I’ve always been caught by words. Lines of poetry, in particular, have shown up on the doorstep of my memory, been invited in for fellowship, and never left. Take Shakespeare’s “Dirge,” for example,
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Humorous and solemn at the same time. Or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”:
Life is real;
Life is earnest,
And the grave is not its goal.
‘Dust thou art, to dust returnest’
Was not spoken of the soul.
These words have stayed with me, I think, not just because they caught my attention, but because they called me to dwell on what it means to be human. Shakespeare’s lines caught me and called me to meditate on mortality. Longfellow’s caught me and called me to hope in immortality. And of course one can find equally striking passages in contemporary poetryconsider these lines by Donald Hall:
Exiled by death from people we have known,
We are reduced again by years, and try
To call them back and clothe the barren bone,
Not to admit that people ever die.
Popular music employs the same tactics as poetry, as I am reminded during every morning commute. Anthony Kiedis and Alexander Pope may be centuries apart, but they both use the sounds of language to imbue words with mnemonic power. Song lyrics find a home in my memory just as easily as lyrical couplets.
There is, however, one significant difference that strikes me each time I turn the dial on the radio. You see, I love the words of Shakespeare or Longfellow or Hall because they ultimately call me to contemplation. In thinking about their words, I’m developing and growing, considering something that matters not just to me but to all people. Reading such authors, I’m called to something greater than myself.
My commute to and from work is a different story. The problem with the contemporary music I hear on the radio isn’t a musical one. They aren’t too loud or too dissonant. Instead, what most often plagues these songs is lyrical incoherence. Take the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for an example of obscurantist subjectivity:
California rest in peace,
California show your teeth.
She’s my priestess; I’m your priest.
Who on God’s good earth has a clue as to what that means (songwriter included)? What’s frustrating is that only a few minutes later I hear these words from the same artist:
The more I see, the less I know,
The more I like to let it go.
“Now,” I thought, “there’s an insightful reflection on the effects of contemporary media.” Or at least that was the meaning that I got from it, though in hindsight I was really just projecting my own concern onto the song. That couplet certainly caught my attention, but it was quickly swept away in a hodgepodge of fragmented thoughts.
Sometimes straightforward song lyrics aim for poetic effect and memorable words, but, of course, that can often go awry. Take, for example, the currently popular song “Let Her Go” by Passenger. This shows another decent use of poetic expression, but with a major blunder:
You only need the light when it’s burning low;
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow;
Only know you love her when you let her go.
Ah yes, the painful paradox of hindsight. But the first thing I thought when I heard this song was, “Who misses the sun when it’s snowing?” Snow has a magic all its own, and I, for one, am far too captivated by it to mourn the sunlight. Do you know when I miss the sun? When it’s raining!
These experiences remind me just how important it is for words not just to be spoken in an eloquent manner, but to offer significant matter as well. That is the gift of a Shakespeare or a Longfellow. They used the manner of expression to catch my attention but then made sure that weighty matter was bound up with it, calling me to contemplate. My testament to them is mundane enough, but it’s the testament any writer would long for: I remember their words.
When I hear vapid or obscure song lyrics, on the other hand, I feel more and more fragmented. I’m not encouraged to meditate; I’m encouraged to migrate from one thought to another without stopping to learn something more about who we are and what we long for. So whether I remember these words or not, they help me very little.
I haven’t given up on the radio. Instead, I search for lyrics making their way upstream against the current of incoherence. It took some time, but I did find a few lines of artists who are trying, much like the poets of generations past, to grapple with human experience. If I can be so bold as to introduce two couplets from Mumford and Sons:
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die.
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.
Markedly reminiscent of Matthew 6:21, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And the second,
Hold on to what you believe in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight.
I hear a faint echo of Paul’s message to the Corinthians: hold fast to what you have been taught (1 Cor 15:2).
Whether Mumford and Sons sees these scriptural allusions in their lyrics is another question, as is whether these two examples are the finest instances of poetic expression. The point is that they caught my attention and gave me something to think aboutthey gave me manner and matter, and for that I give them credit and remembrance.
I look forward to being caught by this generation’s poets and songwriters. I plan on leaving the world with a mind full of poetic expressions that have found a home in my memory. But for those who continue to serve up empty words, I’m not going to start a war against incoherence, as noble a cause as that is. I’m going to do something far more effective: I’m not going to remember them.
Gifted writers taught me how to fish for substantive wordswords both eloquent and coherent. They taught me what is worth holding onto and what is better let go. Because of them, I find that I’m not as irritable on my morning commute as I once was. I turn on the radio, drop my line in the stream, and wait patiently for something worth remembering, knowing that there will be countless tugs on the line before I reel in something that calls me to think more deeply about who I am.
If I’ve learned anything from William Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or Donald Hall, it’s this: Life is far too short and the mind is far too small to carry around the dead weight of incoherence. For me, the most profound writers are those who serve my memory with real content. As for the rest, I don’t have much regard for them . . . because I’ve forgotten whatever it was they were trying to tell me.
Pierce T. Hibbs is the assistant director at the Center for Theological Writing at Westminister Theological Seminary.
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