Reviewed by Donald Paul
Picking up a collection of essays, invariably invokes the lines of a Jimmie Dale Gilmore country and western song: “She said, Babe/you’re just the wave/not the water.” Stephen Watson’s collection of 18 “essays and other pieces”,The Music in the Ice, is mostly the water.
He opens with an exploration of Leonard Cohen, whose poetry he describes as “resolutely minor” and of whose songwriting ability he says is “truly original”. The problem with writing about Leonard Cohen is that Cohen has already said most of what can be said, and that which can’t be said, he’s done for all to see. Watson attempts to override this by approaching Cohen through a study of longing, which he defines as a feeling that “inducts us into an awareness of human need while leaving us so wholly incapable, as it seems, of fulfilling or otherwise staunching that need.” He goes on to say of Cohen: “Almost everything he touches is determined by the architecture, inner and outer, that longing creates.”
This is an intellectual conceit that goes beyond simply saying Cohen’s songs are a melancholic teenager’s untapped inner thoughts that reverberate on into old age. Most love songs have a yearning edge to them, that’s why they’re love songs. But to encapsulate Cohen in longing doesn’t capture the brilliance of his songs or the breadth of his voice. His ability to fuse reconciled love with religious confession (“Lady Midnight”) or the gracious unbundling of emotions in “Sisters of Mercy” are sly and complex. Cohen’s songs are inclusive discourses: they draw you in to a world he wants to share and which as a listener you want to be part of. Not because you recognise these places or situations but because he makes you think you are somehow part of the story. The essay seems to miss the minimalism of Cohen that lies at his heart.
The essay, “The Clarities of Hemingway” should be required reading for even the most pro-Hemingway fan and compulsory for his detractors. It is a crafted piece that drives home Hemingway’s genius, a man who “possessed a power of concentration which mathematicians of genius commonly possess”, a man of action who “was in fact as contemplative as a Trappist”.
“The Rhetoric of Violence in South African Poetry” is particularly relevant given the current legal debate about the song “Kill the boer” and our President’s penchant for calling for his machine gun every time he gets on a stage. Watson cites Simon Schama’s Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and points out that Schama portrays the “Terror and its carnage not as a mistake, an aberration… but as much a product of a certain kind of language as any other single factor”. Beware the songs of the revolution — and read this essay.
These are erudite, dense and compelling essays — in one section of an essay in the space of 11 pages he quotes or refers to more than 20 other philosophers, writers and critics. Sometimes you just want Watson’s unreinforced voice. But while they require application, concentration and a willingness to allow the writer his desire to “say unforgettable things”, there is more here between the lines on what it means and what is required to become a poet, writer and an artist than you’d find in any book on the craft of writing.