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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Contributor Spotlight: Christopher Watkins

I Want You -or- On Influence & Inspiration: The Ache To Write -or- How A Musicianer Came To Love And Need The Word

I wanted to write songs like Bob Dylan wrote songs. I wanted to keep one foot in tradition, and one foot in the void. I wanted to be raw, visceral, elemental, yet I wanted also to be cerebral, hallucinatory, and transcendent. I wanted to sing with my voice, my wild untutored, untamed voice, yet I wanted to be tuneful, tasteful, and classic. He was my first songwriting hero. Some days I love his early acoustic work, his blues, the brutally compelling folk of "The Ballad Of Hollis Brown":

You looked for work and money/And you walked a rugged mile/You looked for work and money/And you walked a rugged mile/Your children are so hungry/That they don't know how to smile

And other days I love his surrealism, his obfuscation, the almost mind-numbingly decadent lyricism of "Subterranean Homesick Blues":

Get born, keep warm/Short pants, romance, learn to dance/Get dressed, get blessed/Try to be a success/Please her, please him, buy gifts/Don't steal, don't lift/Twenty years of schoolin'/And they put you on the day shift/Look out kid/They keep it all hid/Better jump down a manhole/Light yourself a candle/Don't wear sandals/Try to avoid the scandals/Don't wanna be a bum/You better chew gum/The pump don't work /Cause the vandals took the handles

and still other days I love his utter simplicity:

I want you, I want you,/I want you so bad,/Honey, I want you.

I grew up in an academic household (my father is a Professor of Literary Criticism), and I was fortunate enough to be exposed to great writing from a very early age, with works of poetry often included in my reading. My father was friends with a number of noteworthy poets, writers as diverse as John Silkin, Diane Wakoski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and W.S. Merwin, and I had regular access to their books. But despite these luminaries' presence in our lives, it was music that really captured me, and particularly songs that featured richly crafted lyrics. Many of my early songwriting influences (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen), were not only widely considered to be "poetic" lyricists (some had even published books of poetry), but they were substantially and self-admittedly influenced by poetry as well. Through music, I discovered and/or re-discovered, and certainly found new appreciation for, poets like Dylan Thomas (the inspiration for one Robert Zimmerman to change his name to Bob Dylan), Allen Ginsberg (who performs on a song I love by the great English band The Clash called "Ghetto Defendant"), and Arthur Rimbaud (often cited by Jim Morrison of the band The Doors as a major influence).

Regarding Dylan Thomas, I had no idea back then what a villanelle was, but the hypnotically circling and repeating mantras of his "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" were certainly able to work their poem-magic on my music-minded mind with easy ease:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

While trying to alphabetize our record shelf, I found an LP of Thomas reading this poem (it was slotted just after Them's first album, and right before my Thompson Twins record!), and hearing that sonorous, booming baritone rippling from our antiquated speakers (not to mention the photo on the cover, which was of the rather younger Dylan Thomas; not the portly drunkard of latter years, but the raggedy-haired youth with the long lashes and depthless eyes who made wearing sweaters and smoking cigarettes seems both guttural and beautiful) was an experience more than enough compelling to convince me that Dylan the songwriter had been spot-on in being captivated by Dylan the poet.

On The Road was not my bible. That honor went to The Dharma Bums. Foolish as it may sound, the book changed my life. I began to camp, to hike, to study Buddhism, to drink wine instead of whiskey. Reading The Dharma Bums also led me to Gary Snyder (who is thinly disguised in Kerouac's novel as the character Japhy Ryder), which would prove to be an even more momentous discovery. The first book of Gary Snyder's that I read was Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, and between its pages I discovered one of the great poetic heroes of my life, Han-Shan. His "Cold Mountain Poems," a selection of which are translated in Snyder's book, are some of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have ever encountered in my life. It sounds so oddly flat to say that, but I have no better words to clarify just how strongly those poems moved me upon my discovery of their richness and power. Here is Gary Snyder's translation of one of Han-Shan's most stunning pieces:

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:

The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,

The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.

The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain

The pine sings, but there's no wind.

Who can leap the world's ties

And sit with me among the white clouds?

Reading this poem, my breath was quite simply knocked right out of me. Its stripped-down simplicity, its rawness, its no-fat-on-the-bone aesthetic, its sense of space, the revelation in its volta, these were the hallmarks of an art so elusive I could only hope that someday I might tap just a small thread of its genius with some creation of my own.

I wanted to write poems like Han-Shan wrote poems. In a cave high in the Himalayas, away from the constraints of the modern world, he wrote poems on his walls that still, hundreds of years later, deliver to his readers a sense of the great spaces in the world that remain untainted by our daily trivialities, our shallow vanities, our greeds and fundamental smallnesses. To read Han-Shan is to engage in an awareness ritual. He reminds us to go outside and breathe the air, observe the moon, lick some dew off of a blade of grass, and be thankful that nature remains both benevolent and aloof.

In my first thirty years of life
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.

Walked by rivers through deep green grass

Entered cities of boiling red dust.

Tried drugs, but couldn't make Immortal;

Read books and wrote poems on history.

Today I'm back at Cold Mountain:

I'll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.

(Han-Shan, translation Gary Snyder, from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems)

I want to put everything I love into art, into music, into poetry. Into the word. I want to love creation, and I want it to love me. I want to honor every hero I've ever had, and I want to be every hero. I want to be Han-Shan and Son House both. I want to resurrect The Beats, resurrect the Harlem Renaissance. I want to go back eleven centuries to the Chinese Mountains, eighty years to the Mississippi Delta, fifty years to North Beach. Perhaps most of all, I want to transcend my own ever-growing misanthropy, to rediscover again the faith, belief, and love that led me to the arts in the first place, led me to those heroes, to their works, to their examples. Vainly perhaps, I want to be at the center of something I believe in. Year after year, I have felt more and more a man out of time, relic in a world with no use for what I once worked so hard to learn. I want a new creation that can recreate the world I used to love.

I want you. I want you so bad.

Christopher Watkins is a poet and songwriter. His debut collection of poems Short Houses With Wide Porches is available from Shady Lane Press. He is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at The University of Southern Maine. As a songwriter, he has released five albums under the name Preacher Boy. His most recent album is "Demanding To Be Next" (Coast Road Records). His poems are appearing or have appeared in The GW Review, Slipstream, Euphony, Talking River, and Red Rock Review, among others. He has received a Gold Record for his songwriting work with Grammy award-winning artist Eagle-Eye Cherry. Christopher's poem, "The University of Iowa Sunset Village Quonset Hut Haiku Blues," appears in issue #42.


John Tynan said...

I have to say, I'm totally enjoying what you're doing with the HFR blog!

I especially like this post from Christopher Watkins.

It reminded me of the poets that influenced me early on and of particular poems that I still think back on and enjoy.

I especially like the line, "Vainly perhaps, I want to be at the center of something I believe in." I'm right with you, man. What truth!

Christopher Watkins said...

John, I thank you. Thank you for your kind words.


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