01 October 2012

The Triggering Tune by Ann E. Michael

The Triggering Tune: Springsteen Songs as “Places” of Inspiration for Poetry
by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael

Possibly the most common question asked of artists is, “What inspires you?” Bruce Springsteen has been queried about inspiration in many an interview; and he usually cites musical predecessors and forms, as in his recent keynote at SXSW in Austin. We do know, however, that at times Springsteen’s songs have been influenced by books he’s read and events, current or historical. Tim McAleenan mentions Flannery O’Connor’s influence on Springsteen’s work, particularly his Nebraska album, and goes so far as to claim “almost every song I hear from him draws some kind of parallel with a great literary work or offers a deep historical allusion of some kind” (McAleenan). McAleenan’s brief essay develops his assertion that Springsteen is Wordsworthian in his ability “to use common language to express emotion through unadorned lyrics,” but he jumps a little too easily to the assumption that Springsteen’s inspiration is “the common man” (McAleenan). It is that assumption I want to examine as

I draw some parallels to the way poets—some poets, myself included—work with so-called inspiration and the ways we might read or interpret Springsteen’s inspirations. One aspect of this assumption with which I take issue is the stereotype of the common man. The phrase is so vague as to be misleading: think about how many Reagan voters were fans of Born in the USA, and just how paradoxical that is. A cliché is seldom an inspiration—though it can become a theme, such themes usually arrive later in the progress of a work or are decided upon by interpreters, not artists. If I were to interview the songwriter, I would approach the question of inspiration in a more specific way. I would ask, as the poet Richard Hugo does in his book The Triggering Town, how does the initial subject evolve into the generated subject when you write? What would you say acts as cause for your work? How does your writing locate your inner life? (Hugo 4).

I will be getting back to Hugo’s text in a few minutes, but here I need to interject that I’ve been thinking about origin and inspiration a great deal lately because I find myself writing about adolescence—a subject I had happily avoided for years. My writing life elided my teen and young adult years right out: for me, memoir-based work was grounded in early childhood only. So it came as some surprise recently when I found myself writing lyrical narrative poems in the personas of teenaged girls of the early 1970s. Poems with rhyme or rhythmic schemes, ballad-like, telling stories of girls I might have known, girls who might have been me. These girls were answering the perspectives of boys of that era, too, and often, they were listening to rock. My own tastes in music leaned, early on, toward the singer-songwriter folk genre; Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. I was devoted to John Donne, William Blake, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Vivaldi, Motown, and opera. Not bad fare for a young person interested in words, but my enthusiasm for their work put me slightly out of step with peers in my working class New Jersey suburb. Springsteen’s first three albums played in the background of my life in the 70s—literally and figuratively. And Springsteen spoke to nerds, too.

Our school bus driver listened to Oldies 98 WOGL out of Philadelphia, and the consensus among us kids was that the music of the 50s and early 60s was hopelessly hokey. Sometimes there’d be a song, though, that was bluesy soul, doo-wop, or Motown—hits that featured a growly, gut-wrenching saxophone totally unlike the school band sax section. Springsteen describes this kind of pop well in his SXSW address when he says:

"[S]ounds of early pop and doo-wop whispered into my young and impressionable ears. Doo-wop, the most sensual music ever made, the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery, the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA, of wonderful lies being whispered into Tabu-perfumed ears, the sound of smeared lipstick, untucked shirts, running mascara, tears on your pillow, secrets whispered in the still of the night, the high school bleachers and the dark at the YMCA canteen." (Springsteen “SXSW”)

Alright, then. What this passage does is give us images and facts. It offers some triggers, getting back to Hugo, who observes that “the true or valid triggering subject is one in which physical characteristics or details correspond to attitudes the poet has toward the world and himself” (5). If smeared lipstick and tears whispered in the still of the night verge on clichés, they are nonetheless specific and physical and tell us something about the writer and his relation to the world—or worlds, both concrete and imagined. Richard Hugo claims that “the poem has elements of melodrama”  and that with lyric work, “if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self” (7). What else features melodrama and skirts dangerously near sentimentality? How about opera—Springsteen’s work has been called operatic by more than a few observers, notably Lawrence Kirsch. David Lefkowitz says, “Bruce Springsteen concerts in the 1970s and 1980s are fondly remembered as near-operatic affairs, four hours in length, emotionally rich and exhaustive, and loaded with wall-to-wall music (and even an occasional recitative)” (Lefkowitz).

Operas are hugely thematic, but they start with a narrative, a story, characters that listeners find themselves wanting to pay attention to. The lyric narrative, posits Brian Boyd, is deeply ingrained in human evolution and the human need to be social via the exciting, attentive exchange of information. Names of cities and streets and lakes—even invented, imaginary places and names—engage human attention. And so does character: “We…have an endless fascination with character information, since it helps us to predict the behavior of those we interact with and remains relatively stable over time” (Boyd 165). Name and character are likely to fire specific inspirations; in Springsteen’s case, the triggers probably are more music-based or character-based, however fictional, than generated around some general idea of the common man. Here is another quote from Springsteen’s keynote, in which he talks about one of his musical influences:

"He sang about the tragic unknowability of women. He was tortured by soft skin, angora sweaters, beauty and death—just like you. But he also sang that he'd been risen to the heights of near unexpressable bliss by these same very things that tortured him. Oh, cruel irony. And for those few moments, he told you that the wreckage, and the ruin and the heartbreak was all worth it." (Springsteen, “SXSW”)

He could be talking about Puccini, Bizet, Rimbaud; but he means Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison and also “the temples of life and mystery in my little hometown” (ibid). 

The initial trigger for my teen-girl-memoir poems was the release of The Promise set. Songs I heard in concerts, songs that took me back to the days in my hometown when my friend Sandy introduced me to Bruce Springsteen’s music. We drove to his concerts in The Pig, a behemoth beige-pink Plymouth sedan with a column stick, almost impossible to park and humiliating to be seen in. The concerts were in places like college gyms and cost about ten bucks a ticket; Clarence Clemons was doo-wop and blues, jazz and Motown, and Springsteen’s lyrics told too-familiar stories that seemed to happen right next door. Brian Boyd reminds us that “story by its nature invites us to shift from our perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another” and that “[i]n fiction the story lives the more…each character seems to exist in his or her own right” (197). That is what we felt at Springsteen concerts and when listening to his albums. We could imagine that street corner as a corner in our hometown; those characters with their high-jinks and their yearnings lived where we lived.

As to Springsteen as lyricist, I think McAleenan is right to suggest, “Springsteen manages to merge poetry and prose together in a highly unique way—he captures and condenses the strong narrative elements of prose by using a disciplined and creative vocabulary” (McAleenan). For me, that’s the vocabulary of hometown. Hugo says that “the poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another” (12). When writing a poem, the poet has to reverse the usual function of language; and place helps the writer to accomplish that tricky task (11). By the “usual” language function, Hugo means that “the relation of words to the subject…is a strong one,” while the relation of the words to the writer is weak (11). Poets have to “switch allegiance” from the initial subject that got them writing to the words that explore the cause of the triggered emotion, even if doing so takes the poet away from the initial subject: there’s the reversal. So you go away from home to write about home; and you may not do this physically—but then again, you may—as Hugo says he did. Most poets have worked on and revised a piece, startled that what the poem’s words ended up saying do not reflect the initial inspiration. That discovery is what makes art of any kind revelatory for the reader, listener, or viewer and for the artist him or herself.

Hugo employs a phrase that works well to describe what occurs when things go well for the writer—or lyricist—when the reversal of language and the sense of the speaker’s place transcend the usual pedestrian, dead-metaphor vagaries even when using common language. He says we then discover the “obsessive musical deed” of the poem (15). And if it risks repetitiveness, if it risks sentimentality, risk is what it’s all about; risk makes the experience feel authentic. Springsteen again: “Dylan, from whom I first heard a version of the place that I lived that felt unvarnished and real to me. If you were young in the '60s and '50s, everything felt false everywhere you turned. But you didn't know how to say it. There was no language for it at the time” (Springsteen “SXSW”). After many years of avoiding my outcast suburban-small-town memories, a few hearings of The Promise got me listening to myself. I got some new language from those hearings. Yet it was old, familiar, long-ago language which had begun to sound like an obsessive musical deed.

Richard Hugo noticed that a certain kind of small town seemed to inspire him to write. Sometimes, even a glimpse of such a place as he drove past was enough to jog loose an image, to evoke a memory or a sensation that was almost tactile, or an emotion. He says that when you’ve found the town, any town that acts as a trigger—or any river, or any school or scent or song—“you must start the poem” (18). That’s what I did; and I found myself writing not just one or two but over 30 poems—a veritable series!—on these girls. Perhaps it was the reappearance of a few high school friends in my life, thanks to Facebook. Perhaps it was East Street Radio, which I listen to in my car.

A combination of inspirations—memory, Bruce before 1981, driving. It occurred to me this series was inspired by triggering tunes. It was time to start the poems; I experimented with allusions, twists, response pieces, character, ballad form, lifts from the originals. I played with the clichés of pop music, with Springsteen tropes and Springsteen metaphors, trying to “funk up the cliché” as poet Kwame Dawes has put it, just to see where the phrases got me. I came dangerously close to copyright infringement.

Poets do this: borrow, steal, funk up, turn back, pay homage and, hopefully, make new. We call our sources “inspiration.” For my recent set of poems, Springsteen’s early albums act as trigger, as source and setting, as background and occasionally as the foreground of memory. Music and musicians have inspired many poets; I could insert a long list here but won’t, and I feel my use of Springsteen’s work follows a time-honored tradition in which he himself is a practitioner. The resulting poems are wholly my own. They have been generated out of my own observation, imagination, and in a few cases, experience.

Here’s a quote from an imaginative chapter called “Assumptions” in Hugo’s book—which was published in 1979—that demonstrates the poetic veracity of the imagined home town. I have no doubt those of you gathered here will immediately make a connection that is, actually, purely coincidental:

There is always a body of water, a sea just out of sight beyond the hill or a river
running through the town. Outside of town a few miles is a lake that has been the
scene of both romance and violence. (25)

I think the best part of art is its ability to enact transference, one soul to another, across often vast expanses of time or space. Shakespeare. Sappho. My individual path can never hope to cross theirs. I am closer to Bruce Springsteen in time and place than I am to Sappho; his path and mine have never crossed, either. But I think we draw creative initiative from similar relations to subjects and the use of words and the obsessive musical deed. The sphere of influence that makes transference possible through artistic inspiration is there in both cases. For which I am grateful. And so are all the barefoot girls.

Works Cited
Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2009.
Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town. 1979. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.
Lefkowitz, David. “Will New York be a Lucky Town for New Springsteen Opera Project?” Playbill. 17 Jan. 2002. http://www.playbill.com/news/article/67261-
McAleenan, Timothy. “Yes, Bruce Springsteen Counts as Poetry.” Shenandoah online.
11 April 2012. http://shenandoahliterary.org/snopes/2012/04/11/yes-bruce-
Springsteen, Bruce. “SXSW 2012 Keynote.” NPR. NPR.org. 12 Mar. 2012.

Ann E. Michael presented this essay at a panel on "Springsteen and Inspiration" at the 2012 Glory Days Symposium (and academic conference on the work and influence of Bruce Springsteen). http://www.usi.edu/glory-days

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