Keaton Henson and the Art of Authenticity

A friend of mine recently gave me Keaton Henson’s collection of poems, Idiot Verse, as a gift. I had to fight my way through to finish it in the last couple days, and have been struggling to find the appeal. No, I know the appeal. I’m struggling to find a way to describe it. Henson began his career as an artist, and seems to maintain it as something of a multifaceted producer of art. He draws, paints, sings, writes, and performs. The marketing claim is that he does this despite his anxiety, which cripples him at every turn – but we’re going to imagine he’s a liar.

I don’t think he is, but the problem with anxiety is that it’s a symptom, not a condition. It’s practically impossible to know what he means by anxiety, how it affects both his personal and professional life. The lie is not that he suffers. The lie we are going to assume is that he suffers in the way that you do. Keaton is the same age as I am, and he formed his own record company in 2012, at the age of 24, to give his first album a wide release. He has numerous other projects, but is primarily a musician.

The music reminds me of an effete Elliot Smith, or a twee Mazzy Star, but it has a twinge of narcissism and an obsession with romantic relationships. It’s beautiful in its own right, but it’s attached strongly to a specific sound, a kind of sub-genre of indie music. I appreciate there’s someone from the current generation producing this kind of music, and have to guess that for a genre like this, we tend to fall in love with the musicians we grew up with and don’t pay much heed to the rest.

What I’m more qualified to talk about is his lyricism. His song Wildwood bears a thematic resemblance to a song called För sent för Edelweiss by Håkan Hellström, a swedish folk singer. I made reference to it in a poem recently so a translation  was near enough to hand for me to see the connection right away between these two songs. Wildwood is very simple and sparse with its images. Its style mimics speech, albeit with poetic detachment, and in it Henson asks direct questions to an imagined love. “Do you have time to tell me pretty lies?” “Can you still hear my song?” “Tell me that you’ll be my little liar/wildfire.”

The closest he comes to a concrete image is in the line “like the thickest moss, you have grown on me,” so there isn’t much in the song to hold onto. For comparison here’s a translation of a similar part of Helström’s song:

You say: do you have matches
– Yes, enough if you want to burn down Stockholm
And do you have wine and spirits
 – Enough to make the whole bay fill with sadness
It is all too late
Too late for wine, too late for a love pure as snow
Tonight, there is no way back

Here every question is paired with a response that is also an image that evokes more emotion than another abstraction possibly could. The abstractions are given weight by physical things – matches are more real than a wildfire, even when they’re burning down a city.

The thing is, lyrics don’t need to carry the emotional weight in Henson’s songs because his delivery implies it, washes the implications of it over you. Because of that I think many people would say his work, despite being less poetic, is more authentic. But the question of authenticity is not as clear cut as all that. Henson’s work is massively relatable, and I think it’s this quality which gets confused for authenticity in the works of what Rebecca Watts called “the noble amateur” in poetry.

Idiot Verse is not good confessional poetry because what it confesses is impersonal, and what it reveals about us is not far off from what a soap opera reveals about relationships. It’s a confession couched in terms that makes an audience unfamiliar with its cliches feel that they themselves are confessing. For those who understand authenticity implicitly, and can feel it radiate from these words, it must seem like a profound insight into another human’s soul. Perhaps his soul really is so empty that it’s constructed entirely from words you could see yourself saying. I know mine isn’t. If you saw into my soul you would be more disgusted than anything.

There is hardly an inauthentic poem in the world. If you tried to write one you would fail. It would be easier for you to write War and Peace in the dark than to write a truly inauthentic poem. The sonnets of Shakespeare are incredibly structured, created as an exercise in artistry, and designed to be shared with an audience – but through all of those masks they remain authentic. The rigidity of form itself is a kind of authenticity. Remember how I said we’re going to imagine Keaton Henson is a liar? That his confessions are inauthentic?

Distasteful, isn’t it? You read that and you’re disgusted by the prospect, you hate the idea that you’re being asked to betray the author before we’ve even looked at his work. So you’ve been with me and with this metanarrative I’ve provided for a while – and that’s what I want to get to, metanarrative. This is the kind of thing we generally hate to call authentic, the idea that a person is self-aware of his role in defining how his self is perceived by others. A person who’s authentically intelligent is charming, one who knows they’re intelligent and acts to further that impression is less so.

We all know, basically, what we’re doing. On top of that we know the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re doing. We even have stories we tell ourselves about how we construct stories about what we’re doing. We have thoughts, opinions, feelings based on those stories about those stories about those stories. We are intricately layered, self-aware creatures, simultaneously completely authentic and completely manufactured.

Idiot Verse is a book that, using simplicity and haphazard design, tries so hard to be authentic that it no longer seems authentic at all to me. The sketch-book drawings overlaid randomly with no authorial direction can be beautiful, but never meaningful. The poems read like songs, or lines, which were left on the cutting room floor – an effect equally apparent in Leonard Cohen’s books of poetry – which makes it impossible for me to meet the poems honestly, knowing if they had been better, they would have been songs instead. What it reveals about ourselves and about Keaton Henson was better revealed in his music, and in less time.

This over-authentic aesthetic can be done right, but it relies more on the person behind the book than on the book itself. A confessional song-writer producing a confessional book teaches us nothing we didn’t already know, even as an artifact designed only for his fans it fails to offer much of interest. When I was around eighteen, Chris Ware’s graphic novel “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” was being passed around my group of friends. I adored it at the time.

It was a carefully constructed story, meticulously illustrated in an art-deco style reminiscent of mid-century advertisements. Every detail, down to the thickness of each line and the weight of each word, was carefully considered and placed in sequence and the affect, by the end, was one of beautiful sadness. I tried to follow Chris Ware for a while after that, but the great care he placed in his work tended to be wasted on New Yorker inserts and magazine covers. We did pick up a copy of one of his other books though. Called “The Acme Novelty Date Book,” it was a facsimile of Ware’s diary and sketch-book pages.

One of the illustrations that struck me was of a gnarled old tree which formed in branches and hollows into genitalia – the effect in general of this book was one of extreme authenticity when compared to Jimmy Corrigan. Because what I had known of Ware’s work was so stiff, so reliant on structure and care, seeing these sketches and seeds of ideas had a profound effect on my understanding of the man and his work. It wasn’t really any more authentic than the graphic novel, but it was more direct, it was a different part of him.

That’s all I want from Keaton Henson, is to see a different part of him. I don’t know about you, but when I spend days reading a person’s poetry and listening to his music, I want some sense that I know the man. All I know about Henson is that he’s obsessed with his view of himself as an artist, with his romantic relationships, and with identifying himself with his anxiety. When I see so much of a person’s work and it only reflects one angle, I know it was intentionally constructed to hide the rest. I wanted to try reading his work as if what he hid was ambition – the idea that he turned himself into a character in order to carve out a market niche in the UK art circuit.

More likely, he is a man so incredibly anxious about revealing himself that he has only become comfortable with sharing the parts of himself he knows he has in common with nearly everyone he meets. He shows us a light, muddled despair because he was raised under the impression that that is the safest problem to display. Rage, wild desire, bitterness, irrational disgust, hatred – these are rarely safe to express, even for artists, in our day and age. We have become so unaccustomed to how terrifying authentic people can be, so even the most authentic among us have no choice but to be aware there are certain things we just cannot say. Or cannot publish.

Those are the things I would like to see in Henson’s book. I’d like to see them in my own books, but like Henson, I know that I must remain a character. If I revealed the worst parts of my authentic self, it would demolish any possibility I might have of a career. The only way to stay true to myself, to remain authentic, is to hide my own authenticity. Keaton Henson is a liar. The lie he tells is the same lie we all tell each other, about each other. He tells you that self-recrimination, loss, and despair, and how much he fears their power over him are the darkest parts of his soul.

I’ve gone on so long about it now you probably think that’s my problem with Henson, but I don’t have any problem with him. He has carved out a little slice of fame on the back of his ability to sing, and he’s using that fame to sell some tangential products. My problem is with calling those products art, and especially calling them poetry, and pretending their strength is in their authenticity. Their strength is only in their association with his character, a caricature of a human being he has cultivated deliberately in order to maintain a steady career. He has little strength as a writer – none of the lines were memorable, none of the sentiments effective.

It brought me back to my middle school days, reading poetry on DeviantArt or livejournal. It brought me back to poetry workshops, trying to find ways to help people improve the artistry of our writing when I could see in their eyes all they wanted was to air their darknesses behind the claim of art. To tell their secrets to strangers in a way that even their best friends wouldn’t have understood. It reminded me of how I used to use poetry, how I used to understand poetry.

Those days I would live underneath the weight of something terrible. A desire I couldn’t discern, a hatred I couldn’t reason about, anything that was painful and deep enough that I could neither think about it nor shake it – I discovered that if I sat down with a pen or a computer and started to write, I could start to solve these problems. I could try to describe them directly, or I could write without direction and end up tracing the knowledge indirectly, or I could stare at a blank page for hours and start to cry. Poetry was a way of external thinking, of breaking the blocks inside my head that stopped me from approaching problems that hit me deeply or subconsciously.

If I were to become famous, and some publisher asked me if I had something laying around to put out, I might hand them the poetry I wrote in those days. I might even call it Idiot Verse, that is what it is, after all. Still, I’ve known a hundred amateur poets whose worst poems were better than Henson’s best, and when I hold this little book in my hand all I can feel is the fact that none of them were published anywhere, none of them made it past the gate, and all of them gave up. These are the machinations of modern industry, pushing the ideal of the polymath because name recognition contributes more to sales than anything else on God’s green earth.

I want to say I liked it for the sake of the friend who gave it to me, I want to say it was good despite all its faults. I’m sorry. That’s not me. This book was a chore to read, and I didn’t get much from it. Thirteen years ago, when I was turning seventeen, a friend gave me a copy of Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet, and I still think of that as the best gift anyone has ever given me. In trying to judge the work of a poet who writes inside a gift, anything negative I say is at the same time a personal attack against my friend. Still, I must know. I must be able to reaffirm the quality of a piece of writing, the value of it – because if I can’t tell the difference, then I am worthless.

If I can’t differentiate between good and bad poets then all my work has been for nothing, and there is no value in my life because my work is not better than it used to be, I have just come to prefer it the way it is. My entire life falls apart if I cannot be critical. I want to repeat what Rilke says in the first of these collected letters:

Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

But I can’t help but return to Rilke’s answer, in the closing paragraph of these collected letters, which after all may negate that assertion entirely:

Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art – as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have overcome the danger of landing in one of those professions, and are solitary and courageous, somewhere in a rugged reality.

I want good art to be celebrated, and to be celebrated in our society it must be, above all else, profitable. That’s probably a vain desire. If over one hundred years ago it was already clear that businessmen produced a kind of false art they could sell in place of the real thing, then perhaps the authenticity of Idiot Verse actually should be understood as some kind of nebulous improvement over the old way of things. I honestly have no idea.

Musicians are treated as poets fairly often, but the comparison rarely works for me. Dylan, Cohen, and Newsom are just about the only three I can think of who consistently bridge the gap. Explore Keaton Henson’s music for yourself – this is the internet age, there’s no excuse not to. I don’t, however, recommend his book. I’ve only read three or four poets from the last ten years I’d consider recommending, and Henson unfortunately isn’t one of them. I’ll cover one next time I get around to posting – either David Troupes or Rebecca Watts, depending on the time I’m able to devote to it. Either way I promise it won’t be as much of a rambling mess.

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