By The Landlord
"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.” - William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
“If you be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams - the more they are condensed the deeper they burn.” – John Dryden
“Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.” – Franklin D Roosevelt
"Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever." – Napoleon Bonaparte
"To-con-vey one’s mood
In sev-en-teen syll-able-s
Is ve-ry dif-fic." – John Cooper Clarke
"If I had more time, I wouldn't have written less," is a phrase I've used many times, usually as accompaniment in the delivery of work to absurdly tight deadlines and word limits. Yet being brief is difficult, but a valuable goal, especially for speeches, as the classical speaker-scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero summarised: “Brevity is the best recommendation of speech, whether in a senator or an orator”. And, as for the longer forms, as Louise Brooks put it: “Writing is 1% inspiration, and 99% elimination.”
Brevity is a universal part of our existence – it happens all the time, in an instant, obviously – and can have positive and negative connotations. Actions done snappily might often be done happily, from chores and work, but at other times we wish they could linger longer – from whirlwind romance to a delicious mouthful of chocolate. And such experiences can be superficial and fleeting, but by that very nature, also precious, rare, memorable and powerful. Brevity can also mean anything concise, crisp, brief, fleeting, transient, curt, terse, or condensed. So this offers up many potential examples in lyrics when, as readers, you either quickly jump in and out of the Song Bar, or stay longer to drink in the atmosphere and soak up the music, the nominations, and the convivial atmosphere.
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” said Shakespeare, well, in fact that’s the phrase that he put into the mouth of Polonius in Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2, Polonius being the most loquacious windbag of all characters in the play. His final line, however when addressing his new wife, and Hamlet's mother, when he finally comes to it, is still rather telling:
“My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad …”
So then here brevity is wrapped ironic verbosity. The same can be said of the wonderful delivery of the great Bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke. His famous Haiku is seen in performance here, but around that nutty kernel of pithy wit come layers of tangy, off-the-cuff peel, and juicy anecdote:
Another ironic narrator of one of the shortest poems, is also, ironically, had one of the biggest mouths in history, whose physical movement was pure poetry and a ready wit to rival anyone, and he famously never stopped talking - the greatest, Muhammed Ali:
Another very short poem, officially the shortest couplet, is Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes, also known simply as Fleas, by Strickland Gillilan (1869–1954):
But one of the oddest, and most profound short poems is by the author of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Meanwhile, in the short story form, Earnest Hemingway is sometimes credited (dubiously) for this one, in full:
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
The epigram is another well known form of written brevity. It was originated by the Ancient Greeks as a form of tribute to deceased loved ones, though they weren’t always brief as, for example, this by John Dryden:
"Here's my wife: here let her lie! Now she's at rest-and so am I.”
An epigram is defined as a short but insightful statement, often in verse form, which communicates a thought in a witty, paradoxical, or humorous way. “What is a epigram? A dwarfish whole. Its body brevity, and wit its soul.” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, showing and telling simultaneously. And so let’s a have a selection of these, served to you on a Song Bar platter, without further explanation, and in brief:
"I can resist everything but temptation." - Oscar Wilde
"No one is completely unhappy at the failure of his best friend." – Groucho Marx
"If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning." – Catherine the Great
“Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.” – Shirley Conran
“No sooner did we start than it all came to an end.” – Ahmed Mostafa
"Little strokes/Fell great oaks." – Benjamin Franklin
"Candy/Is dandy, But liquor/Is quicker." – Ogden Nash
"I mean the opposite of what I say./You've got it now? No, it's the other way." - Bruce Bennett, Ironist
And then there are many more remarks that are about brevity by writers, and are also epigram-like too:
“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
“Brevity is the sister of talent.” – Anton Chekhov
Perhaps the one of the biggest topics about brevity in song is love. Now we’re joined in the Bar by several more guests keen to talk about this:
“Pity the selfishness of lovers: it is brief, a forlorn hope; it is impossible,” says Elizabeth Bowen.
“The flame of anger, bright and brief, sharpens the barb of love,” says Walter Savage Landor.
“Yeah well … the elusive nature of love... it can be such a fleeting thing. You see it there and it's just fluttering and it's gone,” says Mick Jagger, with somewhat less wordsmithery panache, but no doubt one eye on the local talent and the chance of a fleeting fling.
From Bar to tea-room now, a railway one in fact, and let’s capture those final tragic moments, when that whirlwind romance between Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter 1945, as two people fall in love over tea and cake, and yearn for each other away from their own, already, trapped married lives, only for those last precious moments to be spoilt by a less than pithy chatterbox. It's a much parodied scene, and sounds terribly posh these days, but one that has true emotion and feeling:
But not unlike that brief love affair between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, what gives such emotional power and potency is its torturously fleeting transience. That, in 1942, as in Brief Encounter, was a running theme during wartime, as everything and everybody was likely to be here to today, gone tomorrow. Which of course brings us to the theme of brevity and death.
“Fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing; it's about dying, about the brief flicker of time we have here, and the frustration that it creates,” says the darkly comic writer Mordecai Richler.
The film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu takes an even more existential perspective on our brief time of our existence in the universe: “We have always existed in different forms – carbon, oxygen, water, heat. Maybe Heaven is this brief period when the elements realise they're alive.”
And while we’re in the context of film who better to sum up the fleeting transience of life than superior model replicant Roy in Bladerunner - who, as his creator says (before Roy squashes his head) that he may have lived briefly. but he has "burned so very brightly". So let’s see Roy’s rain-soaked conclusion to it all:
This topic is not about short songs, really about the topic of brevity in all of its forms in lyrics. But as an aside, perhaps the briefest of performances has to be by the White Stripes who made this long journey to play just one note:
But what about songs about brevity? Well that’s where you come in, but here’s starter number already chosen for another topic, with those weighty, telling lines: “He just smiled and shook my hand and 'no' was all he said.”
The person who sent me this example, and will be creating playlists for the brief period of the next week is, I’m delighted to say, this week’s guru, the superb Severin! Time is short, but definitely precious and potent, and so please place your songs in comments below. Deadline (of course) is Monday at 11pm UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. Well that’s it then … in brief (or not, as it turned out).
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