The poet Robert Lowell had given 77 Dream Songs a less-than-glowing review, claiming that the reader often chafes at the Dream Songs’ obscurity and “relentless indulgence.” Sometimes I would have to say I agree with this. Of course I was about seven or eight at the time, so B. wouldn’t have cared about my opinion then, and he’s dead now even though I’m not, yet, so my opinion now doesn’t matter either (likely), but B. was stung by the accusation from Lowell. Thus, DS 120 is a response to Lowell’s panning of the masterpiece.
Paranoia had become one of B.’s operating modes, possibly brought on by relentless chemical modification of his brain matter. He was still writing Dreams Songs at a feverish pace. Also, his legacy mattered, I think, and it gave him a thin skin in response to bad reviews from the poet colleagues upon whose high opinion he depended. Most were obliging, because many of The Dream Songs are amazing. But I sympathize with all that sensitivity. I’ve had the experience when one of the few times I felt I was artistically hitting on all cylinders, someone came along and tried to destroy the results. In my drawing class in college, I nailed the self-portrait we were assigned. It was exhilarating to feel it flowing. I left it in the studio overnight, and some self-appointed art critic defaced it. “This sucks” he wrote across my face. Well, artists can be as conservative as anybody else, and “conservative” in general, as far as I can tell, includes destroying anything that threatens the conservative’s fantastical sense of rightness and decorum. Most artists, or artistes, hide it by couching their conservatism inside a broader avant-garde orthodoxy. Brian Wilson—a truly great and ground-breaking artist—had a gathering of high-profile rock stars over to his studio, got everybody stoned, and had them all singing complicated harmonic rounds of “Shortnin’ Bread”, which I think is a hoot. It think it was Iggy Pop who stormed out, fed up with such ridiculous nonsense. I’ve always thought that story is hilarious: So much for the crazed sensibilities of the freakazoid rock star. Break the mold of his rock orthodoxy and he gets all sensitive about it—much like Santorum, Huckabee, and Michelle Bachman: Cut from the same cloth, just woven in different patterns.
I do wonder if The Dream Songs didn’t eventually settle into their own self-styled orthodoxy. If such an orthodoxy were questioned at all, then the conservative poet would lash out in defense. The genuine innovator might not be so sensitive? That’s probably not fair. Blanket statements about what to expect from an artist are narrowing in themselves, a move on their own toward a critical orthodoxy. I can be shy, timid, unsure, clumsy, and even stupid, but if I ever feel myself shading toward conservative, then it’s time to shake things up a bit.
♪ ♫ Mammy's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin', Mammy's little baby loves short'nin' bread ♫
(Uh-oh. I don’t mean to get all minstrelish here. You have to draw the line somewhere.)