I had an interesting conversation earlier today. My brother and I and our friend Bruce were talking about the pleasure that exists in difficulty.
By that I mean both the pleasure one takes in accomplishing a difficult thing, and also the related pleasure that exists in recognising the difficulty of something someone else accomplishes. For instance, a lot of the music that I like I like partly because I know it to be very difficult. I know that the people making it are supremely talented. I can hear their talent – it’s on display, and it should be. There’s a tendency in this country, as part of our societal programming, to downplay the extent of whatever talents we possess. This is sometimes called humility, but it isn’t, not really; it’s actually a very perverse form of pride. In any case, here are a couple of examples to demonstrate what I mean.
I play the drums. I have done for a while. I’ve done it for long enough, in fact, that I have a fairly clear-sighted knowledge of my shortcomings. I know I am not a particularly talented drummer – I am a competent one, but I simply do not practice enough (or, for that matter, have the opportunity to practice enough) to promote me to any level above ‘reasonable’. That said, I am good enough to understand and appreciate greatness in others. On that note, have a listen to this:
There is some debate among rock drumming fans as to who is the better drummer – John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin) or Ginger Baker (of Cream). I’m always going to come down on the side of Bonham, because I think he understood – better than Baker, although of the two of them Baker was probably the more musically gifted – how to use a kit as part of an ensemble and how to use a kit to communicate with an audience. And I think his technique was better. Incidentally, the song above is the first track off Led Zeppelin’s first album – that was their debut, their announcement to the world that they exist. Which makes the ambition of it even more startling.
There are other great examples of this. I love Mark Knopfler’s music. I love Elton John’s. Both of them excel at making complex music accessible. Elton John in particular is notable for making music that seems simple until you actually see it written down and realise that the chord progressions involved are nothing like as straightforward as you assumed. Take, for instance, ‘This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore’, which seems to feature an introduction of sequentially descending chords –
– which it does, but not the chords you think they are. They are so much more intricate than that. They are fascinatingly non-conventional. Observe:
As for me, I like doing things that are difficult if I can do them well enough to satisfy my own demands (of course getting to that stage is nowhere near as fun….). So, for instance, I like railway modelling because getting it to a level I am satisfied with is not easy. I really like the cliff faces on Starlingford, for instance, but for them to work took an awful lot of effort over days and weeks:
I like intricacy in other things too. Jo once kindly complimented me on my ability to write multi-stranded plotlines for novels, but I do that because I like to do so. It’s the way that story makes sense to me. If I’ve got any talent in that direction its because I had to work hard at learning how to tell stories – and as the stories got bigger and more complicated, so too of necessity the tools used to tell them grew more sophisticated. I think I’m drawn to form and formalism in poetry for the same reason – there’s an intricacy, a cunningness wrought from the layers of structure, that chimes with me on some deep level (it’s one of the reasons why I chose to write my PhD on Paul Muldoon).
So on that note… a poem, a sestina to be precise, that I wrote a few years ago. Sestinas are complicated but fun – it’s all about the end of each line, a cyclical pattern that repeats, but differently in every verse, and finishes with a coda that contains all the end-words. It’s easier if you just see it, so….
They think there might be vanishings again.
Everyone remembers, though they’ll refuse
To bring to mind bitter pills ill taken.
Everyone here wears their patches,
Allegiances in a kingdom of shreds;
Flags run ragged in the changing winds.
The whispers are abroad again, ill winds
Taking them to all the numb ears again;
All the little dignities torn to shreds:
Disinterestedly interred, the refuse
Who were never mentioned in despatches:
All those who couldn’t walk away. The taken.
Off the beaten track some turning taken
Led to unofficial graveyards. Paths wind
Through saxifrage and hare’s tail patches
To unremarkable pools. Here, again,
The unremarked will disappear. Refuse
Will be treated as such by those who shred
Their orders on receipt. And never a shred
Of doubt, they say, about those they’ve taken.
They changed their throats, they say, but refused
To pay more than lip service. The wind’s
Picked up again, carries thin anguish again,
Wails in the valleys and the mist-filled patches
Of fields laid across a land still restless: patches
Masking open wounds. And tatters and shreds
Of flags, broken harps, cut hands torn again
Flutter though unquiet dreams. The past’s taken
Too long to live through to let it wind
Out like a torn thread behind us. We refuse
To cast off broken pieces. We refuse.
Threads are rewoven into patches,
Patchwork recollections that re-wind
Loose ends; the makings of redemption shreds
Or shrouds – or shrines, their statues weeping, taken
As a miracle, faith to find again
All the refuse interred in careless shreds,
Under patches of bog orchids, taken
From the sides of winding roads – remember them again.