John Darnielle, also known as the Mountain Goats , has a way about his craft that I admire: He does with words, what I, as an illustrator, wish to be able to do with a pen (or stylus). He distills univerisally recognizable emotions into actions.
Unlike many song writers, Darnielle doesn’t depend upon metaphor-heavy lists to convey sentiment in his songs. Instead, he describes a scene, an act that carries with it a kind of meaning that works on many levels, an act that is more visceral than many other commonly used poetic devices. For example (from “Woke up New,” on Get Lonely):
On the morning when I woke up without you for the first time,
I felt free
and I felt lonely
and I felt scared
and I began to talk to myself almost immediately,
not being used to being the only person there.
The first time I made coffee for just myself,
I made too much of it.
But I drank it all,
just ’cause you hate it when I let things go to waste.
The beginning of the first verse is like the establishing shot in a comic book or movie in that it gives the context for the rest of the narrative. “Here’s what happened,” he says, “and here’s my state of mind.” The speaker then begins in the second verse, to describe his actions and it’s in those actions he affirms the established context and “describes” how he feels.
The short list of feelings from the first verse is made up primarily of single-syllable words in simple, declarative statements. George Orwell liked words and statements like these because he felt that English speakers reacted to them almost instinctually . We don’t think about them, we understand them. That, I think, is what John Darnielle does so well, he anticipates a reaction to his work from the actions that it describes.
Darnielle’s songs remind me of the poetic form called Dramatic Monologue. The most well known modern examples of this form can be found in the works of Emenem, in songs like, “97 Bonnie & Clyde.” Not that I’m comparing Darnielle’s work to that of Emenem….
Dramatic Monologues are poems in which a speaker attempts to explain his or her actions. They are often written in a voice that is not intended to be the voice of the author. This form of poertry was popular during the Victorian period and was typical of writers, such as Robert Browning . When I studied Robert Browning in college, I had much of the same reaction to his work that I have when I listen to songs by the Mountain Goats. From the described actions, I perceived feelings–strong, visceral* feelings that worked on a visual level for me.
What Darnielle does, what a Dramatic Monologue does, and what I am trying to understand and learn, is create a visual representation of feeling and emotion through the description of action. A different part of my brain works when I hear pieces like this, the part of my brain that understands and doesn’t think–it’s that instintual reaction that Orwell described. I don’t comprehend the words, I see them. What I’d like to to do is to learn how to take those same pictures, put them on paper, and with them generate the same kind of emotional response.
I saw John Darnielle perform last night (2/24/2009) at the Sweedish Hall in San Francisco . It was a wonderful show and we had great seats with the stage, maybe, 30-feet from us. Still, I attended much of the show with my eyes closed. As pretentious as that sounds, it was like looking up towards to sky when trying to remember something; it was hard not to do. With my eyes closed, I could see the words better that way.
* I hate using visceral twice, but I hate using a thesaurus more.
(The picture comes from The Bay Bridged)