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“Krug’s ‘Sanctuary,’ A Critical Analysis,” Up Yer Sleeve website and cd jacket, November 2002

POETRY

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Krug’s Sanctuary Critical Analysis

In 1955, the great African-American ex-patriot, James Baldwin, whose works include Go Tell it on the Mountain, and 220px-Roasted-Marshmallow, published a short story set in New York City about a musician, a drummer, whose artistry took the form of near demon possession, and who sluiced the overwhelming nature of his creativity with heroin. The story is called “Sonny’s Blues,” and I still see it anthologized, mostly in freshman Introduction to Literature texts. I guess college students are still reading it. I hope they are.

In addition, of course, to being a wonderful piece from a literary point of view, the story addresses two important questions about the effects of fame and the nature of composition. The questions are important because we still ask them. My students ask them all the time. The first is: Why is it that so many artists suffer from addictive behaviors? The second is: Does the artist know what the critic knows during the act of composition? I.e., does he put all that stuff in there on purpose?

Gail Krug’s lyrically fascinating song “Sanctuary,” which appears on Utah band Up Your Sleeve’s first cd, Deceptive Little Sweets, takes on both of these questions from the artist’s perspective. Like the character, Sonny, in “Sonny’s Blues,” the speaker in this song is possessed by her creativity to the degree that it has become an alien being she would rather live without. “I would stop you if only I could.” I believe it is typical to think about the experience of inspiration as something noble. But Krug shows it to us otherwise, as a dybbuk she must wake with, a dybbuk that lurks in her face, a dybbuk that has got into her very breath. “[I]t’s like arguing with breathing.”

What we must realize as a thinking audience is that her experience is not exceptional, but normal to the artistic endeavor. The creative process is not a matter of, as Mark Knopfler so coolly put it, “Maybe get a blister on your little finger/Maybe get a blister on your thumb.” Composition is a painful process that rakes the soul clean, allowing “no secrets remaining,” and has few rewards even for those who are successful. It leaves her “bleeding … just dead.” The final irony is that those who are most accomplished are frequently the most misunderstood; the clearest statements are often misinterpreted. All that anguish and no one even gets the point! Meanwhile the demon has wrung the soul of all its juice, and the pain of experience, or memory, rendered however symbolically brings with it not catharsis, but more pain.

There’s a 1978 Jack Nicholson movie called Terms of Endearment in which old Jack tells Shirley McLaine that she needs a lot of drinks “to kill the bug that [she has] up her ass.” For artists it should only be that simple. Krug’s metaphor for sanctuary is more to the point, “needing/A sanctuary, a sanctuary, a sanctuary from my very own soul.” Rather than drowning the demon it must be isolated. Any incantation that sings such a demon to sleep and thereby allows the speaker to separate herself from it, however briefly, is viable.

So I return to my original questions. First, why do artists need so many incantations? The answer is: they don’t. It seems that they do because they live so much in the limelight, but really it’s the high profile cases we hear about. Artists, like other people, indulge in disciplined escapes that rather than being about their work, constitute the only relief they have from their work, and therefore make the work possible. Perhaps not all artists have demons that need to be pacified. But for those who do, the luxury must be controlled, or in the end there will be no demon to tame. The artist will be dead.

As for the second question, do artists really intend to express all that we as audience tend to find, the answer is: yes. Of course they do. “You’re in my face and in these lines.” But we must make a distinction between conscious and unconscious intent. Think of Michael Jordan throwing a basketball. He has a certain perceptual ability, a sense of the relation between space and time that the rest of us perceive but dimly. There is no doubt that he makes those baskets deliberately, but I don’t think he always makes them consciously. The perception of what is right and fitting for the situation is simply there, and he acts on it. So the artist’s perception of what is right and fitting for her endeavor is there, felt consciously or not. And she acts on it; it “{j}ust pour[s] out of [her] head again.”

So why do it? If it hurts so damn much (Yeah, I know. So cry me a river.), why go through it? There are two answers to this question, too.

The first is: no choice. We may invite the muse, that is, the object our imaginations spring upon, but inspiration itself waits for no summons. If we suppress it, it wrecks life, ruins love, and leaves us in the gutter. If you think I’m being melodramatic, or making metaphors, just look into the next gutter you see.

The second answer is: hope. From a biological standpoint, only time can tell us – in it’s measurement of how well we’ve survived, and how many of our genes have made it one more step into the future – whether or not we’ve made the right choices, done the right things. Created works are packed with a similar chemistry. You hear writers talk about “killing their children,” that is, scrapping their favorite sentences and paragraphs to preserve the beauty and integrity of the whole piece. In the end, we paint, and make films, and dance and write songs like “Sanctuary” in hopes of survival.

Some piece of ourselves, perhaps the best of ourselves is carried forward into the future.

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