March 29, 2011

Songs and Sonnets

I almost never listen to the radio, except per accident sometimes. When I recently did so, a song was playing that began with these lyrics:
I talked to my baby on the telephone long distance,
I never would have guessed I could miss someone so bad.
I really only met her 'bout a week ago;
it doesn't seem to matter to my heart. I know
I love her. I'm hoping that I'll never recover
Well, and so on. (As I learned, it's an older song by Andrew Gold, but what I heard was a cover version. The lyrics were the same. I might also add that this particular song somehow moved me, partly because, as fortune plays, at the time I was practically in the exact situation that the song invoked.)

Picture by Alex Baranda
Now, the interesting thing about this is of course how unreality is constructed here. Sometimes songs do this by telling a story, but here we have only a story in the very widest sense of that word: there is no plot (i.e. no sequence of events, actions and motives, causes and effects), there are no characters (people who do something in the story), and there is no conflict, no personal development or anything of the sort. Instead, what the song does is to invoke a feeling; it brings out a certain attitude and emotion on the part of the 'I', the subject of the text. (Which is neither necessarily the author of the lyrics nor the singer; it's a fictional person who formulates the lyrics from his point of view.) In short, it's what in literature is called a lyrical form, as contrasted with a dramatic or narrative one.

And yet it creates unreality. Even if you simply want to express a feeling, that's what you have to do. You can't evoke a feeling by simply naming it, for instance. (Everyone knows how difficult it is to find the words to express feelings, and there's a reason for that: feelings are not the sort of thing that can be easily and precisely named, to bring out a certain feeling well, you have to do much more.) You can, however, describe a situation, a constellation, something that brings you into a context, into (to put it a little exaggeratedly) a world that makes it easy to feel exactly what is to be expressed here.

Take a look at how that world is built up gradually by the lyrics of that song. The first two lines show us a subject who is in a relationship (talks to his 'baby') and currently separated (so he has to talk to her long-distance over the phone). It's implied that the separation is not simply the normal everybody's-got-their-workday separation but something vaguely long-term and far-distance. Then there's the expression of longing (missing someone 'so bad') which is brought into a superlative (he's not only never experienced missing someone so strongly before, but he wasn't even aware that it would be possible as intensely as it in fact is). So far we have a world in which two loving people are separated and at least one of them feels a strong longing. Now lines 3–5 amplify the situation thus created by making the constellation more rare: now we learn that it's a relationship that's just started some weeks ago. (Not that I want to be cynical, in part this explains the strength of the feeling. Fresh feelings are always the most intense ones.) Even so, the feeling seems absolute (no recovery is desired). And so on...

Without creating a situation, something you could imagine as a world or constellation in which you might find yourself, it would be hard to even come to terms with the feeling that is invoked here, let alone bringing it about in the listener. As it is, the song creates, line by line, an awareness of the situation, and thus prepares the stage for the emotional content it wants to transfer. (The rest of the lyrics continues this situation-building interspersed with expressions of what it feels like. If it was only the latter, the song would feel intolerably sentimental.)

Needless to say that use of this technique is not a prerogative of Californian love songs. Compare this sonnet by Shakespeare (no 61), which evokes jealousy:
Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send'st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake:
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
    For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
    From me far off, with others all too near.
We have the same ingredients here: one person, much in love, from whose viewpoint all this is written (the 'I' in the text); the other person far removed, but strongly felt about. In the 20th century song, long-distance telephone lines were used to generate a sense of spatial separation, and the temporal dimension of the relationship was alluded to by referring to it's comparatively short duration so far ('met her 'bout a week ago'). In the 16th century poem, the scenery is more intimate: the subject can't find sleep, his eyes are kept open, he sees his beloved in some shadows similar in shape (similar to what exactly we aren't told). As befits a jealousy constellation, there is also a pointed mention of those 'others' who are all too near the beloved one — this is a thought that can generate limitless jealousy, and consequently it's put at the most prominent (and most effective) position in the text: at the end. Interspersed are many expressions of how it feels to be in that state, and even though the feeling is made out as quite overwhelming, it is also clearly reflected as self-inflicted ('It is my love that keeps mine eye awake'): jealousy, although it's painful, is also an expression of the depth and intensity of one's own love, and it's as such that it is presented here. We, however (just as the addressed lover, too) would not be able to feel it if it wasn't staged in a scene as it is. Emotional effectiveness is produced by use of unreality.

Although the poetic imagery (and the beauty of language) are much more intense in the classic sonnet, both texts have much in common in their use of unreality for meeting their targets. Keep your eyes open, you will find that technique everywhere...

No comments: