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October 22, 2018

Ruth Danon's Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "Word Has It"

Word Has It

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ruth Danon's poetry collection Word Has It is dark and profound.

Stephen Massimilla wrote of the book:

"..Deep and skeptical, natural and magical, melancholic and beautiful, Danon’s oracle makes a truly compelling statement – one to be heeded, one to be savored."

In her own words, here is Ruth Danon's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Word Has It:

I began work on what became Word Has It during July of 2016. Knowing I had one month to figure out a book I’d unexpectedly been asked to write, I took myself to the woods. The task seemed daunting since I’d published a book of poems just a year earlier. Leaving husband and cats to fend for themselves in the city, I set off for my little house in the country. I had random drafts of poems, yellow legal pads, and not a clue. I sat on the enclosed porch of the house while summer breezes wafted in through the screens. There were false starts. There were intimations of possibilities. And in the background on the news was the ever clearer possibility that the 2016 election might be a disaster.

Every day, I sat on the porch and looked at drafts of my poems. Every day where it didn’t rain, I drove to the nearby swimming pool and swam laps. Back and forth, slowly, all the while thinking about the book that was not yet taking form. Driving to and from the pool or the grocery store, I listened to oldies on the car radio. And in the afternoon or at night, whenever there was a Tanglewood concert, I stretched out on the living room couch, listening. At night, I’d drink a glass of wine, staring out the window until the concert was over and the trees were covered in darkness. By the end of the month, I’d figured out the structure of the book. I was writing a book about what it was like to live through an anxious time, a time just before something “not good” was going to happen. I could feel that “not good” in my bones. The election in November happened and the results were what they were. Indeed, they were not good. Some prescience guided me in my initial thinking and then the subject of prescience and augury gave me a way of completing the book, of tying the foreboding in the first section to the terrible outcomes in the last.

Back at home, in the city, I watched one of my cats get sicker and die, the country change in awful ways, and my job security become more and more questionable. I listened to music more intentionally. I chose what to listen to and it helped sustain me through the winter and spring as I struggled to meet the deadline for turning in the manuscript. Music sustained me in the spring of 2017 when I did, in fact and as I feared, lose the job I’d had for 23 years. Not until I was asked to write this playlist did I know how important music had been to the whole process of writing Word Has It.

Summer and Fall 2016

The music I listened to during the summer and fall was a constant backdrop for my experience. It rose and fell like the sun. It was there all the time without my having to choose any of it. (In saying this, I’m giving a weak paraphrase of a brilliant passage by Ann Beattie in her novel Love Always, where she describes what it’s like to listen to popular music. I refer you to the beginning of Chapter 4 of that novel.)

Here is some of what I can remember:

1) One afternoon I heard, from Tanglewood, Brahms’s Variations on a Theme from Haydn. In this piece, the theme is announced and then complicated by way of the strings. There’s something ominous in the shifts of register. Word Has It plays with variations on the way “word” is used in vernacular cliché—“word has it,” “word on the street,” and so forth. The variations become a thread throughout the first part of the book, which is followed by the idea of rumor introduced in the beginning and recurs later on. Pattern and variation shape the book, much as variation is important in Brahms or in any classical musical composition. I composed the book as much musically as narratively.

2) Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”: That summer it seemed that every time I turned on the radio in the car I heard this song. I don’t know why but it seemed to go with me wherever I went. There’s something in the song—the letting go of the conventional life represented in the “good girl” that seemed to speak to the liberation and fear I felt about taking the whole month for myself, committing myself to making a book and not being tied to the responsibilities of domestic life. Tom Petty gave me permission.

3) Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”: This is such a good rocking song. And it has one of my favorite lines in it: “I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book.” And that was what I was doing, trying to write a book when it seemed to elude me at every turn. Bellowing out that line along with Springsteen allowed me to vent frustration.

4) Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”: I’ve always loved this song and when I heard it in the summer of 2016 it seemed to carry with it both nostalgia for my youth—when it seemed that everything was possible—and a new and ominous meaning embodied in the lines “when logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.” It was the summer the nation seemed to go mad. Some of the poems I chose and revised for the book express that loss of proportion and logic. I’m thinking of the firemen in “An Act of Faith in a Simple Time” or the man who goes batshit in “A Joke” or the terrible Pulse nightclub massacre that’s the subject of the last two poems in Word Has It.

5) Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”: This is a sentimental favorite. They don’t play it on the oldies station that much but when they do I always tear up. I did my undergraduate work at Bard College and have had close ties to the Hudson Valley for years. So when I drive the hills near Olivebridge, where I was the summer I started on the book, I thought a lot about my youth and the many mistakes I’ve made in life. The song ends with the line “I’ve already paid.” Perhaps I was thinking of that line when I wrote “The Gates” (the poem that ends the first section of Word Has It), where duty is defined as “that which must be paid.” We pay for our choices, personal and political, and the book is very much concerned with those mistakes and those payments.

6) Girlyman’s “Postcards from Mexico”: This isn’t a song I heard on the radio but it’s a song I like. A friend introduced me to Girlyman, a now defunct band. I have the CD and play it whenever I want to be cheered up. That summer, I played it on YouTube. It’s not actually a cheerful song—it’s a rollicking four-part harmony testament to the sorrow and relief that comes when a damaging relationship comes to an end, a hymn to the complexity of human love and erotic desire. The line “you’re great on the highway” gets me because it’s another reminder of the freedom of being on the road, the pleasure of road trips, the freedom of driving alone or with a lover, the kind of joy and pain that are necessary to feeling alive. I love the exuberance of Girlyman’s singing. I don’t know that the song in any direct way feeds into the book but it fed me and gave me energy and courage when I needed it.

7) The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt’s “Desperado”: Flat out, I love this song. The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt both perform great versions. I’ve been listening to this song for years, and it’s one that makes me ache with identification. “You better let somebody love you.” I ricochet between a need to be alone as I was in the summer of 2016 and a need to be connected to someone in reciprocal love. The middle section of Word Has It and the transitional poems at the beginning of the third section attend to this split. The song advised me to return to the world of human connection—to my husband, to my cats, to my friends, to my job. By the end of July, I’d figured out the book. The central section, the one dealing with my ambivalence about domestic life, came last. That section ends with the speaker leaving domesticity behind—“burning down the house,” so to speak. But the poems can only do that if the writer does not. I had to go home to finish the book. I had to finish it in company with others. “Your pain and your hunger are driving you home.”

Winter and Spring 2016-2017

Having spent the summer figuring out the book, I spent the late fall, winter, and spring revising and ordering poems and writing some new material that needed to go in to complete the arc of the implied narrative. During that time, I was consumed with the despair I felt directly after the 2016 election.

8) Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”: In the fall of 2016, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was certain that at least part of what was on the Nobel Committee’s mind was the political situation in the United States. Whatever the reason, I was happy that Dylan won the prize. His music has been with me since I was a teenager. “Desolation Row” seemed to fit my mood in the fall and winter of 2016-2017. One of Dylan’s greatest songs, it lends itself to multiple interpretations. Like great poetry, it can’t be paraphrased. But so many of the lyrics seemed to speak to the moment—the quality of spectacle that became dominant before and after the election. We were either living on Desolation Row or witnessing it or both. “The Joke” and “Habitual” occupy territory similar to Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

9) Leonard Cohen’s “The Future”: I never tire of listening to Leonard Cohen. I saw every concert he performed in New York during the last years of his life. “The Future” was apt during the winter of 2016-2017. “I’ve seen the future, baby; it is murder.” And “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions.” True enough. In Word Has It, the future hinted at in the first part is confirmed in the penultimate poem, “21 for 49,” which addresses the Pulse nightclub massacre. In that poem, I quote many words actually said by victims that night. We’ve seen things slide in all directions and prescience has no power to prevent disaster.

10) Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure For Love”: I think of this as an antidote to “The Future” so I conclude with it. Word Has It ends with a prose poem describing a mysterious synchronicity of numbers. Forty-nine people died in the Pulse massacre and 49 birds were seen in a photograph taken in the sky over a memorial vigil held for the victims in that day’s carnage. Cohen sings “All the rocket ships are climbing through the sky.” There is no cure for love. I’d like to think that love will triumph, that community and friendship and love will prevail after all. That’s why the book ends as it does.

Ruth Danon and Word Has It links:

the author's website

also at Largehearted Boy:

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