16 March 2009

This Is the One to Skip If You Find Literature Boring

One of my Facebook friends is mad for doing those various lists and questionnaires that make the rounds.  I tend to avoid them, but three have lured me in.  Two were only Facebook-worthy, but this third one vexed and challenged me so much, and allowed me so much latitude to talk about literature, that I decided to list it on here.  Plus, I've just come back from a lovely dinner with friends and am not at all sleepy, and this will waste some time.

The requirements are that you list twelve lines of poetry, prose, or song lyrics that have stayed with you; you are allowed to list more than one line if necessary for meaning, rhyme, or impact.  Being me, 

Oh, my God, there's a small but threateningly ovular bug on my desk diary!  It just landed there.  Oh, no, it looks like an oversized flea, and now it's scurrying about!  Okay, just a sec....

Rest easy, bug lovers (and you know who you are), I blew it out the window.  Now, where were we?  Right...

Being me, I wanted to write an explanation for why I like each line or lines, but I could see how, also being me, that would stretch into the most massive of all my massive posts.  So I've limited myself to providing one sentence of explanation per line, one semi-colon allowed per sentence. 

Here we go.

1.   I've never felt so colourfully see-through head before
I've never felt so wonderfully me-you-want-some-more...

It's the second line I like; I always think it should be punctuated and pronounced, "Me?  You want some more?"  For me it describes exactly the experience of a certain kind of love - the way you can't believe this person you fancy would want more of you; you can't believe the luck of that.

2.   True love travels on a gravel road.
(Nick Lowe/Elvis Presley, "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road")

Because it's RIGHT:  true love sticks around for the tough times, and that's what makes it true.

3.   It is best to accept what we cannot change.

I cannot tell you how many difficult situations this has got me through.

4. Oh, we have time, I think.

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long, and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.
(Septimus Hodge, in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia)

The first because I always use it to remind myself how long time is, event the time period of one life, and how much can occur within it, but also because it's infinitely useful and malleable, the import altered by the pronunciation (Worldly-wise:  "Ooooh...we have time, I think"; knowledgeably witty:  "Oh, we have time, Ithink"; etc.).  The second because I find it a beautiful image of the way knowledge is acquired, known, and lost, only to be found again.  On some days, I find it deeply comforting to think that knowledge is an independent entity, loosed from its discoverers and waiting patiently for more to show up and re-capture it.  Also to think that my ideas could just as easily have been thought by someone else, that claiming knowledge is thus very unimportant.

5. All who joy would win must share it;
Happiness was born a twin.
(Byron, Don Juan, Canto II.162)

This somehow manages to be both happy and sad at the same time (a common Byron manoeuvre, as we will see when I discuss my work).  I must confess I also like it because I can relate to it (the feeblest reason to like something): for me, happiness is realer if I have someone to share it with.

6. So let us melt, and make no noise
No tearfloods nor sigh-tempests prove;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

This is a wondrous poem, like honey in the mouth, and it's nearly impossible to single out any portion of it as more wonderful than the others.  This quatrain is the one I remember, though, probably because of the portrayal it gives of love as increased in value by its secrecy - or perhaps it's better to say, as decreased by being revealed to all and sundry.    

7. Lovely whore, though, 
Lovely, lovely whore,
And choosy -
Slept with Con
Slept with Niall
Slept with Brian
Slept with Rory.

Slide then,
The long slide.

Of course it shows.
(Early Irish poem, translated)

Okay, so this is a bit cheaty, because it's the whole poem.  It's the last three lines that have stuck with me, but the problem is that their tenacity is inexplicable if you don't know the rest of the poem.  These lines pop into my head frequently, usually followed by my wondering, What on earth do they mean?  Here's my interpretation, for what it's worth:  the speaker is a man in love with a woman he knows has had sex with several men; he's speaking to himself.  It's embarrassing to love such a woman (a whore)...but she is lovely.  The slide is his own unstoppable slide into loving her, and the final line I take to be expressing his own rueful recognition that this embarrassing love, which he hopes to keep hidden (thereby sparing himself humiliation), is obvious to everyone: "Of course it shows."

8. We're one, but we're not the same:
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
(U2, "One")

Again, it's the second line that sticks with me:  it's the word "get."  Very very cleverly done; we get to, we have the opportunity to and the privilege of doing so, but that doesn't mean we do. Almost everyone I know thinks this is a love song, but I find it a quite sad record of a love relationship filled with anger and resentment (incidentally, Bono repeats this gesture in "The Sweetest Thing," in which he says, "A blue-eyed boy meets a brown-eyed girl;/You can sew it up, but you still see the tear," and I think to myself, God, what happened in that relationship?  An extraordinary admission in the second line).

9. Ophelia:   I was the more deceived.
(William Shakespeare,  Hamlet, III.1.120)

Hamlet:  You think I mean country  matters.
(Hamlet, III.2.116) 

The first because it seems to me contain a world of sorrow in one tiny utterance.  The second because I love the fact that the English language's greatest playwright slipped a pun on "cunt" into his best play.

10. It's the though of him undressing you - or you undressing.
(Elvis Costello, "I Want You")

A pithy evocation of the pain of imagining infidelity:  it's terrible to imagine someone else taking off your lover's clothes, but how much worse to imagine them voluntarily disrobing for that someone.

11.  Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.
(John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn")

Listen to those sibilants, the open a of "unRAvished," the lisping fading of the "ness" at the end of the first line, and the perfect, sleepy rhythm and alliteration of the second:  these lines do all their work not through meaning but through subconscious aural and cognitive effect. Masterpiece.

12.  We borrowed the loan of Kerr's big ass...
(Patrick Kavanagh, "Kerr's Big Ass")

Because if you can't have one stupid, schoolboyish, play on words, what kind of list is it?  And it does always make me laugh.

Not bad:  I believe I didn't exceed my self-imposed strictures, and I've now wasted all the time I needed to before going to bed.

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