Funeral Blues Gustav Klimt Death and Life 1908 painting

Funeral Blues ~ Songs and Poems about Death

 

The English poet, playwright, critic, and librettist W. H. Auden exerted a major influence on the poetry of the twentieth century. His piece Funeral Blues touched me a long time ago but it had slipped out of my mind.

But when another friend of mine recently died. I revisited the piece. Denis Kiu was far too young to leave life behind. We will always miss him. He was such a staple, the owner of the famous L.A. restaurant and singer-songwriter venue, Genghis Cohen.

Now, after a few weeks of grappling with this sad reality, I have started working on a new song. It’s called White Angel’s Café for my album The World I Am Livings In.

Writing about death is hard. Primarily, it hurts. But it’s also hard because it’s one of these topics that can easily slip into worn-out clichés, which end up meaning nothing. Especially since every person, every life, and, therefore every death is so individual. But psychologists agree that there are at least five stages of grief and mourning, which are universal. The picture that W. H. Auden paints so well in his poem is the initial shock, the first phase of grieving.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

– W. H. Auden

 

Like so often in his pieces, Auden paints versatile and inventive but also somewhat “anti-romantic” images. In Funeral Blues they are not clichés but are everyday circumstances. Because it’s in these seemingly banal situations, in which we often miss loved ones the most, that have an impact on the reader. And so elegantly, he adds a pinch of comical absurdity – like putting “crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves”.

Another very touching short piece is by Henry Jackson van Dyke (1852–1933), an American author, educator, and clergyman. In his piece, Time is Eternity he explores the definition of time and how it depends on a person’s emotional state. But it is also a reflection on grief and the perception of ever-lasting sorrow.

 

Time is Eternity

Time is too slow for those who wait,
Too swift for those who fear,
Too long for those who grieve,
Too short for those who rejoice,
But for those who love,
Time is Eternity.

– Henry Van Dyke

 

Another piece, Because I could not stop for Death is by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). She’s truly the Queen of metaphors – metaphors as a figure of speech in which an expression is projected onto another expression by use of uncommon or unusual comparison. Here she has even personified death, with whom she explores both the inevitability of death and the uncertainties that surround what happens when people actually die.

 

Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves 
And Immortality.

We slowly droveHe knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recessin the Ring
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain
We passed the Setting Sun

Or ratherHe passed us
The Dews drew quivering and chill
For only Gossamer, my Gown
My Tippetonly Tulle

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground
The Roof was scarcely visible
The Cornicein the Ground

Since then’tis Centuriesand yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity

– Emily Dickinson

 

Reflecting on her own mortality, this is an excerpt from the poem Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath (1932–1963). In the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates described Plath as “one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English.” Sylvia Plath was only 30 at the time she took her life. Plath already had a following in the literary community, attracted the attention of readers, who saw in her singular verse an attempt to catalogue despair, violent emotion, and obsession with death.

 

Lady Lazarus

…These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

 

I would like to close this blog post with the notion of “acceptance”. Peace, my Heart is a very soothing poem, stating “Let it not be death but completeness”: It was written by Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), a Bengali polymath, who worked as a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer, and painter. His poetry is regarded as “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful”. Peace, my Heart stems from his collection of poems, titled Gitanjali in Bengali (in English, ”Song offering”), for which Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 – largely for the English translation by the poet himself. He composed Song Offerings between 1904 and 1910 and published the collection in 1910.

 

Peace, my Heart

Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the
nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in
silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

– Rabindranath Tagore

 

In its spirituality, his writing reminds me of Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder, of the Self Realization Center in Los Angeles. I had discovered his poem, Songs of the Soul after completing “my” poem Songs of the Soul. Yogananda’s poetry is frequently about his deep and religious experiences in nature. The piece I had written and later recorded – after feeling the necessary inspiration during a visit to the center – is, in a similar way, about encountering a form of deep spirituality – namely in music.

All of Tagore’s poems in Song Offerings are also of devotional nature – but to the supreme. The essence of the volume’s deep-rooted spirituality is also brought out in the following passage:

My debts are large,

my failures great,
my shame secret and heavy;
yet I come to ask for my good,

I quake in fear lest my prayer be granted.

The poet W. B. Yeats was similarly moved and thus, added an introduction to the second edition of Song Offerings. Yeats wrote that this volume had “stirred my blood as nothing has for years. . .” Moreover, he candidly informed the readers,

“I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics [are] …full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long.” – W. B. Yeats

 

Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1909

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Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

I was browsing through The New York Times when one article really grabbed my attention. It was on the American photographer, Francesca Woodman, whose work I had only recently discovered. Her oeuvre consists mainly of quite unusual self-portraits and one of her pictures, titled Vanishing Act had inspired me a while ago. It had actually helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness that I recorded for my first solo album. I learned that over 120 of her works were being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York, which felt really exciting – because, in a way, it was actually quite personal.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the Internet, searching for interesting pictures and inspiration. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists. A lot of them were in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach, and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures, whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

 

Collecting Inspiration From Other Artists

It was the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who stated, in the context of creating his video collage The Clock:

If you make something good and interesting and [are] not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.

Not only is Marclay a collector of images himself, but for his acclaimed installation, which is 24-hours long, he collected thousands of film and television images of clocks film clips depicting time. He created a montage of, edited together so they show the actual time.

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images often trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic – a topic that has most likely already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. Images act for me like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem, for instance, is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art – whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium.

 

Conveying Feelings in Song Lyrics

In this particular situation, images, thoughts, and feelings must have all run together: I was both deeply touched and inspired by that photograph of Woodman. It not only helped me to get unstuck emotionally but ended up delivering a line for my song, Eating the Darkness.

I had been playing around on the piano – which is what my usual songwriting process looks like – and working on the song Eating the Darkness (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair, staged in the isolation of an apartment or a room. These are the first verses of the song:

 

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. Some songs practically write themselves but with others its like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you finally summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, the idea dies.

 

How to Convey  Feeling Invisible?

I just felt that in the chorus there was still a strong image missing, which is why I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic. It had emerged very out of the depth of my guts like from a deep-sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in the isolation of a room. How could I convey that gnawing and devastating emotion of not feeling relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder.

The photograph, Vanishing Act from 1976, partially shows the torso of a nude standing on broken, wooden floorboards, in front of the wall of an obviously derelict building. The anonymous, faceless woman is half-covering her body with large sections of the peeling wallpaper – with which she seems to be almost merging. 

“Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

 

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

 

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course, her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed the song lyrics that I suddenly wondered, where and in which stage of her life would I find her? I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to thank her for the inspiration but I also wanted to share my work once the song was recorded…

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was staring at the ugly word – suicide.

Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

Suicide is usually the result of deep and dark depression, of being in a place of utter hopelessness. Maybe my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that very picture. Was that why ultimately, my writing had become fluent again? At the same time, questions started rolling in…

Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she able to channel these feelings so well, because she also suffered in such an intense way? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

No. I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close, almost intrusive upon her life, like a voyeur. So I refocused on my song and recorded it.

 

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture, and Sense of Composition

I didn’t go back to look at more of Woodman’s work until weeks later. A lot of it I still hadn’t seen and I was still very curious about it. What I really appreciate about her photographs is her self-expression, the use of textural elements, and her sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism may be “girlish” as some critics say, but it is also very self-exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. To think that, at 22, she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind is admirable.

For decades, photography was still thought to fall below painting in the hierarchy of mediums in art. It wasn’t accepted as fine art until the 1940s in the United States and the 1960s worldwide. But especially for women artists, it was an important medium because it granted a mode that was relatively free from the heavy, male-dominated history of the painted canvas.

There’s an anecdote that Woodman was asked by a friend, why she obsessively photographed herself. Her friend may have found it oddly narcissistic and simply still unusual. Because we mustn’t forget that Woodman created all of these self-portraits in the mid and late seventies – so long before the selfie developed as a medium of self-reflection and self-representation. Woodman replied, simply saying:

I am always available.

Woodman exclusively used herself as a model, which made me think of other female photographers, especially of another American photographer and filmmaker: Cindy Sherman. Sherman’s work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, in many different settings, with wigs, make-up, and props to create various imagined female characters. Another famous self-portraitist is Vivian Maier, considered the queen of street photography, who created many iconic pictures of her reflection in shop windows. There are many more of course, like Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) who focused on an exceptionally singular demographic – the marginalized. She captured the images of dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers, and many other surreal personas that captured her attention. She is often considered the Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) of photography because of her work as well as her early suicide.

 

© Diane Arbus, Untitled 1970-71
© Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1954
© Vivian Maier, Untitled, undated

The British art historian, Frances Borzello, who specializes in the social history of art, wrote a book on female self-portraits and female nudes. It is titled Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits. I found it most relevant, that she notes: The singular importance of this particular genre, the self-portrait is for women a “way to present a story about herself for public consumption,” a rare break from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by the male artist.

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

What strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. Frequently, the interiors are empty, decaying rooms, with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster, broken floorboards, and flaking paintwork. In their roughness, they are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. On the other hand, in many of her photographs, she seems to merge with her environment, which gives them a haunting quality.

The photographer, Victoria O’Rourke had similar thoughts about Woodman’s integration and depiction of wallpaper:

 

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall. ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

 

Wandering rooms like in quarantine

I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time

brain waves flickering, mercury mind

like a black’n white TV in 1969

 

Losing my mind, losing my mind…

“Losing my mind…” maybe we are all afraid of that sometimes, which is exactly why I had distanced myself from the artist after the initial encounter. I had peeped in but knew I had to protect myself and very quickly slam the book shut again. After learning about her suicide, it was painful to see her pale and vulnerable body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover, it was a fearless easiness and eagerness; revealing a form of self-exploration, that stood out against the derelict environment.

But another sensation that arose much later was gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture – and ultimately, with another creative force through my own art. The connection wasn’t formed through a biographical prism – or even the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. Because it can sometimes be difficult to push past layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice, a sense of sensationalism even… especially in an era of information overload, or fake news, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

 

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings. – Frances Livings

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work. She tried to expose herself and be literally, as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper. And I am fighting not to either…

 

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

 

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