The sound is part of the meaning
I have never believed in punk rock.
I can’t help but roll my eyes when folks try to dissect literature or music or anything into genre-buckets like that because, to me, it’s so very limiting to think of the world in those terms. Plus, it’s so much more fun to think of everything as a single enormous bucket with everything sloshing around inside. It’s so much more creatively freeing to think of books as books instead of children’s books or spy fiction or vampire literature. We should see it all as the same thing, I think. Likewise, to me, there’s no romantic period, there’s no such thing as post modernism, and certainly no such thing as classical music or rock music—when Johnny Cash sings “My name is Sue! How do you do”? isn’t that more punk than punk rock?
All these labels and genre-distinctions are exhausting and I’ve never been able to say why until I started reading Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices earlier in the week. It’s a collection of talks and essays given over the years where Philip pulls down the bright green curtain of his own writing process, investigating what makes his stories tick.
He writes about how His Dark Materials has been thoroughly placed in the bucket of children’s literature and how limiting that is, not just for us and how we see the world, but also for children, too.
That makes me wonder how much of my life has been stunted by living in these genres, by not experimenting and playing with new ideas that happen to sit just outside my tiny circle of familiarity. I wonder how many ideas I’ve said no to, how many albums I’ve put down because “I don’t like goth music” or how many museums I’ve passed by because “I don’t like abstract expressionism.”
Philip’s essays are a great reminder to reject this short-sightedness, to keep our eyes wide open, and that children’s books can always be punk rock, too.
Perhaps my favorite essay in this collection is when Pullman compares his novels The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, with Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Pullman admits that his stories are a direct copy of that great poem except for one small twist: that the Fall of mankind was actually a good thing.
Philip writes in a loving, careful, featherweight way about everything in this book except for how poetry is butchered in high school and college:
...many poems are interrogated until they confess, and what they confess is usually worthless, as the results of torture always are: broken little scraps of information, platitudes, banalities. Never mind! The work has been done according to instructions, and the result of the interrogation is measured and recorded and tabulated in line with government target; and this is the process we call education.
[...] No one had told such people that poetry is in fact enchantment.
But besides this very necessary snark, Philip walks through why reading Milton out loud is so important, even if you don’t really understand what’s happening with every word:
To see these things and hear them most vividly, I found that I had to take the lines in my mouth and utter them aloud. A whisper will do; you don’t have to bellow it, and annoy the neighbors; but air has to pass across your tongue and through your lips. Your body has to be involved.
[...] The experience of reading poetry aloud when you don’t fully understand it is a curious and complicated one. It’s like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ.
[...] The sound is part of the meaning, and that part only comes alive when you speak it.
It’s clear to me now that even the genre-distinction between music and poetry is silly when you’re reading Milton out loud to yourself. Like, take this absolute whopper of a line and whisper it to yourself: “abashed the devil stood, / And felt how awful goodness is.”
I’ve always struggled to define what makes Milton so punk rock to me and I think Philip nails it here. Sure, the writing is more beautiful than Shakespeare or anything else put into English, but the real magic of Milton’s work is that he was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Milton makes a demon sympathetic, even when describing the most evil plan of world domination.
This is Philip’s point here, I think. That Milton—through music and sing-song language—can make you feel pity even for the devil.
Now that’s real punk rock to me.