Translation and Reinvigorating Old Works

Language, even when falling on the right side of intelligibility and dialect, can still be a barrier to readers.

Note: I will largely be speaking to English, as it is the language I am most familiar with, though I feel confident in saying this issue spans across languages and language groups.

Reading the works of Chaucer in their original written form makes it quite apparent why the stories get updated. In fact, these updates are more like a translation from Middle English — something unfamiliar enough that it requires a translation — to a more modern form of our language (though they tend to keep the sonnet form, so it is not an outright rejection for the sake of the story, so much as a compromise to ease barriers to entry and enjoyment). I remember when I first read the Canterbury Tales, I did so in Modern English. The Middle English isn’t so far removed from contemporary language that I couldn’t do it, but it felt like needless suffering, on some level, and, clearly, if there were editions that came in Modern English, there must be a need for them. Middle English, though, would be a comfortable space to translate. There’s a need, but not a necessity. It is the threshold, where Beowulf would lay on the other side, needing either translation or an education in Old English in order to be read.

Obviously, translations are necessary for works written in entirely different languages. The dividing line is immediate. Is it in Russian? Translate it. Is it French? Translate it. German? Translate. Often it is said that certain elements of a work may be lost in translation. I often wonder if those can even be retained when learning the language for the sake of the book, but that is a bit of a tangent.

What’s important to me right now is this idea that translating a work updates it. I’ve read The Idiot twice. The second time, I was handed a book and told “this is the better translation” as though it was an objective truth. I didn’t much question it at the time, and in fact, I found the experience much more enjoyable with the newer translation I was handed. It wasn’t until later that I realized an important distinction should be made between translations: the era in which they were produced.

Translations inherently modernize a book. The books are made to be more consumable by contemporary speakers of the language they are translated into, barring certain attempts at keeping to semi-analogous archaic dialect. Seldom would one translate a work like the poetry of Rumi or Water Margin or The Tale of Genji into Middle English for the sake of such a parallel. Certain words — like ye, thine, thou, etc — might be retained for an archaic feel, but that is largely in the interest of the illusion of the text. In the case of The Idiot, I found the contemporary translation much less cumbersome. Perhaps that would be less true to form. Perhaps the book ought to be an unwieldy mess of a story for the sake of accuracy to the way it was originally written. Or perhaps the book I read the first time through was genuinely bad at getting across all the feelings, notions, and circumstances it was supposed to. Such measures of quality are even harder to gauge when there is an incommunicable “original” version to compare to.

And these are all important questions, to be sure. But they do not strike the heart of my focus.

Let’s pick on Dickens. Or we could pick on Herman Melville. Or Robert Louis Stephenson. Or even Jane Austen.

All of their books are certainly decipherable. All of them are comfortable enough to read in the way they were written that they do not necessitate the treatment Chaucer or Beowulf get. But they also miss out on the treatment Dostoevsky gets. Suggesting that one rewrite the works of Austen to make them more “modern” would likely be considered blasphemous, but that must happen when they’re translated into other languages, no? How could it not, were it not for the fact that English, as the current hegemonic language gets more attention and likely is more valued/marketable for writers. (Put another way: does the world really need more than one translation of Absalom, Absalom! into Dutch?)

There are always “definitive translations” of an era. Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was noted for being the best one yet. We already had translations though. He wasn’t the first to pull that tale from out of its depths in Old English and center it somewhere more modern. As time marches on, we may find ourselves with another version of Beowulf, as Heaney’s version becomes clunky to our changed sensibilities. As time moves forward, another iteration of The Idiot may yet be published. But we won’t get the same treatment for Persuasion, for example, unless language moves so far that we enter another dialectic era. And I suppose that leaves me wondering if such a thing is good or bad. It leaves me wondering if retooling a book could even have a market. Film adaptations seem to imply they do, but they’re often met with the criticism levied at many “unique” retellings of Romeo and Juliet, that the “modernizing” feels more like a gimmick or a cheap filter. Perhaps these retellings need their gimmicks in order to stand apart — to not be plagiarist works or to avoid being called lazy. Perhaps it’s that any idiot can tell the story of Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary manner and that nobody can tell it like Shakespeare told it. Yet, there’s something to be said for the art these translators, perhaps unwittingly, perform in modernizing stories without changing the setting, circumstances, or characters. It makes me curious if the byproduct that is modernization could ever be faithfully reproduced in “translating” a book from English into English.

I’m left wondering what such endeavors might even look like.

Villainy and Agency: The Appeal of Active Evil in Narrative

Protagonists may be our narrative stand in, but we certainly root for the forces in their way more than we would for ourselves.

There are many forces we might root for in a story. There are many reasons we might root for our hero. There are many ways to write a hero. There are many circumstances in which we recognize heroic acts, but heroes are not always our favorites. Individually, many of them seem unique, having their own lives and powers, some as stand-in average joes, others as grand nigh unstoppable forces.

Sometimes we root for the forces that stop them.

That would be a villain as obstacle, and we ordinarily don’t find them as appealing. Part of it has to do with the fact that you don’t characterize a hurdle. The other part — a part I find central to the appeal of most of the greatest villains, is that those villains lack agency. They’re often relegated to being a stepping stone for heroes, as a means to gain some greater power or knowledge of themselves.

Agency and motive are integral to the development and viability of a character. Villains almost always tend to have both of these, while protagonists often have one or the other. You may not know the villain’s reasoning (as they save it for a big reveal at the end when their plan is explained), but you want to. As I will discuss later, motives for villains have shifted towards being either more grounded in reality and human desires or in being (almost) morally good — only problematic in their means.

The weakness of a world that posits a “good” and “evil” stance is that it doesn’t tend to allow for perspective. Most of the villains that end up having motives we empathize with, in this model, are then recast in a “but-was-he-really-evil?” sort of way. I mean, all he wanted was to save his dying wife. I mean, all she wanted was to stop her country from suffering. I mean, all they wanted was revenge for a perceived wronging or slight. This is the simple version of providing moral grayness, often thrown in at the last minute to humanize a character. I would argue it as a cheap trick.

Real morality (like real poetry) has to be inspired by feelings that go beyond ourselves. To claim a moral center because you want personal revenge or because you want closure in some way depends on the scope of the narrative. But I argue that unless we are thoroughly charmed by the villain in a story where the only conflict and only consequences exist between a wronged protagonist and a violent antagonist, we won’t like them. If all the villain has done is murder a family (but only because he needed their life essence in order to save his dead wife, not out of malice, of course), maim or rape someone, or bring destruction to a village out of fear or desire for personal gain, we tend to enjoy their demise — we tend to seek poetic justice in some way. But those stories are often the ones that center agency away from the villain. The villain is being hunted down in those and the protagonist is actively motivated to find them.

And yet many stories about heroes are framed as stopping some evil person with an evil plan. Those are the stories where villains have the agency. It’s a different kind of chase. The villain is always actively changing the pieces on the board, always one step ahead, always the force of change in the world. The hero, in those cases, is always a reactionary. Their motive can be external, to some capacity, but it’s often weakly offered up as, “because it’s the right thing to do.” Sometimes they are given additional characterization via trauma like they once watched their own friend die at the hands of the (or a similar) villain, and they don’t want anyone to suffer that way they did — but this is still with the base assumption that even without that pain or lesson, the hero would still act in a morally good manner. Their tragic backstory only motivated them away from a normal life — it did not provide them their moral center. The hero stumbles on scenes of destruction and tries to mitigate the damage, or is forced into conflict with some minor force — sometimes by a sense of moral obligation — but they don’t pick the fight. These are the stories where we find villains more evocative.

Blade Runner is a great example of this (one I will not belabor, nor spoil, for the sake of those who have not seen it). The protagonist is, in essence, a hunter sent to track down someone — he’s a detective. And sure enough, he’s always on the trail, but that means he’s always following. And his motives are weak to some capacity, he does it because he’s good. The villain sees additional characterization in every scene he has, sometimes alongside cruel behavior, sometimes through it. The last scene sees an inversion of the story, and the notion of who is chasing who gets murky.

We also tend to find stories that get playful with moral perspective, with who is the villain and who is the hero, or that position our hero against an ordinarily “good” society to be evocative, often for reasons relating to agency. We can like the hero that, from the perspective of the world at large that the narrative takes place in, is the villain.

Depth in villains is a somewhat recent trend, possibly borne out of the lack of a clear antagonist force in Western society. Of course, we still tend to posit ideology as an enemy in the form of terrorists/extremists, but I think, even without realizing, our media tends to acknowledge the lack of totality in their threat: that there is no continent spanning society of terrorists, realistically. But Blade Runner existed before the collapse of our easy antagonist ideology found in the Soviet Union and communism. Many things with evocative antagonists have. I would argue that it’s not the rise of depth in villains so much as the downfall of comfortable simplicity. We no longer live in a world where it’s easy to cast an individual or collective as “the enemy” and deserving of no mercy, and I think that extends into the narratives we create, but I imagine this could be a topic all its own to explore.

In short, we like villains because, and when, they are their own protagonists. Calling them antagonists implies they are in someone’s way, when really the hero is the one who’s only goal is to get in the way of the villain’s dream.

Poetry and “maturing” tastes

Poetry as an art is subjective not only in quality but in interpretation and experience.

Such experiences are difficult to shape as an author. It is questionable that such shaping should even be attempted. I suppose, in that,it parallels the ethics of psychology or propagandistic advertisement. Ought we, as writers write what we think will tug at people? What will resonate? As mentioned in a previous post, poetry is weak if it does not resonate — if it is incapable of communicating — but what about the other side? What about not accounting for taste, but being accountable for our tastes?

My own tastes have certainly changed with time. As I have changed as a person, so too have my tastes, with equally unclear catalysts. I cannot point to moments in my life and say “that’s it, that’s where I realized I disliked enjambment” but somehow that feeling sits in me, to this day. I have no idea what happened, but something changed. To call it a realization implies it has always been that way, but I do not think that is true. This is most evident, however, in my own work.

In writing poems, I have clearly changed my style over time. What may not be so clear, however, is that as my tastes have “matured,” a sense of contempt for works I once found ideal or perfect also developed. Often, my past work frustrates me, sometimes enough to require a complete rewrite, as I still find the underlying concepts interesting. In one case, a poem I wrote has 14 versions on record. Here is a more recent poem that sat in a position relative “perfection” for nearly four years:

Some would say that God was there
Others knew it was just the Faeries.
For some, for many, nature is a place of peace.
That is God.
Order in all things.
Structure and a reason.
It is meditation that seeks an inner silence,
a stillness to wander in.
A slice of oblivion to inhabit.

For others, Nature is a place of Chaos.
Those are the Faeries.
Disorder with harmony, bound without clarity.
It is meditation that seeks reverberations,
Being amidst a thousand echoes

And then I read it one day, and nothing about it sat well enough with me. I still loved the ideas behind it and certain images and even specific word choices, but for whatever reason, after four years of being content with it, I suddenly felt it was deeply inadequate. In this case, the alterations I made were drastic. It’s almost fair to say the rewrite was more so an entirely different poem than a retooling or fixing. This is how it turned out instead:

Some would say that God was there
Wandering past the trees,
But something else stalked sylvan air:
A cohort, circus, of Faeries.

God implied a harmony:
Order in a quiet breeze;
Whistling reeds as symphony;
A choir nestled in the trees.

Earth enchanted
To follow lead.

But in a moment, contrast stands.
The winds have turned and balance shakes.
Shouldered by brittle wingspans,
Faeries beg the birds debate.

And the woods erupt in raucous chirps
Irreverent of time and place.
Yet a certain harmony is birthed
Left by Chaos, in its wake.

A breath is taken
And the wind is freed.

In some ways, even now, I feel discontent about it. But I also feel a lot better — enough so that I’ve let this poem represent me in a few contests.

And yet, I feel as though even if this version single-handedly won me a contest, or was placed in a literary magazine, front and center, ready to print and spread across the world, I would still find it unfinished or perhaps wrong. Even with all the validation in the world, this specific version would still feel incorrect at its fringe.

I seldom seek critique for poetry, not because I fear it, but because I feel like I wouldn’t be able to respect it as much as with writing. I would, of course, listen to what others had to say, but with poetry, I find the locus of authority on my work is much harder to share, or perhaps is simply more limited to myself. I do not claim to be a greater expert in poetry than prose, but with prose, I am much more receptive to responses — I actively seek beta readers and critique when I can (and I fear that my requests for critique are an imposition), even though I am not necessarily lacking confidence in my work.

In poetry, I am much more aware of the risks of subjectivity, not only between myself and others, but within myself.

The Rain and Subjective Images

Rain is, perhaps, the simplest and most common argument I can make for subjective tastes in people.

At first, I thought it might be color, but deep down I am always plagued by the idea that no two people see colors the same way–that grand question of perspective every seventh grader eventually stumbles into– but then I realized that there was a more persistent image, shared in media, culture, even education, while simultaneously countered in those very same things.

Calling rain important to the planet, to us as people, is a drastic understatement. Though, I remember a time, as a child when every little song we learned and half the impetus for my picture books was that the rain had come and ruined what was supposed to be a sunny, shiny day. The plot would be about finding ways to be content with the rain– to do something indoors. Or it would be framed slightly more sinister, as a way to hide from storms, in all their lights, sounds, and sensation.

But I always loved the rain. Growing up, I thought that made me weird. As a teen, I felt it was a sign I was moody, to prefer the grey skies and the contrast of a vibrant downpour that shook my vision of everything in between. And sometimes I still feel that way, though I’ve been keen on expressing my love more and found that many people prefer rain the way I do.

In fact, the last time I met someone and they said “no, not really” when I asked if they enjoyed the rain in spring, or summer storms, it almost felt like I couldn’t trust the person. I was surprised in a way. How do they clear their miasmas? Do they let their problems bake away in the sun, instead of washing away?

As benign as their distaste was, it felt like something I could not get over–could not overcome about them.

Rain has often been a positive symbol in my poetry, as it has in my life. Every time it rains and I hoped it would, I feel a sense of calm, tempered only by my worry that my desires have inconvenienced the working world around me. But that doesn’t stop me from hoping.

Sunlight can be depicted as harsh and blinding. Sunlight can mean death and withering in unforgiving heat, just as rain can be set up as bleak and dreary. It’s subjective, like most experiences. And yet it was, perhaps, the first time I identified preference as feeling deeply wrong in the media I was handed.

Maybe I loved rain because I lived on a hill and the water never pooled much, it dynamically flowed, even with the lightest consistent drizzle. I cannot day for sure. One thing I noted as I grew up and attached more memories and feelings of and about individuals to seasons and weather is that nobody could claim the rain. Spring represented one lost love, winter another, fall a few select friends, and summer still holds a sense of carefree lingering with certain people, even as summer has faded from being a significant break, a vacation, into being just another set of work weeks. But rain, rain has remained independent. I’ve weathered hurricanes beside lovers, I’ve stood under awnings, reveling in the quiet open air intimacy provided, I’ve spent hours in rain in the company of others– yet nobody has taken it from me. Rain never reminds me of any one person in the way other seasons and weathers have dragged me to certain memories. Perhaps that is a comfort all its own.

So much of this has been an exploration of my feelings, and so little an exploration of subjective tastes or imagery. But I think it proves my point as well as any dissection of picture books and cartoons and songs might. Right now, there are people who might be reading this who “don’t get it–“ people who don’t understand why I love the rain, the same way I can’t follow their distaste, and that proves my point better than any analysis could hope to.

In rain, I’ve found joy. Sometimes my inhibitions melt away for a moment, and I feel free to walk the steaming asphalt, barefoot, or to forego any shielding from the torrents, onlookers be damned, satisfied that wherever I turn up, people will try to commiserate with my damp self, only for me to lack empathy in what they deem a tragedy of sorts–

To be caught in the rain.

Short post: learning experiences so far this week

This is going to be mostly bullet pointed mentions with occasional explanations.

I’ve been doing this for, what? Like five or so days now? I feel like I’ve learned a lot about attempts at consistency and what to do regarding tone and focus.

  • I’m not actually too worried about making my blog(s) into a narrow experience of just my professional efforts, poetry, portfolo, or life events. It will shape itself out over time.
  • It’s good to have this formative period where like maybe 20 people see what I’ve written (across both platforms) per post.
  • Mobile publishing is hard if you want any of the “fancy” stuff like block quotes.
  • Medium on mobile, at least via its app does not let you highlight across paragraphs, meaning I should write content on WordPress first and copy it over to Medium if writing from my phone.
  • Scheduling posts is great.
  • Writing about whatever comes to mind is fine, as long as it’s your rough draft and you explore the idea with some actual aim.
  • Sometimes posts get no attention when they drop but pick up later
  • Twitter is a great way to notify people that you’ve made content automatically.
  • It’s also a good way to contact people.
  • Writing posts that will eventually link up with, overlap slightly with, or bleed into future topics is a good way to keep people reading.
  • Pictures in a post might be less necessary than every platform is telling me they are.
  • Poetry is well suited to either platform but I think I’ll keep it on WordPress if not in a lit mag.
  • The downside of being general in content is that viewers might expect otherwise and be confused when one post is about AI and the next is Christian rock.

More will presumably be added to this list or in another post some time.

The creation of “immature” poetry

Poetry is often described as a personal art, expressive to a point nearing complete subjectivity.

Poetry is often described as a personal art, expressive to a point nearing complete subjectivity.

Yet, there are certain measures of objective quality. We have a sense when a poem is innately bad, rooted in subjective matters of taste and interpretation. That much is hardly in debate. Opinions will always be plentiful and varied when it comes to poems, though some near being of an “objective” perspective, given their years of experience, practice, or prominence within poet circles. One might be tempted to claim that the only platform for judgment of a poem is from atop the peaks of one’s own experience. Given the nature of poetry as written word that bends and breaks the rules of prose in terms of structure, grammar, and even narrative, it would be fair to become an unerring skeptic of the idea that poetry might ever have a chance at a fair, objective trial. Yet, I would argue there are certain measures of objective quality — or at least subjective tastes so universal that they approach as close as we can to an objective stance. One such issue is on the nature of an “immature” poem. But what do I mean by that?

There exists a certain cliché that stalks poetry as an art —  the notion of moody teen poetry, steeped in self-interest.

But why is that poetry bad? What gives it the natural position at the bottom of poetry’s quality and skill curve? How can it be so clearly labeled? More importantly, why is that label such a communicable term?

It is an immature attempt to explore one’s ego — confined to one’s ego. One’s inner-self or ego can be a powerful thing to explore in poetry and prose, but it has to be done properly in order for people to connect with it. The cliché of a bad poem is a work that fails to connect with people. Even when viewed a thousand times, creating it has the same effect as screaming into a void.

A line like “my heart is darkness and I am bleak like the moon, soaked in the blood of a thousand ravens” sits poorly. It isn’t inherently bad on every level. So let’s look at where it fails. The imagery isn’t weak, thought it might be a bit dissonant, given the idea of bleakness contrasting with something being soaked, but it’s far from outright awful. The words are strong, if not a bit excessive. Some people might even resonate with it. The words are used properly. The problem is the possessive nature of the statement. It may not come across as possessive at first read, because it is a declaration of one’s feelings, but that is where its possession thrives. It is claiming ownership of a certain feeling. Starting with “my” and reinforcing with “I” serves to weaken the applicability to readers. It’s not the expression of or the story of an experience that other people can claim. It comes with the unwritten caveat of “and nobody will ever feel the same way I have felt.”

When I first began writing poems, I did so in a manner that heavily relied on using “I.” As I grew older and wrote more, I started to notice that every poem that heavily relied on being statements about myself and my feelings bugged me. They felt weak, uncomfortable, embarrassing — but the embarrassment was not from the vulnerability they represented, it was from the lack of quality or demonstrable value. At best, I’d written a wordy way to say “I’m sad about something that happened recently but I would like to keep the reason vague.” I’m sure other people have felt that, but it simply isn’t evocative.

A good poem can take the fringes of one’s experience in an emotion and tug on them to bring someone into a condition of empathizing outside their own direct experiences. That’s why love is such a common subject — even among the famous and talented poets. Everyone has experienced love in some way, but no two loves are the same, so we have to rely on the common threads, the shared fringes that poetry can pull on.

As time went on, I learned to not only feel bad about using “I” but to outright reject it whenever possible. The reasons are different from, but not entirely dissimilar to that of writing a formal essay without “I.” You don’t want the reader to think these are your opinions, in an essay. In a poem, you don’t want them to believe that these emotions or thoughts are unique to you. You want to resonate with people. You want people to connect to your work.

Here is a poem I wrote in March of 2011, before I had even graduated High School — a poem that I have filed away in a folder marked: “Borderline Irredemable Poems from the edgy sad starter days”

I seek forgiveness where there is no fault
I in myself create this guilt
I cannot help and am to blame
For all misfortunes that are dealt

There is this sense
Of helplessness
Which I feel
And seek to redress

But in itself
There is no cure
A fatal flaw
of distinct allure.

Can you see what I mean? Most of the poem is declarative of my feelings. It doesn’t explain anything. It is, in part, another example of failing to show, rather than tell, but more importantly, it doesn’t even go so far as what telling does and tell you about an experience or events or a narrative. It tells you that I feel guilt, that I seek forgiveness. It doesn’t help the reader feels these notions. It lacks any and all subtlety.

Of course, moody poems are not the only genre to fall into this trap, just the most common for the cliché. Love poems do it as well, but I think because love poems tend to flatter their victim, there is no accounting for taste. Moody poems don’t target anyone, because they are, by nature, introspective (unless they read more like an indictment or manifesto…which would be its own problem).

In psychology terms, as mentioned before, this would be an issue of being stuck in one’s ego, lacking experience in more broadly applicable things, or even one’s peers lacking such experiences, leading to the perspective of being the only one who might understand one’s own plight. I’m certain these poems are often written by people who consider themselves abnormally mature. I know I did. Poems like this, even if they use vibrant images, still inherently refuse to take the reader anywhere. They are not a journey. They are not an episode.

They are a statement of one’s reaction to unexpressed circumstances, sometimes adjacent to metaphor. And that gives the reader nothing.

Imagery in Media: The Case of Christian Music

There’s an old joke that Korn was originally planning to be a Christian Rock group until their agent told them there was no money in it. Evidently, monetary incentive was not the only thing Christian Rock lacked.

Anyone who lived through the 90s into the early 2000s could tell you that Christian rock fails to be evocative.

There’s an old joke that Korn was originally planning to be a Christian Rock group until their agent told them there was no money in it. Evidently, monetary incentive was not the only thing Christian Rock lacked.

One need look no further than Creed and their breakthrough hit, Higher to see that the imagery used in Christian rock is weak. What some might fail to notice is that Creed never openly referred to itself as a Christian rock band, nor did they sign on to any Christian Music label. Yet they remain the most commercially successful modern band with a clear Christian slant. Most christian rock from this era was flat or pale imitations of Creed’s formula– some kind of loosely Post-Grunge (an already infamously loose genre) retooling of the words “And He will save us” over and over, usually relying on concepts such as “light” or a “Savior” both in subject and lyrical content. It tends to express itself in a way best defined as vague. Older Christian music, in the form of folk, country, revivalist songs also tend to keep things vague, focusing less on stories and more on the human experience of some God-given feeling involving human agency: “I saw the Light,” or actions taken by people in attempt at, or the act of worship: “Down in the River.” At times, these make light allusions to the bible or imagery of Jesus Christ, through occasional references or mention of the “Starry Crown.” It feels like the music comes from an iconoclast mindset. Modern (20th century and beyond) Christian imagery essentially has to be vague, by function, because to tap into its source would be treating it as inspiration in a manner fitting a mythology.

I would like to make a distinction here:

There is a difference between Christian imagery and Biblical imagery.

Biblical imagery can be deeply evocative. It’s rich, full of stories, prosaic and poetic. When I bring up biblical imagery in songs, I do not mean simple retellings or putting a story to music. I do not mean Sunday School songs about Noah and his ark. I do not mean campfire songs about Solomon threatening to cut a baby in half (but can you imagine?). Christian music — or perhaps it is more accurate to say “music with a Christian influence — ” is at its most evocative when it strays into biblical territory without being the Bible.

Two examples of artists who use biblical imagery would be The Mountain Goats, otherwise known as the sole consistent member, musician and writer John Darnielle; and PJ Harvey, a musician with a long history of collaboration and incorporating Christian and biblical images into her otherwise secular music. Neither artist is particularly famous on a level of being a common household name or emblematic of an era, or even clearly part of a large trend like Post-Grunge Both artists are secular in their focus, built on a secular fanbase, with no religious record labels, and yet they nail it.

 

Christian music has to, as previously mentioned, keep things vague and unclear. Any attempts to bring in specific stories could be seen as too overt in their message. They could veer propagandistic with the wrong outlook.  Conversely, to turn such a holy text into song feels like the work of ages past–actions legitimated by their age.  So how do John Darnielle and PJ Harvey’s songs differ– why do they work where things like Creed fail?

They work for the same reason they are rare: through being interpretations.

Rather than talking about unclear feelings one is expected to feel, or a confession of what one has felt in the presence of the Lord, Darnielle and Harvey paint a picture of a scene, or provide scenarios where one might not immediately see the connection, but can certainly feel it.

John has several songs titled after Bible verses, intended as representations of the verses. Every song on the album The Life of the World to Come is titled after a biblical verse. Another song from an earlier album is titled “I Corinthians 13:8-10.

Psalm 40:2 (released 2009) is obvious in its allusion to the verse. The two are presented for comparison, here:

“He has fixed his sign in the sky He has raised me from the pit and set me high.” –The song

“He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.”— The bible verse

But of course the song goes beyond just rewording the verse. It is an evocative story of how this verse relates to someone on their journey. It paints a visceral and tangible painting of faith. It provides us with the line: “Lord send me a mechanic if I’m not beyond repair” –a line steeped in emotion. The song isn’t afraid to be rough and realistic with how it approaches a person’s faith. The subject, the narrated voice, is that of a complex and troubled person with an equally complex, and thus realistic and engaging relationship to their faith.

PJ Harvey takes a different approach. It borders on apocryphal but it requires no prior knowledge beyond the simplest understanding of the narrative of Jesus. One does not have to look back to hymns and psalms or read from the scripture to grasp any allusions. She begs a simple question: “but how did Mary feel in all of this?”

Mary lost her head
And let it bleed
Came crying back to me
My son.. Where’s he been?
And don’t deny it
And don’t you hide him

Her song, Missed (released 1993) centers on the narrative of Mary searching for her son upon arrival in heaven. And that really is the way to phrase it, “her son,” not The Lord, not Jesus Christ, for, to her–in that moment–what she seeks is the child she birthed and raised, not the savior of mankind he has become, which could be seen as irreverent. There is no biblical spin-off tale that centers on her exploits and feelings, from which this song draws its message. This is an interpretive and extrapolated work, and by virtue of that, has a perspective I had never encountered before. It made me wonder about Mary more than ever before. It begged me, heathen that I am, to empathize and feel her struggle. It made me realize that in the story of Jesus, the world loses a savior, sure, but she lost a son. Dozens of other thoughts and questions stem from that one.

In essence, nothing about seeing the light or going down to the river to pray has ever made me question faith or narrative,but not every song has to and perhaps that is the point. Those songs are comfy and secure. But they aren’t engaging. They’re nice and uplifting, but they don’t make me wonder about faith itself. And perhaps that is down to audience. I simply know which one I prefer.

All in all, I think there is something to learn from treatments of biblical imagery. As a writer, one can see the means of evocative engagement with readers: it is, in a sense, the classic case of show, don’t tell.