Sunday, November 27, 2011

That (in)famous line

[I wrote what follows — on a line from Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’s song “Cabin Essence” — in October 2004. For a long time this essay was available at Jan Jansen’s, which site now redirects to Bananastan Records. Given the recent release of the Beach Boys’ The SMiLE Sessions, I thought I’d give my writing (slightly revised) a new home here. Why an (in)famous line? The Beach Boys’ Mike Love, dismayed by what he called the “acid alliteration” of Parks’s lyrics, demanded an explanation of the words “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield.” Parks could not oblige. That brief encounter has come to stand as an emblematic moment in the sad and tangled story of SMiLE. “Cabinessence” appeared on the Beach Boys” 1969 album 20/20. The song is titled “Cabin Essence” on Brian Wilson’s 2004 album SMiLE and on The SMiLE Sessions.]

“Anyone care to analyze the lyrics?”

In a recent thread of that name, concerning the lyrics for SMiLE, someone wrote:

I’d like to see an analysis by someone trained in poetry, someone who is good at that sort of thing, like one of my English profs in college . . . No, it wouldn’t be definitive, but might provide some insights.
I’m a professor of English, so I guess I’d better say something.

The twentieth-century American poet Ezra Pound describes three qualities of poetic language: logopoeia, melopoeia, and phanopoeia, or the play of meaning, sound, and visual imagery. Take Van Dyke’s (in)famous line from “Cabin Essence”: “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield.” You can see the lyricist playing with meaning: is cries a verb, or a noun? It might seem that a crow is crying “Uncover the cornfield,” but there are no quotation marks in the printed lyric, so cries must be a noun. Uncover is more puzzling. What would it mean for cries to uncover a cornfield? Perhaps crows are cawing as they fly away, leaving the field as it was before they arrived and covered it. Uncover could be a surprising, logopoetic way to say that.

There’s considerable play of sound in this line: over and over, the long o in over and crow, the hard c in crow, cries, uncover, and cornfield, the repeated r sound in over, crow, cries, and corn. You could say that the line performs the repetition that it speaks of, making the same sounds, again and again. Just say the line a few times and you can hear its richness. It’s a mouthful, literally. And it has an emphatic rhythm:

DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM

That’s almost a line of Homer — dactyls (DUM da da) followed by a spondee (DUM DUM). (Homer’s lines though have six feet each, this one only five.) The long o sounds also echo roll and over in “Roll Plymouth Rock.” So this line is rich in melopoeia in itself and in relation to another part of SMiLE.

As this line suggests, Van Dyke’s lyrics are often a matter of logopoeia and melopoeia: “The diamond necklace [a queen?] played the pawn,” “hand in hand some . . . handsome,” “canvass the town . . . brush the backdrop” (“Surf’s Up”). That sort of play with language is a large part of the pleasure of poetry. Such play may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s what I see (and love) in Van Dyke’s lyrics, along with witty cultural shorthand (for instance, the reference to Ramona in “Orange Crate Art”).

As for phanopoeia, the visual image of crows leaving a field might not seem like much, but Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is at least one precedent for poetry of the ordinary, everyday bird. Making a striking image out of everyday stuff is one thing that modern American poets (William Carlos Williams, for instance) tend to do very well. In the context of the first section of SMiLE, the image of crows leaving a field might suggest nature in flight from the European presence in (and devastation of) North America — the presence that has brought the “ribbon of concrete,” the bicycle rider, railroad tracks, truck-driving men, mechanized agriculture, and an empire of homes on the range.

None of what I’ve written is what the line “means,” in any simple way, but it’s often more useful with poetry to ask what a line does, or what it evokes, or what it gives a reader to find pleasure in. To say that the line means that crows are leaving a field is in fact to kill everything that’s interesting in the line. That’s the kind of approach that literary critics used to call “the heresy of paraphrase” — the reduction of the poem to a bare statement, as if the point of reading poetry were to cut away the beauty of language to get to some sort of message.

And none of what I’ve written is a matter of guesswork about what the line “really” means, or what its writer “really” meant, or what Van Dyke was thinking when he wrote the line. Those ways of thinking about poetry begin with a misleading model of what it means to write, a model in which what the poet says and what the poet means are two distinct matters, the first happening on the page and the second happening in the poet’s consciousness (and thus unavailable to us). A much more workable approach is to think of the poet’s meaning as something we construct, by bringing to bear as much attentiveness and as wide a range of relevant reference as possible.

In an essay written last year for the SMiLE tour booklet, Van Dyke professes still not to know what “Over and over . . . ” means. That’s indeed a respectable position for a poet to take. John Ashbery, whom many readers would consider the greatest living American poet, has said that he has no idea what it is he’s doing when he writes. The work of making and the work of noticing and explaining are two different things. I tend to distrust poets who are willing to explicate their work, and I cringe a little when someone asks “What did you mean by that?” It’s for the reader to make something of what he or she reads, and that’s what I’ve been doing here.

As I write these words, it’s autumn in the American midwest, the cornfields are down, and I’ve begun to notice crows everywhere. I noticed them in field after field while riding the train home from Chicago, where my wife and I heard SMiLE earlier this month. When I put in a daily walk and bring SMiLE on my Walkman, I hear crows loud and clear along with the music (and along with the animals of “Barnyard”). That’s another dimension of poetry — its capacity for changing your perceptions of the world.

Related reading
All Van Dyke Parks posts

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