Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Motown Last Dollar Choice and What It Means for Writers

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Motown Museum in Detroit, also called Hitsville U.S.A.

The Motown Museum, Detroit

At the end of the guided tour through the museum, I got to stand in Studio A, where a huge number of the greatest songs of the last half century were recorded (photo below).

These songs included hits sung by Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandelas, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye…the list goes on and on. So many of these incredibly talented artists were all living in Detroit at the same time in the mid- and late-1960s. That period reminds me of Florence during the Renaissance—Motown Records brought together that sort of concentration of artistic genius all in one place and time.

Our tour guide, Cecilia (the liveliest tour guide ever!),  told us an intriguing story about a decision-making strategy that Motown Records used at its height, a method that I think has important implications for writers. Every Friday morning, the entire Motown community—recording artists, executives, and staff would sit down for a weekly meeting. They would play the tapes of the songs that the singers and musicians had recorded that week and they would ask themselves as a group one key question about that song:

If you were down to your last dollar, would you buy this record or would you buy a sandwich?

If the answer was the record, they would release it. If the answer was the sandwich, it was back to the studio to continue working.

There is something refreshing and honest about this standard. It cuts through a lot of the pretention and gimickry that often plagues the arts.

I wonder how many poets and writers would be willing to subject their work to a similar metric? As a poet, I think there are all-too-many poems that could never in a million years hope to approach that standard. Are there any poems that could reach that bar?

I think there are some poems that are more nourishing to the soul than a sandwich would be to the body. I have my own list (see below), but that list would be different for each person.

I wonder how often we challenge ourselves to write a poem or other work of literature that would reach that bar, and whether we even should? I do think there are poems that contain such an important life lesson, and/or use language in such a beautiful and succinct way, that I would pick them over a pesto chicken panini on an empty stomach.

I think few of us attempt to write in a way that is so universal and compelling because we are distracted by our own stories, our experiments with language, and our own preoccupations. There is also the danger of writing in a way that ends up being corny, or sententious, and those are unpardonable sins in contemporary art. We are so obsessed with authenticity and originality. I think we should be more tolerant of writers who err on the side of being preachy or schmaltzy, because they should be given credit for making the attempt at creating a poem that someone would pick over a sandwich. Academic criticism can be unforgiving of a writer such as Mary Oliver, who can go over the top with her Buddhist life-lesson poems collected in walks in the woods, but I salute her for trying to say something deep and universal, even if she only succeeds some of the time.

Here are the poems that come to my mind as reaching the poem-over-sandwich bar:

William Blake “The Tyger”
Chana Bloch “The Joins”
André Breton “Always for the first time” from The Air of the Water
Robert Desnos “No, Love Is Not Dead”
T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men”
Tess Gallagher “Each Bird Walking”
Federico García Lorca “Sleepwalking Ballad” (or “Somnambule Ballad”) and “Gacela of Unforeseen Love”
Allen Ginsberg “America”
Langston Hughes “Mother to Son”
Frank Paino “Each Bone of the Body”
Edgar Allen Poe “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven”
Kenneth Rexroth, tanka translated in One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
Wislawa Szymborska “True Love”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Yosano Akiko, various tanka from Midaregami, including “tell me this evening as you gaze eastward…,” “my hands cover my breasts…,” “early evening moon rising over a field of flowers…”

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

1 comment:

  1. Poem or sandwich? Feed your soul or feed your body. Being prone to headaches if I don't maintain a certain blood sugar level, choosing a poem and a headache would often be the non-sandwich option, not just a little hunger pang. On the other hand I have a fat anthology of poems I have personally hand copied, poems I return to and enjoy every time. Writing these poems out has resulted in some hand cramp and maybe I've burned a few sandwiches worth of calories doing this. I have posted lists of the poems on my Dare I Read blog (though not, as you have helpfully done, Mr Rogow, with hot links to the poems). Still, for those who like lists: The Best Poems I've Read