A long ways back, I’d been shopping for a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, having read a biography of her. The book only had excerpts of poems, and I wanted to read more deeply. I found her collected works at Amazon for 23¢, a price I found rather ridiculous for the entire oeuvre of one of America’s most acclaimed poets, though I appreciated the bargain. It reminded me of the book of Art Garfunkel’s poetry I picked up a couple years before for 98¢, and I thought, “There’s no market for used spirits.” And then I thought, “That’s good, I should write that down.”
A scrap of paper with “no market for used spirits” sat on a clipboard for months and months, with some vague expectation of becoming a poem when it grew up. Eventually, I decided that I should write more songs, since I had plenty of poems, and that snippet was instead fleshed out into a draft lyric which then languished for months on end after that, waiting for me to write some music to go with it. When I finally picked it up again and reread it, I thought, “This actually isn’t half bad.” Several weeks later, I finally forced myself to sit down and figure out some music for it, and was surprised to find that it practically wrote itself. That is generally not the way it works. Words come easily to me; the music is harder, especially when my guitar skills are so rudimentary that what is within my reach technically comes up time and again, resulting in great potential for repeating myself. But the music came nonetheless, and all of a sudden I had a song.
A song that, as is often the case, had major parts rewritten once I started practicing it. You don’t really know what you have until you start playing it over and over again, finding the spots where you’ve tried to cram in too many syllables, or the ideas don’t flow smoothly one to the next. 3 of the verses remain just as I drafted them; 2 were revised down to the studs, a la Extreme Song Makeover, and I added another verse entirely. I snagged a line from a poem I wrote years ago to finish it off.
It’s a song about all art (not Art Garfunkel per se), really. I think art is the physical embodiment of the psychology of humanity: the things we worry about and are tortured by in our deepest souls; the things that elate us, and the things that matter; our reaction to the world we live in, and a reflection of our times and our individual, yet universal, journeys through them. In that sense, I think poetry is very much the private, unlocked journal of a culture. Whether it’s pain or loss or joy or love or bewilderment or epiphany, some poet somewhere has tried to capture it in verse. So it’s somewhat surprising that we value these verbal snapshots of human experience so little. Souls are cheap, it seems, and perhaps that’s the problem with the world today.
So, anyway…wrote a song about it; here’s how it goes:
Poets (click to listen)
The cheapest books I ever bought
were books of poetry
Art Garfunkel went for 98 cents,
and Millay for 23.
That’s the going rate for a human soul
though it cost the owner much.
Never at such a discount
have I been so deeply touched.
Seems there’s no market for used spirits
though you can’t buy ’em new
but in the words that outline us, we find
we find what’s whole and true.
We sell ourselves so cheaply
and our hearts we give away;
we devalue what we’re born with
and live to pay and pay.
In poets’ lines and pages
I’ve found mankind’s every prayer
and the hope we’ve saved what’s precious
when the world seems past repair.
Memories of generations
wisdom held in trust
the words, immortal, ring through the years,
long after we’ve turned to dust.
It’s to these words we return
our treasures to reclaim.
The poets will be saviors,
the keepers of our flame.