Gerald Dawe Reviews Lit Up Inside
Belfast poet and former alumnus of Orangefield Boys School gives ‘the score’ to Van Morrison’s literary art.
The score to Van Morrison’s art: Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics
Review: A collection of Van Morrison’s lyrics reveals the poetic voice and lyrical grace in his work
In his August 1972 High Pop column for The Irish Times Stewart Parker opened his review of Van Morrison’s Saint Dominic’s Preview: “Belfast should name a street after Van Morrison. Of all the hard men from the industrial provinces of these islands who made their names during the 1960s by imitating black R&B singers, he alone has gone on to fulfil his promise . . . He has done it through perseverance, determination, steady toil: so a city that has always prided itself on its Puritan work ethic could scarcely find a worthier offspring to honour.”
Belfast – “the streets that I came from”, as Morrison has it – honoured George Ivan Morrison with the freedom of the city in 2013, and Morrison is respected, indeed revered, in many cities and countries throughout North America and Europe and further afield. His standing as a singer-songwriter has been well established since he stepped outside the community of all the various bands he played in as a young musician and lead singer going back to the early 1960s.
But, as Parker knew well, there was much more to this familiar story. The “singing is only a part of Morrison’s music. He is an artist who has gradually achieved control over all the components of his material – he writes the songs, orchestrates and produces them. The result is an entirely distinctive sound which is always unmistakably his own.”
Now, with the timely publication of Lit Up Inside, the reader of poetry can see what Parker was getting at all those years ago. Because Morrison’s lyrics, selected here by fellow Belfast man Eamonn Hughes, carry within them the conviction of a spiritual journey, although one that should bear Morrison’s own caveat: “It used to be my life, now it’s become my story”, as he reminds us in Pay the Devil. These lyrics are witness to love gained and lost, of a search for home as the poignancy of childhood and innocence is viewed through the realities of hard-earned experience.
The language of street song
Throughout Morrison’s writing – in the language of street song and declaimed literary allusion, the rhythms of ballad bolstered with the throwaway lines of local speech – the yearning poet’s voice seeks to recapture a past that is cast within the most emblematic of inner-city landscapes and harbours of voyage.
Ship foghorns echo like dream songs, as do the misty gardens and magical secret places of adolescence, from the back room to street corners; all are recalled as memories, physically voiced on stage and represented now in these pages as artful expressions of simply being here:
Look at the ivy on the old clinging wall Look at the flowers and the green grass so tall It’s not a matter of when push comes to shove It’s just the hour on the wings of a dove It’s just warm love, it’s just warm love.
The lyrical beat of repetition, the imploring questions, the injunctions matter a lot because of the spokenness of Lit Up Inside. These songs of innocence and experience are addressed to someone, and by the time the lyric has entered the mainstream it is “you” and “I” who are doing the talking. At stake too there are songs of emigration – Celtic Ray a perfect example – and the inside story of “the show business” and its “rat race” finds no clearer expression than The Great Deception or Why Must I Always Explain?
here is a kind of mini-history within Lit Up Inside, a condensed version of how a particular time survives in the poet’s mind, revealing in Wild Children some of the iconic post-war names of the great transatlantic popular culture – Tennessee Williams, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, James Dean, a host of musicians such as Sidney Bechet and also the famous Beat generation of Jack Kerouac, name-checked elsewhere alongside Beckett and Joyce. And in Summertime in England and Rave on, John Donne, playful cascading litanies to the joy of simply living (“It just is, that’s all there is about it”) Morrison stretches the line of meaning to exclamation, and the incantatory point of his performance:
Did you ever hear about, did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge Smokin’ up in Kendal?
These trance-like, free-forming lyrics are amazing, for there is little in contemporary music with which to compare, say, Burning Ground or the earlier Madame George with its dramatised epiphany of farewell:
When you fall into a trance Sitting on a sofa playing games of chance With your folded arms and history books you glance Into the eyes of Madame George.
But what stays in the heart and soul of Morrison’s selected lyrics is the revelatory images of Brand New Day, the portrait of his father in Choppin’ Wood, the remarkable hymns to family life, On Hyndford Street, the drifty, unmoored mantra of Take Me Back, the transcendent simplicity of Have I Told You Lately?, the joyful reveal in The Way Young Lovers Do or the upbeat uncomplicated praise of Moondance:
Well, it’s a marvellous night for a moondance With the stars up above in your eyes A fantabulous night to make romance ’Neath the cover of October skies.
Searching for an authentic past
In common with the great “anti-phoney” Patrick Kavanagh, whose lyrical grace Morrison resembles at times, the characteristic walking down familiar streets in search of that elusive authentic past finds an utterly unique and mischievously vernacular rendering in Cleaning Windows:
Oh Sam was up on top and I was on the bottom with the V we went for lemonade and Paris buns at the shop and broke for tea I collected from the lady and I cleaned the fanlight inside out I was blowing saxophone on the weekend in a Down joint.
What’s my line? I’m happy cleaning windows. ”
Cleaning Windows brings an unexpected reminder about just how much living and working has gone into the making of Morrison’s writing and on the road, in the heaps of other places work has taken him, from Somerset and London to California and Canada, Geneva and Scandinavia. But the talismanic Orangefield of east Belfast is at the heart’s core with its “Sunday six bells” and
Going up the Castlereagh Hills and the Cregagh Glens in summer and coming back to Hyndford Street, feeling wondrous and lit up inside.
Van Morrison’s glorious art, for which these lyrics are the score, comes close to perfection in In the Garden, which opens, as if for the very first time, with his own confounded ecstatic recollection, since that “always” is complicated with an emotional understanding that means much more than remembrance:
The fields are always wet with rain After a summer shower When I saw you standing, standing in the garden In the garden wet with rain.