June 2021: Donald Hall’s “The Long River” & The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”

Donald Hall passed away in late June of 2018 and so this month I wanted to honor him by discussing “The Long River” originally published in A Roof of Tiger Lilies (1964). I encountered the poem in The Selected Poems of Donald Hall (2015) and it’s a poem that is quite simple and powerful. To me, Donald Hall is not just an important poet, but also an accomplished writer. Before I ever read any of his poems, I read Dock Ellis: In the Country of Baseball when I was in grad school. During that time I was avidly into baseball and the book was incredibly influential to me in the way that it showed me possibilities for how a poet could write in other genres about other subjects (in this case a nonfiction book about a baseball pitcher). I learned that my poetic skills could translate into different kinds of writing and I found this to be inspiring and uplifting during a time when I was feeling restricted and stifled as an MFA student.

To start, what I like about “The Long River” is its lyrical tension and strong images. Here are the first two stanzas:

The musk ox smells
in his long head
my boat coming. When
I feel him there,
intent, heavy,

the oars make wings
in the white night,
and deep woods are close
on either side
where trees darken.

I particularly like how this poem starts. It begins with “The musk ox smells / in his long head / my boat coming.” The poem is written from the perspective of an “I” but the musk ox takes the primary position in the poem. Here, the ox’s presence is felt and the ox feels the speaker’s presence. This establishes an interesting connection between the human world and the natural world. However, there is also a poetic connection that is established with “the oars make wings / in the white night.” The boat becomes a bird navigating the “white night”—a wonderful image that contains both the light and the dark. Here are the last two stanzas:

I rowed past towns
in their black sleep
to come here. I passed
the northern grass
and cold mountains.

The musk ox moves
when the boat stops,
in hard thickets. Now
the wood is dark
with old pleasures.

This poem describes a journey without actually giving details about the journey, which is what makes it all the more captivating. The speaker says “I rowed past towns / in their black sleep,” “I passed / the northern grass / and cold mountains.” The speaker employs a minimalist perspective that heightens the lyrical qualities of the poem to great effect. The images “northern grass” and “cold mountains” are especially powerful because not only are they natural images, they are suggestive of a more profound experience that the speaker does not describe. As a result, the images are felt rather than simply seen. The musk ox returns at the end of the poem, but all it does is “move.” The poem ends with a poignant image: “the wood is dark / with old pleasures.”

What makes “The Long River” so compelling to me is the fact that the speaker shows rather than tells. The energy of the poem is slow and deliberate, but incredibly potent. The lyrical moves are subtle in the way that Hall employs enjambment and he selects images that create an enlightening reading experience. I like how the poem says almost nothing, how it places the ox and the nature images at the forefront, how the speaker is subdued and egoless. His journey is less important than what the natural world has to offer. I get the sense from this poem that for the speaker, understanding nature became the journey. In “The Long River” Hall puts forth a masculine voice that has not conquered nature, but rather, has surrendered to it, and has become a more centered person as a result. It’s refreshing in that way; it’s gently subversive in how it explores masculinity as an energy that honors humility and wisdom over physical and ideological dominance.

June is my birth month, so I wanted to discuss The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” because it’s my birthday song (yes, I have a birthday song). It came out a year before I was born (1982) and it’s from the group’s fifth album Combat Rock. The Clash is a tremendously important band for me not simply because they are one of the forerunners of punk, but because of how they composed music from a sense of creativity and possibility rather than from any prescribed notions of what it meant to be punk. The music is very catchy and upbeat and radio-friendly for the time period (I don’t think it would be an acceptable mainstream song in the current moment) but what makes it outstanding is its lyrical content. Here are the first two verses:

Now the King told the boogie men
You have to let that raga drop
The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top
The Sheik he drove his Cadillac
He went a cruisin’ down the ville
The Muezzin was a standing
On the radiator grille

By order of the Prophet
We ban that boogie sound
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound
But the Bedouin they brought out
The electric camel drum
The local guitar picker
Got his guitar picking thumb
As soon as the Sharif had cleared the square
They began to wail

The two verses are separated by the main hook of the song which is the chorus: “The Sharif don’t like it / Rockin’ the Casbah / Rock the Casbah.” The song is interesting in the way that it employs slang expressions alongside Arabic terminology, but what is even more fascinating is the contrast between religious oppression and musical creative expression. Joe Strummer wrote the lyrics to this song in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and the banning of Western music, but it transcends its political/historical context through its punk ethos; it’s an anti-oppression song. In these first two verses the King banishes raga music, oil is being pulled from the earth, the Sheik drives a Cadillac, and the Bedouin disregard the ban by picking up their instruments and playing them anyway. Here are the last two verses:

Now over at the temple
Oh they really pack ‘em in
The in-crowd say it’s cool
To dig this chanting thing
But as the wind changed direction
And the temple band took five
The crowd caught a whiff
Of that crazy Casbah jive

The king called up his jet fighters
He said you better earn your pay
Drop your bombs between the minarets
Down the Casbah way
As soon as the Sharif was
Chauffeured outta there
The jet pilots tuned to
The cockpit radio blare
As soon as the Sharif was
Outta their hair
The jet pilots wailed

What is interesting to note is the fact that a particular type of music is being banned (raga) in favor of religious music. Raga is rooted in improvisation whereas the music being encouraged here employs chanting as a way to enforce a unified way of being which is restrictive and oppressive. What is even more interesting is the fact that the music the Bedouin play become incredibly appealing to the people in the temple: “But as the wind changed direction / And the temple band took five / The crowd caught a whiff / Of that crazy Casbah jive.” To go further, when the King orders the jet pilots to bomb the Bedouin musicians, they refuse: “As soon as the Sharif was outta there / The jet pilots tuned to / The cockpit radio blare / As soon as the Sharif was / Outta their hair / The jet pilots wailed.” In this song, revolution occurs when all elements of the population—the Bedouins, the religious community, and the military forces—collectively ignore the King’s ban.

At the end of the song, the chorus is sung multiple times while Joe Strummer inserts mocking phrases about the Sharif: “Thinks it’s not kosher,” “Fundamentally can’t take it,” “You know he really hates it,” “Really, really hates it.” The established order and its dogmatic way of thinking are essentially defeated and it’s made clear that music is the true driving force behind the revolution. “Rock the Casbah” is so unique to me because it brings together upbeat musical rhythms, English slang and Arabic terms, the tension between creative expression and religious oppression, and unified resistance from a societal collective and places them in the realm of punk—which is anarchic and antiestablishment at its core. “Rock the Casbah” is multilayered, complex, and liberating in the way that it explores the idea of what it means to choose freedom over oppression. There were very few, if any punk songs, written during that time that had such a wide-reaching and compelling lyrical scope that this song had. To me, it is the quintessential punk song. It encapsulated the cultural moment of its time, transcended it, and established a foundation from which the punk genre could continue to grow and flourish.

When thinking about “The Long River” and “Rock the Casbah,” what is shared is the concept of what it means to be truly free on an individual and on a collective level. I think the speaker in Hall’s poem is very much a hermit, but an enlightened one in the sense that he does not view himself as being the primary subject of the natural world. This is an idea rooted in anarchism: no one person is at the forefront of existence. This also rings true with The Clash’s music. Joe Strummer understood that revolution is only effective when it happens on a massive scale—the entire collective has to want it. He saw that music was a primary form in which the idea of liberation could take hold because it utilizes creative expression which is something that humans across the board respond to. This is why a particular type of music (raga) was banned in the song; it promotes improvisation, a concept rooted in possibility, in uniqueness, in uninhibited expression. Hall’s poem explores personal liberation and The Clash’s song explores collective liberation—both lead to a better version of life, which promotes a healthier world at the natural and societal level.

June 7, 2021