Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Lyrics to Imaginary Songs
When I think about poetry, about my need to read it and reflect on it – and even express the odd poem here and there as if there were a more pure or direct voice in me that had somehow been switched on for a moment – I recall that it arrived in my life through pop music and rock ‘n’ roll when I was barely more than a boy.
The sounds of popular culture were never just a beat to me. They became a form of melodic literature as vital as Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, or the poetry of John Keats, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell and Kenneth Slessor that I was schooled in and ‘learnt’ to love so profoundly.
Indeed I see now that rock ‘n’ roll primed me for Keats’ romanticism and Auden’s rhymes, as well as Lowell’s confessional devastations and Slessor’s alienated urban shades. That I became so involved with Hamlet precisely because it was Shakespeare’s most rock ‘n’ roll work – for behind its iambic pentameters lies the rhythmic appeals of a young man in black, a grieving rebel who might well have been an Elizabethan James Dean in his day.
Flip forward to England in 1965 and what was Bob Dylan, really, but an electrified Hamlet come to life on those same old theatre stages, a hot soliloquist with a bad attitude and an acoustic guitar instead of a sword sheathed at his side? As the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back reveals, Dylan even had his loyal Horatio (friend Bob Neuwirth) and an Ophelia that he tormented (lover Joan Baez), as well as a Polonius whispering in his ear (manager Albert Grossman).
Despite Dylan’s typically elusive response to a question at the time as to whether he was poet – “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man” – the Beat writer Allen Ginsberg immediately recognized the young artist’s importance. In the Martin Scorcese documentary, No Direction Home, Ginsberg talks of Dylan’s arrival on the scene and what the older poet witnessed about his performing presence: “He [Dylan] became identified with his breath, like a shaman, with all his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.”
It’s a brilliant evocation of what Dylan personified from the very beginnings of his startling career: a shift in poetic life away from the page back into the ether of song. In Ginsberg’s word, Dylan transformed himself into “a column of air”.
Dylan himself was influenced by this same singing awareness – by what he called the “fearless” rhyming of Cole Porter, by the archetypal power and conviction of Woody Guthrie’s folk ballads, by country music and the blues as much as the literary work of the Beats or T.S. Eliot or Rimbaud. And yet despite this history and ‘breath’, an idiot wind invariably continues to blow in from another direction, debating whether lyrics can ever be regarded as true poetry? As if everyone from Dylan to Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed must submit, cap-in-hand, to the demand their songs work silently and alone on the page if they are to qualify. A matter not helped by those hard-cover editions of lyrics from rock stars that, yes, all too often, read as lifeless if not a little pretentious and gaudy in their packaging. 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy’: And Other Misheard Lyrics by Gavin Edwards and Chris Kalb probably hitting a truer note than most when it comes to the reality of how we appreciate lyrics day-to-day.
If a white page were the only acid test, however, one would have to argue there was no such thing as poetry before the advent of Gutenberg and the printing press. But of course the links between music and poetry are not so new at all. Virgil begins the Aeneid with “I sing of arms and the man…” because Latin poetry was written to be chanted. Homer would have sung both The Iliad and The Odyssey to a four-stringed instrument he plucked for rather atonal punctuation and mood – which may well make him the first rapper of note before Grandmaster Flash with The Message (1982) and even The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron with Whitey on the Moon (1969/70). Yo Homer, Ancient Greece is in the house!
Early Gaelic and Welsh bards similarly sang of warriors’ brave deeds and perpetuated tribal stories that passed on into myth. Later these figures evolved into the minstrels of medieval times, the precursors of the folk singer and the pop artist. It’s precisely because of this history, and the musicality inherent in his language, that Shakespeare became known as ‘The Bard of Avon’, just as the Scottish poet Robert Burns – who gave us ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – is more simply known as ‘The Bard’.
To be called a bard was the highest praise such poets could hope for. Which is why it’s hard to disagree with Ezra Pound’s rather sweeping statement that, “Music rots when it gets too far from dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets to far from music.”
Yet as recently as 2008 various English newspapers were gleefully announcing that a final year English exam at Cambridge University had dared to ask students to compare ‘As You Came from the Holy Land’ by Sir Walter Raleigh with the lyrics to the Amy Winehouse song ‘Love is a Losing Game’. As if to rub salt into the wound, students were also told to compare Raleigh’s 1592 effort with Fine and Mellow by Billie Holiday and Boots of Spanish Leather by Bob Dylan (yeah, him again!).
Perhaps only a Nobel Prize winning poet like Seamus Heaney can get away with such acts of sacrilege. Asked by the BBC back in 2003 to name a contemporary figure comparable to Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Heaney said, “There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.”
Most poets would kill for that kind of praise on their book covers. Inevitably Heaney was slighted for being a silly old man trying to keep up with the young. And yet Heaney’s words actually sound very similar to Ginsberg’s comments on Dylan. They likewise lean towards an appreciation of poetry rooted in breath, in something alive and not entirely pinned to the page.
My own enchantment with poetry begins with my second holy communion. It takes place in a suburban dining room with orange curtains and an over-large china cabinet, a place where I can hardly move. That doesn’t matter. There’s already a cathedral being built in my head. The Eucharist I am holding is round and large and black. It shines when it catches it the light, as if it were a dark and deep pool of perfectly formed water.
My altar is before me: a Rambler turntable with two walnut speaker boxes and quite a bit of pumping volume. The transubstantiation for me is not that of bread and wine into flesh and blood, as Jesus managed, but of my own being into song. As if I were becoming something mutable and flowing every time I turn on the amplifier and put a piece of vinyl under the needle.
Forget Coleridge and the opium-induced lines of ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…’ I was finding my own sonic nirvana at age thirteen, and anyone who tried to interrupt me was simply blown away.
I wasn’t just listening to the music either. I was digging the words, and with them every moan and jack-knife bit of phrasing, as if the accents and vocal contortions around a vowel were runes to be divined within the actual words themselves: “Hey Candy and Ronny have you seen them yet, Oooh but they’re so spaced out, B-B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets…”
It may not have been W.B. Yeats, but Bernie Taupin’s lyrics along with Elton John’s stuttering delivery in ‘Bennie and the Jets’ blew my mind as surely as Marc Bolan’s lines about a girl with “a hubcap diamond star halo” in T-Rex’s ‘Jeepster’. Language was something to be excited by, words were meant to bend and stretch into the ecstasy of sound as much as meaning. These were the lessons I was already learning from pop music.
By the time Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ was bursting out of my radio with a guitar stroke that reminded me of the rumble of a Ducati 750, I was well and truly a teenage goner: “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines…” It was song that sounded completely untamed and foreign next to everything else being played at the time, as if Springsteen’s heart were exploding from his chest to deliver this mighty story to me: “This town will rip the bones from your back, it’s a death trap. We’ll run till we drop and baby we’ll never go back.”
The leather jacket, the lean look and goatee beard: if I’m honest Springsteen was the hip Jesus I was looking for at age 15, the ultimate cross-over man between religion and rock ‘n’ roll. He confirmed the possibility that my suburban life as a teenager, my here and now in the coastal steel-town of Newcastle, was the stuff of poetry – and that it was possible for me to see that life in the very grandest of terms and paint it in words as such.
Patti Smith’s ‘Piss Factory’ and The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ arrived later, re-iterating this same sense of working class poetics. That one could move stanzas like girders or spit a beautiful line out like a punch. Smith was actually channeling the nineteenth century French poet Arthur Rimbaud; Paul Weller was being inspired by The Who’s Pete Townsend: it all amounted to the same thing to me and in studying Smith and Weller I went back to both Rimbaud and The Who’s recordings too.
Of course I was already dreaming along to a hundred other songs as well and writing down my dreams in matching lyrical forms. Finding new eyes for my world, or if not quite that, feeling less frightened of how I felt about it and what I wanted to say because of these songs in my life.
In this writing inspired by music, as with in any art of imitation and mimicry, there was a sense of tagging along with other people’s dreams and experiences – because they connected with me in very explicit ways, or simply because there was a feeling below the words or experiences that I wanted to sing along with. Language became a kind of abstract freedom for me, a space to reach into, an accompaniment or mutual music.
So when I started to write poems at around the age of twelve, I see now they weren’t really poems at all but lyrics to imaginary songs. And that these songs of mine were mostly all beyond me: recycled bits of lyrics combined with my own feelings and free associations. Which meant I was writing about drowning with naked women and lions in a swimming pool (thanks to Marc Bolan), and neon horses (thanks to Bernie Taupin) like some jet-set teenage cowboy. I mowed the lawn for my grandmother when she told me too, but away in my own world I was the most unintentionally decadent kid in town – even if I didn’t know what I was talking about and the words were just vague semaphores for my own restlessness and dreaming.
At its most primal, the experience of writing poetry always begins as a note to the self from your unconscious. Words and descriptions that don’t always ‘make sense’, but sound good to you. Things that come ‘out of nowhere’, that are mysterious and compulsively ‘put down’. Later, perhaps, you interrogate these things when you develop into a serious writer. You see what is pretentious or false or meaningless or just plain bad. But at first, hopefully, there is a private joy and something you can’t help but say going on – even when you do not know what you are saying!
Words, phrases, ‘images’, they come like seeds to you and launch you into something that becomes a poem. Sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, sometimes completed, other times interrupted or abandoned or forgotten. But whether they rhyme or loosen in to unstructured verse, the truth is that I’m still always ‘singing’ them in some way to this very day, trying to find the tune of it all, if you like – which might well be little more than agreeing with my own ear that this is a true-sounding and good-sounding way for my voice to flow freely.
The processes of poetry in our life are certainly far more complicated than most cynics would have it. Much as I can appreciate (or try to appreciate) the craftsmanship of great poets on the page, I am clearly not a fundamentalist about what poetry is – I personally think it can be found in novels, in fine prose, in the way people speak, in our actions, and most obviously in the songs we listen to. I also think poetry is about an unlocking of the spirit within us, a freeing up of language and thinking that takes us deeper than we can fully grasp except in mere glimpses.
I’ve always liked the Walt Whitman phrase from Leaves of Grass: ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. It points to the idea of a tune in the voice, in the cadence of a poem that is most alive in the breath. It also points to something mystical in the nature of language itself, as if there is some great uniting web from which we take not only our own meanings and communications, but the values of the age and even its epochal fears, obsessions, hopes. From the brainless teenage jerk of “it’s all good” to the near trademark ring of “September 11” to far subtler resonances that sleep within the dream of language, as if language were a mystic plasticine one only has to reach in to and touch with your fingers to sense a shape already given, being born, commonly intuited.
Digital technology is certainly changing the way we communicate, learn, relax, and interact with the world, pulling us together into a strange new fabric. As we digest more and more information through the internet, through watching and listening, there a powerful argument emerging that we are becoming a post-literate society, no longer centrally dependent on the printed word.
Ironically enough the accelerating energies of global communications and modern life actually make the compacted nature of poetry on the page – as well as the short story and the novella – among the more ideal literary forms of the age. We can receive a poem in a single snap, or take in a suite of poems in one sitting like Bob Dylan’s proverbial “chain of flashing images”. The advantage of poetry in this situation lays in its song-like immediacy, and its gem-like endurance, which allows a reader to return to a poem again and again for pleasure and fresh light.
And so the enduring debate about poetry versus lyrics is just a distraction in the end. It’s actually the more dangerous and constantly parroted notion that poetry is irrelevant to modern life and all-but-dead which I am really arguing against.
Yes, we know mainstream publishing houses have dumped their poetry lists, while the sales of major poets’ works are embarrassingly small. Yes, we know that you are not likely see a book of poetry on the best seller lists today. But it may be people are looking for the health of poetry in the wrong place. That its power lies more than ever within rock ‘n’ roll as the bardic tradition continues to assert its vital place in popular culture.
I know when I hear Radiohead’s Thom Yorke telling me how he “woke up sucking on a lemon” or Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy talking about “the handshake drugs I bought downtown”, I understand – instantly – that I’m in the hands of a great lyricist. The same can easily said of Will Oldham, Lucinda Williams, Paul Kelly, M Ward, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Conor Oberst, Tom Waits and U2’s Bono, while modern masters like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell continue to cast a gigantic poetic shadow over contemporary song writing and, indeed, much of the literary world.
If that last comment sounds excessive, I think you would find plenty of novelists and poets who would agree with me. It’s common knowledge Robert Adamson was turned on to the possibilities of becoming a poet upon hearing Bob Dylan singing while he was doing time in jail, and I am sure Adamson would find time to discuss the refined intelligence in Jackson Browne’s lyrics any time you wished to talked about them. Luke Davies was similarly inspired by Dylan, as well as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright. John Forbes leant towards more mischievous influences like the knowing ‘dumbness’ and spirited irony of The Ramones. There’s the beginning of a list if you need one.
So today when I hear Tim Rogers feeling broken up and peacock proud, or M Ward in all his insinuating dreaminess and humour, or Kings of Leon’s brand of sinful, sexual, lost-on-the-road hedonism or, yes, Bob Dylan in all his glory, I still feel alive to poetry – and to the act of writing poetry for myself.
Songs come to me from everywhere that evoke this truth: ‘Wide Open Road’, ‘Mary, Queen of Arkansas’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘Down by the River’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘Everything’s on Fire’, ‘Cattle and Cane’… they don’t just make me feel, they make me act, make me want to put pen to paper and find new ways to ascend into my feelings and thoughts.
I have to work a little harder to bring actual poems to me that do the same thing. Songs often come of their own volition, too, which makes it easier: through the car radio, floating out a doorway onto the street. They live in the air. Whereas poems on the page must be sought out and found. Still, I’m surprised that so many poems and poets are still with me like ghosts that flare up in the mind: Les Murray eating ice from a hail storm in ‘Spring Pony’; Auden’s lonely soldier in ‘Roman Wall Blues’; the deep rage of Pablo Neruda in ‘The United Fruit Company’; Rimbaud consoling me, for reasons I don’t quite understand, as I read him by some ocean rock pools after a breakup in my twenties; Charles Bukowski’s humour and tenderness, as if he were a friend speaking to me; Rilke, early on in the Duino Elegies, when night and emptiness “feeds upon our faces”…
Leonard Cohen once said, “If you’re life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” It may be that the great modern song writers are keeping that fire alight for all of us. Or to take it back to Dylan, who remains the pre-eminent example of the lyricist as bard of the people: “a poem is a naked person… some people say that I am a poet.” Don’t you know it?
- Mark Mordue
* This essay was first published in edited form in the politics and culture journal Griffith Review - Edition 23: Essentially Creative, January 2009.