Words captivated me first: then stories. As a small child, I didn’t always follow the story or care if I didn’t understand a word. The incantatory sounds were enough to feed my imagination: Rumplestilskin, Rastapopoulos, Gorgonzola, Ali Baba, Craven A, Kia-Ora, Greengage, Long John Silver, Julius Caesar – endless spells composed of syllables.
Later, words brought me to music, through the lyrics of rock and folk songs. By then, I was committed to my adolescent quest for understanding. The (adult) world was a text to be decoded. Cohen’s lyrics meant something. They were a roman à clef or a medieval allegory where everything stood for something else. It took me a long time to grow out of that misconception.
Art exists to express things that cannot otherwise be expressed. At its strongest, that expression can create new realities. It speaks things into existence. One way of reading the story of Aladdin is to see him as an artist, polishing everyday materials to produce a powerful genie. (But if that were the only way of hearing that story, it would have died long ago.)
George Szirtes has written a fine short piece about why poetry is not always understandable in response to a challenge from Jeremy Paxman, chair of this year’s Forward Prize panel. He points out that:
Words are not stable entities you can slam down like dominoes. They carry a baggage of music, context, allusion, attachment and history. It is the baggage that produces the poetry.
Art exists to express things that cannot otherwise be expressed. It’s not that difficult to follow, expect to those who still believe that human beings are rational, that the world is controllable and that existence is understandable. Now there are some fine myths.