From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (25)—He Stopped Loving Her Today

[a] Journey's end RF
This is the song that ranked number one on Country America magazine's list of the best country songs of all time. The magazine isn't around anymore, but the song is, and it has caused laughter and tears for listeners over the past three decades. Please hear me. I don't mean to echo the stale movie reviews that exclaim "I laughed, I cried." Those movie reviewers would do well to review cliché and "exhausted" phrases in a grammar text. They have nothing to do with the greatest country song of all time.

Let me explain. In the course of my lectures on Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin', I learn as much about my audiences as I do about country music and East Asian poetry. It may seem hard to believe that people would show up to such lectures in the first place, but they have been well attended over the two decades I have given them. Many songs elicit predictable reactions. "I'd Be Better Off in a Pine Box" certainly finds no one smiling, while "Coal Miner's Daughter" livens up a crowd every time. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" breaks the audience in two—usually along ragged generational and experiential lines.

Take a listen, and see how it strikes you.

       He Stopped Loving Her Today          
           Artist: George Jones 
           Songwriters: R.V. Braddock and C. Putnam Jr.
           He said I'll love you 'til I die
           She told him you'll forget in time
           As the years went slowly by
           She still preyed upon his mind

           He kept her picture on his wall
           Went half crazy now and then
           He still loved her through it all
           Hoping she'd come back again 

           Kept some letters by his bed
           Dated 1962
           He had underlined in red
           Every single "I love you"

           I went to see him just today
           Oh but I didn't see no tears
           All dressed up to go away
           First time I'd seen him smile in years 

           He stopped loving her today
           They placed a wreath upon his door
           And soon they'll carry him away
           He stopped loving her today 

           You know she came to see him one last time
           Oh and we all wondered if she would
           And it kept running through my mind
           This time he's over her for good 

           Repeat Chorus
***  ***
And it kept running through my mind
This time he's over her for good.

For some reason, those words form the dividing line, for audience members unacquainted with the song, between hilarity and despair. From one perspective, it has to be read ironically—almost over-the-top, as though a postmodern George Jones is winking, and beckoning us to share a meta-theoretical moment with him. I am not the first person to point out that the writers, by adding the "spoken" section of the song, were dancing on the margins of irony (in various interviews they have admitted as much). George Jones's "telling" also plays with that line to no small degree. The ways that his voice cracks in the "telling" might well be interpreted with a sense of lyrical repartée.

If it were that simple, I would have left it there. I might well have said "Here we have a serious song delivered on the very margin between weightiness and play." Enough said, and I might have moved on.

But no, that is not it...that is not it at all.

[b] Visceral PD
Audience members changed all of that. I have seen reactions in which surface melancholy told of distant misery. More starkly yet, some reactions teemed with roiling, engulfing despair. This is no playful word game, I thought to myself. This little song stirs up visceral emotions. 

I will share an example. Many years ago, at a far away location, I gave my Hurtin' lecture and played this song about halfway through my presentation. As (generally younger) voices chuckled over the irony of it all, I noticed a figure in the front row—a very prominent leader at the institution—wracked with sobs. Moments earlier, she had seemed to enjoy Jones's seemingly lighthearted telling. Suddenly, her world turned dark. 

Although the worst of it passed that day, I gave serious consideration to dropping the song from my lecture repertoire. My concerns grew greater still when, weeks later, a signally tough, "real men don't cry" coach at another location...did, and hard.

I have "solved" the lecture problem since then by pretty much giving the song away—stripping the first listen of all surprise—before playing it. I realize that I am undercutting much of the drama, but it helps to keep the audience in the right frame of mind for what will follow (more pain and misery balanced carefully on this side of despair). 

Still, the varied reactions to this particular song strike me as worthy of further consideration. The fault lines, so to speak, are not merely generational. Over the years, as many young people have found it to be distressing as older people have found it to be funny or at least ironic. Experience plays into this, it seems. The sixteen year old who just went through a breakup might be more vulnerable than the sixty year old who has seen a great deal and developed a patina of emotional resistance.

Still, let's not kid ourselves. Over the years, the vast majority of sadness has been expressed in my audiences by people over, say forty years of age. Although any reasonable reader and listener of that age (or beyond) can recognize the rhetoric of irony without difficulty, certain images—and lyrics—hit hard anyway. This song seems to be capable of eliciting each reaction, and sometimes at the same time. And voilà, that is why it is a masterpiece of its genre.

***  ***
[c] Allure RF
This week's East Asian poem picks right up from there. Although it would not be difficult to find a poem with an "unending longing" theme, I have chosen (as is the juxtaposing custom in these Sunday Hurtin' posts) something just a little bit different. 

Liu Yong's lyric speaks of longing—for home (he is in the southland of Ch'u) and for his love. Later readers would also read it as a resonant cri de coeur from the still-flourishing Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) into the eardrums of later centuries, when the very homeland evoked in Liu's poem would be torn asunder by various northern conquerors. Here, it is just the distant notes of a Tartar whistle; a century later it would be war...and loss.

      Tune: "Prelude to Allure Goddesses"
          Liu Yong (fl. mid-eleventh century)

          a leaf this boat, its light sail rolled
          lies moored by the Ch'u's south bank
          as dusk descends on the lonely wall, the post horn
          draws mournful notes like those of a Tartar whistle
          the waters vast
          wild geese on flat sand
          settle, startled, scatter
          mist gathers in the cold woods
          the painted screen is spread
          horizon's far, the mountains small
          like faintly traced eyebrows.

          old joys cast off lightly
          I'm here to seek an official post
          but weary of this journeying
          and the waning year
          the manners and the sights of this strange place
          are desolate and mournful
          the eyes despair 
          the capital's far away
          the towers of Ch'in cut off,
          the soul of a traveler dismayed
          the fragrant grass spreads in 
          empty vastness
          and the evening glow spreads
          no news of her,
          a few broken clouds
          far off.
                           —Translated by Jerome P. Seaton

[d] Reflection RF
[1]  Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974),324.

Liu Wu-chi and Irving Yucheng Lo. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974.

Sunday, October 30th
I Fall to Pieces
Patsy Cline. We continue our tour of the icons of country music, with a few doses of misery and emotional pain along the way.

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