It’s been a week. Tornadoes in Tennessee and post-tornado suffering and love; Super Tuesday and the clarification of the Democratic primary; the dread-inducing novel coronavirus, giving novels everywhere a bad name. My friend Matt Osborne stops in today with a meditation on peace and meaning in the face of extraordinary worry and existential despair. He calls it a post on storytelling. At the end, I’ll offer a side dish book recommendation.
What are the stories you tell yourself? What are the stories you want, and need, to hear? Who will tell them to you?
On the wall of my den hangs a signed poetry broadside from Robert Penn Warren, printed in celebration of Warren’s appointment as the nation’s first Poet Laureate. It contains the concluding section of Warren’s 1969 poem “Audubon: A Vision”…
Tell Me a Story
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, as a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
As was the case with Warren’s 1969, our 2020 most certainly finds us in a century and moment of mania. We are in need of stories. Stories, indeed, of great distances, and starlight. Stories of deep delight.
I have read enough Thich Nhat Hanh to know that we are not in need of stories as a means of escape. To abide this century and moment of mania, we need stories that will acknowledge and embrace our fears and suffering. Stories of deep engagement to lead us to understanding and insight. Stories that will reach across the chasm and take our faces in their hands.
I am convinced that the only ones who can tell us these stories are the artists. The songwriters. The musicians. The photographers. The painters. The filmmakers. The playwrights. The poets. The novelists.
Who can possibly tell me more than Townes Van Zandt, or Willie Nelson, or Bill Withers? Who can possibly show me more than Sally Mann, or Terrence Malick, or Derek Hess? Who can possibly take me farther out and deeper in than Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or Arvo Pärt? Who can possibly guide me to the dark corners and the divine reaches more ably than Tennessee Williams, or Denis Johnson, or Warren himself? Who can possibly give me more truth than Joe Strummer, or Bob Marley, or Akira Kurosawa?
And how are they able to do it? What is the special capacity of the artist? I think they themselves seek out stories, the stories alive around them. Their minds, and eyes, and ears, and hearts are attuned to receive these stories. They then apply their own lived experience (as master rapper Rakim said, “You got to put yo life in them lines”), and give us their stories. And the true artist does so as a calling, perhaps bordering on a compulsion, risking disfavor.
I need these artists, old and new. I need their stories. I need their great distances, and their starlight. I need their deep delight.
As Van Morrison, certainly one of our great storytellers, wrote, “There’s a dream where the contents are visible. / Where the poetic champions compose.”
I need to be there, in that place of mind and spirit where the poetic champions compose.
On Monday, March 5, Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End won the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award at the PEN America Literary Awards ceremony in New York City. The judges called Where Reasons End a “spare, haunting, deeply humane novel…. Li has written a novel unlike anything we have read before, a book that is beautiful and wise, and almost unbearably moving in its portrait of a woman turning to literature as to a last resort, and finding that it might – barely, savingly – suffice.”
Photos from my yard: star magnolia, moon in the oak, plum blossoms.