Made It Again! Made It Again!

John Prine
John Prine (1946 – 2020)

“Writing is a blank piece of paper and leaving out what isn’t supposed to be there.”

John Prine

After Arguing against the Contention That Art Must Come from Discontent

by William Stafford

Whispering to each handhold, “I’ll be back,”
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind—
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward. . . .

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark—
“Made it again!” Oh how I love this climb!
—the whispering to stones, the drag, the weight
as your muscles crack and ease on, working
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:
“Made it again! Made it again!

 


It has been heartwarming for me to see the remembrances posted on-line in the wake of John Prine’s passing, the admiration for his song writing and humanity pouring out from so many.  I have been a John Prine fan for over 40 years, buying my first John Prine album in 1978.  I have purchased I think almost every album and CD Prine ever released, even a couple of the mediocre ones mid career because there was always at least one great song. And there are more than one that I have bought several times because I wore the original copy out playing it so frequently.

“I edit as I go.  Especially when I go to commit it to paper.  I prefer a typewriter even to a computer.  I don’t like it.  There’s no noise on the computer. I like a typewriter because I am such a slow typist.  I edit as I am committing it to paper.  I like to see the words before me and I go, “Yeah, that’s it.” They appear before and they fit.  I don’t usually take large parts out.  If I get stuck early in a song, I take it as a sign that I might be writing the chorus and don’t know it.  Sometimes, you gotta step back a little bit and take a look at what you’re doing.”

John Prine

 

Part of living the journey alongside Prine over the last 42 years was watching how he responded to everything that life can throw at you, from career ups and downs, to true  love, to divorce and heartbreak, back to true love and happiness, to substance abuse, to depression to disease and disfigurement, to recovery and hope and success and fulfillment. One of the many defining moment in Prine’s life is when his good friend and early touring partner, Steve Goodman passed from leukemia at the age of 36, just as their careers were taking off.  Prine and Goodman each mastered their craft in Chicago’s small stages and bars in the late 1960’s. Goodman’s harmony on vocals and guitar playing on the original recording of Paradise on Prine’s debut album in 1971 is what makes that song stand out.

 

“The best  way to write a song is to think of something else and then the song kind of creeps in.  The beginning makes no sense whatsoever.  it just, like rhymes.  And then all of a sudden I’ll go into, I am an old woman named after my mother.”

John Prine commenting on how the iconic line in Angel From Montgomery came about

A sign of a great song writer is when the version’s of the song that they wrote that you remember best were recorded by someone else. It means other great song writers and singers were so moved by that song that they made it there own.  One of the reasons that I have loved Prine all these years, beyond his deft lyrics, simple yet complex guitar playing and always good humor, is that Prine and I share the same vocal range, which is about 6 good notes. There is not a single Prine song I can’t sing along. In poking around one morning this week I found on YouTube a link where someone had assembled every song John Prine wrote and recorded in a one stop shop of good humor. It’s staggering to see the list of how many great songs this man has written.

I often feel the same way about poets I enjoy.   Poet’s who speak in a language that just makes sense to me, like John Prine songs. One of those poet’s is William Stafford. Stafford writes with a range of emotions and connections to nature and humanity that are right on key with my heart. Stafford and Prine share some common sensibilities in their kind pacifism and their ability to reflect back upon ourselves a mirror of how good this lonely business of living can be. Prine and Stafford both mix humor and suffering in darn near equal proportions, served with a touch of ironic bitters, for the perfect cocktail of genuine American art.

If it’s been a long time since you took Prine seriously,  check out the final 4 CDs of his career after beating his first round of throat cancer.  His songs and ability to regain his voice after multiple health setbacks, along with the litany of amazing musicians who partnered with him to make those albums are well worth a listen.  


 

Lines To Stop Talking By

by William Stafford

In your city today outside my room
some quiet animal or only the rain
at its patient task was opening the wall
by touching it, and whatever was there
spread outward a bit at a time toward the horizon
cresting ahead and breaking, the way
all through your life whatever is near extends
when you think.  In your city today
I thought of Never, hiding inside
an iceberg floating south rinsed by the days
till that great blind ice blinks open in the center.
I heard an ambulance carry its banner away
in the rain in your city.  And I though of
my poems – how they are always there
waiting to try for that circumference
it takes all of us to find. . . .

And I Took Her Hand

erato-muse-of-poetry-1870-sir-edward-john-poynter
Erato Muse of Poetry

When I Met My Muse

by William Stafford

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.


Do you have a muse?  An unseen force that stirs your creativity, guides your voice, puts words on the page, or paint on a canvas with a clarity that goes beyond your conscious mind?   I have written about my muse before, it is a force that is real and can leave me awestruck at times.  Part of what makes it special is my muse visits infrequently.  Most of the time I am left to my own devices and writing is plain hard work.

What’s the most unusual thing your muse has ever told you?  What is the most unusual thing you have ever told your muse? Is your muse male, female, non-binary, non-human? How often does your muse visit?  What will you say next time it does?


Sonnet 38

by William Shakespeare

How can my muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thy self the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy self dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

I Remember They Said It Would Be Hard

greg brown and bo ramsey
Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey

After Arguing against the Contention That Art Must Come from Discontent

By William Stafford

Whispering to each handhold, “I’ll be back,”
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind —
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward…

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark–
“Made it again!” Oh how I love this climb!
— the whispering to the stones, the drag, the weight
as your muscles crack and ease on, working
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:
“Made it again! Made it again!”


I made my annual pilgrimage to the West Bank of the University of Minnesota last night to see Greg Brown.  I wrote more in depth about a year ago a post about my history with Brown as a musician.   He was a bit more melancholy than usual and little less funny last night, but he made up for it through Bo Ramsey’s mystical guitar accompaniment.  The two of them have been playing together and writing songs together for longer than Iowa has planted corn.   Ramsey’s unique ability to soften and highlight Brown’s song writing and voice is a nearly perfect pairing of two remarkable musicians.

Brown was focused more on looking back than looking forward in both his song selection and story telling between songs.  I think that’s a mistake as we get older.  I think poetry can be a reminder to live in the moment, regardless of when that moment is in the arc of our timeline.  Stafford reminding us we can make it, what whatever it is, climb that obstacle and bask in the accomplishment of being alive.  Mary Oliver’s poem is as relevant a question to the 88 year old having a birthday today as the 17 year old uncertain of where their future will lead; “Tell me what is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life?”  That’s right, tell me what you plan to do today on this sunshine filled Saturday May morning, a precious commodity not to be wasted?

That being said, Greg does have a sense of humor about where all this finally leads….


The Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

 

 

Ask Me Whether What I Have Done Is My Life

 

file (3)
Mississippi River Frozen Solid in January in St. Paul, Minnesota

Ask Me

by William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made.  Ask me whether
what I have done is my life.  Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait.  We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.


 

There are certain poems which stand out because of one line.  Not to say the entire poem doesn’t have meaning, but there are lines in poems that are like thunderbolts in my brain, electric in the resonance from the shared understanding with the poet. A line or even a few words, which are a whispered secret between us, a secret I am surprised to see on paper more elegantly than I could ever express.

Ask Me by William Stafford is one of those poems.  It is a poem I read and re-read more than any other single poem because of one line; “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”  I enjoy my life.  I am proud of what I have accomplished, but there is this voice that has arisen in middle age that nags:  “I am more than an amalgam of what I have done. I am more than the vector of days, months, and years of experience, more than my successes and failures.  My inner life is bigger than what I have accomplished and ever will accomplish.”

Ask Me is as close to a sonnet hiding in plain sight that Stafford published in his life time.  It is 14 lines, nearly 10 syllables per line.  I have no idea whether Stafford had any conscious associations to a sonnet structure when he wrote this poem, for its power lays not in its structure but in its open-ended questions and images it creates in my mind.  Stafford allows me to take solace or vitriol, depending on my mood, from the linkages of the frozen rivers of my life that are at once unmoving and flowing ever faster downstream.  Stafford was a pacifist, whose poetry resonates with an acceptance of the human condition and a gentle push to enjoy yourself, even if things are going to hell all around you, with a reminder that this life we live is pretty amazing.