The following speech was written and delivered by Colum McCann on the occasion of the PEN/Song Lyrics Award in Boston in September 2016, given to Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits.
TODAY is a day when literature salutes song and its writers. So, come song: lend me eloquence…
A few years ago I got a chance to spend some time with one of the world’s greatest writers, John Berger. You know him. “Ways of Seeing.” A seminal book. “To the Wedding.” A beautiful novel set in the era of AIDS. “G,” for which he won the Booker Prize in ‘72 and gave half his money to the Black Panthers. John was my hero. He was living in France and he met me at the train station and we walked arm in arm back to his small house in the suburb of Antony. At the end of the evening we were both a little, in Irish parlance, “over-served.” So I said to him, John where are you from? “London,” he said. My over-served nature kicked in and I slurred: “I know that, but where are you from from?” He balanced the question on his eyebrow for a few minutes and said: “I’m a citizen…” and then he stopped and shook his head, no. “I am,” he said, “…I am a patriot of elsewhere.”
If anyone knows what it means to be a “patriot of elsewhere” it is Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. What do these patriots of elsewhere do? They live close to the ground. They hear things no one else hears. They don’t spend time over-thinking. Everyone else they meet is far more interesting than themselves. They pay homage to the ones who don’t get into the room – the bowsies, the monks, the line cooks, the drunks, the glass-blowers, the magicians, the beaten, the silenced, the kicked-around, the imprisoned. They make new weather. They tamp down the rain. They create chain lightening out of language. They illuminate the landscape and then they plunge it dark again. They stand suspended in art time. They grow older and younger at the exact same moment. They catch the ordinary so it can be sung, extraordinarily, in the future. They know what comprises the dark, but so what? The dark is no big revelation. Anyone can draw the curtains across. The trick is kicking out the window and making it sail. These patriots of elsewhere, they find out what others haven’t quite fathomed yet. They take our fever. They want to help cure us with a little imaginative ecstasy. They lock themselves in to write. They don’t quite know where it comes from and they’re not quite sure if it will ever happen again. Hours of insanity and escape. The throw of one word across the room. The scratchout of a sentence. The turn, the return. The Joyce of it all. The re-joyce. The story. The re-storying. The restoration. Always something at stake. An ethics. An aesthetics. A belief. A presence. An astonished sense of being. They have an anger too. A fierceness. A raw and proper rage. To speak out against power. To echo the life that animates this building, John F Kennedy, “Where power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
These patriots of elsewhere, they are joyful even though they’ve considered all the facts. And in the end, they make from their confrontation with despair a tiny margin of beauty. Is that all? Yeah, that’s all. But that’s enough.
Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. The world as we have it is their lucky anthem. They fling it open with a few lines and a couple of strings and an imagination that goes to the edge and a voicebox scratched by heaven.