Thursday, May 29, 2014

The minutiae of the physical world

One of Van Morrison's inspirations on Astral Weeks was his deep, youthful communion with nature—or the idea that our external environments oftentimes reflect the order or turmoil of our everyday lives. Scanning Astral Weeks' lyrics, one finds a total of 70 references to the natural world. That breaks down to 8.75 per track—or one reference every 40.4 seconds. "Ballerina" has zero. Interestingly, the totals in the album's remaining compositions can be arranged in a neat and tidy numerical order: eight in "Slim Slow Slider," nine in the title track, 10 in "Madame George," 11 in "The Way Young Lovers Do," 12 in "Cyprus Avenue," and 13 in "Sweet Thing."

(Full disclosure: I stuck to a somewhat loose, but still well defined meaning of the term "natural world": as in, that which exists independently of human activities—or what exists without human beings or civilization. That meant no "road," "street," or "avenue." "Ditch," which features prominently in the title track, was included in that song's final tally, since a ditch by definition can be man-made or naturally constructed. Meanwhile, words with multiple definitions [i.e., "world" and "air"] were counted. So were "Madame George"'s "frosty" and "cold" since Morrison was not using them to describe, say ... a person's demeanor, but rather the weather. I know you care about all this as deeply as I do.)

Morrison's avid devotion to the natural world and his capacity for drawing inspiration from it puts him shoulder to shoulder with countless other Irish wordsmiths. Tim Pat Coogan's 2000 book on the history of Irish emigration, Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora, details the island's preoccupation with the minutiae of the physical world, the responsiveness of its poetic traditions to "the small details of nature: a bird singing, the moon in the water, a fall of rain, the sudden surge of delight while in the midst of natural things." This Irish reverence for one's physical surroundings—and as an extension, to quote Coogan once more, a reverence for "their families, their native places, their own distinctive sagas"—explains the indelible longing many emigrants have for Ireland, even decades after departing.

So while Astral Weeks' words, themes, and ideas hardly qualify as groundbreaking, they do play a crucial role in preserving what makes Irish writing truly Irish. Nature, and all its countless and extraordinary elements, critically shapes the stories many Irish writers tell. What Astral Weeks accomplished was to take this singular creative approach from the pages of novels and poetry anthologies and transfer it to the grooves of an LP.

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