These are a Few of My Favorite Things – Aaron Rosenfeld

These are a Few of My Favorite Things – Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

Here’s a game: It’s called “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things.” Pick some works of art you really like, in different mediums – poems, novels, songs, paintings – and see if you can find a common thread, of style or theme, that suggests a logic to your choices. What do your choices reveal about your attitudes and expectations of art? About you?

I’ll try. I’m thinking of three objects: one poem, one work of art, and one popular song. Here are the objects:

One poem: Philip Larkin, “Talking in Bed” (1964)

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind

One song: John Prine, Angel from Montgomery (1971)

I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning and thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

When I was a young girl well, I had me a cowboy
He weren’t much to look at, just free rambling man
But that was a long time and no matter how I try
The years just flow by like a broken down dam.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go
One painting: Edward Hopper, Room in New York (1932)

M. Hall Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
M. Hall Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Here’s what I love about each of them.

I love how the Larkin poem turns love into syntax. Many people see a failed relationship here. Maybe, maybe not. But the poem suggests that the outside world cares even less for the couple than they do for each other. Eddie Arnold sings “Make the world go away;” the world has already gone away, and here they are. But it is “still more difficult” to find words because they at least are trying. Then the poem ends with a fussy syntactic distinction. If they can’t find words both true and kind, they would settle for words not untrue and not unkind. The distinction seems small, but it is the difference between a romantic, sentimental poem and a naturalistic one. The poem measures truth and kindness in syntactic, rather than cosmic units, and holds out the hope – dim though it may be — that syntax might rescue us from loneliness.

In Prine’s song, I first love the way Prine puts himself fully in the character of the woman speaker, and the song completely ignores the incongruity of the gravelly male voice singing “I am an old woman…” (listen to Bonnie Raitt’s version if you want to hear it in a gravelly female voice). I also love the specificity – the angel is from Montgomery. But what I really love is his/her plaintive confrontation with idealized romance that has grown up and old – “when I was a young girl, I had me a cowboy” but now “there’s flies in the kitchen.” As for Larkin, romance in the world is subject to constraints – not the shaping force of syntax, but of time’s chisel. The simple accompaniment, the bone-dry phrasing, the brief upward lilts in the chorus “make me an angel, that flies from Montgomery” that immediately plunge back down to earth. The song is so poignant because we hear in the character’s voice the last gasp of dreams that are about to wink out. Similarly to how Larkin remembers that “talking in bed ought to be easiest,” Prine’s speaker’s dreams are still alive, if barely; just enough to make the present intolerable by comparison.

In the Hopper painting, love is again all but flown. Stylistically it reminds me a little of “Mad Men” (though the chain of influence would have to be the other way around).

madmen

In Hopper’s painting, the couple sits in the room, separated by thick swaths of color. They look in the same direction, but at different objects – he at his newspaper, she at her fingers on the keys of the piano. They are each absorbed in their own way – he in reading, she in thought – sharing the frame, yet separated by a vast gulf. Love is again made subject to constraints, this time of space. Hopper captures the postures of emotional distance, similar to how Larkin captures its syntax, and Prine captures the sound of its voice.

So clearly I like my art depressing. But I think it’s more than that. All three are what I would call “thick” – simultaneously minimalist and expansive. In the Hopper painting, the thickness is literal, in the lines, shapes, and colors; in Prine, it is in how he lingers on a powerful feeling and extends it out across multiple dimensions – past, present future, its internal and external settings; in Larkin, the thickness is in the brevity of the moment that he captures and elaborates – his subject is merely a hiccup, a moment of hesitation between words.

All of these works bring intense, concentrated focus to something very small, very particular. I think this is the same reason I prefer Vermeer to Breughel, Dickinson to Whitman, Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” to REM’s “The End of the World as We Know It.” Even if the latter works can be summed up by a title, their themes are broad and they work by association; they over-flow with a cacophony of images that surround the central idea. You don’t so much contemplate them as bathe in them.

Larkin, Prine, and Hopper don’t circle outward, they burrow inward, concentrating on a small piece of the world within, giving it shape and dimension; quite literally, concentrating it. Complex emotions are made momentarily complete and visible, and therefore momentarily manageable. I think as someone whose mind works more like Whitman’s (ok, don’t I wish!), always skittering outward to new sets of associations, I yearn for the stillness, the quiet, the complete and full moment even if it is full of pain.

Ultimately, I think I love how these works thematically bring the yearning for the sublime down to earth. Robert Frost says in “Birches,” “earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” I like this notion. All three of these works stuff the ideal into the box of the real. Sure it’s sad and the box might be a coffin, but in a weird way, the juxtaposition affirms the ideal by showing its death: the ideal might be something we cannot have, but it is something we cannot well live without. When the dream is gone, all that’s left is to be “Comfortably Numb.”

 

 

 

 

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