Joni Mitchell Stephen Holden - Essay

Stephen Holden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell has moved beyond personal confession into the realm of social philosophy. All the characters are American stereotypes who act out socially determined rituals of power and submission in exquisitely described settings. Mitchell's eye for detail is at once so precise and so panoramic that one feels these characters have very little freedom. They belong to the things they own, wear and observe, to the drugs they take and the people they know as much if not more than to themselves. Most are fixed combatants in tableaux, rituals and scenarios that share Mitchell's reflections on feminism.

As might be expected, Mitchell's approach is very cerebral. In "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," a poem of almost impenetrable mystery, she voices the core of her vision. Among other things, the song parallels modern forms of female subjugation with both Christian and African mythology in imagery that is disjunctive and telegraphic….

Mitchell, never one to disavow the powerful glamour of evil, pulls a brilliant twist [in "The Jungle Line"], uniting images of cannibalism, wild animals, slave ships and industrial squalor with the gorgeously innocent paintings of imaginary jungle scenes by the late-19th-century French Primitive, Henri Rousseau.

Always Mitchell displays enough moral ambiguity in her lyrics to avoid condescension; her latent impulse to anger is consistently redeemed by a compassionate, seemingly genuine sorrow, as well as by a visual artist's impulse to perceive the beauty in all things. The tension between Mitchell's moral and aesthetic principles is resolved with special grace in "Shades of Scarlet Conquering," the full-scale portrait of a southern belle very similar to Tennessee Williams's Blanche DuBois. Here Mitchell's feminist sensibility is implicit in her compassion:

              Beauty and madness to be praised
              It is not easy to be brave
              To walk around in so much need
              To carry the weight of all that greed
              ....

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of….

The Hissing of Summer Lawns is ultimately a great collection of pop poems with a distracting soundtrack. Read it first. Then play it. (p. 50)

Stephen Holden, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 204, January 15, 1976.