Music City at Night

Music City at Night
Nashville: the City Where Some Dreams Begin and Others Die...

Monday, October 5, 2015

Kris Kristofferson and Jonathan Swift Talk Poetry

The narrator in Kristofferson's talking blues song, "To Beat the Devil," says,
It was winter time in Nashville, down on Music City row,
And I was lookin' for a place to get myself out of the cold.
He says, "It'd been a month of paydays" since he's been paid and his "hungry needed beans." He steps inside a tavern and begins a conversation with an old man in a bar who tells him that songwriter poets' lead a "tough life" and asks the narrator, why waste your time speaking the truth to people who don't listen.

The narrator recognizes that this is the devil he's talking to and that "the devil haunts a hungry man."

So, in the end, the songwriter narrator doesn't claim to have "beat the devil," but he "drank his beer for nothing./ Then I stole his song." In other words, instead of giving in to the devil because he's hungry, he makes poetry out of it.

Listening to this song again recently reminded me of a poem by Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish writer best known for Gulliver's Travels. In "The Progress of Poetry," Swift says pretty much the same thing Kristofferson says. He compares the poet to a goose who when fat "with corn and sitting still," can't "get o'er the barn-door sill," but when forced to look for food and exercise will eventually grow "lank and spare" which will enable her to successfully try "her wings" and take flight.

Both poets indicate that poetry is born from hunger and suffering and that success and riches might work against its creation. This explains why a successful songwriter's earliest work might be much better than that which comes after he's achieved success and has grown fat "with corn and sitting still."

Here's Swift's poem (you can find it and other poetry at The Literature Network).
The Progress of Poetry
The farmer's goose, who in the stubble
Has fed without restraint or trouble,
Grown fat with corn and sitting still,
Can scarce get o'er the barn-door sill;
And hardly waddles forth to cool
Her belly in the neighbouring pool!
Nor loudly cackles at the door;
For cackling shows the goose is poor.
But, when she must be turn'd to graze,
And round the barren common strays,
Hard exercise, and harder fare,
Soon make my dame grow lank and spare;
Her body light, she tries her wings,
And scorns the ground, and upward springs;
While all the parish, as she flies,
Hear sounds harmonious from the skies.

Such is the poet fresh in pay,
The third night's profits of his play;
His morning draughts till noon can swill,
Among his brethren of the quill:
With good roast beef his belly full,
Grown lazy, foggy, fat, and dull,
Deep sunk in plenty and delight,
What poet e'er could take his flight?
Or, stuff'd with phlegm up to the throat,
What poet e'er could sing a note?
Nor Pegasus could bear the load
Along the high celestial road;
The steed, oppress'd, would break his girth,
To raise the lumber from the earth.
But view him in another scene,
When all his drink is Hippocrene,
His money spent, his patrons fail,
His credit out for cheese and ale;
His two-years coat so smooth and bare,
Through every thread it lets in air;
With hungry meals his body pined,
His guts and belly full of wind;
And, like a jockey for a race,
His flesh brought down to flying case:
Now his exalted spirit loathes
Encumbrances of food and clothes;
And up he rises like a vapour,
Supported high on wings of paper.
He singing flies, and flying sings,
While from below all Grub-Street rings.

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