06 November 2012
Rich Owens's third incredible book of the year, Ballads, is just out from David Hadbawnik's Habericht Press in Buffalo. It's a pretty incredible experience to see Owens perform these "songs": I remember a pretty spectacular evening in Buffalo in which Owens turned Rust Belt Books into a roiling, drunken sailor shanty with a single poem. While he sang and stomped through a ballad, I remember thinking how rare it is to see a contemporary poet mine this ground. As is true with all of Owens's critical writing, his "Working Notes on Ballad Practice" at the end of the book stands next to the work itself. Rather than poorly summarize what Owens perfectly nails, I've asked Rich to share the text in whole as a kind of preview of what to expect from the volume. I think this perfectly captures his characteristic acumen, wit, and bite:
WORKING NOTES ON BALLAD PRACTICE
I. THE MAST
The species of an eye with the neck of an owl—a circumspect specimen that carefully considers the conditions of an outcome. Respectus. The act of looking round or back, to regard or attend to with eyes. The act of looking backwards with an eye that aspires to behold the whole so that when J.H. Prynne speaks of respect it is in the interest of fresh light—of reviewing what the eyes have already seen, a music previously muted by shadows:
"Since I crossed the sea just like a ballad, with the one guarded hope, to give you this as a totally specific gesture: a respect which runs out into time like light."
So he says to Olson, redirecting his gaze, running out. There is no deference here. Only the care of eyes for the potentialities of a buried music. Like Odysseus lashed to the mast—or more appropriately, Marina’s father moving across an oceanic expanse:
"His kingly hands, haling ropes;
And, clasping to the mast, endured a sea
That almost burst the deck."
Shakespeare’s Pericles—where the ropes that secure sails to masts and ensure good voyage vibrate like the chords of a throat. And the pressures brought to bear on the deck are no different than the altitudes and depths that push the drum of an ear near to the point of rupture. The mast that thrusts up from the deck is where we assemble.
II. THE FIRE
Like sound and sense ballads circulate. And it is the circulation of air that creates the conditions for fire. Too often paper beats rock—but only so long as it stays in circulation, reified, away from the movement of the burning flames that call our attention to time. And if there is any one collection of ballads that most worked to retard the perishing instant of fire it is Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Published in three volumes, the collection is built around a seventeenth century manuscript and intended, Percy says, “to inquire by what gradations barbarity was civilized, grossness refined, and ignorance instructed.” Although Percy’s Reliques enjoyed a wide and enthusiastic readership that included Wordsworth and Coleridge, the “ancient” folio manuscript upon which it was built remained in the possession of the Percy family and unavailable to readers for a century until, at Francis James Child’s behest, F.J. Furnivall and John W. Hales retrieved it from Percy’s descendants and prepared it for formal publication in 1868. Brought out in four volumes as Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, an opening essay contained in the second volume offers an account of the circumstances surrounding Percy’s acquisition of the manuscript. Here Furnivall and Hales quote from a note inscribed by Percy in the manuscript itself:
"This very curious old MS. In its present mutilated state, but unbound and sadly torn, I rescued from destruction, and begged at the hands of my worthy friend Humphrey Pitt, Esq. then living at Shiffnal in Shropshire, afterwards of Prior Lee near that town; who died very late at Bath; viz. in Summer 1769. I saw it lying dirty on the floor under a bureau in ye Parlour: being used by maids to light the fire."
Ignorance is instructed when unlettered, untutored servants are taught the error of their ways. Or a culture’s past becomes the infancy of its present when songs are rescued from children accused of mishandling the objects of their labor. But there are fires to build. And few know better than a servant the value of warmth and light generated by flame in a moment of bitter darkness.
III. THE MUSIC
Children love songs and in fact make them—but music properly belongs to adults. Adults are the guardians of children and their custody naturally extends to anything a child might make. In other words, employees that produce anything on company time know in advance these objects properly belong to the company. But 401(K) investment plans offer employees the illusion of ownership, suggesting workers are no longer employees but associates that now have a personal stake in the success of the companies they labor for. Apropos: the following passages from a recent exchange with Andrew Rippeon concerning lyric practice:
AR: Lyrical as an adjective, applied to the currency of popular song forms? As if popular song forms aren’t innately also lyrical? Lyrical as nothing without a direct object to modify? And I remember here Wordsworth in either his Advertisement, Preface, or Afterward to the Ballads, writing that he chooses rude or common life because invention and idiom (cult of “the new...”) are often mistaken for truly elevated experience—he calls the affectation of idiom the “hubbub of words.” So it seems like WW is trying to reduce the experiment (and I do think WW is experimental precisely in the degree to which he mobilizes folk forms, attempts various forms of empathy, and considers his use and circulation of the currency of metrical patterns...) to the lowest common denominator, to cut out Shelleyean whim and explore what remains as the possibility of lyricism.
RO: Thinking about Wordsworth and the mobilization of folk forms—that the ballad as form needs a qualifier in order to somehow recuperate or revitalize it, like the coronation of a peasant—man, my jerking knee coughs up Ives (selling insurance against the wrong disaster). In Wordsworth the modifier serves to elevate, right? I mean, everyone has an idea they know what a ballad is. It’s this degraded thing shot through with a sense of pastness, cultural infancy and a charming but sometimes dangerous rusticity that needs to be carefully framed and reigned. In the case of Wordsworth, his appeal to ballad practice—and lyric—is, like you say, considerably more complicated. In most cases ballads are nothing more than vehicles hijacked or manufactured to map a desired past onto the poverty next door—a sort of slumming that brings the black sheep of the family to the funeral that never ends. I mean, ballads are those angelic whores from the other side of town that rich men sometimes marry—but only in fairy tales (the appeal to gender is essential).
Women and children. In the cultural imaginary women are children. Like any good woman, children are pure. They are said to be what we were before the collapse, unsullied by knowing better or knowing at all. Forms are assigned to these children and sirens are the women Odysseus must delight in without being seduced by their song. He knows better.
Nor can we know how many ballads trickled down to common people from court poets through a specifically cultural form of supply-side economics. Wyatt was a poet of Henry’s court when he wrote: “Ye must now serve to market and to faire, | All for the burden for pannyers a paire.”
Or a culture’s modest past becomes the infancy of its wealthy present when children are accused of making the objects rescued through the labor of adults. Adults often play the role of rescue workers that pull bodies from under the rubble of collapse, not so much to save them but rather to preserve and memorialize. Ann Yearsley, the milkmaid of Bristol, is said to have been rescued by Hannah More. But children often know well what is worth rescuing, even when they themselves are the object of rescue. More importantly, they know what is properly theirs. If it is not theirs they actively make it their own, mutilating and defacing the objects in their possession until they can one day be restored and preserved again by adults.
Guthrie and Leadbelly often performed for children and some critics have even called attention to their child-like qualities. Here one can reasonably assume that for an adult like Robert Southey both Guthrie and Leadbelly would have been—as Stephen Duck or John Taylor were—ideal specimens of untutored genius. They certainly were for Alan Lomax. On the other hand, Bascom Lamar Lunsford—esquire, to be sure—was known to travel dozens of miles on foot through the southern Appalachians of North Carolina to collect the ballads of the people he so loved. Something like a father picking up after his children. And children are never to be trusted with large sums of money—or anything more than what they immediately need to satisfy baser but permissible appetites. Adults handle capital. But servants often know well when to start fires and what to fuel them with.
IV. THE WAR
Chanson polemique. In the ancient sense polemic—the polemical—is war and the internal contradictions at play within the frame of any ballad make of each a protracted conflict often violently disarticulated from the processes that keep them alive. Like any order of song, ballads are sites of struggle; their production and reproduction are interventions, willful or otherwise, in that struggle.
Music properly belongs to Apollo not Dionysus. Ian Hamilton Finlay knew this well when he had inscribed across the façade of his cottage home: HIS MUSIC | HIS MISSLES | HIS MUSES. Chilean soldiers knew this well when they broke the hands of Victor Jara, threw down a guitar and asked him to play.
V. THE PATHOS
Per the Greek suffering and experience are one and the same: pathos. But on the terrain of classical rhetoric pathos is neither suffering nor experience as such and is instead a species of persuasion that reproduces experience in order to carry one capable of decision or intervention into a certain condition. It is never more than one component of a much larger whole, a part among parts integrated in an overdetermined complex of ongoing processes. But it is precisely this part that moves one to give the shirt off their back against the better jury of our reason. And this can only be the work of pathological liars or what lies through the grace of a lyre—a set of strings signaling the coordinates of a distant situation. It is not the whole of a situation but a distress signal that simultaneously sounds and responds to a situation. And depending on their situatedness such signals either challenge or act in accord with other parts embedded in the whole; or like pharmakoi these signals move as slaves among criminals, heroes among rescue workers, whores among men; they are both the cause and the cure, the ochlos—at one and the same time the people and the rabble; they are the ground any successful democracy wholly depends on, wholly produces, publicly celebrates and secretly despises. These signals are the mast we assemble around.