It’s a Measure of People Who Don’t Understand

I was going to write this whole post about “Amanda” but the things I like most about this song remind me so strongly of what I like about “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” that I think I’ll just write about them both and see where it goes.

The poetry I was most exposed to as a child was Dr. Seuss, followed very closely by Shel Silverstein, both of whom share a talent for understanding that the way most people read poetry outloud is to trust the line breaks and to order their delivery around them.  They both make great and playful use of the ways that those words sit on a line and fit on a line and how people look for clues, when reading, such as rhymes at the end of those lines, and repetition, to figure out how the line should sound.

When I got to college, my roommate had taken Speech or competed in Debate or something that I had never heard of before and obviously can’t recall now, but we went to a couple of meets or matches together and quite a few people recited poetry.

The trick was, she explained, to recite the poetry in such a way that the line breaks don’t matter, aren’t obvious.

This seemed strange to me–and I’m embarrassed to admit that, because I have a degree or two in English and so I should know whether that’s true or not–and it kind of put me off poetry a little, like there was something secret and snobby about it, that even when you thought you got it, and knew it, there might be some way of even reading it that you had to be clued into.

Maybe that’s why I lean so heavily on the Walt Whitman love.  Do you think Walt’s made some secret way of reading his poetry that you have to have training in in order to pull it off?  That his lines end before his thoughts end for some secret reason that forces you to reveal, in front of everyone, when you read him, that you either get him or you don’t?


I don’t know.  One of the things I like best about poetry is how you can read the same few words over and over again and every time there is something new there, that it isn’t all revealed to you, that hard work at it is often rewarding.  But I want to draw a line in the sand between difficult for the sake of helping make room for truth and beauty (hee, aren’t those loaded terms?) and difficult for the sake of keeping the riff raff out.  I don’t know how to draw that line, but I want to.

Anyway, so, back to “Amanda.”  There are two things that I just love about that song.  One is the way that Jennings does the chorus, where he sings “Amanda, light of my life, fate should have made you a gentleman’s wife.”  It’s a kind of devastating thing.  The whole song is kind of devastating, if you are listening to the version where he’s finally hit 40 and still wearing jeans (in the original, he’s finally hit 30 and I guess when the song came out, being a 30 year old musician still wearing jeans probably did seem silly, but there’s something about him being 40 and still pursuing a dream that hasn’t worked out that gets to me).  But here the singer is–other people don’t get him (they don’t understand the pleasure he takes in his line of work), he doesn’t get himself (he looks in the mirror in total surprise)–and most devastating of all, Amanda is too good for him.

How do you admit that to yourself, that the person you love deserved better than you?

Even in a song designed around that very conceit, the admission is made only after the most ridiculous backup singing in the history of country music.  It’s hard to imagine the song with out the “Ah ha ha ha”s in it, but they also sound so strange against Jennings’s gruff voice.  You’re distracted by the blatant ridiculousness of such a voice in this song.

And, I imagine, that’s the point.  Make you think of that voice swooping in and soaring off like the backup vocal equivalent of a vulture circling skyward while the singer shows you his torn-open-for-feasting-on soul.

But then listen to that second verse:

It’s a measure of people

Who don’t understand

The pleasures of life

In a hillbilly band.

Now, I imagine, written out, it looks more like

It’s a measure of people who don’t understand

The pleasures of life in a hillbilly band.

But when Jennings sings it, I hear it broken in four, not two.

Now, let’s flip on over to “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and the words over there I don’t want to leave unnoticed.

Cowboys love smoky old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings

Little warm puppies and children and girls of the night

Them that don’t know him won’t like him and them that do sometimes won’t know how to take him

He ain’t wrong.

He’s just different.

But his pride won’t let him

Do things to make you think he’s right.

(Though I might put those last two lines all on the same line).

For me, it’s those two moments in those two songs when I feel like I really get how the line a word is on in a verse can come in direct conflict with the words on that line, and how a deft delivery matters, how it breaks open the meaning just a little bit, to let you into it.

How, even if lines rhyme–like “understand” and “band” or “night” and “right”–you lose something important if you’re just rushing the words out.  And let’s not overlook the beautiful anapaest feet in Jennings’s verse there, which, in lesser mouths, encourage you to roll right along until you slam into that last rhyming word.

But, no, somehow he keeps the poetry of it–the anapaestody (if I can use that term) and the rhyming of it–and delivers it just like you were hearing it straight from an actual person who was actually telling you about his troubles.  Bob McDill’s the writer on that and that’s art my friends.

I can’t quite decide what the meter is on that verse of “Mamas” but I’m open to arguing about it.  But the reason I love that is…

Oh, holy shit.

Okay, time out.  So, I’m writing this post and I’m debating about whether to go back and take my stuff about “Mamas” out because I’ve already made my point with “Amanda” and at this point I’m just rambling, though I am curious about the meter in “Mamas” is when I go over to Heartaches by the Number to see what Cantwell and Friskics-Warren have to say about “Mamas” and…

It’s not in there.

The Rolling Stones are in there.  “Mamas” isn’t.

I need a drink.

Wrongy McWrongerspants

So, Mark says:

I dunno, after peeping this and BFP, I see stones flying. That is the only image I can come up with.

To which I just wan to say, publically and up big where everyone can see it:

Yeah, maybe so.

I mean, yes, of course.  We may very well feel entirely justified in our interpretation of events and we may very well be wrong.  We might think we’re being all smart and insightful and making sense of things in the understanding of a broader context and we could be wrong.  Maybe we just are judgmental bitches or hypocrites ourselves or just plain wrong.

But my response to that is so fucking what?  How are you supposed to come to know and understand things if you don’t try to wrap your brain around them?  Plus, that’s how this whole thing works.  I say something.  You read it.  You decide if you agree or disagree.  You try to convince me I’m wrong or at least that I should consider something else or you don’t.  Whatever.

I don’t know exactly why this bugs me so much, but it does.  So, let me just repeat.

I could be wrong.

I don’t think I am, but I’m not so foolish as to think that the possibility’s not there.  And I hope everyone here gets that.

Good Thing I Don’t Read Old Icelandic

Or I’d certainly be spending too much of my time flipping around all the old manuscripts at Saganet.  As it is, I had to go sorting through the Vafþrúðnismál(s) to find my favorite words.  As I’ve said before, I always figure that any words designed strong enough to keep the Old Man safe are certainly strong enough to keep one measly me safe.

And I found this beautiful version.  Shoot.  Look how pretty that handwriting is.  I’d about get that tattooed on me. (Obviously, click to embiggen.)