“Somewhere, out in America, it’s just starting to rain”
I didn’t get much reading done today, but I heard that lyric in a live version of a Counting Crows song from 1998. The words are originally from 1996’s”Have You Seen Me Lately” and in this were inserted into 1993’s “Round Here.” The former song is a decent cut from the band’s sophomore album, Recovering the Satellites, while the latter is the stormy opener off of their debut, August & Everything After, which I mentioned in my previous entry about “One for Sorrow.”
Copying that line from a good song and pasting it into a great song made me hear the poetry in a fresh way. The image of rain just starting – “somewhere,” perhaps out in Nebraska or elsewhere in rural America – amplifies all the small town ennui of “Round Here,” where the townsfolk described in the lyric aren’t merely bored or suicidal (as in the original album version), but now confronted with overcast skies and downpours. The verse found a new home, better than its original one.
What struck me about the lyrical transplant here was the continuity of the band’s songs (even across albums and styles) and how it was a literal literary cut and paste that worked. The idea of lifting portions of one’s old writing – an email, a draft that never really worked out, or even a nonsensical piece of business writing – and dropping it into a creative piece is hardly a new idea. Entire novels like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (described by one reviewer as “Eisensteinian“) and Will Self’s Umbrella seem predicated on cut-and-paste logic, with sequencing only barely mattering and scenes of violence and alienation opportunely cutting through the head-in-the-clouds narrative.
I’ve tried this technique before, throwing around passages from traditional folk songs, early versions of white papers, loosely transcribed podcast monologues, and lightly rewritten website copy. It’s hit or miss for me, but it’s a lot of fun trying to write around the insertion so that it (kinda) makes sense. I think cut and paste can work if you let yourself be led, rather than trying to lead and find the perfect quote/passage-to-imitate. Basically, it’s the opposite of doing research, which is good enough for me.
There’s an English nursery rhyme called “One for Sorrow” that is about the superstitions associated with watching magpies. If you haven’t read it, it is simplicity itself:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
The rhyme is strange, only hitting at “joy/boy” and “gold/told.” It doesn’t put on the airs of high poetry, but it succinctly covers a vast range of the human experience, including feelings, both genders (one more than many novels, poems, or short stories deal with), money, and uncertainty. Moreover, its superstitiousness masquerades as the domain of children – e.g., “if don’t go to bed early, Santa Claus won’t come,” likewise if I look at the magpies the wrong way there won’t be the number I want to see,” a feeling that every neurotic knows – yet it is of a piece with the arbitrary customs, symbols, and religious rituals of say the Book of Leviticus, making it as mature a piece as possible. It distills the idea of a world beyond willpower and an unknowable afterlife.
“One for Sorrow” was written around 1780, more than decade before the first experimentations with telegraphy, which would lead to the telephone and then the Internet, unlocking the poetic potential of the phrase “bird on a wire” along the way. It also came on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s innovations in the novel through in his epistolary works Clarissa and Pamela. More than 200 years later, though, this little nursery rhyme has long since outlived the telegraph’s relevance, will outlive the declining landline telephone, and now has more popular culture relevance than any of Richardson’s catalog.
At least two fantastic songs, both more than 200 years the rhyme’s junior, have used this song to tremendous effect, as the centerpiece to their dark poetry. Counting Crows, on “A Murder of One” from their extraordinary debut album August & Everything After, used “One For Sorrow,” with minor changes, to flesh out an image of, well “as you stood there, counting crows.” It’s the heart of the song and an explanation of a the band’s name in one package. Patrick Wolf, in “Magpie” from his The Magic Position, enlists Marianne Faithfull to give a haunting reading of the old poem. Having listened to the Counting Crows song so many times, it’s easy for me to imagine Faithfull as the female lead in the story of “A Murder of One,” reciting her side of the view.
The rhyme is beautiful and bewildering. It’s enough to make writer throw up his hands and wonder why she couldn’t just write something as straightforward and be immortalized, instead of toiling on a complex novel or paper that no one will read. If anything, the insane instant gratification culture enabled by smartphones et al makes these nursery rhymes, with their snappy conclusions and showy phrasing, more relevant than ever.
“Little Miss Muffet” and “One For Sorrow,” to name but two, will be with us long after “Infinite Jest,” but creating something similarly universal and monocultural will be so hard, if only because of the current media saturation (ok, I’ll stop with the dairy puns). “One for Sorrow” was a brilliant foil to the excessive art and writing that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries – a mere nursery rhyme, going up against complex novels, albums, and films. But with all those latter forms seeming in decline thanks to the “too busy” mindset of today, its shortness is still a virtue but in a fresh new way, as philosophy condensed for pop music and bite-size attention spans.