I am standing in a crowd of thousands.
It feels like a spiritual ritual. Our breath is synced to the music. The palms of our hands strike together rhythmically. And we all stand tall, swaying collectively like great tall grasses blown by the same wind.
I came for this experience. To stand on the sloping hill of the natural amphitheater for hours, feeling the ache in my calves. To hold an overpriced beer in a plastic cup in one hand, and a melting ice cream cone in the other. To lose myself in a sea of sound. To sing words, both familiar and strange.
The band’s first ending occurs at 9 p.m. but I know it’s a feint. We all know it. All around me there is shuffling, the packing up of picnic blankets and ground level camp chairs, the preparations for a hasty exit. We still haven’t heard some of the best tracks from the band’s new album, and I know local bylaws shut down all live music at 10 p.m.
We have time.
Sure enough the band reappears, and to my immense pleasure, their final four songs of the evening are all deep cuts, one all the way from their initial 2004 EP, Cherry Tree.
For it’s final song, the bright lights fade to only the sparsest of stage lights, and the horn section starts low as the singer and musicians step away from their microphones. They all step to the very front, and the lead singer steps impossibly close, his feet partially over the edge of the stage as he arches his back, and bellows to the amphitheater:
“Vanderlyle, crybaby cry,
Oh the waters are rising, still not surprising you.
Vanderlyle crybaby cry.
Man it’s all been forgiven, the swans are a swimming.
I’ll explain everything to the geeks”
If you’re not a fan of The National, I’m pretty sure that last part gets lost in translation. But this is the song, the one each of us hopes is the last song of the evening. As I look around, everyone is singing those lyrics. And not just mouthing the words, but bringing them forth from the deepest places within them. I see a few eyes closed, I see a couple crying, overcome with the emotion of the moment. For a brief while, we all speak the same language.
Is it strange then that I have absolutely no idea what most of the words in that language mean?
For more than a decade, The National’s music has been in regular rotation. I know most of the words to their catalog, and I feel their authenticity when Matt Beringer sings them. But a comprehensive understanding of their lyrics almost always eludes me.
Of course this shouldn’t surprise me, since I find nearly all of my favourite poetry elusive.
For most of my life, I didn’t know how to read poetry. Despite appearing in books, most poetry is not served by sitting down and reading quickly from start to finish. Even a short poem can be deceptively daunting. If you handed me a paragraph of prose, I could likely understand it on first read. This is almost never the case with poetry. If you are uncomfortable with ambiguity, a poem can drive you mad.
A few years ago, I discovered a (now beloved) podcast devoted to making poetry more accessible. The podcast (Poetry Unbound, with Pádraig Ó Tuama) was both brief and brilliant. Each episode, the host reads a poem slowly, then reflects on it for a few minutes, and ends the episode by reading it a second time.
Interestingly, the host’s reflections on the poem are rarely explanatory. Instead they tend to be curious and personal musings about how a phrase was significant to the host, or what images the author might be inviting.
Somehow, this helped unlock poetry for me. Rather than miraculously understanding the entirety of the poems, I began to appreciate the parts I didn’t understand. I would take an episode with me while walking, washing dishes, driving to work, or any number of everyday solitary tasks. I could save my favourite poems, play a short episode multiple times, or just listen to the sections where the poem was read aloud.
Unintentionally, listening to poetry allowed me to turn the dial down on my analytical mind. I didn’t have to know what each line meant, or even what the whole poem was saying. I could appreciate the articulation of the words, the intentional structure of a given line, even particular words that resonated.
I was embracing partial understanding. I was valuing repetition and memorization. I was enjoying structure separate from the comprehensive understanding. I was starting to listen to poetry the way I had been listening to music for years.
It’s ridiculous I never appreciated the poetry that was always the most accessible, snuck in so many of my favourite songs. Despite my ignorance, all that sung poetry was doing something important over the years. It was teaching me a new way to hear old language.
We know and value if something is true when we hear it, even if we can’t articulate why or how it is true. And good poetry is always uncomfortably honest. But because we don’t fully understand what we are hearing, our brain is stuck with the paradox of considering something that is both valuable, and ultimately unknown.
Our mind, excellent at categorizing and judging, does not love this. Our mind likes to know the summarization of a story in advance. We like to know if a thing is good or bad, helpful or harmful, useful or useless. Good poetry just smirks, and says “good luck trying to figure out where I fit”. A line from your favourite poem or song could be any of those things. It could be a few of those things all at once.
It’s worth keeping a few unresolvable tensions in our mind, reminding that computing brain of ours that much of life is ultimately more valuable and unknowable than we might like to admit. Also, reminding us we can listen to old language in a new way and reminding us we don’t have to fully understand and categorize a thing to enjoy it and be swept up in it.
Maybe a line from our favourite poem or song can help us think this way. Or maybe, it simply brings a smile to our face as we sing along.
Either way, rock on.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.