Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog






Saturday, October 1, 2011

Voluntary Poverty

I was pleased today to hear voices of people in their twenties participating in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Varied in ideology, they agree on the ugly maldistribution of income in the United States which becomes more extreme year by year. The absurd thing is that no one could possibly actually use an income bigger than – what? -- maybe a million dollars a year. The financial district tycoons are sinkholes of money that is never enjoyed by anyone. In fact, there is a case to be made that greater pleasure accompanied less wealth. Not so very long ago, this case was compelling to many.

American society is so powered by the dynamo of addictive consumerism that people are apt to consider acquisitiveness an innate human trait. Yet we all know many people who have ignored the pursuit of wealth, devoting themselves instead primarily to art, politics, religion, or, most commonly, family.

Furthermore in many cultures having more than one’s neighbors is discouraged. Though they may be quite stratified, tribal societies generally are highly communal in economics. The hunters share their catch; if the chief has more cassavas in his storehouse, he is expected to give some to needy neighbors. Mechanisms such as the financing of fiestas in Guatemalan villages and the potlatch system of the Northwest Coast natives discourage the accumulation of wealth. As Chief O’waxalagalis of the Kwakiutl told Boas “It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law.” Even in modern Japan not only is the distribution of wealth far more egalitarian than in America; the well-fixed try to build homes that are not ostentatious as it is considered bad form to flaunt one’s advantage. Rather the opposite of the conspicuous consumption which Veblen described among the newly rich in the West, but which now characterizes the aspirations at least of the greater part of the population world-wide.

The idea of voluntary poverty is particularly associated with spirituality. From the shramanas of ancient India through many subsequent religious practitioners the shedding of possessions is considered a gateway to growth. To the Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains desire for worldly goods leads to rebirth as a preta, a hungry ghost, with a “mouth the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain.” Lao Dz says that when people come to desire things hard to obtain, they become thieves. Christian monasticism often, though not always, involved voluntary poverty. Less theocentric thinkers, as well, from Diogenes and Epicurus to Thoreau and the members of the British Fellowship of the New Life, have considered poverty a characteristic of the good life rather than its enemy.

The notion of literary bohemia, whatever roots is had (among the Goliards, for instance) had become a fixed idea by the time of Romanticism. In the US the tradition of the artist “on the road,” bumming around, precedes Kerouac. Among the best-known were Vachel Lindsay (who made his way across the country trading poetry pamphlets for board and room) and Jack London (whose book is called simply The Road). Orwell could never have portrayed social conditions as an outside observer as he did in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. For him there could be no substitute to actually sleeping is the doss-house. For Henry Miller scrounging and scraping indicated the authenticity of his values. His years of poverty could never be offset by his late success.
I don’t seek here, though, to provide a history of the idea and the practice, rather I wish only to present a sort of apologia or explanation at any rate for one significant thread of my own life.

I was hardly alone in my rebellion against American bourgeois values. To many of my generation, the social and the spiritual motives seemed entirely harmonious. Growing up in the suburbs I could participate in the attitude expressed in the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding position paper of SDS. The document begins. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” That “discomfort” is later expressed as “emptiness of life” and as “anxieties.” The authors found that “Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today.” For many, the route toward replacing the cash nexus with more satisfying human relations includes resigning from competition in amassing heaps of goods.

Though every human could easily be given more than sufficient food and shelter, it is impossible for everyone to consume as much energy as an American, even an American on welfare. Everyone cannot eat meat or fish in great quantities daily. Economic democracy worldwide will mean a lowering of consumption for those who have been greedy Gargantuas. One who realizes these simple facts will naturally feel it is in better taste to live simply.

Determined to declass myself, even in high school, I preferred old and unfashionable clothing. I considered Chicago’s “bad neighborhoods” to be by far the most fascinating. In college I slept on a mattress on the floor and learned how to survive on next to nothing while engrossed in studies with no vocational aim whatsoever.

My own conviction in the late sixties was that we were indeed in a post-industrial economy, that all the work needed to produce enough to support a good life for every human on earth would require only an inconsequential amount of labor from each. The human species could then devote itself to the pursuit of artistic and intellectual pursuits, considered broadly enough to include, I suppose, the drama of NASCAR and connoisseurship of snow globes. In other words, the prophetic motto of Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme would finally be realized: “Do as thou wouldst.”

Most people’s jobs are, after all, unproductive in this basic sense. For instance, if everyone were entitled to medical care and health staff were simply salaried by government, all the people making out bills, all the insurance workers, the great majority of workers in the health care industry, would be unnecessary. If there were no advertising of unnecessary model changes and automobiles were available at a single lot in every geographical area, the great majority of workers in that industry would be superfluous. I often said that America was a land of such wealth, money was sloshing around and it would never be difficult to get enough to get by.

All this is only to explain why I so stubbornly bought clothes only in thrift stores, made all food (including bread and yoghurt – using dried milk) at home, and went for years without a car or a telephone. I used to like to say that I spent money only on luxuries, not on necessities, and we were little limited by our budget (spending weeks in Mexico, for instance, while living on a fraction of what the government considered poverty).

The case for the wisdom of these choices seemed overwhelming. It is clearly advantageous to buy second-hand clothes from the point of view of cost, but to rely on that alone would be mean. I also felt any object made by people represented the hours of labor that had been invested in its manufacture, involving large numbers of cooperating people. To discard it when it remains usable is not simply wasteful but in addition disrespectful to the workers. Most persuasive, though, for an aesthete, selecting clothes at the Salvation Army allowed the purchaser to display not his wallet but his taste, discerning the best choices in the mountains of junk. Every individual would then appear in a unique ensemble expressing individual value judgments rather than those programmed by large corporations.

The same principle applies to other habits. I continue to believe that the traveler will have a better experience patronizing a market vendor or a little hole-in-the-wall spot as opposed to a large, “touristic” restaurant or, worse yet, the one in the Hilton. Here one not only saves money, but one consumes the true national favorites in a setting much more conducive to conversing with fellow diners or staff.

Is not such a coincidence of advantage entirely convincing? Though some chose voluntary poverty to cultivate humility in an ascetic spirit, others found it encouraged and enlivened the senses and, even more significantly, separated those who sought to really living in an alternative fashion on a daily basis and to build a new culture from those for whom to be hip was a fashion alone.

I must confess the past tense in some of this prose arises from the fact that, a decade or so before retirement, it seemed prudent (and I have generally valued responsibility and care) to accumulate some resource against the formidable challenges of aging in America. Accordingly, for a decade or so, we both worked at more or less middle class (if underpaid) jobs, retaining some but not all of what had for decades been a rather intense frugality. We now find ourselves in retirement, in a home bigger than we need, putting out a small fraction of the trash that every neighbor seems to produce, and deriving some comfort from the news that young Americans are continuing to call attention to the pernicious effect of concentrated wealth in that epicenter of economic injustice, New York City’s financial district.

More Notes on Recent Reading

Crane’s George’s Mother: A Tragic Story of the Bowery

Stephen Crane’s novella George’s Mother: A Tragic Story of the Bowery has the virtue, aesthetic as well as social, of examining the life of the poor. European drama and fiction, until the middle of the nineteenth century, focused on the highly-placed, so Crane was in the early ranks (along with Mark Twain, George Washington Harris, and a host of others) with his rendering of dialect. Though it may not sound like any surviving subculture to twenty-first century readers, we know that Crane threw himself into the life of the city’s lower strata, sleeping at rescue missions and socializing with prostitutes. Somewhat less focused on providing detailed descriptions of tenement life than Crane’s earlier and more popular Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, George’s Mother tends at times toward myth or allegory. Still, lugubrious or melodramatic as the story may seem, it is familiar to every police officer and social worker today. If the old Bowery is gone, George and his mother have only multiplied.

Appropriate as it is, the naturalist label is insufficient for Crane; his greater achievement is closer to expressionism. The story’s moody opening, in which the urban rain creates a scene the reader is told would be “condemned” were it in a picture. The glare of red street-lamps casting wavering patterns accentuates the confused movement of the city’s crowds. Later we hear that a similar street-lamp’s reflection is “the death-stain of a spirit.” The scene is markedly similar to what would appear in Hollywood film noir pictures forty years later. The whole class system is suggested by the detail of “loungers, descended from the world that used to prostrate itself before pageantry.”

The extraordinary nineteenth century existentialism that makes Black Riders, Crane’s volume of poetry, seem so modern today underlies this story, making its aim well beyond the reader’s sympathy, arousing fear as well as pity. To Crane the city was mysterious: the anonymous, alienated, the essentially modern mode of social life. Though the same as the “unreal city” of Eliot’s “Wasteland,” for George, its marvels reduce to his friend Jones’ sophisticated familiarity with bartenders.

Extraordinary images appear unexpectedly. George’s pitiful mother is like “withered grass,” the wall-paper roses mutate to aggressive crabs, to the depressed spirit the dust of the avenue is galling and the streets filled with “spectres as large as clouds,” “granite giants” signifying the “futility of a red existence.” A jolly storyteller snorts like a pig, ignorant of his own absurdity as was Camus’ man gesturing in a telephone booth.



The Crowning of Louis


The Crowning of Louis (Li coronemenz Looïs) an anonymous twelfth-century Old French chanson de geste, one of six celebrating William, Count of Orange. The poem, in the laisse form familiar from the Song of Roland, has (like Crane’s story and, indeed, all literature) a highly mediated relation to reality. Though the opening scene concerns a historic event, the passing of power from Charlemagne to his son Louis, it is not a reliable source of facts. (For instance, Louis’ obvious reluctance to take power is in part excused because of his age -- “barely fifteen” -- whereas he was in fact thirty-six at the time.)
William himself is heroic due to his loyalty and his prowess. The sort of pledged service that structured the feudal world is one of his highest values. One’s service is not even dependent on the personal qualities of the leader. William not only remains true to Louis in spite of the new king’s feckless ways, he is fierce, almost uncontrollable (as Gilgamesh had been) in Louis’ defense. He kills readily which entitles him to boast extravagantly. When Arneis suggest a sort of regency until the king matures, William feels like striking him dead for treason, then hesitates due to Christian scruples, but he cannot control himself and kills him in one blow. William then scolds the deceased knight, for both his attempt to usurp power and his sudden death, saying, “I only intended to chastise you a little.” At times his might is cartoon-like, humorous and grotesque, in a way more common to Irish poetry. In The Song of William he can barely restrain himself sufficiently to avoid killing the valuable horses along with their riders. He regularly cuts people in half and, as in the old Westerns, the general run of his victims die instantly. In fights with his major opponents, again mirroring Hollywood convention, the advantage goes evenly back and forth until the hero strikes the final blow.

Not long after these poems, the great medieval epics were composed: the Nibelungenlied, Tristan and Iseult, Parsifal. In all of these the hero is a lover as well as a fighter. William, though he makes passionate war to take Orable as his queen, advances his suit through killing, not love-making. He gives lip service to Christianity in order to justify attacks on the Mozarabs. The way he behaves, of course, would have horrified Christ. He represents the single-minded aggressive ego so central to men’s self-image since archaic times.


Padma Jared Thornlyre’s Mavka

The technological advances that have made producing a book such a simple and inexpensive undertaking have led, naturally, to a proliferation of small presses and self-publishing. Though it is virtually impossible to keep track of what’s going on, some first-rate work regularly appears in regional poetry scenes which is likely to be altogether unknown by people a few states away.
I was delighted recently to receive a copy of Padma Jared Thornlyre’s Mavka, “a poem in 50 parts” from Turkey Buzzard Press in Kittredge, Colorado. The book is long and slender, its offbeat shape accentuated with striking art by Brian Comber (burning brightly on the front and inside covers). It is as though a child of Blake took a dose of surrealism and then picked up Kandinsky’s palette.

Thornlyre’s title is the name, one learns, of a Ukrainian nature goddess and the poet thus chases after divine love, human love, and love of the out of doors simultaneously and with sometimes breathtaking passion. Apart from a number of Ukrainian references. he is also something of a Grecophile, so Dionysos pops by now and then, as does grilled octopus.
Wide-ranging as his references are, the poetry is solidly based in the Rocky Mountains where the poet lives. At times he practices the deep image nature vision associated with Gary Snyder in an older generation and Artful Goodtimes, another Coloradan, in his own. The poems are filled with precisely defined images from his immediate surroundings, and, more unusual yet, Thornlyre is a craftsperson with a sensitive ear. Every line has delights for the ear as well as the mind.


Here, on Bear Creek, muskrats nibble
Cattails, rainbows wiggle in willow shade, all stealth
& hungry muscle, while rapids tickle my ears.


He offers intimate and revealing glimpses of his life and struggles, while maintaining in the background a reassuring awe-ful joy. This is a sequence that rewards reading aloud even for the reader sitting alone.

Wherever one may live, this book is available for $20 from Turkey Buzzard Press, P.O. Box 354, Kittredge CO 80457.

Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon

Self-reflective gestures in literature are often considered a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Often, though, such expressions are purely descriptive, implying elements of a more or less stable aesthetic or literary theory; those which question the stability of the speaking subject itself or the object it considers are likely to be labeled post-modern or deconstructive. Yet such references regularly recur in texts from all ages. In two medieval poems, William Langland’s celebrated epic-length masterwork called Piers Plowman and the enigmatic lyric about the man in the moon, such passages provide striking and critical moments for the poems’ narratives and themes.

For all the obvious differences, “Mon in the mone stond and strit” has many affinities to Piers Plowman: colloquialism, the alliterative hemistichic line, criticism of friars, and the combination of rough realism (including lower-class settings) with suggestions of profound mystery are among the elements common to both poems. In each the narrative voice asserts itself in the action of the pieces, an involvement singularly complicated by its periodic nature and the shape-shifting elusiveness of the characters.

In Piers Plowman such instability is a fundamental and fruitful strategy throughout to such an extent that it can scarcely bear summarizing here. It must suffice in general to say that the confusion or mystic identification of Langland, the dreamer, Piers, St. Peter, and Christ is developed with great drama and subtlety. The process is, I think, more complex in each of the poem's successive editions and is prominent in many of the most striking and significant passages. It is altogether appropriate in terms of the specifically Christian myth with which Langland is working: the worshipper must imitate Christ, must indeed in some sense become Christ. It also functions, though, to remind the reader that the entire narrative is a kind of grand psychomachia enacted within the speaker’s soul or subjectivity. One unforgettable instance of self-reflexive assertion of the extraordinary narrative voice is in B XV 148 which encodes Langland’s name in the poem at just that critical point when, having found Dowel he is being guided toward his search for Dobet which will culminate in the visions of Christ. (In this same passus is found the daring line “Petrus, id est Christus,” exactly the sort of formulation that brought Meister Eckhart before the inquisitors.)

Though all commentators agree that “Mon in the mone stond and strit” is a mysterious text throughout, there can be no doubt that a decisive shift occurs in line 25. Prior to this the poem had consisted of description of the figure of the man in the moon along rather conventional lines, if here unusually elaborate. In line 25 the speaker suddenly turns from the relative detachment of this description and enters the poem with an imperative — the poem, indeed, goes on almost to dissolve in exclamation by its end. What had begun with a clear separation of subject and object becomes somewhat foggy in its distinctions of the mon, the hayward, the baily, the speaker, and Hubert (?) as meaning retreats into obscurity. The poem has been read in an unusual variety of ways. I‘m not sure how to distribute significance among such possibilities as the moon’s banished peasant as social commentary, an Anglified version of the Sabbath stickgatherer of Numbers, the pledge-ower (reminiscent of Walther’s “Fro welt ir suit dem wirte sagen”) , and a number of other competing associations. It is, at any rate, clear that what opens the poem is the entry of the speaker.

What had seemed a simple if imaginative and lengthy elaborated description of images that one may see in the moon is tossed into mystery when, in the third stanza, the celestial figure is seen in a former career, as a farm worker accused of crime. That move is suddenly succeeded by the opening of the fourth stanza where the persona leaps into second person, addressing the moon-man, summoning him down to earth. A bathetic invocation indeed, but the diction descends from there until the last four lines dissolve in exclamation. For the conclusion the speaker assumes the role of dunce who cannot understand why the moon cannot come to join him.

In both poems the subject and object are destabilized. The grand scheme of Langland’s poem depends on the sort of religious mystery in which higher and lower are identified with a sort of verbal spell. The promise of Christianity is that things are not as they seem. In reading the book of nature, every earthly phenomenon contains a host of allegorical potential, and the ordinary worshipper may aspire to blessedness. In “Mon in the mone stond and strit” the poem’s conundrums merely make it “writerly,” in Barthe’s term. Who is speaking, to whom, and what about is suspended every bit as much as in Melville’s The Confidence Man or Donald Barthelme. The reader returns to some works repeatedly because they offer such an elegant statement of a clear feeling or conviction and to others because, on the other hand, unable to formulate such conviction convincingly, they simply beckon from beyond in a way that can seem more familiar than the sharpest verisimilitude.

Cookie Man

During the month the travelers had been in Fes, they had become habitués of two cafes: the first a small hole-in-the-wall operated by gold-toothed Mufis and his teen-age worker Ahmed who slept on a rug in the back and the second, the Gout de Fes, overseen by Abdullah (who had no teeth at all) and his aged father, while their ancient carp moved sluggishly about their clouded tanks. In either café one was entitled to a comfortable seat among the company of friends if one purchased mint tea once or twice during the day or perhaps a café au lait. In a shadowy corner of the Gout de Fes one was likely to find Driss, who managed to give the impression of reclining while seated in a chair and who kept within the capacious folds of his djellaba a store of kief which the tea-drinker might purchase for a few pennies. Some regulars kept their pipes behind the counter.

Kief (the Arabic word means “well-being” or “pleasure”) refers both to the potent resin glands (or trichomes) of cannabis and to the mixture of this material with finely ground tobacco which is commonly smoked in the Maghreb. Though its use is traditional, it has been technically prohibited since 1954, and many smokers in 1970 were semi-discreet. Still, each café (except for a few would-be French places) had a dealer like Driss who simply lounged about and chatted between serving his clients who sometimes included police officers and army men. Workmen often kept a long pipe with its very small terra cotta bowl next to them as they wove or hammered patterns in metal trays. Though one saw users everywhere, on one medina wall was a government poster warning against cannabis with the most striking skeleton in electric primary colors smoking the Moroccan sebsi and shkaff. Had the traveler only had the temerity to snatch one, it would have been a fine souvenir!

After traveling to Rabat. they were seeking new contacts. They had a room at the Hotel Rigini in the old town for $1.20 a night. Musicians strolled by the streets outside, followed by butchers carrying carcasses, donkeys with bales, and people hawking every sort of goods including, of course, what the travelers sought. When they first encountered the Cookie Man he babbled about his relations with American GIs during World War II, then trailed off in a more confidential voice, slightly husky and damp, naming his prices. At their next meeting both parties felt all right about becoming slightly more confidential. The travelers were prepared to follow to where the Cookie Man led.

Walking along the old city walls, they came upon a series of cafés, the first rather neat and trim for an old town place, the second more funky, descending next to the third and then the fourth level, all contained within the walls of the medina. They entered the humblest establishment close behind their guide. The space was dark and smoky, low-ceilinged but crowded. The Cookie Man pointed to ladder that led to a loft above. They emerged into a room with balconies somehow invisible from below. They ducked next through a low passage to enter a second chamber on this level where they settled in to talk business. The Cookie Man spoke slowly, almost wearily, of his wares in a voice that sounded hypnotic or perhaps hypnotized. He had a variety of kief and hashish. In the middle of leisurely explanations about the town where each product was produced, he paused significantly, and, with an air of incredible lasciviousness, said, “You know, though, what I got is cookie, I got good cookie, gooooood cookie, ahh! Show you good time. Want some coookie?”

He reached into his djellaba and rummaged around, reached a bit further, and withdrew what we recognized as a bit of madjoun, the Moroccan cannabis confection. In this “cookie” were kief and ground almonds and cinnamon and clove and honey and bits of detritus from the realms beneath the Cookie Man’s robes, and the travelers had a taste for it nonetheless and tried some and bought a bit more, and chewed thoughtfully, and eventually somehow they made their way down from the mysterious chamber where he held court and through the twisting streets, through a dozen blind turns, past a lane of metalworkers and the next of leather craftsmen, out in the end to the coast by the old Casbah (or fort). People there were cleaning clothes, where a freshwater stream entered the ocean. The travelers clambered atop huge rocks like frozen sponge, like the surface of the moon, and watched the people doing laundry.

Suddenly the adhan, the call to prayer, arose: Allahu akbar! The people put aside their work, turned to face Mecca, and prostrated themselves in prayer. And, as the sea struck the rocky shore, and an odor of incense mixed with grilled lamb drifted by in the wind, the unbelievers watching from the rocks were moved and doubtless benefited from the pause in the day’s occupations. The water’s roar, constant and urgent as time’s arrow nearly obliterated the sound of the muezzin, whose melancholy soulful tone undermined the reassuring list of certainties he was reciting. “Hayya ‘ala ‘l-falah!” [Come to success!]

Down the Dirt Road Blues

One of the seminal works of the Delta blues, Charley Patton’s version of “Down the Dirt Road Blues” opens with the persona suspended in an existential abyss: “I'm goin’ away, to a world unknown.” At the mercy of unknown forces, the helpless speaker is carried toward a hidden fate. The first verse concludes with the potent ambiguity of “I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long” which sounds very much as though he is approaching death, but which might also mean he is close to happiness.
The second verse introduces the erotic motif, reinforcing the positive side of the implications of the opening. Though the woman may be standoffish, what the troubadours called “daunger,” this may be part of a love-game, biologically determined, or an element of an individual relationship. With the repetition of the euphemism “something” intensifying the psychic energy by indicating taboo territory, the singer carries on a pursuit of the beloved even as he is being trundled off to the unknown.

The term “rider” triggers an entire series of metaphors. The vernacular expression is entangled with blues history from the outset. [1] In its earliest uses the expression “easy rider” described a skilled horseman or his animal. The ambiguity between the reference to horse and to rider remains with the expression through its development. It became naturally associated with the complex of sexual metaphor based on the similarity between riding and intercourse familiar from William IX as well as Patton’s own “Pony Blues.” [2] From there some occurrences of the expression emphasize the “easy” element, referring either to promiscuous sex or to freeloading. Thus, at the same time that the singer laments the evasiveness of the object of his desire, he alludes to her habitual complaisance.

In the third verse the speaker’s psychic agitation has increased; his world is in disorder. The “chopping” metaphor for intercourse is close to the etymological roots of “fuck”: to strike, while the phrase “chips flyin' everywhere” suggests confusion. The same anxious instability is then expressed in geographical terms. The singer can find no greater contentment in a “foreign” land, the [Indian] Nation (that is, Oklahoma).

He then develops the metaphor of going abroad as a statement of alienation. The bluesman always finds himself “a long way from home.” Whether the fourth verse refers to the longing for home of a WWI soldier or more generally to the feeling that the human is stranded on this earth, the fourth verse moves the song deeper into melancholy. Apart from being in some sense “overseas,” the speaker’s gloom is unappreciated by the unnamed “others.”

This depression is dramatically deepened in the penultimate stanza when the atmosphere has turned lethal: “Every day seem like murder here.” Surely the line “My God, I'm no sheriff” expresses not only sadness but the speaker’s vulnerability. Whereas a sheriff might be expected to be at home in a murderous situation, the singer suffers due to his beloved’s rejecting him.
The final stanza emphasizes the intolerable loneliness of the solitary traveler on a lost dirt road in a remote area. Though no respite is available, he cannot endure the road alone. But his complaint elicits only a mocking interjected line suggesting that, should he want a companion, he would find little solace but rather would himself bear a greater burden. Then the garbled syntax of the masterful conclusion, while clearly seeking to reject the previous line’s suggestion, suspends meaning.[3] The subject may after all carry someone, but he may also be carried.

Thus the poet continues down that obscure and dusty road, uncertain about the future, unsettled in soul, just as his listener or reader must do, sustained only by the thread of his lyric. Though it frames its narrative around a love relationship, Patton’s song speaks to the same audience that Gilgamesh commanded when he reflected on mortality, Agamemnon when he returned finally from war, or even St. John of the Cross when he wandered in the dark night of the soul.


I'm goin’ away, to a world unknown
I'm goin’ away, to a world unknown
I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long

My rider got somethin’, she's tryin’a keep it hid
My rider got somethin’, she's tryin’a keep it hid
Lord, I got somethin’ to find that somethin’ with

I feel like choppin’, chips flyin' everywhere
I feel like choppin’, chips flyin' everywhere
I been to the Nation, oh Lord, but I couldn't stay there

Some people say them oversea blues ain’t bad
(spoken: Why, of course they are)
Some people say them oversea blues ain’t bad
(spoken: What was a-matter with ‘em?!)
It must not a-been them oversea blues I had

Every day seem like murder here
(spoken: My God, I'm no sheriff)
Every day seem like murder here
I'm gonna leave tomorrow, I know you don't bid my care

Can't go down any dirt road by myself
Can't go down any dirt road by myself
(spoken: My Lord, who ya gonna carry?)
I don't carry my, gonna carry me someone else

1. Big Bill Broonzy claimed to have learned the blues from a former slave who went by the name See See Rider in 1908 or so. Ma Rainey’s song with the title See See Rider was released in 1925.

2. To mention only a few other variations: In Astrophel and Stella #49 love rides Sydney while he rides a horse. For Freud the horse was the id and the rider the ego. (See, for instance, The Ego and the Id: On Metapsychology.) Plato constructed a more complex chariot allegory in the Phaedrus. In voodoo the divine loa “rides” the worshipper when she or he is possessed.

3. The text is transcribed differently by different listeners. I comment here on the most common version, taking that as my text, whether or not it exactly corresponds to Patton’s intentions. (Authors’ intentions in general can no more be known than individuals’ in our lived experience.)