Tuesday, June 28, 2011

For Whome the Bell Tolls, the old and the new.

Devotions on Emergent Occasions by John Donne
Now, this bell tolling for another, says to me, thou must die

 ...No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; 
every man is a peece of the Continent, 
a part of the maine; 

if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, 
Europe is the lesse, 
as well as if a Promontorie were, 
as well as if a Mannor of thy friends
or of thine owne were; 

any mans death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in Mankinde; 
And therefore never send to know 
for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee...

Not originally written as a poem but part of a longer segment of prose, this scholarly piece of religious writing has taken on a life of its own. It's hard to think of it as anything other than a poem, although of course it has spawned more literary writing than could possibly be searched on google.  It of course spawned the very famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway 1940) about Robert Jordan, a young American in the Spanish Civil War. Which of course led to another piece of "poetry" one that is even more famous than the other two, if google is to be believed.

But wait.  First - how did I find out about these pieces of writing?  I'm poorly educated in literature, after all school taught me literature is boring, there's no plot, and quite frankly honest I have the attention span best suited to children's books. The answer is of course, Metallica.  I knew nothing about Bells or tolling until I heard their song and in fact I dare say most people my age or younger would be the same.

 So here I am, about to be subversive.  I've heard that poets are.  Let's say that Metallica not only write poetry, but they are bloody good at it.  Almost undoubtedly the "real" Metallica fans would run screaming from the idea of poetry.  And to be fair, poets would run screaming from the idea of Metallica.  So now that I've annoyed pretty much everyone, and you're the only person reading, hopefully nobody will mind if I post a wee section of the lyrics up -- 

"...all is gone
except the will to be
Now they see what will be, 
blinded eyes to see

For whom the Bell Tolls..."

Burton, Clifford Lee; Hetfield, James Alan; Ulrich, Lars
If you want more, then google is your friend - although non metal-heads beware there's about two and a half minutes of guitar before the lyrics actually kick in. Which is ok if you like that sort of thing.  And I do.  Enough to go to their concert last year and be blown away by everybody from grannies to children exposed to lyrics that had a good deal of literary input.  In fact why don't I annoy a few more people and say Metallica are a bit like Shakespeare in terms of coalescing well known fragments of literature into a new whole designed entirely for the masses.
So all these people are being exposed to fragments of literature including a religious devotion whose essence was that when one person dies, we are the lesser; the importance of trust and following one's heart in "Nothing Else Matters," the complex lullabye "Enter Sandman" (I particularly love the Never Never Land reference, but the lyrics also encompass an old fashioned prayer, and use it in a delightfully sinister way.)  Magical is it not?  And these fragments are bound together by someone who has the ability to play with language at a level that is far more than skin deep.  This is the essence of poetry, is it not?  Albeit poetry produced with a sense of drama I as a writer have not even aspired to -- the music, the special effects, the sense of occasion, millions of fans pouring over the words to gather meaning, to find solace in their lives, deal with addiction, and identify with the emotions.  In fact I decided I should follow their example, and so for my next poetry reading there will be...

lasers and jets of fire... 

It'll be great. 

So there we have it, I dare you to take my hand...off to Never Never Land.  Peter Pan, Captain Hook and all the back Metallica tee-shirted lost-boys are probably still there, in the mosh pit almost a year later, and they're unlikely to come back either.  They had too much fun - with... poetry - and unabashed showmanship.  It might not be pretty, it might not be the best literature ever, but it is exciting.  And I dare say For Whom the Bell Tolls will inspire many others to read, write, listen and enjoy.


A.J. Ponder

(and yes this is a re-hash from something I wrote last year so I hope it's not too disjointed, but I'm always fascinated by how ideas move through different mediums, and how different shape and form can bring new meaning while still, to some extent, holding onto the old.  It also turned into a rather interesting conversation where - desperate to prove me wrong - Michael started naming Metallica songs he thought wouldn't be very poetical.  He had to stop himself - twice - before getting to a couple which we all agreed had no poetical merit - but by then he had rather proved the point.)

A.J. Ponder's work is available through Rona Gallery, Amazon, and good Wellington bookstores


  1. Very interesting, Alicia---mainly for the Metallica angle :-) because I was previously familiar with the Donne sermon extract and the Hemingway novel. What was the other 'even more famous' poem spawned by the book?

  2. Cheers, Helen - the whole thing was spawned really from the Metallica angle and so that's possibly why I didn't make it clear enough that the more famous "poem" was actually the lyrics for the metallica song, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (The lyrics topped my Google search at the time - gosh google is a fickle beast. Hmm - A Google Beast is definitely fickle, but I'm starting to wonder what other characteristics it should have ;)