// archives

Archive for October, 2014

Can the Same Thing Again Come as a Surprise?

I am in general in favor of repeating myself, and it seems to me that as a blogger I have a special license to do so. So although I have said it before, this will not prevent me from remarking again here that echo says the impossible. But let me also go a little further and say that the marvelous phenomenon of refrain depends on that same impossible saying. Take the lyrics of this Mountain Goats song:


And I sang “Oh, what do I do? What do I do? What do I do? What do I do without you?”

Needless to say, this refrain is already calculated to make a repetition-lover like me smile. But is it also needless to say that this is not yet a refrain? It is “only” repetition. Only the empty rhetorical words of a broken man for whom nothing is possible, wandering in speech through his own indifferent thoughts just as he “wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall.” And please don’t let the force of that image go to waste! For a little boy with his mother the mall may be a place of wonder (even there, perhaps, the gods are present!), with something new to astonish him at every turn—but with his mother’s disappearance, there disappear also all the various and surprising invitations of the place and all that is left is the space between him and his mother, which threatens to be infinite—nothing appears to this child but that his mother is not there, nor there, nor there again, as with each step she does not appear.

“What do I do?” An expression of the impossibility of doing anything. If a man reaches out to speak, or rather to sing, in the midst of the impossibility of doing anything at all, this expression threatens to become all he has and to repeat itself infinitely in all his song. Song itself, the wondrously various and surprising highway of the soul, becomes an exercise in futility.

But if this man sings these words so often that they lose their meaning, he might recognize that they had all along the peculiarity of not meaning what they mean: “What do I do?” A question. How am I to proceed? But the words meant precisely that this question could not be asked, because no answer could be expected, and there is no such thing as a question which expects no answer. A question, to be a question, has to “[get] ready for the future to arrive.” If it does not have this readiness it asks for nothing and is only bitter rhetoric. And in our song this readiness which the singer has is why his repetition of the refrain is emphatically not only a repetition, but a discovery. Suddenly the very words of hopelessness have joined the world in coming alive.

And let me say also this: in order for all of this to be true, the refrain must have already had this life in the first place in order to come alive. If in its first entrance the same saying which concludes the song on an expectant note does not bear itself toward the future with expectancy, it must for that very reason be said that it does bear itself in this way toward its transformation in the end. Waiting: holding back. If the song is a composition, something to be performed more or less according to prescription, then the sense of expectancy is withheld deliberately and knowingly from the first entrance of the refrain, in expectation of the second. The first waits for the second. And only because it does so, because it refrains and holds something back can the second come as a surprise.

—This article was originally posted on Philosophy KTL in December, 2009

featured image:

Roald Dahl” by miuenski miuenski, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Share Button

Poetry Giveaway

Update: Scroll down for videos contributed by raffle entrants

Win one from a nice big stack of poetry books, including some classics and some contemporaries from my area.

The prizes have been supplied by my patrons at Patreon, by The Wild Detectives bookstore in Oak Cliff, by the authors themselves listed below, and by people who happened to have extra copies! Thank you to everyone who supported this endeavor.

To enter, log into the rafflecopter widget below. (You have to log in so I can contact you if you win!)

If you want a better chance to win, try one of the bonus challenges:

  • Memorize a poem (doesn’t even have to be a long one) for 2 entries
  • Recite a poem online for 5 entries
  • Explain a poem (in writing or in a video) for another 5

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Featured DFW poets:

Rebecca Balcarcel
Nick McRae
Lisa Huffaker
Joe Milazzo
Alex Lemon
Greg Brownderville

Audio/Video entries

Norbert Walter:

“Tiszta szivvel” (“With a Clear Conscience”) by Attila József

Richard Worsham:

“The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Eva Carriere:

Fragment 78 by Sappho

Translated by Anne Carson.
“When translating texts read from papyri, I have used a single square bracket to give an impression of missing matter, so that ] or [ indicates destroyed papyrus or the presence of letters not quite legible somewhere in the line.”

Serena Howe:

“Loveliest of Trees” by A. E. Housman

Adam Cooper:

“The Oven Bird” by Robert Frost

Annette Goeres:

“Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” by Wallace Stevens

“The Bear, the Snow, the Fire, the River” by Shel Silverstein

untitled, by Annette Goeres herself!

Sarah Martinez:

“Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath

“Veni Creator” by Czeslaw Milosz

“Resume” by Dorothy Parker

Addendum–rejected entry method:

Screenshot 2014-10-01 22.44.05

Share Button

Sign up for our mailing list

When's the next issue coming? Is there a new Rag post up this week? Get announcements and exclusive content delivered to your inbox every week.

Imagine Dallas

The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.