Friday, May 11, 2018

Caedmon and Sylvian

The tradition of English poetry began with Caedmon–an illiterate seventh-century layman, ashamed of his inability to "versify" when the harp was passed around at a feast. Caedmon fell asleep in a stable among the animals and dreamed of an angel (a story not so far removed from Robert Johnson's). The angel, too, bade him sing, and again Caedmon protested that he did not know any songs, yet inexplicably, he found himself obeying the angel's dictum. Upon waking, he wrote a eulogy to the world and its maker transmitted to him through his dream. Today, the nine-line "Caedmon’s Hymn" is the earliest known English poem–a product of what poets now often call "dictation." Poetry is at its best from somewhere "other" – a source beyond the poet's ego and conscious mind. Sometimes the poem appears in dreams, as with Caedmon; sometimes during autohypnosis, as with William Butler Yeats or in the case of James Merrill, the Ouija board. No one would argue that for David Sylvian the muse is a bit of a waif, a gypsy, a banshee, a jazz moll, Venus, a dark alley. While Beehive is far from a pop LP, Sylvian has eased further and further away from the pop sensibility. His isn't music that one puts on at dinner, save that for James Taylor. David Sylvian is a hard listen, alone at 3am. Like Joyce or Yeats, Sylvian is difficult. I don't know that Sylvian was thinking of Caedmon when he wrote "When the Poets Dreamed of Angels," but that is exactly what poetry should do, allow its reader, or music its listener, to interpret and to dream.

There is a long path from Adolescent Sex to Tin Drum to There's a Light That Enters Houses With No Other House in Sight, but Sylvian's existential mark hasn't wavered, despite his collaborations with Fripp or Holgar Czukay or Sakamoto, or even with Caedmon.