Old poetry brought back to live, in songs.

I love the music of Natalie Merchant. I have done so since the first time I heard ‘Thick of Thieves’ that is in my opinion still one of the most complicated lyrical songs around. It has amazing poetic quality and Natalie sings it with unmatched intensity and honesty. Her music has been progressing slowly in this overhyped, short lived world of ours. It hardly gets any airplay at the main radio stations in this country and is hugely underestimated. National radio seems oblivious of what happens elsewhere and solely focussed on the rather limited musical styles of the Dutch music industry (apart from a couple of white ravens).

natalie merchant

So I just have to search for great music on the international scene and YouTube. Which is how I found Natalie Merchant a couple of years ago. Even so, it did take time for me to comprehend the value and quality of her music. I heard the lyrics, partly understood them but they didn’t quite sink in. Until ‘Thick of Thieves’ from her 1997 album ‘Ophelia’. The first lines of the powerful lyrics caught me by the throat:

Remember how it all began
The apple and the fall of man
The price we paid
So the people say
Down a path of shame it lead us
Dared to bite the hand that fed us
The fairy tale
The moral end
The wheel of fortune
Never turns again

I know the lines by heart and whenever someone rings me at least the first four lines sound as a constant reminder of the demise of this world and the deceit of mankind. Even for these few ringtone seconds it alerts me. A while ago I got some tracks from her 2010 album ‘Leave your sleep’. Every song I heard captivated me. I did not understand the title of the album and took no time in researching it. Until last night.

I couldn’t sleep. Probably because of the difficulties of life that are continuously challenging me because I really am struggling to survive. Possibly because of a love inside me that is bound by the impossibility of sharing and may or not may flourish one day. Maybe because I’ve been isolating myself too much to work on this novel that is both a miracle to write as a Hercules task and which is tearing me apart every now and then. It really is not an easy (or safe) thing to turn myself inside out and dive into the dark corners of my life, finding words and sentences to transform what’s found there into the scenes in the life of one of my main characters. Writing does hurt. But the hurt can be soothed by this:


My insomnia forced me to write poetry, with Natalie singing in the background. The lights low, the mood heavy. All of a sudden I just had to cry. For no obvious reason but it was unstoppable. ‘If no one ever marries me’ broke me in the early hours before dawn. I searched for the lyrics to read as they are both poetic and sad but strong. The latter I am not. I searched and found and found something else too. At the TED Talks Natalie explained during a concert about the “Leave your sleep’ album (TED Talks in the US really is something else than it’s rather meager Dutch version). She tells about how she made this album and about the poets it is dedicated to.

And I finally understood.

I understood why I love her music so much these days and how that intensified in the past month. Why I listen to it every single day while writing and why I cried listening to ‘If no one ever marries me’. Because it’s the old childrens poetry that awakens me. A poetry that is out of line with this rough and ruthless world, forgotten poetry of sometimes forgotten emotions by forgotten poets. Nineteenth and early twentieth century poetry and as such written in an era I am writing about and researching on every day now. As if I am looking at my lost childhood and youth. The tragedy of the daughter of the great painter Alma-Tadema who after his wife’s death emigrated to England with his children and became famous and wealthy. A daughter who at an early age unwantingly predicted her own life. She never married and died surrounded only by books and her friends. Alone. And yes, that is both my greatest fear in life as a strange desire.

I love this poetry which is way more adult than the label ‘children’s poetry’ suggests. I love it because though written in another time and place, it connects with me and sometimes describes me and my life and desires. It brings me back to a time where people were in less a hurry and gave more attention to what they were doing. Something quite impossible today for most people. Again, with the exception of a few white ravens. It explains to me why it is a good thing that I have to struggle for life and can only write a few lines or pages a day for ‘Lachrymae’. As I am slowly getting to the point where time is of no value to my work and true dedication to my writing is the essence of me.

leaveyoursleep 2Natalie Merchant’s picture book including the cd. I wish I had it!

Maybe this is all nonsense for who reads this and maybe people cannot understand what I mean with what I write here. I suppose in such cases I’ve then proven to be incapable of formulating my feelings and thoughts. But the fact that I had to cry this early morning really comes down to finally understanding why I do all this, why I share my thoughts and writings here and in my books. Why I write this new book. Why I allow people to see through me via my work. Music does make that clear, so please listen to this amazing singer who is not only immensely talented but also a woman of unmatched beauty and a true inspiration for me. And yes, the lines of Laurence Alma-Tadema’s poem do define me somehow for I am still only a child.

Laurence Alma-Tadema (1865 – 1940)

If no one ever marries me,—
And I don’t see why they should,
For nurse says I’m not pretty,
And I’m seldom very good—

If no one ever marries me
I shan’t mind very much;
I shall buy a squirrel in a cage,
And a little rabbit-hutch:

I shall have a cottage near a wood,
And a pony all my own,
And a little lamb quite clean and tame,
That I can take to town:

And when I’m getting really old,—
At twenty-eight or nine—
I shall buy a little orphan-girl
And bring her up as mine.

© 2012 Alice Anna Verheij

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