Life of the World to Come vs. Thirty Bob A Week; republished and enhanced in honor of National Poetry Month (US) April 2014

Editor's Note: This blog was published in January 2010 in Deborama's Book Reviews and Store, my old book blog in the UK. I decided to re-do it a bit and publish it in real-time, rather than in its spot in the transferred posts. 
I just want to add that John Davidson is one of my favorite of all the dead poets. Most, not all, of my favorite living poets are actually songwriters, and a bleak lot they are, too: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt (oops, he's dead!) and now joining them is John Darnielle.
Links to all the relevant works are below. 
I have been listening to the most recent Mountain Goats album, Life of the World to Come. My son Carey turned me on to this excellent group, with its poetic, often cryptic lyrics by the singer songwriter and leader John Darnielle. For some reason, I have noticed an influence, a precursor, very unlikely, and I doubt JD is even aware of this poet from over 100 years ago - John Davidson.
(I should explain what I mean by influence, then. See Harold Bloom's seminal short book, The Anxiety of Influence, for a better explanation than I can hope to give.)
Some people have said that this album is "religious". All the song's titles are Bible verses. There is a lot of religious imagery. But poets as diverse as John Milton, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, William Blake and Dylan Thomas have used religious imagery in their poetry. This does not make them all religious poets.  At first, I thought Darnielle uses religious imagery mostly like Dylan Thomas, but no. Although Thomas was not a devout man by any stretch of the imagination, and although Thomas's themes were as soaked in alcohol as Darnielle's are imbued in drug abuse, I think DT would have just called himself a sinner, not a rebel. What would JD call himself? And here I have to invoke Bloom again, for he constantly compares writing, in fact all acts of creativity, to Jacob's wrestling with God (referred to in the Scripture as an Angel but it was really God.) And all these men and women, even Milton, even the ultra-devout Hopkins, do wrestle with God.
But the first poet who did not walk away defeated from the match, in my opinion, was John Davidson. Back in the late Victorian era, this JD had an air of jaunty defiance to the Almighty that JD of the 21st century really harks back to. Mainly I am thinking of two poems.
In "A Ballad of Hell," a woman is enticed to commit suicide by a man who no longer loves her, thinking she is in a suicide pact with him. Arriving in hell and being told of his betrayal, she declares she won't stay, and marches across the fiery river to heaven.
Seraphs and saints with one great voice
Welcomed that soul that knew not fear.
Amazed to find it could rejoice,
Hell raised a hoarse, half-human cheer.
This seems pretty tame now, but I imagine it was deeply shocking to the Victorians, and similarly Darnielle often lulls listeners into thinking they are about to hear a moral lesson, only to turn the tables and blaze a new thought trail, as in the song "Psalms 40:2." The verse this derives from is all about salvation and how after raising one from the pit, God will "establish your goings". In this song, our protagonists are raised from a pit, and then apparently trash the beautiful temple, sleep off the drunk, feel better, hit the road.
Head down towards Kansas we will get there when we get there don't you worry
Feel bad about the things we do along the way
But not really that bad
In "Thirty Bob a Week," Davidson has this to say in response to the Victorian idea that a downtrodden workingman should accept his lot and be grateful to God:
My weakness and my strength without a doubt
Are mine alone for ever from the first:
It's just the very same with a difference in the name
As 'Thy will be done.' You say it if you durst!

They say it daily up and down the land
As easy as you take a drink, it's true;
But the difficultest go to understand,
And the difficultest job a man can do,
Is to come it brave and meek with thirty bob a week,
And feel that that's the proper thing for you.
And here is John Darnielle, in the lyric he has named for the verse in Genesis where God kicks Adam out of the garden. Here the protagonist has broken into an inhabited comfortable home that he used to live in, and it's not such a paradise after all:
Pictures up on the mantle, nobody I know
I stand by the tiny furnace where the long shadows grow
Living room to bedroom to kitchen, familiar and warm
Hours we spent starving within these walls, sounds of a distant storm
And then he concludes:
Steal home before sunset, cover up my tracks
Drive home with old dreams at play in my mind and the wind at my back
Break the lock on my own garden gate when I get home after dark
Sit looking up at the stars outside like teeth in the mouth of a shark


April is Poetry Month, and the Hennepin County Library system is running a hashtag program called #spinepoetry in conjunction with Instagram, of all things. (I have heard Instagram called Twitter for the illiterate, which makes for an odd association with a library. Maybe it's because of that that it's just about the only major social media platform I haven't joined.) Anyway, the idea is to create a poem by stacking books, so that the titles are the text of the poem. Then you post a picture of it on Instagram with the hashtag. Here is a good one my friend Lia did on Facebook (also the picture above), although she didn't use the hashtag nor (I think) Instagram. But who says you have to follow the rules? It's just fun for us booky/creative types to do stuff like this.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez died today at age 87

Gabriel Garcia Marquez died today at age 87
Colombia declares three days of mourning for Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of the enormously influential 100 Years of Solitude, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, passed away Thursday, April 17. He was 87.


Things that make a difference to ones literary experience

I have been experimenting with CD audiobooks from the library. I had a good experience with a John LeCarre novel, Our Kind of Traitor, narrated by Robin Sachs. I have fading hearing, but I was able to hear everything just fine with a set of moderately-priced noise-cancelling headphones plugged into an old, cheap CD off-brand "walkman". I mostly listened to it on a brief out-of-town break I took to my friend Lulu's house in Chisago City, lying in one of her luxurious recliners, with Koby sleeping in my lap. Bliss, for the most part. My ears did hurt after a while, and it was darned cold that weekend and we were staying in the basement, which although also luxurious, is heated only by a roaring woodstove. So the temperature was rather uneven, and then I got interrupted from time to time to eat or be sociable or get in the hot tub (ho, hum) or take Koby out to relieve himself in the snow. Sometimes it's hard livin' the easy life. But no, it was a great, a much-needed break. I anjoyed the visit, and Lulu is a wonderful hostess.

Having enjoyed that audiobook a lot, the next time I was at the library, I got a few more. I just now tried to listen to my second audiobook, The Mystery Woman, by Amanda Quick, narrated by Justine Eyre. This was not such a good experience. Same piece of equipment, now lying on my bed, which is where I finished the LeCarre after I got back from my little trip. But first, there was a fault in disc 1, and I couldn't listen to it at all. Disc 2 played OK, but I only listened about two minutes before giving up in disgust. And this is the topic of my post. It makes a huge difference who the narrator is! And I do not like Justine Eyre, although I don't think, after Googling her, that I have seen her in anything. She is an extremely beautiful, if distinctly unfriendly-looking, young woman, but that could be because she has also been a model. (Or she could have been a model for the same reason she looks so distant and miserable, who knows?) Canadian by birth, raised in the Phillipines, educated in the UK, she is described as a classically trained actor. Her voice, how shall I say this? is horrible. Cut glass, but a little bit too much so, with backnotes of a suburban midwestern Canadian. A timbre somewhere between brittle and wheezy, like it's been overbaked on cigarettes and coke, and yet at the same time, flat in that very young way of very bored and snooty youngsters. I'm sorry, Justine, but I could not get past my appalled fascination with your ridiculous voice enough to even hear the content. Which I would probably like if I were reading it myself.