Saturday, 2 July 2022

Mike Dawes, poetry and complexity

Mike Dawes is a percussive finger-style guitarist. On a youtube clip he describes his work as comprising many simple layers (bass, vocals, etc). On a guitar there are several ways to play a particular note. Depending on how a guitar is tuned, the note may be available on a open string. By pressing on another string it may be available by conventionally plucking with the right hand or, more unusually, by plucking the other part of the string between the fret and the end - either with the left or right hand. The technical challenge is choosing the best way to play a note given the other notes that need to be played simultaneously or soon.

Maybe there's some gratuitous showmanship when both of his hands jump up and down the strings, but he has a clean style and metronomic precision. Sometimes it's not possible to play every note of every layer - missing items can be suggested (instead of a percussive beat, a note in the melody line is played more loudly) or left for the listener to fill in. Sometimes a single note may belong to more than one layer. Sometimes it's possible to add flourishes.

Now here's the analogy. In a poem the poet may try to convey multiple/layered meanings - reason and emotion, etc - while also giving physical descriptions or narrative. It can't all be done at once. The task is often compared to juggling - "keeping all the balls in the air" - but maybe Dawes' guitar playing is a closer analogy. Once the percussive beats are established, there's no need to play every one - the odd reminder will do. And even the deaf can see artistry in the dancing fingers.

The following poem isn't perhaps the best demonstration, but at least it's mine.

Crows' nests
Autumn's X-ray reveals them,
the trees suddenly old,
the crows gone, spreading.

The title could refer to birds or to the sailors' lookout. The first stanza wants us to see the leafless trees as X-ray images, which gives "spreading" a double meaning. So already we have 3 scenarios (birds, lookout, illness) on the go, none of them complex. Can all 3 be sustained?

Through long summer evenings
you heard them but said nothing

This could refer to the birds, though it's more likely to refer to the person ignoring early signs of the illness

Now you want to hide away there,
sleepless nights alone waiting
This is about the illness, and wanting to hide in the lookout
for the first sight of land,
the darkness flapping
so close to you, so huge

The lookout again, hoping for good news, hearing the flapping sails, and the birds are back, the crows having their customary ominous meaning.

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