Mar 252003

Eddie Thomas, who ordinarily philosophizes, ventures into poetry analysis — of very bad poetry, but poetry nonetheless. He chooses “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine,” by the Derailers, a honky-tonk band I’ve never heard of. The lyrics run:

Every time we talk, you keep asking me
Where our hearts are headed and how it’s gonna be
Well it’s too soon to tell, I can’t make that call
I’m not a fortune teller, I don’t have a crystal ball

Your guess is good as mine, I’m playing it by ear
And I’m not really sure, where we go from here
Where our love will lead, we may learn in time
Baby your guess is good as mine

Don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, forget about the past
Let’s enjoy the moment, don’t leave the best for last
There may come a day when we can reminisce
Right now we better concentrate on every single kiss

Eddie finds a good deal in this doggerel: “[W]hy is she concerned about the future so early in the relationship? Isn’t it likely that she’s deciding if he’s worth giving it up for? And isn’t his worth exactly what he is trying to get her not to think about? This isn’t carpe diem exactly, and I don’t think he’s concentrating on every single kiss, but I wish him luck.”

One difficulty here lies with the term carpe diem, which is not so simple as it appears. One version is a plain celebration of youth, which one might call naive carpe diem. The locus classicus of this theme in English is Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time.” This poem celebrates youth: “That age is best which is the first,/ When youth and blood are warmer.” Herrick, a clergyman by trade, piously and disinteredstedly advises the virgins to marry while they’re young.

Unlike Herrick, his contemporary, Andrew Marvell, in “To His Coy Mistress,” has an agenda, and makes no bones about it: “And your quaint honor turn to dust,/ And into ashes all my lust.” He evinces no desire for marriage, and such love as he has for his mistress is subjunctive. Perhaps with world enough, and time, “My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires, and more slow”; but without it love doesn’t even enter the picture. “To His Coy Mistress” might be classified decadent carpe diem. The poem’s extremely high polish conceals its cold-bloodedness. Marvell even refers to himself in the third person in the title, as if to emphasize his distance from the scene. Although I find things to admire in this poem, I don’t, unlike Eddie, wish the poet luck in his designs — assuming they are real, and the poem is not merely an academic exercise.

The Derailers’ song is more like Marvell’s poem than Herrick’s. What both versions of carpe diem share, however, is a tightly circumscribed view of experience. It abstracts away everything that is not immediate experience, which is most of what makes humans human. Eddie wonders whether his reading is private. I don’t think so. He interests himself in what is not stated in the poem, which is legitimate, provided it bears on what is stated. By doing so Eddie indirectly points up what makes carpe diem always a minor theme.

I look forward to the day one of the Derailers self-Googles and happens on this exchange.

(Update: Eddie comments, wondering if there is “a loss of truth” when song lyrics lose their music. I would say there is a loss of power. Poetry, at its best, depends largely on subtle metrical effects, which music swamps, so song lyrics that employ them are largely wasted. I remember my favorite songs for their music, and only incidentally for their lyrics. The only band I know whose lyrics are interesting by themselves is mid-70s Pink Floyd.)

  4 Responses to “Carpe Diem, Two Kinds”

  1. In response to your update:
    I’m not sure what to make of this notion of power. William James speaks of some propositions being live and others not. A live proposition is not necessarily true, but it points to something real, something that must be taken seriously, i.e., something that has truth within it. If losing the music takes the life from the words, then they have lost their abiity to point in the direction of the true. Thus loss of power seems akin to loss of truth, although I would not want to equate the two.

  2. You don’t know the Derailers? Your loss, man.

  3. You missed the entire point of Brit Lit poems. I suggest you read them again.

  4. Perhaps you would be so kind as to elaborate the point I’m supposed to have missed.

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