One-Hit Wonders

I don’t think Eminem necessarily intended to give advice to poets, artists, songwriters, and filmmakers, but his “One Shot” (aka as “Lose Yourself”) may have that effect on many shapers and makers in the arts.

… lose yourself in the music
The moment, you own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime…

Eminem confronts you and asks, “Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity/ To seize everything you ever wanted /One moment/Would you capture it or just let it slip?”

Sometimes like Herman Melville you get in the right mood, you do the right preparation, the winds are blowing just right, the stars are in alignment, the spirit moves you and out comes Moby Dick, maybe the strangest and most powerful depiction of American culture and psyche ever written.

Melville gets the fear and paranoia, the Faustian-drive to know and control, the scapegoating, the anger, the revenge. He wrote a lot of whaling tales, but none may last the way this one seems destined to do. Moby Dick wasn’t his first, but it was his first to bite into literary posterity. It was the first to swallow a whole culture and history and make it visible.

Think of other one-hit literary wonders:

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Did Salinger really write anything else of comparable importance?

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Isn’t Lee a one-hit wonder? She stepped up to the plate one morning and hit a bases-loaded home run.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He lost one of his novels to fire and tried to reconstruct it, but this is the one that will last, flames or no flames.

John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces.  Toole’s posthumous novel was his one and only, his first and last.

One-hit numbers aren’t confined to literature.

Painting by Paul Thek

How about Paul Thek’s 1985 painting?

Know the guy? You’ve probably read versions on his visual words. And, like me perhaps, you can’t think of other works he has done.

Think of Robert Indiana’s LOVE painting-sculpture in the 1960s. He made a lot of paintings and sculptures, but this is the one he’s known for.

“One of the most recognizable images of the 20th century, it is deceptively simple in design: The word love rendered in all capitals, its first two letters stacked atop its second two, with the O italicized and suggestively tipped to the right. Launched as a drawing, then a painting, and soon after a sculpture, it would quickly become a cultural phenomenon, gracing everything from book and album covers to postage stamps (330 million sold and counting), cuff links, and sneakers…”

– Brett Sokol, New York Times, May 23, 2018.

Think of 99 Luftballons by Nena. The German “99 Luftballons topped the charts in 1983, and was even popular enough to warrant an English version, though this one didn’t do as well in the US (it didn’t reach the Billboard Hot 100).”  While they had a number of hits on the German charts, another song by Nena never hit the Top 100 in the US.

Or, how about “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon, his only Top 40 hit?

American Gothic, 1930 by Grant Wood

Think of the painting American Gothic, 1930 by Grant Wood where a stoically dressed man and woman—farmers?– stare directly and soberly at the viewer while holding a pitchfork, with an American Gothic house behind. Ever see another Grant painting in art books?

Think of Matthew Arnold and “Dover Beach,” one of the great poems in the English language, with these searing lines:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Yes, Arnold wrote a fat book full of poems, but can you remember a single one other than “Dover Beach?”  Probably not.

Some mornings I wake up and ask the winds – please send me one poem, one great poem, something as good as “Dover Beach,” and I’ll quit writing for good.