May 05, 2010
Guest Blogger Keetje Kuipers on The Perfect Country and Western Song
Our dedicated guest blogger, BOA poet Keetje Kuipers, returns with a new installment dedicated to her passion for poetry, country music, and where the two meet:
Last week I went home to Montana. On the way there I stopped in Eugene, Oregon and gave a talk and a reading at the University of Oregon. I also read in Portland and managed to squeeze in a trip to Orcas Island in the San Juans for a reading there. I was treading familiar ground the whole way: I was born in Washington state and earned my MFA in Oregon, and Montana is the home-state I never had until I moved there after graduate school. As I sped down the highway, I passed all the landscapes that I’m obsessed with, all the places that make me want to write poems: the dense, ferny forests of Oregon, the golden, rolling hills of eastern Washington, and the mountains—cast in the snow’s shimmering gray tones—of Montana. And all those hours I drove from California to Oregon to Washington to Montana, I listened to the one thing that was on the radio everywhere I went: country.
I love country music. I love the toe-tapping, guitar-string-plucking bravado of it. I love the way it gives itself over fully to the sorrow or the joy of the moment. I love its trash-talk and its sweet tongue. I love it old and new, acoustic or amplified. I love it almost as much as I love poetry, and I’ve always harbored the secret theory that my love of country music and my love of poetry come from the same place, that poetry and country play on the same parts of my heart, that they work the same sort of magic on their listener or reader. But I’ve never understood exactly what they have in common until this last week when I decided that for my guest lecture at the University of Oregon I would talk about these two loves of mine.
In this blog post, I’d like to share part of that discussion with you, and use my recent trip through the Pacific and Inland Northwest as a kind of example of what I’m talking about. I understand that many of you may still not be country fans by the end of this blog post, but I hope you’ll have a better idea of why it pulls on me with the same kind of fierce familiarity that poetry does. My explanation starts a few months ago when a friend and fellow country music fan introduced me to a David Allan Coe song called “You Never Even Call Me By My Name.”* The first few verses are in the voice of a lover who hangs around despite the fact that his beloved neglects and mistreats him, as well as never even calling him by his name. When the song breaks for a moment, Coe keeps strumming his guitar as he says the following:
“Well, a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song and he told me it was the perfect country and western song. I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was not the perfect country and western song because he hadn’t said anything at all about Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk. Well, he sat down and wrote another verse to the song and he sent it to me, and after reading it, I realized that my friend had written the perfect country and western song.”
Coe then sings the last verse:
“Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a damned old train”
When I heard this song I finally understood why poetry and country hit me with the same kind of force: they’re obsessive art forms. All the best country artists are obsessed with certain images, themes, and elements in their songs. This makes each artist’s work familiar: When we listen to Johnny Cash, we understand the realm we’re entering. Each artist defines their arena of conversation with homemade emblems they’ve hand-picked from their lives; each singer says, “This is what it means for me to be country.” Cash is a classic example, a musician who returns again and again to confront the same images of drinking and jail time and trains. New country musicians like Gretchen Wilson win over their fans in the same way, by providing a familiar backdrop for their music. In Wilson’s case she returns to the images common in the life of a “redneck woman” (which, coincidentally, is also the title of her break-out single): trucks, honky-tonk dances, and cheap beer. When I listen to a Gretchen Wilson song, I may not recognize my own life, but I recognize the one I know from her songs.
Poetry works the same way. The best poets have an imagistic and thematic realm that they dwell in. They’re not confined by it—it’s a space that grows and expands and embellishes on itself with each poem—but good poets return to the haunted places in their mind, they say, “This is what it means for me to be human, alive, a poet.” And truly great poets not only return to their haunted landscapes, but (just like good country singers) they also utilize those haunted places and things to make the same arguments in their poems, to question the same conditions of our existence, to celebrate or repudiate the same elements of our lives. The imagistic arguments that Johnny Cash makes about loneliness with his songs of trains and hard drinking aren’t very far from the imagistic arguments that Jack Gilbert makes about the necessity of fleeting love with his poems of Italian villas and Greek islands. This is obsessive image as rhetoric, and it gets under our skin and stays there.
I’m not the first person to praise the obsessive use of images in poetry. Richard Hugo (who I imagine was also probably a great lover of country music) famously extolled the virtues of returning (and returning) to the same imagistic ground in poems. In his oft-quoted essay “The Triggering Town” he explains that “[y]our words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary.” I would push this one step further: our obsessions lead us to our vocabulary, and that vocabulary leads us to the troubled arguments we’re interested in making in our poems. The touchstone images that we return to in our poetry allow space for our logic to take place. These haunted images endow our voices with authority and make our personal signifiers into universal objects of significance for our readers.
It doesn’t take long for a reader to understand that for Jack Gilbert, Pittsburgh (with its floundering factories of steel which reappear in his poems) is bittersweet, childhood joy refracted through the darkened lens of adulthood. Likewise, any reader of my poetry will eventually realize that when I say “river” I mean “lonely road sweeping me along to nowhere.” If poetry is a truck, then the use of obsessive imagery is the cab of that truck, a place where—when a poet shifts, rearranges, combines, or distorts an image—new arguments are formed in the light of the dashboard. These days, when I want to write about isolation and loneliness (two familiar conversations that take place in my poetry), I find the same touchstone images entering my poems: deer, bats, rivers, and rifles. Hugo’s poetry retreads the same imagistic ground many times in an attempt to trouble out his own arguments about disaffection and hard-earned contentment. As Frances McCue notes in her fantastic new book of photographs, essays, and poems that revisit the struggling Northwest towns that Hugo loved, The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, Hugo’s inquiry was “how we settle into and take on qualities of the tracts of earth that we occupy.” In other words, how we obsessively come to align the rhetoric of our lives with the images that make the most consistent impact on the world around us.
These last two weeks on the road, watching clear-cut hillsides stream past my car window or driving alongside the blown-out spring rivers flushed almost pink with muddy run-off, I realized that I’ve been making my own emblems for a long time. If I flip through my book, I see how in my poems I’ve utilized the images that have obsessed me for the last few years in order to create an imagistic space that my reader can enter with a sense of familiarity. This space is where my readers and I have conversations, most often about the ways that loss takes its toll, and how we return from that loss.
As I traveled last week to all the places I call home, I revisited those obsessive images and themes that the poems in my book work through again and again. My trip read like a list of my obsessive images, and the things I saw out my car window worked like a sort of set list for the readings that I gave in each place I stopped along the way. My next blog post will take you on this most recent journey of mine through the Northwest and will include that “set list” of poems recalled by the familiar images I re-encountered along the way. So stay tuned for poems, pictures, and stories from the road.
* Though I’m a fan of this particular David Allan Coe song, I’m not a fan of his politics—which make a rather unwelcome appearance in much of his other music.