Monday, September 20, 2010


A few paragraphs from Bill Holm

Found a few paragraphs I liked in "The Music of Failure," an essay by Bill Holm in his essay collection The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth (published in 2000 by Milkweed Editions).

The essay is in some respects the cornerstone of the collection; the book title is taken from a sentence in the essay. Holm, who lived 1943 to 2009, was originally from the town of Minneota, Minnesota (in the open prairie country in the southwestern part of the state), and after time away he moved back to the town and lived the later years of his life there. (No typo above -- the name of the town is spelled like the name of the state, but without the "s.") In "The Music of Failure" -- originally published in 1985 -- he explores some of the faulty notions of "success," and what sometimes has passed for failure in (particulary) the mainstream culture of the United States in the past three or four centuries; he poses questions about what kind of life is most worth living.

Near the beginning of the essay, Holm quotes, in full, section 19 of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

With strong music I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquered and slain persons.

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.

Vivas to those who have fail'd!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!

Reading these lines, I wonder what the effect might be, on the individual people and on the society we live in, if the above passage were posted on the wall of every high school team locker room, in every military barracks, every office and factory and used car lot. What if schoolchildren started each day standing as a group and saying these lines?

In his essay, Holm goes on to talk about leaving his home town in the early years of the war in Vietnam; he talks about the peeling open of the underside of U.S. society and culture in those years at the shortcomings of national self-assurance began to reveal themselves: "...a president or two shot, an economy collapsed, a man whom every mother in American warned every child against accepting rides or candy from was in the flesh overwhelmingly elected president [Holm here refers to Richard Nixon], and then drummed into luxurious disgrace for doing the very things those mothers warned against. The water in American turned out to be poisoned. Cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago were invisible under air that necessitated warning notices in the newspaper. [...] Oil gurgled onto gulls' backs north of San Francisco. The war finally ended in disgrace, the secretary of state mired as deep in lies as Iago. America, the realized dream of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment, seemed to have sunk into playing out a Shakespearean tragedy, or perhaps a black comedy."

"Yet," Holm continues, "as history brought us failure, it brought us no wisdom. [...] It was not 'good to fall,' not good to be 'sunk in the sea,' not good to be among the 'numberless unknown heroes.' We elected, in fact, a famous actor to whom failure was incomprehensible as history itself, a man who responded to visible failure around him by ignoring it and cracking hollow jokes."

And then, a few paragraphs further on:

"The first settlers of America imagined paradise, God's city made visible on earth. Grand rhetoric for a pregnancy, it was, like all births, bloodier and messier than anyone imagined at the moment of conception. English Puritans who came to build a just and godly order began by trying to exterminate Indian tribes. They tried to revise the English class system of rich landowners and poor yeomen by sharing a common bounty, but this lasted only until somebody realized that true profit lay in landowning, here as in England. The same settlers who declared with Proudhon that "property is theft" wound up working as real estate agents. Old European habits of success died hard.

"Hypocrisy is not unusual in human history; it is the order of the day. What has always been usual in the United States is the high-toned rhetoric that accompanied our behavior, our fine honing of the art of sweeping contradictions under the rug with our eternal blank optimism. But if we examined, without sentimentality, the failures and contradictions of our own history, it would damage beyond repair the power of that public rhetoric, would remove the arch-brick from the structure of the false self we have built for ourselves, in Minneota as elsewhere.

"I labored under the weight of that rhetoric as a boy, and when I am tired now, I labor under it still. It is the language of football, a successful high school life, and earnest striving and deliberate ignoring, money, false cheerfulness, mumbling about weather. Its music is composed by the radio, commercials for helpful banks and deodorants breathing out at you between stanzas [...] you are serenaded by tiny orchestras hidden hidden in elevators or in rafters above discount stores. It is the music of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It is not what Whitman had in mind by beating and pounding for the dead. True dead, unlike false dead, hear what we sing to them."


I had known of Bill Holm, and his writing, for many years, though I hadn't read anything of his until this past week. I'll keep reading him.

Bill Holm's website is still available on online, here.

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