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Filtering by Tag: John Donne

Confessions of a Musical Voyeur

Jayne English

WDF_2521026 And every one of them words rang true And glowed like burnin’ coal Pourin’ off of every page Like it was written in my soul from me to you    — Bob Dylan

You know what it’s like to be a literary voyeur. You see a photo of someone in front of a bookcase, and what’s the first thing you do? Tilt your head and read the titles on the shelf. And if you’re a serious voyeur, you make a list of books to add to your collection. In addition to being a literary voyeur, I’m a musical voyeur. I have always listened, over the shoulder, to other people’s music. Growing up as the youngest of five, there was no way I was going to get to the record player first. This set the pattern for being a passive music collector. Music is like a dandelion that sends its seeds on the breeze; even though I didn’t search it out, music always found me. Because it’s the heartbeat of varied people, my music over time has become a colorful and eclectic collection.

If left to myself, I may still be singing along with this, the first song I picked out myself, and the first 45 I ever remember buying. See how it’s a good thing that I’ve been a musical voyeur?

At first, my voyeurism led me into things like Broadway musicals. I’m pretty sure I can still sing the songs from West Side Story and Funny Girl. I vividly remember tucking away in my room and soothing my moody teen blues with Carole King’s Tapestry, or wearing the grooves down on Jesus Christ Superstar, feeling a little reckless singing with Herod.

Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs still sow seeds through my day, as I continue to discover the sacred – mystery and brokenness, wonder and longing – in a broad scope of music. I return to some of the artists whose music travels on the winds of home. Dylan, for instance, whose simple, expressive metaphor for longing, “tangled up in blue,” still captivates me. Even after time, it’s as resonant as a song should be that took “10 years to live and two to write.” Then there are the Beatles’ hard to surpass imaginative lyrics, like the ones flowing from Lennon yielding to his Alice in Wonderland muse:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river With tangerine trees and marmalade skies Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

There are the “sweet and lovely” intricacies of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk in this. I glean from the harvest of those listening to music around me: Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, David Bowie, Alan Parsons, Neil Young, Beethoven, Debussy, Sufjan Stevens, Aesop Rock. The only genre I haven’t enjoyed too much is rock and roll. Mostly for the reason Dylan notes, “The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough. . . There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”

Listening to these deeper feelings makes me a better listener as I lean into someone else’s musical perspective. Picking up music from others almost always involves interesting conversations because people love to talk about the music that is “written in their souls.” This connection leads me to identify with the music in a different way than I would on my own. It fills my life with the nuances and layers of new musical languages.

This year I discovered some music on my own and welcomed more that I picked up from others, making it a great musical blend that I love for many reasons: joy and pathos, simplicity and complexity, lyricism and artistic experimentation (someone asks if this might be the first hip hop song). There is also recent music from artists I am privileged to know personally, like these songs as described in one word by the artists themselves: licentious and manic.

And now I wait, for new favorites to drift through an open window. As Donne says,

The heavens rejoice in motion, why should I abjure my so much loved variety?

Letters to Self

Jill Reid

Photo by Fred Guillory / CC BY 2.0 At some point each semester, I talk to my writing class about the importance of keeping a journal.So much of what writers produce must be attached to deadline or assignment.  Under these conditions, we check our tone, weigh risks, and write beneath the shadow of an imagined and rolling eye. Under that kind of constraint, it’s important to have a place where our voices can crack with the terror or silliness or strain of the immediate moment without the pressure of public presentation.   

So, I press fresh paperback journals into young hands and quote Flannery O’Connor famous words, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I tell them to write without burden because keeping a journal will make a space for discovery that even the most exacting assignment might not produce.And while I fully believe the possibility of this sort of discovery is real and true, I almost forget to expect that sort of discovery for myself.  

In a letter to college freshman, Alfred Corn (now a famous poet), Flannery O’Connor addresses Corn’s concern for new and intense doubts about his Christian faith. As any reader of O’Connor would expect, her responses are profound and thoughtful. Assuring him that real faith must encounter real doubt, she reminds him that “doubt is an experience that belongs to faith.” Using her method of letter writing as a catalyst for a free-write, I direct students to “write a letter to your past self that suggests experiences of doubt and faith without using either of the words doubt or faith.” And when I go home and search my own shelves for an old journal, I am surprised to discover that I have been writing these kinds of letters to myself for a long time.   

For a fevered hour, I sit with my own journals, the stiff-spined and the scraggly paged, cheap composition books and mahogany moleskines. I read and reread and find that beyond the images and ideas I left for myself to develop into poems and papers, I have also been writing very personally to my own self. I stare a long time at four sentences that lament the doubt a past self felt about my capacity to “really” write, and I begin to remember, flanked by my own words, that the doubt I experience today in my writing life is nothing new. Suddenly, I wanted to hug the author who admitted this struggle, to high-five her, embracing “yesterday’s” voice with an abandon I would never direct at “today’s”. The experience of having my own past voice directly address my present one was like encountering an inheritance someone else had earned and carefully saved for the benefit of another generation. Yesterday’s voice admitted angst that today’s voice still understood. There was such relief in that mutual understanding.

A letter, in its nature of direct and intimate address, clasps my imagination in the same way my grandmother’s old hands cup the face of my daughter. There is something about a voice that belongs to a moment I intimately know; I can believe in that voice because I can believe in the reality of the moment from which it speaks. How shocking, for the writer, so used to falling in love with other voices, other stories, to find her own voice worth listening to.

Metaphysical poet, John Donne, writes that “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” While the act of writing letters naturally lends itself to the passionate longing of lovers, I am moved by the letters that I have, even unknowingly, been writing to myself. I am breathless for notes scrabbled in margins and smudged blue into spidery paragraphs. How vital our own voices can become, shimmering in margins of shelved journals, waiting to reach across time and distance like a letter addressing us in a moment we most need to hear from a friend.