Loreena McKennitt on Progress Traps and Her New Album

Loreena-McKennittI fell in love with the music of Loreena McKennitt many years ago, when I first heard the haunting sounds of  The Dark Night of the Soul and her renditions of  The Highwayman and The Lady of Shalott. Ghosts give hope to dead lovers in these poems, and her singing made me feel as if I inhabited some ghostly terrain myself, as if I had always known that those poems would find this music someday.

I kept looking for new work by her–and there hasn’t been any for years! It’s given me hope, in an odd way, because I’m unable to crank out a book a year the way so many talented writers do. The work always seems to take its own time, or else I run the risk of breaking it. Loreena seemed to be telling me it was okay to do things my way, to serve my craft, with ends more complicated and interior than any business model could encompass.

She has much to say in this interview with CBC Radio, about the new album that is really a reflection on the last decade, about her decision to quit Facebook, and about the progress traps referred to by novelist and historian Ronald Wright in his book, A Short History of Progress. It’s the idea that humans have this ability to evolve ourselves into disaster, to take an intriguing idea or a creative process to ends that may be logical but turn out to be terribly destructive. You know, denuding forests, damming rivers, creating the atom bomb. It’s quite a list.

Snippet from an interview with Ronald Wright:

Refugees from earlier failed civilizations could move on to other places and try again. Today, however, civilization is global. This time we cannot flee. As a sign at the Copenhagen summit noted, “There is no Planet B.”

Loreena’s conversation with the CBC host of Q is enriched as well by her eloquent music. For myself, I was most intrigued about an aside she tossed in–about a project under way in India, something to do with the history of cows.

But I can wait. I’m sure it will be something rich and strange and thought-provoking.

On Mouthfeel and Memory

A young student confessed to me recently that she’d never known how to pronounce the name of the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats. For a long time she’d been afraid to ask.

Me too. Not knowing was a part of my life. A child back in 1960’s India, I found hundreds of English words that I didn’t know how to say. When Sister Therese Curran of Loreto Delhi put a poetry anthology into my hand and said, “Read this. He’s a great poet,” I didn’t dare ask, “How do you say his name?” Later, an aunt in the know laughed at my bumbling effort and cleared up the mystery of the elusive vowels that seemed to hang so tenuously onto that opening “y.”

But that poetry. Those words. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” sang to me. It made me want to read it out loud, even though I had little context for some of it. I had no idea, for example, that wattles were distant, utilitarian relatives of the often exquisite grass mats known as “pai” in my native Tamilnadu. I cried over “The Cap and Bells” in the way that the young can anticipate love and loss without having known either. The “round green eyes and the long wavering bodies / Of the dark leopards of the moon” mystified me. Years later, The Stolen Child was revived in my soul through Loreena McKennitt’s liquid melody.

Dublin_YeatsSo it felt like an odd kind of homecoming to visit the National Library of Ireland in Dublin and see the Yeats exhibition there, to view original manuscripts and first editions, to sit in small themed rooms and learn about how time and place affect a writer, and to listen to that singsong voice intone, “I will arise and go now…”

More on Yeats 2015 here, a yearlong celebration of the poet whose work was all about sound and speech. He wrote: “I have spent my life clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to the syntax that is for ear alone.” His words with their “mouthfeel,” worked their way into my young heart forty years ago and have lived there ever since.