Nick Cave on Songwriting, the Mystery of the Unconscious, and the Sweet Severity of Truth

“Metaphor can create a merciful sense of distance from the cruel idea, or the unspeakable truth, and allow it to exist within us as a kind of poetic radiance, as a work of art.”

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” the teenage Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother upon the publication of her first tragic poem.

A poem — like a prayer, like a song — is a record of an inner reckoning that need not fully resolve, a dynamic contemplation that need not deliver a single static truth.Great poems, like great songs, call to us with profound resonance because they invite our own truths onto the landscape of their metaphors — always a little mysterious, a little malleable to the searching mind, yet sharp, clarifying, vivifying.

It is how great songs lyrics work, and it is why Nick Cave explores in another wonderful issue of his journal in answering a fan’s question about the deliciously mysterious meaning behind a lyric from the final song on his album Ghosteen: “the kid drops his bucket and spade / and climbs into the sun” — a lyric I took as an allusion to Auden’s splendid poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (which begins the iconic line “About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters” and paints the image of the boy Icarus falling from the sun as the world goes on “walking dully along”).

Landscape and the Fall of IcarusOriginally attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Renaissance painter.

Nick, however, offers an alternative, profoundly poetic reflection on this lyric, and on songwriting as a whole. In a sentiment evocative of Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech — “Only art penetrates… the seeming realities of this world. We lose sight of another reality, and it is the true one. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” — he writes:

It is often the lyrics that I am not entirely able to understand that are my favorites. They seem to exist in a world of their own — in a place of potentiality, adjacent to meaning. They feel true and authentic, yet they are mysterious. It is as though a higher truth exists just beyond what we can comprehend. This is what I see in a song and life, as well. There’s a tension between what you understand and what you don’t understand.

He adds, “A testament to the way that writers can clarify themselves in writing,”

Sometimes words seem to vibrate with the potential of my thoughts, even though they may not be clear. It is a promise. The vibration is a promise that all will eventually be revealed. Because I trust my intuition and know that I’m dealing with metaphoric forms that are essentially mysterious, I can trust it.

“The kid drops his bucket and spade/ And climbs into the sun” are such words. Two short lines that draw to an abrupt and brutal halt the main body of the epic song, “Hollywood.”

Acknowledges how these lyrics might resonate with others, he shines a subtle sidewise gleam on his own staggering experience of loss — the loss of one child, then another — as he reckons with their deeper, life-annealed resonance for him across the expanse of time and suffering, the expanse we all traverse as chance deals its impartial darknesses our way and we are left to make life livable by finding radiance, by making beauty:

[These lyrics]These lines are beautiful. These lines may not seem so obvious, but I can see their intention. It means that the child stopped doing his work and died.

“The child stopped what he was doing and died” is also a beautiful line, perhaps a better line, but sometimes some truths are too severe to live on the page, or in a song, or in a heart. This is why metaphors can be used to create a compassionate distance between the evil idea or unspoken truth and allow it exist inside us as a form of poetic radiant light.

Icarus/The OfferingBy Odilon Redon circa 1890. This print is also available.

Complement with Nick’s reflections on creativity, originality, and how to find your voice and his hopeful remedy for despair, then revisit poet Jane Hirshfield on the magic and power of metaphor, Bob Dylan on songwriting and the unconscious, and Patti Smith on the crucial difference between writing poetry and songwriting.

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