A Meditation on Stringing Words Together: The National’s “Roman Holiday”

I’m still standing in the same place where you left me standing

“I Am Easy to Find,” The National

For those of us who love words and fall deeply in love with authors and pop music performers, few things are as exciting as new works. I listened for the first time to The National’s I Am Easy to Find on the release day during a long drive.

The first song, “You Had Your Soul with You,” had already been released so my rush happened on the second song, “Quiet Light,” when I felt the urge to cry before the lyrics even began.

And by the seventh song, the titular “I Am Easy to Find,” I could hold back no longer, crying steadily as I drove. There is something uniquely powerful about the combination of beautiful music and beautiful words strung together in a way that make your heart ache.

As an English teacher for about two decades during the first half of my career, I was always searching for an effective way to teach poetry well. Students tended not to like poetry but also had very narrow and mistaken associations with poetry—poetry rhymes, for example, and being overly concerned with what poems mean.

It probably seems trite, but I did find that investigating poetry—asking, what makes poetry, poetry?—combined with starting with pop music song lyrics helped allay student antagonism toward what I consider a beautiful and powerful form of human expression.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I grounded my poetry unit in the music of R.E.M. Although I now mainly teach education and writing courses, I continue to think as an English teacher—especially in terms of applying reading like a writer to text such as song lyrics to inform how we read and write well.

Especially with the rise of close reading, driven by the mostly now defunct Common Core, many formal lessons focusing on analyzing text remains trapped in false notions that meaning is restricted to the parameters of the text, words strung together on the page.

“I’m your hospital, I’m your silver cross,” opens The National’s “Roman Holiday,” preparing the listener for how to unpack these metaphors, but also confronting the arguments of close reading that meaning is a mechanical process bound to text only.

In the opening verse as well, “Patti wasn’t lonely, Robert wasn’t lost” establishes the factual basis of the song, explained by the primary lyricist, Matt Berninger:

I am a huge fan of that book [Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids], but I was actually looking at Judy Linn’s book of Patti Smith photos. A lot of the imagery in it is of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe when they were really young, just hanging out in their apartment: dressing up, taking pictures of each other, looking cool. It’s such a beautiful portrait of pals, such a romance. And then there’s also a line I took from Patti Smith’s Instagram, a comment she sent to somebody who had just lost someone to suicide: “Please think the best of him.” I found it incredibly moving. I was just obsessed with her kindness and her wisdom in the face of so many sad things.

Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife and co-lyricist on The National lyrics for several of the recent albums, adds how being a lyricist is similar to poetry in an interview:

You have a background in poetry and as a writer and editor. How is lyric writing similar or different than what you’ve done in the past?

I think I probably like the same thing about poems and song lyrics. When I read poems or listen to a song I love, I get very hung up on certain lines, especially lines I both don’t and do understand. I love that. But it’s not that impressive. It’s like being attracted to sequins. I don’t really understand story or plot well, but I love a way of finding that compressed or cock-eyed way of saying the thing, so that you can kind of re-hear the thing, or so that you can hear the feeling of thought on its way.

Any kind of language on the way to an idea, I tend to like. It’s mysterious enough to me that I stay interested. I also love songs where the singer is rambling on and almost doesn’t seem to hear what the song is doing. Or when a vocal melody slides around in order to make a point. I also sometimes feel like with song-making, there are all these bags of fireworks laying around, so many ways in a song with a singer and against the backdrop of all the musical ideas, so many ways to try to make an impression.

As a foundational text to investigate poetry—genre, mode, form—”Roman Holiday” is a powerful experience for students. Typically, using pop music, I ask students to listen to the song once without any lyrics; I then do a second listening with the lyric before the students.

Without context, “Roman Holiday” may be read a number of valid ways, focusing on unpacking the technique (metaphor, rhyme/half-rhyme, sound devices, imagery, motifs) in a traditional process (think New Criticism and close reading).

The half-rhymes are engaging (cross/lost, rains/shame, him/museum) and sounds help give the lyrics cohesion (please/police). But analyzing “Roman Holiday” decontextualized ultimately fails the song and the reading; better is to place the song in a text set including:

Technique and craft of the lyrics and the entire song are effective and powerful, but they are vehicles for the much larger discourse between a variety of texts and modes of expression, including photography, memoir, and social media.

If close reading guides coming to understand “Roman Holiday,” we are having an incomplete experience. This song depends on history, controversy, and two influential artists, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

How Smith, specifically, has resonated as an artist and thinker while Mapplethorpe died much younger builds along with Smith’s response to suicide (“Please, think the best of him”) to something both grounded in these two lives and the greater and more complex human condition.

While reading and interpreting text remains concepts misunderstood and misrepresented in the media and by the public, this sort of rich and complex unpacking of “Roman Holiday” speaks to how NCTE defines reading:

Reading is a complex and purposeful sociocultural, cognitive, and linguistic process in which readers simultaneously use their knowledge of spoken and written language, their knowledge of the topic of the text, and their knowledge of their culture to construct meaning with text. Each of these types of knowledge impacts the sense that readers construct through print. Readers easily comprehend text with familiar language but are less successful at comprehending text with unfamiliar language. Readers easily comprehend text on familiar topics but are less successful at comprehending texts on unfamiliar topics. At the same time, the interpretations readers construct with texts as well as the types of texts they read are influenced by their life experiences.

Without a knowledge of the topic of this song (Smith and Mapplethorpe’s relationship), a close reading misses a great deal. Yes, there is really compelling craft here, but there is also history and deep emotion.

Pop songs, like poetry, lend them selves to re-listening/rereading. Meaning grows, even blossoms with each experience because we are always a different person each time we re-listen/reread.

The meaning of any text is never fixed, never simply trapped in the stringing together of words.

For me, “There are police in the museum/She said please” stays with me after hearing the song; the use of “police/please” haunts me.

I am uncertain I can articulate why, but it certainly has meaning—and that meaning is more than intellect, enriched by emotion.


See Also

Florence Welch on Sobriety, Embracing Loneliness and Loving Patti Smith

Florence + The Machine – Patricia

Advertisements