Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Poetic Ambiguity and The Killers

The first time I heard the song "Human" by The Killers, I was astounded - not just by the group's new techno sound or Brandon Flowers' artfully slippery vocal attack, but at the the use of actual poetic language in a pop song. I was highly amused, a month later, when I found a story in Rolling Stone reporting that Flowers' lyrics were drawing a lot of flack - particularly the song's central question, "Are we human, or are we dancer?"

Although poetry has a long tradition of the intentional misuse of words (check out e.e. cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town") the simple reassignment of the word "dancer" from noun to adjective (gasp!) had apparently blown the minds of the pathetically linear rock fanbase.

What bugged them even more, I suspect, is that they didn't know what Flowers was trying to say. Much to his credit, at least in the Rolling Stone story, he refused to explain himself, other than saying the line was inspired by a quote from Hunter S. Thompson ("We are raising a generation of dancers"). By doing so, he was preserving what can often be a powerful weapon: poetic ambiguity.

I am a great fan of poets who do not explain themselves, and who apply surreal flights to their works. This is what drew me to Charles Simic, our recent Poet Laureate, whose breakthrough collection of prose poems, 1990's "The World Doesn't End," is virtually packed with the stuff. I use surreal imagery and language in my own work, and when someone asks me what a particular passage means, I respond, "What do you think it means? Because that's what it means." By incorporating ambiguity and mystery into my work, I am ceding responsibility for the ultimate determination of the work's full meaning to the individual reader, who must then become a more active participant - and a more active reader is a more involved reader.

Flowers is not the only songwriter out there who has pulled off this trick. I recently saw an interview with Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, on "60 Minutes." In talking about the band's first hit, "Yellow," he said, "What's it about? I have no idea what it means. I still think about that every day." He also inadvertently revealed a list of band rules posted in his studio, one of which was, "Always Keep Mystery - not many interviews."

"Look at the stars,
Look how they shine for you,
And everything you do,
Yeah they were all yellow."

Regardless, it's a beautiful song, the word "yellow" evokes a myriad of meanings within the lyrics, and people respond to it in ways that they often can't describe. I sing it sometimes at karaoke - and was thrilled, the other night, when I finally found a karaoke track of "Human." After giving it my best shot (no matter how well you know a song, singing it the first time is always a leap of faith), I brought this very subject to the attention of my cohorts, singers Mack and Cicily. Always looking to be cautious in poetic conversations with non-poets, I offered my most on-the-surface interpretation of Flowers' question: Are we human - what we are - or are we dancer - what we do? Mack came back at me with the interpretation I had always felt (much as I felt the the emotional images I had received from the Martin's use of the word "yellow") but never actually put into words: That the idea of a dancer evokes creativity, expressiveness and freedom. Thus, are we human - in the pedestrian, coldly scientific sense of that word - or are we dancer - spiritual, energized, expressive beings?

In that case, I said, I hope we're dancer. Perhaps yellow dancer. In a pretty how town.

Image: What Chris Martin meant by "yellow"? Photo by MJV.


Joseph Urban said...

I believe that many poets are incapable of understanding the depth of insight-capability within their subconscious. That doesn't diminish the output's value. For instance, if a slugger can hit the ball over the fence, does he have to understand and properly explain the mechanics of the bat and ball? We all cheer when it happens (for our team, of course). And, the ambiguity of word selection doesn't end with the use of oddly-positioned words. The assumed implications of the most basic words has plenty of room for personal interpretation. Consider "The fish is read to eat." Who's doing the eating?

Michael J. Vaughn said...

I can't tell you how many passages in my fiction I don't feel responsible for at all. They often come out of the blue, and I'm just somehow primed to receive them. I often have people tell me about marvelous motifs that appear in my stories, and though I'm tempted to say, "Well, of course, I did that on purpose!" I more often own up to the fact that stuff like that just happens on its own. BTW, "Double Blind" sales seem to be picking up - I swear people have been reading your amazon review, which is definitely the best. Thanks!

... Paige said...

Thats more or less what I say...it means just what it means to you. It matters not the "what" it was to the writer but the what and how for the reader.
We draw from our own life experience and the current mood we are in at the time of reading a poem. That it what it is supposed to be, what it means to you at that moment.

Stephen said...

I can't tell you how many passages in my fiction I don't feel responsible for at all.I feel the same way. There are times when I write something down and then say, "Where did that come from?" The subconscious is a mysteriously wonderful place.

Nice posting. The critics in this case seem to be suffering from a shallow mindset: they curse what they don't understand. So kuddos to Flowers. Some criticisms don't deserve a response.

Michael J. Vaughn said...

I also get that "Where did that come from?" response when reading things I wrote years ago.

I occasionally do an exercise with fellow poets where we write poems inspired by paintings, and I'm always so disappointed when 90 percent of the poems simply describe the painting! The painting is supposed to be a jumping-off point, not the whole poem!

But back on the music thing, I recall years ago how critics used to rail on Stevie Nicks for lyrics that were vague and mysterious. And I would read her lyrics and think, "This is the closest thing to poetry that a pop star's gonna write." Stevie's pretty weird, and that's precisely why I like her.