” (This idea connects to a larger theme of Percy’s, an interrogation into the ways language is constitutive of humanness, and the strangeness of language’s endless indirection.) I rarely like the pure anything – I like instead the slightly scuffed, the mixed-up, the next-door-to, the slightly off-center. I don’t like pure genres, I like bastardizations. I like the distorted, askew reflections of things more than the things themselves. I visualized a field of mirrors set at various angles, so within any one of them you’d see bits of the field itself but more often further reflections, reflections of reflections, etc. (This is sort of an installation-art version of Indra’s net, I suppose…)

What might constitute such an “apt distance” (my phrase, not Percy’s): how, for example, does “blue-dollar hawk” (which is really the prosaically named “blue darter hawk”) dwell at an apt, illuminating distance from an experience of the actual bird, given the characteristics of the bird? Well, with “blue” I think of “talk a blue streak,” “blue in the face”…the idea of excess or plenitude. And there’s the homophone with “blew”: quickness, past-tense. There’s something compressed, condensed about “blue” – as if it’s a lighter, more distributed color crammed into a small space. Darkness seems closer, less distant, than bright daylight, for instance. Even when we imagine the night stars in their infinite distance, the darkness between compresses, as if we could almost touch them. A small, high plane passing near the sun’s position in the sky in high daylight seems much further away than the moon or stars. As for “dollar”: I imagine the wry folk humor that imputes quickness (in disappearing) to money – and a blue dollar would be even quicker than a green or silver one, given the qualities of plenitude and compression “blue” connotes.

Niimi quotes Stipe as saying that if people wanted to “understand” his lyrics, they should read Percy’s essay. Does Percy help illuminate Stipe’s lyrics? Maybe the best example, writ large, of how it might do so, is the story behind “Perfect Circle”. In an interview (quoted in Niimi), Peter Buck said this about that song:

The most moving moment I’ve had in the last couple of years was at the end of one of our tours. I hadn’t slept in days…. I was standing in the City Gardens in Trenton, New Jersey, at the back door, and it was just getting dark. These kids were playing touch football, the last game before dark came, and for some reason I was so moved I cried for twenty minutes…. I told Michael to try and capture that feeling. There’s no football in there, no kids, no twilight, but it’s all there.

Stipe, I think, recognized that literally describing Buck’s experience probably wouldn’t have worked – the scene, in itself, is prosaic, verging on cliched (childhood, twilight) – but the emotion was genuine, germane to Buck’s exhaustion but seemingly unconnected with the scene that brought it on. I’m guessing Percy would argue that the unconscious correspondence Buck formulated (in the way the experience played itself out in his emotional reaction to it) itself worked in the way a striking metaphor does: not logically explicable, but making a hitherto unformulated connection. Rather than literally describe the experience, I think Stipe tried to recreate it in his own terms, with enough space and distance to allow for that play and uncertainty. And I suspect it’s not only the words themselves, but their setting as part of the music of the song, and the song’s setting as part of Murmur, that allow the whole to do its work.

More generally, I think Stipe took Percy’s ideas to heart by allowing or encouraging a number of devices to keep the semiotic structure of his lyrics open. Some possibilities, some of which he’s known to have done, others of which I’m only speculating about: leaving out words whose presence is implied, changing words based on others’ mishearings, using homophones, changing lyrics as the song evolves in successive performances, layering multiple lyrical and musical lines atop one another so ghost words and meanings might be created by the interplay (hypothetical example: if one line sings “ease” overlapping the second syllable of the phrase “all evening” in a second line, the listener might hear the word “leaves” – even though no one person is actually singing that word), allowing homophonic meaning to suggest alternative interpretations (actual example, although from Brian Eno’s “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More”: “Sweet Regina’s on the plane, a Newsweek on her knees”: suggesting airsickness through the conjunction of “on the plane” and the homophonic “weak on her knees”), not informing Mills or Berry what the actual lyrics were (so they were forced to interpret the lyrics themselves in singing backing vocals, adding more texture or “wrong” lyrics to the mix) – and, of course, being reluctant to confirm or deny what the actual lyrics are for the audience, allowing them always to remain interpretable.

I said earlier that one reason Niimi’s book resonated for me was that it resonated in so many ways with the way I’ve reacted to Murmur (and R.E.M. generally) over the years, particularly in terms of the band’s aesthetic on its early albums. So it’s no surprise, really, that well before reading Percy’s essay, some stratagems I’ve used several times in writing lyrics or making images bear some similarity to these ideas: taking an arbitrary phrase that’s striking in some way (sometimes my own phrase, sometimes one “sampled” from elsewhere, such as spam, or something I’ve read or overheard) and then teasing meaning from it by placing it in a particular context, often allowing that meaning to evolve semi-consciously by withholding the authorial censoring function (“that doesn’t make sense: get rid of it”) till fairly late in the game. Of course, one difference is that, lacking an audience, I have no idea whether my metaphors seem apt to anyone but myself. (Or more accurately, I do have an audience, of one: my later self, looking at the work of my earlier self.) Ultimately, so what: the pleasure of creating needn’t be externally driven or validated. If you like dancing in your room, it hardly matters if you’re a good dancer or a bad one in others’ eyes.

Speaking of bad dancing, and cutting the rug out from under this recent series of R.E.M.-based entries (and citing myself for mixing metaphors…), one thing R.E.M. is not is a blues band. And Warren Zevon was a fabulous songwriter, and a fine vocal interpreter of his own lyrics…but one thing he was not was a blues singer. Which is why their combined forces, recorded one drunken evening and eventually released (doubtless for entirely commercial reasons) under the name Hindu Love Gods, was nearly a complete waste of time. If I didn’t recognize Zevon’s voice, I’d say this was a competent garage band, benefiting from someone’s access to quality recording equipment and personnel. Utterly anonymous. A couple-three songs are worth rescuing, though: their off-the-cuff runthrough of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” (one of the few songs on the album that isn’t a grizzled blues number) foremost among them. Three other tracks have their moments, though I really can’t call any of them all that wonderful. Regardless, here are all three, for your edification: “Battleship Chains,” “I’m a One-Woman Man,” and “Vigilante Man.” There – I’ve saved you the fifty cents it’d cost you to pick this up from the used CD bin.

Hindu Love Gods “Raspberry Beret”
Hindu Love Gods “Battleship Chains”
Hindu Love Gods “I’m a One-Woman Man”
Hindu Love Gods “Vigilante Man”



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4 responses to “an apt distance

  1. woj

    i sold my copy of the hindu love gods album a long time ago. i’ve always sort of regretting it but never quite enough to pick up a used copy anywhere along the way. so, it’s kinda nice to hear these songs again. who knows? maybe this will tip the scales enough if i see a cd for a couple dollars sometime in the future….

  2. Anonymous

    Your posts are always thoughtful but this one was kinda wonderful. May I ask the name of the collection that Walker Percy essay appears in?

  3. 2fs

    Anon. – Thanks. The collection’s called The Message in the Bottle.

  4. Anonymous

    Credit where credit’s due and all that. Thanks for the title.

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