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Dave's Poetry Workshop—Exercise #1 Submissions

By David Van Etten:

Review of Exercise #1 – The Contest

I was thrilled to read your contest submissions for the first writing exercise in Dave's Poetry Workshop series for Flapper Press. In the first lesson, our readers and writers were asked to interpret the phrase “down the hold” in the opening lines of U2’s “Until the End of the World,” employing both a literal secular interpretation (our Lothario reading) and an allegorical religious interpretation (our Judas reading). After careful consideration, I decided to crown the following four entries as champs and will be following in the weeks ahead with a free copy of my new book of poetry Twist the Blue Burlap Inside You to each of the four writers. Congratulations to all!


George Whyte’s contest entry:

My interpretation of the phrase's meaning from the U2 song "Until the End of the World" in regard to an allegorical religious meaning is one of Judas sitting in purgatory atoning for his sin waiting for Jesus to bring him up to Heaven and all its glory. The secular meaning, in my opinion, is one of a depressed soul sitting down in a hole passing time for his lover to come dig out and release him from his misery.

The back and forth between the Lothario and Judas reading of the song's lyrics definitely harmonize each other, as the protagonist of the song deeply loves the other person—they are singing only to feel guilty about doing them an injustice even though the love is so strong.

The guilty person, knowing they have done something they know is wrong, is unaware it's already known by the person they have done it too, and they are perhaps wondering why the person is not enjoying this grand party they are attending as read in the lyric “Everybody having a good time except you, You were talking about the end of the world.”

The fluidity back and forth in the song’s meaning has the listener wanting to search deeper for the truth behind the meaning, which can be either depending on the point of view taken. After several listens to this song on repeat, it kindly reminded me of several other great songs that tell a story and have the listener thinking more about what its true meaning is rather than just some party anthem.


Dave Serra’s contest entry:

When scanning the phrase “down the hold,” the hold or store of a ship or boat is the immediate reaction. While storage seems to reside in the bottom of the boat, the space always felt as this dark bottom area that never actually touches water, but never resides above the waterline . . . a limbo or purgatory.

I’m not too versed in biblical literature, but I am definitely getting a Last Supper vibe with “eating food and drinking wine” while Jesus would be talking about the end of the world. Judas would be the one to take the money, betray with a kiss, and break Jesus’s heart. While there is guilt and regret, “drowning in sorrow” and “waves of regret,” forgiveness, and “joy” are the end result when opening your heart in full acknowledgment of sin; hence Jesus or God or Love "waiting until the end of the world."

In this middle space, which some could say is life on Earth, actions create reactions. A secular take could be as simple as a betrayal between two lovers. “Down the hold” here could be a hold on mental state in relation to the other person or lover. How they make you feel when “close together” in a “low-lit room,” and not always getting the reaction one wants or needs at the time because they are feeling a different way or “thinking about the end of the world,” not engaging, “miss too much when they stop to think.”

In a way, we are just floating around reacting to energies, instincts, and impulses based on a given situation. Hopefully, the decisions or results lean toward the good or somewhere near the middle, never fully understanding the consequences until much later.


Matt Bennetti’s contest entry:

Lothario meaning:

Bono is referring to his position relative to his lover on the continuum between love and selfishness. The song supports this interpretation because the Lothario acts selfishly (“takes the money,” “drinks the wine,” neglects to “stop and think”) while his lover ignores these ego-inflating indulgences and stays true to herself and her feelings, “talking like it's the end of the world”—a dismissive way to describe someone who's not distracted by indulgences. The lothario feels guilty (“drown my sorrows”) because he chose selfishness over love, and the song ends with hope for redemption (“you said you’d wait” [she’s probably moved on . . .])

Judas meaning: Bono is referring to purgatory, where Judas awaits forgiveness from Jesus whom he betrayed with a kiss. The song supports this interpretation more directly. Once you read the lyrics through the eyes of Judas, it's hard to not see the intention of the song (which I had completely missed before this exercise). “I took the money,” “I kissed your lips and broke your heart,” and for Jesus, it really was the “end of the world” because they killed him shortly thereafter. His guilt “spilling over the brim”—Judas “reaches out for the one he tried to destroy,” which leaves him “down the hold” waiting for forgiveness . . .

Both interpretations capture the regret created when you choose selfishness over love. It's an easy thing to do. The phrase “down the hold” still doesn't make sense. It may be something that U2 just made up. So what was their intended meaning? My best guess: the feeling you have after making a bad decision.


David T. Van Etten (Dad)’s contest entry:

Some thoughts off the top of my aging noggin:

My personal feeling/reaction to the phrase “down the hold” originates from my trip to Taiwan on a freighter as a young Jesuit in 1964 (the year the Beatles arrive in the USA and explode internationally). With a focus on high-value freight, most cargo liners carried a limited number of passengers, most commonly 12. The crew took our motley gang (1 Jesuit Scholastic and 9 Maryknoll priests) into the “hold” below the deck to see where the cargo was stored for the overseas trip. Memory vaguely recalls various holds in different areas of the ship for various items and differing sizes of containers. Some were stored closer to the deck; others were buried in the depth of the ship. Can still hear the water passing by the ship as it seems to also do in Bono’s musical rendition.

Thus I think of a “hold” in two ways: one being of a temporary nature, near the top deck, easily available; in “jail” terms: a holding cell. Down in the depths, a more permanent space for cargo going longer distances; a more permanent prison for longer jail terms (i.e. “life imprisonment”).

The feeling/reaction that surfaced was the terror of potentially being locked in the hold by the crew and being imprisoned indefinitely for some violation of the ship’s rules/law.

Whether it poetically describes the biblical betrayal of Jesus by Judas (which it does), or it’s an attempt by Bono to survive the severe fracture of a love relationship, the common thread is the sinner/betrayer suffering an unknown term in the “hold” (purgatory) only to discover upon release that the beloved awaits his return: “You, you said you'd wait till the end of the world” (Unrestricted love).

The most striking theological images for me were those in the phrase “I took the money, I spiked the wine,” should it be attributed as coming from the mouth of Judas. He trades the Eucharistic blood of Jesus drawn by the nails of the crucifixion for thirty pieces of silver.


I have a couple thoughts on what the close-reading interpretation of Exercise #1 says about wordplay and meaning. I am reminded of an analogy that a friend of mine uses to describe people, either as helium atoms or carbon atoms. On the one hand, helium is an inert or “noble” gas that tends to bond with one other atom, often itself, and avoids bonding with a great variety of others in complex chemical reactions. Helium is a safe socializer and describes how I have felt in different eras of my life. On the other hand, carbon wants to bond with many other types of atoms and is broadly open to chemical reactions. Carbon feeds off multiple ongoing relationships, as opposed to focusing on one-on-ones. I like the carbon eras of my life as much as the helium eras.

Legal language and scientific language are better suited for the transparent and functional meaning of helium’s one-to-one relationships. This word means that definition, period. Poetic wordplay likes the slippery meanings of carbon’s promiscuous relationships. It may be helpful to think of our carbon language as having at least four relationships: (i) surface meaning, (ii) a riff on language in the previous lines, (iii) a riff on language in the following lines, and (iv) a riff on the poem’s meaning as a whole or on something much earlier/later in the poem. Keep this “chemical reactivity” of language wordplay in mind, as we begin drafting new poems this week. It may help with how you use line breaks to highlight the multiple nuances of a word.


David Van Etten is a lawyer, teacher, uncle, theologian and poet. Van Etten's poetry is regular feature on Flapper Press, and his newest collection of poetry. Twist the Blue Burlap Inside You, will soon be available for purchase. His regular poetry educational series—Dave's Poetry Workshop can be seen monthly, along with his ongoing series of posts about his journey through recovery from colorectal cancer.

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