Driving Swift Creek Road to the Harris Farm I punched on some music and immediately the smoky, unforgettable voice of Mr. Ray Charles filled the car. "Georgia," he sang, "Georgia . . . on my mind." There's a really special song at the end of the tape Charles shares with Willie Nelson, but I kept playing "Georgia," over and over, and wondering why in the world I didn't think to mention Ray Charles last night when I wrote about visiting Madison, FL. Although he was born in Georgia, not only did Ray Charles grow up in Florida's Madison County, but his CD was what I'd plucked from the stack and put in the car for my drive to Madison four days ago.
Thinking about this, I remembered the posthumous movie about Ray Charles I saw a while back; I detest that movie. Wanta know why? Because when somebody like this man gives the gift he gave, it's sacrilege to portray him in the sleaziest possible way. It happens a lot, doesn't it, especially with the "rich and famous?" But aren't there sleazy scenes from anyone's life? Would you like to be remembered for your weaknesses when, as a matter of fact, in spite of your handicaps you succeeded in delivering your singular gift?
I've had this discussion before, in graduate school where some southern woman writer was being dissected for her sexual preference and childhood traumas while her gift to us went unmentioned. I've even sat through classes that treated William Wordsworth* the same way but Wordsworth expresses his distaste for this approach better than I can:
*THE TABLES TURNED
UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet, 10
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness. 20
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves; 30
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Wordsworth was my first favorite poet; I met him in 1962 and, through his poetry about the English Lake District, recognized and fell in love with my own North Florida woods, Burnett's Lake, the tendrilled green of all leafy things in Alachua County. I left the University of Florida, married, worked in Brevard County's space program, and finished my B. A., finally, 12 years later, in 1974, at The University of Central Florida in Orlando (where I encountered a poetic genius in the person of Bob McCown). By the time I entered graduate school in 1990, poetry was no longer valued so much for beauty, truth, and facility in language as it was for hints at its author's take on political issues, albeit many of them ours and never discussed in the author's lifetime at all. This was a huge disappointment; I'd wanted to plunge in again where I'd left off with Nathan Comfort Starr, my first genius professor, but there was no pool to plunge into.
Eudora Welty works against that politically conscious grain by praising the natural world. We do see her characters' problems and faults, but we are not allowed to forget how gorgeous the moment can be, if only we situate ourselves squarely within it. She is a lyricist and lyricists sing.
I'd love a contrary comment on this. Have at it, friends, but if you pass a newborn donkey on a dirt road, turn up your Ray Charles and sing out. Sing out loud, as loud as you can.