Art is always the practice of translation. You must translate your feelings into an intention, that intention into an idea, that idea into an object. And when readers or viewers come upon your object they undergo the process in reverse, except that they rarely end up at exactly the same feeling or intention with which you started. Each art object bespeaks an infinity of possible experiences.
After my father-in-law’s recent death, this truth came home to me through song lyrics, which I often learn incorrectly. Take the song “All The World Is Green” from Tom Waits’s album Blood Money. Despite what I believed for years, the opening lines are not: “I fell into the ocean/and you became my whale,” but indeed “and you became my wife.” Both options suggest some form of consuming experience, though I think mine, with its intimation of a swallowed Jonah-figure, is more frighteningly appropriate to the song’s sea-bound setting.
Equally problematic to me is the last verse, which starts: “He’s balancing a diamond/on a blade of grass.” I always thought it finished with these lines: “The dew will settle all our grieves/when all the world is green.”
The true lyric – “The dew will settle on our graves” – is probably directly tied to the specific tone and themes of the song, which Waits wrote for a Danish production of the play Wojzeck. But my version, again, feels like it offers more. Not only the soothing image of salt tears transmuted into clean water. But also infinity – of cataclysm, of pain, even of artistic misinterpretation – collapsing into the single dense point of What Is. The dew will settle all our grieves. Doesn’t that seem like a promise worth holding onto?