Poetic Song Verse: Blues-Based Popular Music and Poetry by Mike Mattison and Ernest Suarez (University Press of Mississippi, 212pp., $25.00)
Smaller Songs by Anna Lena Phillips Bell (St Brigid Press, 36pp., $28.00)
Solos by Al Basile (Antrim House, 94pp., $25.00)
Neat Hits & Lost Classics by Quincy R. Lehr (Kelsay Books, 142pp., $18.50)
Out of Order by Alexis Sears (Autumn House Press, 104pp., $16.95)
Somewhere Apart: Selected Lyrics 1977-1997 by Robyn Hitchcock (Tiny Ghost Press, 102pp., $25.00
The window separating poetry from song is one that attracts both writers and musicians. Some occupy both sides of the glass. New York punk Jim Carroll’s poetry books appeared on Penguin, while Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, is only one entry in a decades-long career that highlights urgent poetry fused with song or published separately. More often, the literary ventures of musicians reflect celebrity’s contradictions and poetry’s fraught cultural standing. Lou Reed, who studied with Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University before forming the Velvet Underground, brought out Pass Thru Fire: Collected Lyrics on Hyperion in 2002, and reviews of his posthumous book of poetry, prose, and rock star ephemera Do Angels Need Haircuts? argue for Reed’s place in the Beat and New York School traditions. (“This isn’t rock-crit hyperbole,” Will Hermes asserts in his Rolling Stone appreciation.) Reed’s lyrical talent was huge but, arguably, dependent on its musical context, including his voice and distinctive delivery. Even so, Reed occupies a page of his own, as do both Smith and Carroll, at the Poetry Foundation website.
The notion that song lyrics are poetry—not a distinct, though related, art form—has been kicking around for a long time. Both recording artists and audiences like the idea, especially when the words to favorite songs are published alongside photos, recollections, and/or artist memorabilia. Still, poetry’s status presents a paradox. For reasons related to our biases about “high” and “low” art, the idea of their being poetry lends status to lyrics that are, after all, better known and more widely loved than almost any contemporary poem. Song lyrics dubbed “poetic” gain in prestige, though to most American readers, actual poems are expendable or entirely invisible.
Fortunately, Mike Mattison and Ernest Suarez, co-authors of Poetic Song Verse: Blues-Based Popular Music and Poetry, realize that lyrics require a different critical lens: what would be obvious flaws in a poem may well heighten the impact of a song. Their collaborative study views (selected) artists shaped by rock and blues as practitioners of what they dub “poetic song verse,” which they define as “a specific subgenre of song that’s also a form of literature.” Faced with the controversy surrounding Bob Dylan’s receipt of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, poets of the printed word had two options: to dismiss the award as proof of declining standards, or to reconsider their definition of literature. This reconsideration is, in fact, the project of Poetic Song Verse.
Defining “literature” requires believing there’s a difference between artful language worth revisiting and that which is disposable. Mattison and Suarez cast a clear light on their premises and process: “Our assumption is that song lyrics can be poetic and poetry can be musical, but that songs and poems are different things, and one form doesn’t need to be justified by the other.” “Poetic” lyrics, in their view, reflect literary intent; are “linguistically rich”; utilize metaphor, images, narrative, and more with skill and nuance; and, perhaps essentially, “invite repeated visits and renewed scrutiny.”
The advantage of this viewpoint is that it dispenses with decades-old circular arguments about whether song lyrics are good enough, smart enough, or, doggone it, sufficiently liked by those evaluating them to qualify as literature. Instead, the entire mechanism of recorded song requires attention: as Mattison and Suarez put it, “how a song is performed instrumentally, arranged, and recorded affects how the lyrics are experienced emotionally and intellectually.” Looking at a song’s sonics—what the authors call its “aural dimension”—reveals their interplay with key poetic techniques to create “a semantically and emotionally textured dynamic.” (For an even deeper dive into how a recording’s sonics affect meaning, check out Albin Zak’s book-length study The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records.)
Even so, Mattison and Suarez’s emphasis remains on the song itself: the combination of words and music that, fused in performance, becomes a single entity. The chapter “Myth-Making, Personae, and Poetic Song Verse” traces how recording artists’ response to the ’60s indirectly drew on literary precedents in the work of the Beat, Romantic, and French Symbolist poets to create personal myths and invented characters. Discussions of Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors explore fascinating twists in the relationship of public personae and lyrical content, as well as insightful close readings of the words in context: regarding the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” for example, “The sardonic reflection on the triviality of counting potholes stresses the monotonous and dissatisfying quality of conventional life and contrasts it with the possibility of being ‘turned on’ to an enlightened perspective.” Only John Lennon could have put it better (and did when he wrote the song).
The authors do not confine themselves to Baby Boomer idols. Their first chapter, “The Origins of Poetic Song Verse,” opens with “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy’s 1903 encounter with the music that would make his reputation (and, incidentally, change the world), a style “based on the human voice, and that placed an emphasis on the local and immediate, traits that would bring music and poetry into closer proximity as the century unfolded.” From the blues’ influence on African American poets James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes to its ripple effect (along with jazz) on modernists of varied backgrounds, Mattison and Suarez examine the genre in depth, with the section “Authenticity of Feeling” holding a decisive place in the blues’ historical connection to subsequent iterations of the music at first called “rock ‘n’ roll” and, later, “rock.” Noting the effect of the blues’ “fantastical imagery” on various ’60s classics, the authors are aware that more accessible literary poetry combined with the blues’ vocal tradition, helping rock to “absorb poetic language…and provided a catalyst for Dylan and others to change rock into a more lyrically and sonically sophisticated art form.”
There’s much more, of course—the final chapter, “A New Era of Verse Composition,” features lively examinations of the Clash, Lucinda Williams (the daughter of poet Miller Williams), and more—but, as in any extensive study, readers will likely note the absence of some artist that they cherish. (One of mine, Robyn Hitchcock, makes an appearance at the end of this review.) Still, the wide range of the book’s reach is undeniable: Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, and Chuck Berry receive close attention along with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. Poetic Song Verse is consistently entertaining, its professorial patina enlivened by an accessible style and well-placed wit. The co-authors make a perfect team: singer-songwriter Mike Mattison is a Harvard-educated, Grammy-winning blues artist and writer, while Ernest Suarez is an essayist, editor, scholar of poetry and the blues, and tenured professor at Catholic University. Together, they’ve produced a book that’s lucid, thoroughly researched, and insightful.
The flipside of Mattison and Suarez’s focus is my focus here: literary poets with an interest in music, either as avid, informed listeners or as musicians themselves. One of these is Anna Lena Phillips Bell, bard, banjo player, and UNC Wilmington faculty member whose 2016 Vassar Miller Prize-winning book Ornament finds inspiration in old-time Appalachian traditions. “The Waxweed Girl,” for example, documented in 1958 and preserved in Missouri State University’s Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, is a murder ballad in the voice of a man who takes the life of his betrothed for no clear reason. In Bell’s poem of the same title, the girl herself speaks; in the eight brief lines of this condensed but powerful triolet, she recounts the terror of being stalked: “He brought me a rose; its velvet petals bled. /…He tracked the scent of velvet petals’ blood.” Elsewhere, an epigraph from “Jubilee,” recorded by exquisite Appalachian folk singer and dulcimer player Jean Ritchie, generates “June Swim,” a poem whose narrator may well be the restless protagonist of the song: “Who else // had thought to hold me here as I reclined, /or tug me one way by an arm, and back // by a leg, so I could feel the water peal / along me like cool bells…”
Bell’s new chapbook Smaller Songs—hand-sewn, beautifully tiny, and published amid Covid’s first wave—extends her source material to the history behind the music: the author’s song-poems are crafted from language rescued from the footnotes of Robert Graves’ 1957 edited collection of English & Scottish Ballads. Delighted by Graves’ phrasing, though put off by outdated attitudes, Bell allowed fragments of his language, transcribed onto small cards, to take on a life of their own and connect into poems whose vision embodies Bell’s own affection and reverence for ballad and folk song traditions. The results are untitled poems in three categories of song (Garden, Knife, and Inner Room) that offer glimpses into another world, one where myth and nature meet in gnomic wisdom and secret meanings: Zen koans of lost time and remembered dreams. Some offer life advice (or seem to)—“Remember, pilgrim: not the clothes, the road” or “Sturdy counsel: / quarrel boldly, particular lover, / and boldly stop”—while others suggest stories, incomplete yet evocative: “His mouth a sharpened knife, / a sharpened sword, water— // His mouth an ugly twist, / a narrow window / through which to shoot arrows—.” (Worthy of mention, too, are Molly Stouten’s beautiful blue woodcuts on the frontispiece and divider pages.)
Another thread that connects Bell’s Smaller Songs is attention to female experience: its dangers (so often the subject of murder ballads and, sadly, news), but other aspects, too: love, desire, and labor as filtered through old-time music’s tropes. Some of the poems suggest spell-casting, that traditional outlet for female power in archaic or rural settings (“Draw a likeness / in chalk and ruddle, / slow fury of two colours”), while others convey a quiet awe or gratitude: “Wonders within: / every grove and hillside / silver, smooth, skillful, / also, lovable.” That Bell has heard the magic of these fragments despite Graves’ mid-century blind spots reminds us that language itself holds a power beyond its users’ conscious intent. In both its words and letterpress craftsmanship, Bell’s Smaller Songs is a pocket-sized gift of grace that reminds us to listen for history’s whisper.
The beauty of Smaller Songs as a chapbook-artifact has its parallel in the loving craftsmanship behind musical instruments. As complement to the human voice or its alternative, any instrument is an aesthetic object in its own right. One of the best-known poems on the subject is David St. John’s “Guitar,” which also acknowledges the mysteries of language: “More than the music I love scaling its woven / Stairways, more than the swirling chocolate of wood // I have always loved the word guitar.” April Lindner’s “Old Guitar” captures the tentative return to a former self: “To hold it now— / polished and restrung—feels almost wayward / like returning to a former boyfriend…” Ernest Hilbert’s “Recessional” is attuned to music and memory as the poet recalls his father practicing Bach in church: “The huge old organ rumbled chorales, / Roared enormous chords, stopping midway / Through a passage, consigning a long resonance // From transept into the beamed vault of the nave…” In all three poems, the instrument seen, held, touched, and pressed is as central to the poet as the music that is heard.
Among my favorite poems about instruments are several by singer-songwriter Austin MacRae who has been less active as a poet in recent years (to poetry’s loss) but has kept busy recording two albums and an EP. “Mountain Dulcimer” (a poem Anna Lena Phillips Bell would surely love), “The Luthier at His Window,” “The Accordionist’s Trick,” and the title-poem sestina appear in MacRae’s 2012 debut (and only full-length book) The Organ Builder. From “Mountain Dulcimer”: “Raised from homegrown ash, / it holds a skeleton of song / in its coffin-body, a strummed lament / that stunned the deer and bobcat / out of running wild so long ago.” In “The Luthier at His Window,” the craftsman stands outside in light rain, catching sight of his unfinished instrument: “life on life combined in the darkening pane, / her unstrung body lost in strings of rain.” These are poems of clarity and care, qualities that also characterize MacRae’s songs (2017’s Keeper is especially strong, a set of poignant narratives with echoes of Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, and other storytellers in song). It’s useful to keep in mind that moving between poetry and song is not solely the privilege of celebrity stars with household names.
Al Basile, singer-songwriter and masterful jazz-blues cornetist, is both a prolific recording artist and a highly accomplished poet, recently recognized with the ALSCW’s Meringoff Award for Poetry in 2015. His third book, Solos, collects exactly one hundred poems whose reach is wide but grounded firmly in his music. The two-part “Calluses,” composed in skillful quatrains whose second and fourth lines rhyme, uses the familiar thickening of guitarists’ fingertips as metaphor: only “constant use and studied disregard / of everyday discomfort” allow beginners to develop the “thicker skin” of “deadened fingertips” that facilitate pain-free playing. But when musicians stop playing, calluses “melt, / the flesh softens again,” a transition that occurs (unlike the attaining of those calluses) “without your effort; / your body knows renewal is its goal.” In the second part, Basile muses on the pros and cons of emotional calluses, subtly linking the challenges of feeling to the first part of the poem: “A reawakening awaits me now, // but how to get down to the feeling part, / so buried under layers of control / applied against the tissue of the heart—/…?” For anyone who’s ever pressed the strings of a fretted instrument, the descriptive precision and unforced cadences of Basile’s lines ring true.
Ringing equally true are Basile’s metaphors for music, as in “Early Steps,” a recollection of his teenage years. When a musician friend plays along with a recording of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, Basile is stunned to hear their instruments fuse into one.
It wasn’t just the notes. It was the sound,
the ease, the phrasing, bends, false fingering.
Distinctive separate tones, so closely layered
they blended into something else again—
two kids on one sled sliding down together.
Or like ghosting footsteps in the snow
to go where someone else has been before,
careful to step in every track the same,
to get the feel of it, before you set
off to make your own, and find your way.
Poems whose metaphors for music are so apt that their use of language conjures music are rarer than you’d think. One that comes to mind is Stephen Kampa’s “The Man Becomes the Music” (Kampa is an award-winning harmonica player and session musician as well as a poet): “It’s not the saxophonist’s fluent phrases / Cascading in a silver chain / Articulate as rain / Unpetaling a bed of roses // That best conveys the tenor of our longing…” Another is Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Candlelight Lounge” which unfolds in a Trenton, New Jersey, jazz bar while Olympic swimmers flash across the TV; by the end of the poem, what’s seen onscreen becomes a metaphor for sound: “She executes a backflip, / a triple spin, a half twist, / held between now & then, / & jackknifes through the water, / & it is what pours out of the horn.” (Basile is not the only poet inspired by the sax.) In all three poems, music is front and center, but the metaphors reach further, deeper; music, after all, is time-based, and every performance finally ends—a reason, perhaps, that music and memory often intertwine in verse.
Basile excels in another area, too: he’s able to capture telling moments in the life of a musician in ways that hold a wider resonance. The poem “Solo,” one section of a longer suite first published in the booklet of Basile’s 2018 album Me & the Originator, revisits the risk of emotional callusing. A solo artist now, the speaker feels the balance of power shift between himself and his band: “…you’re not equals like you used to be; //…If they want their jobs, they stay in line. /…Your face is in the lights, they’re on the margin.” Growing isolated, the speaker feels the loss of sustaining bonds: “…you can forget you started out // relieved to have the company of equals, / facing the common trials for the same reason.” Almost against his will, the speaker “hardens” into his role: “You’ve learned to trust relying on yourself. / Living alone trains you to keep your distance.” Here, Basile’s insights into the dynamics of musical collaboration are intriguingly doubled: the performer’s inner life, we learn, is marked by the pain that he conceals—the losses his choices leave him helpless to prevent.
“Cootie Sets Me Straight” offers a different kind of gig: a Duke Ellington concert that takes place during the poet’s college years. During a break, the speaker approaches “Cootie” Williams, renowned African American jazz trumpeter who, in his sixties, has returned to Ellington’s band. Trying to sound nonchalant, the younger man asks about finding a “plunger” like Williams’s. (This is, literally, the rubber head of a plumber’s plunger, used to alter a trumpet’s sound.) Unfortunately, he’s caught the aging veteran in a private moment, though the older man gamely answers: “You go to / a hardware store—you’ll find / what you’re looking for.” Persisting with his question, the speaker receives the same reply.
He cocked his head a bit
and let out a breath.
He looked down at me,
and he said, “You go to
a hardware store—you’ll FIND
what you’re looking for!”
I could see his point,
so I left him alone.
The poem is remarkable, I think, for what’s not said: that the speaker, though well-meaning, has intruded on the older man’s space; that Williams knows the young man is really in search of some momentary connection; that having a plunger like Williams’ own won’t transform the young man’s playing; and that any novice musician has to look for his own answers. The speaker, chastened, gets the point, and we gain a poem of wisdom that reaches beyond the world of music to a universal need: to seek our idols’ blessing and discover the secret of their gift, a need that time and experience will tame. In the plain-spoken poems of Solos, a book of impressive scope and skill, Basile’s conversational voice carries a wise, unerring music.
Other poets’ encounters happen at a distance, and the conversation takes place as a poem. In “Cyndi Lauper Sings ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ for the President,” David M. Katz manages a crowded agenda: the aging of pop stars, the challenge of covering a classic, and the tightrope balance that is any live performance. The President in question is Barack Obama, but Katz’s focus lies elsewhere: on the performer (“now / A being of a certain age, not a girl precisely”), on Otis Redding’s version (the speaker’s evaluative touchstone), and on Lauper’s televised attempt to, somehow, make the song her own. Despite the moment’s pressures, she does, receiving “a standing ovation from the President…/…Oh, Janus, god of impersonation, / Tell me now: Did Cyndi Lauper really nail that song?” Katz’s poem succeeds not because its real-life characters are household names, but because of the poet’s care in charting the uncertainties of performing live.
Juliana Gray’s sestina, “The Last Time I Saw Dylan,” takes a different tack. To the speaker recalling a concert, Dylan’s late career voice has become “a raven’s croak. If he still loved / performing, he kept it secret, blowing / his harmonica with his back turned / to the audience. He sounded awful, // really, and I expected awful.” But Dylan is also the soundtrack to a father-daughter bond: the speaker and her dad would “listen together to that voice” before the years had ruined it, “the way [Dylan] turned / not just love but pain…/ to pure black / lines of poetry.” The poem’s deeper subject is time: the speaker’s father is dead, Dylan’s Tempest is now earning rave reviews, but she feels her father’s absence: “If he returned, he would have loved / the Duquesne whistle’s blowing, the voice / an awful mourner’s rag of black.” In one of my favorite recent sestinas, Gray opens with cutting wit, and ends on a haunting note: the mystery train’s fading whistle as its passage fades to black.
Cutting wit is one of Quincy R. Lehr’s specialties, though it’s not the only virtue of his work. The current editor of metricist enclave Raintown Review and a former host of New York’s Carmine Street Metrics reading series, Lehr played bass and recorded with the alternative rock band Black Statues and has performed periodically on guitar or bass throughout a prolific poetic career. Though Near Hits & Lost Classics sounds like some forgotten K-Tel Records collection hawked on late night TV (the cover boasts a battered Fender Telecaster beside albums by Willie Nelson and punk blues band The Gun Club), it is, in fact, the title of Lehr’s new selection of early poems: the author’s “best of” three collections published in Dublin and Montreal. As an overview of Lehr’s essential preoccupations, it is a dazzling read for anyone able to welcome a poetic force of nature: verse that is deeply felt, keenly observant, brutally honest.
“Alternative Rock Song” finds Lehr at his provocative best. Alert, as always, to hypocrisy, the poet directs his barbs at an unnamed “you” that may well include some readers: “Drunker with each snifter downed / And older by the minute, / You wonder where the trouble lies / Despite your drowning in it.” Each double ballad stanza is set off by a single ballad stanza that opens with the refrain, “This is the alternative.” To the speaker, that alternative is bleak: the fire of fading youth co-opted by consumer culture, self-hatred muted by substance abuse and sex. Even music has been co-opted: an “up-to-date” stereo “blares out the Replacements,” Paul Westerberg’s crucial ’80s band and alt-rock template; but the contrast of the listener’s circumstances underlines what’s been lost. The former youth “bombed out in basements” now earns eighty thousand a year, a “plutocrat” whose generation “still / Spends money on the market.” (For a less jaundiced view of the aging alt-rock generation, read J.D. Smith’s outstanding ballade, “The Cool of ’94”: “Where did the slackers run and hide / Who clerked while on a higher plane? / And where the girls those slackers eyed?/…We ask our former selves, in vain, / Where are the cool of ’94?”)
A three-part poem, “The Year Zero”, is a fascinating, multi-faceted look at youth culture and historical amnesia. The poem opens with impossible propositions: Mission of Burma’s “Fame and Fortune” epigraph, “So try to catch a falling star; / Crush it into dust and stuff it down a jar / And throw it far away,” and Lehr’s own question, “Can we zero out the clock? Guitars / and drum and bass suggest the notion’s dicey.” “This is now,” according to the speaker, but the bar’s young crowd looks like young crowds past and future; even the song playing “will soon repeat / its chorus,” and though its “DNA’s unique…it twists / the same old double helix.” Not only can’t we escape the past; its very patterns hold us hostage. But not everyone wants to know. Listening to a singer’s discourse on what she calls “her ‘art’,” the speaker refers to aesthetic forebears she’s never heard of—French Dadaist Tristan Tzara, Siouxsie Sioux of the Banshees—which brings their small talk to a halt.
It’s at this point, however, that the poem gets really interesting. Recalling his own remarks, the speaker admits wistfully, “I envied her that constant present tense, / …the arrogant pretension / that what you do’s unique. And who was I / to stare her down with history…/ the way the scions of the avant-garde / wake up one day, established and outmoded…?” Choosing to ignore the “hard fact of antecedence” (for the moment, anyway), he silently cheers her on—“Get up on stage / until the money’s gone, or till the spark / burns to an ember at an older age. /…Rock on, young lady! (What the hell’s her name?) /…Don’t let me tell you who I think you are.” The turn at this point is a mark of Lehr’s intelligence as a poet: he is too knowledgeable to ignore history’s precedents and pressures, but too perceptive to accept that facts alone hold all the answers.
The copy of Frederick Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific among Lehr’s book cover memorabilia hints at both the author’s concern for social justice and his objections to capitalism (perhaps one reason for his penchant for pointing out social class). Lehr doesn’t miss a trick: he’s an ever-vigilant “urban pilgrim,” as poet Anton Yakovlev refers to him on the back cover, and in these early poems, the city emerges as Lehr’s natural habitat. But regardless of where his poems are set (the Dublin of “A letter home,” where “sound comes in a burble from the street,” New York’s boroughs, or his native Oklahoma), Lehr is unfailingly self-aware: a cultural critic on the lookout for authenticity, the faux-cynic who masks real heartbreak with sly wit: “But will she ever think of me /—Or think of us together—/…When I am far away / And out of things to say?” (“In humid summer weather”). In language that ranges from ruthless to rueful, Lehr speaks the truth as he sees it, usually with an irony that adds to the impact of his verse. And I’m personally grateful that “The Joke” (what his foreword calls a “sprawling and possibly overstuffed” long poem, but which I value as a catalogue of varied formal effects, cinematic imagery, apt literary in-jokes, and ancestral myth-making) mentions Robyn Hitchcock’s 1988 neo-psychedelic classic Globe of Frogs.
Given Lehr and Basile’s reports, maybe it’s best not to confront performers directly. In Pulitzer-Prize winner Tracy K. Smith’ s “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” (a title culled from Low‘s celebrated “Sound and Vision”), David Bowie appears only fleetingly, space traveler and star, glimpsed at distances both real and imagined. The daughter of one of the Hubble Telescope’s engineers, Smith comes naturally to the connections she makes between things earthly and celestial, familial and strange. In an opening section that imagines a return to her family’s past, the icy stars hide “something elemental… / Some thin-lipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman / Or cosmic ace” (the references are to Bowie’s various cosmic personae). In the poem’s third section, Bowie the celebrity is equally elusive—“Bowie is among us. Right here / in New York City”—though the author has “lived here all these years / And never seen him,” speculating, “I’ll bet he burns bright…” (Sadly and presciently, she also writes, “Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep, / Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old”—sadly because we’ve lost him, presciently because of music and memory’s persistence.)
Still, musician-poets less famous move among us every day and, in their way, burn brightly, too. Gerry LaFemina, prolific poet and member of the still-active punk rock band the Downstrokes, recalls his club days in “New York Hardcore” (“We drank distortion / & volume & clamor”) and “One by One We Vanished” (“I listened to them, / yes, the songs like hymns I still remember: little // zealot that I once was. Little heretic”). Debra Marquart, the state of Iowa’s poet laureate, author of The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories, and lyricist-lead singer of jazz-rock band The Bone People, knows what it’s like to puzzle airport spectators and passersby just by being a musician: “But dare to travel with a guitar // and invite confessions from strangers in pinstripe suits / of garage band summers, invite winks, gotcha smiles, // and devil’s-horn rock-on gestures” (“Traveling with Guitar,” a poem that ends in poignant memory: “how the world began to hum and sing / that day at thirteen when I opened the big birthday box”).
In “Speakers in the Devil’s-Walkingstick,” Erica Dawson playfully asserts, “Al Green is in the bush // Inside the mall.” Of course Dawson’s title has already given away her game, but her poem gives us a world where Green’s silken voice charges the concourse with magic: “Outside The Limited // Down from Charlotte Russe / Where every gothed-out kid // Smelling of kush can prove / His mama right and sing, // Won’t you help me, pop, lock, move, / Cool, with that devil’s bellowing.” Sometimes the person singing on a record feels more real than people we see in real life.
Beyond the wry rewards of his own work, Quincy Lehr deserves thanks for choosing Alexis Sears’ debut volume, Out of Order, as winner of the 2021 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. Exuberant, but also harrowing, the collection traces the author’s passage through grief, love, identity, and family: wound by wound, she confronts the past, uncovering the many ways that memory has shaped her. Sears’ ability to fuse absolute candor about her own vulnerabilities with formal virtuosity—even humor—is remarkable. That humor—bleak, ironic, sometimes hopeful—lends her work an electric charge, the touch of exhilaration that is art’s recompense for pain.
That joy has much to do with music. For Sears, the past and present are inseparable from their soundtrack. On break from college, the speaker of “At the New Year” leafs through an old yearbook, memories flooding back. Remembering her slow dance with a male friend she once told she would never love, she confides, “[T]hose shaky hands / are phantom pressures on my waist.” Her laptop’s video soundtrack consists of bassist Flea whose “sweat drips from his off-white hairless chest.” Here, and in her memory of the friend (“connoisseur of beer, / his bald spot quarter-sized and slowly growing”), Sears’ use of comic detail undercuts romantic longing, yet that longing still feels palpable, and what we might view as small regrets actually presage larger griefs: people may vanish at any time, a lesson the poet knows too well.
“Intimacy” takes a different angle, with the poem’s second section especially important. In a California coffee shop, triggered perhaps by the Elton John song “someone” plays on his piano, the speaker starts crying, saddened by thoughts of dead iconic musicians (Bowie, Prince, Amy Winehouse, others): “By now, everyone has died.” A barista responds coldly: “‘How can you cry over random / guitar junkies you didn’t know?… /…Then, ‘Classic white girl.'” “It’s true,” the speaker admits: “I cry in Priuses, in bedrooms, in my poems….. // Or when I see my mother sleep alone.” This list of triggers is far from random: Sears uses “Intimacy” to introduce some of her book’s defining issues. Her bedroom is a stage where memory floods in suddenly, the speaker’s mother is no longer married, and the barista’s reference to race hints at the author’s biracial background, the subject of some of Sears’ most compelling poems.
“For My Father: A Sonnet Redoublé” is a tour-de-force of tonal control and metrical skill. The form (also known as an heroic crown) requires that each of fourteen sonnets begins with the last line of the previous one; the fourteenth ends with the first line of the first; and a fifteenth sonnet is composed entirely of the previously repeated lines. Sears’ foray into the form is a brilliant balance of longing, meditation, and self-deprecating humor, a range all the more remarkable for the raw grief at its core. Sears’ African American father, a Naval Academy graduate, Marine, and Stanford-educated lawyer, worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. State Department; five years after he and Sears’ mother divorced, he took his own life. (Sears was only twelve, her brother two years younger.) These fluently rhymed, conversational poems are her response, containing much that the poet would like to say to her absent father about the years since he vanished from her life (“So, Dad—a crown, these sonnets, all for you. / For me, some time to tell you what you’ve missed”). Some entries are diaristic (“I go to a psychic / with Jen (you never met her. I’m her sidekick)”), some are offhand confessions of pain’s depth (“Rooms are strewn / with Lay’s bags… / and bottles of psychiatric meds run dry”), and some are urgent stabs at impossible connection (“Pretend you’d lived. Would you try to estrange / yourself? Would I have responded in kind?”). The answers to such questions are, at best, provisional or incomplete, but Sears keeps probing anyway, interrogating her inner life, using form to free her voice and reinforce its urgency.
Sears’ biracial heritage, complicated by her father’s death, is an issue approached by several poems. In the sonnet crown, the issue arises in the public realm: “It’s Tuesday, and another cop, his gun / in tow, has done his part to cleanse the Earth / of color.” (The poet’s remarks are more pointed given the reader she has in mind.) Elsewhere, the speaker recounts her dialogue with a bus driver: “‘You’re ‘black’ / in name, but you will never really know / their struggles.’ / Their. It sticks” (“Hair Sestina”). In “Tonsillectomy,” set during a drive, the speaker’s brother bobs his head to tracks by musicians who are “middle-aged, jazzy, confident, / with skin the color of toasted walnuts.” After incorporating a line from jazz vocalist Gregory Porter’s song “French African Queen,” the speaker states, simply, “There were so many reasons to weep”: she is moved by the music’s power, the losses that both siblings know, but also the broader, painful history she feels cut off from. After surgery, her brother regains his voice: “‘Finally,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t hurt anymore. / Finally, I can sing without pain.'” The brother’s words end the poem, an apt metaphor for both art and their African American heritage: the ways a painful collective history gave birth to new forms and musical traditions. And his words apply to the author, too: in poems that bravely stare down grief, Out of Order sings through the pain, seeking the grace to move beyond the hurt that lingers.
The more we look for connections between poetry and song, between poets and musicians, the more we run across. Tyehimba Jess’ leadbelly reinvents a legend’s life and history in work that is technically inventive and otherwise stunning; Rick Mullin’s chapbook, The Stones Jones Canzones, condenses our heroes’ anarchic lives through a strict poetic form (brilliantly); and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Saint Sinatra reaches beyond music alone to find the sacredness of life and art in those whom some consider sinners. Of course, I could go on and on. The line between history and popular culture is constantly shifting, and while I’m certain Huddie Ledbetter’s music will continue to be heard, and probably Frank Sinatra’s, too, I’m not sure how Boomer rock gods and their progeny will fare. Poets who write about popular music or refer to it in their work run the risk that their cultural touchstones may one day elicit puzzled shrugs. (On the other hand, in Aladdin Sane‘s “Drive-In Saturday,” Bowie himself foresaw a future in which the days when “people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored” are still known through the “video films” of a long-gone age.)
The Internet Archive’s free on-line library, “78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings,” suggests that recorded music, whatever its genre or era, will survive. This is true in poetry, too. The late Donald Justice’s body of work abounds with poems about music, many nostalgic for the world of his Depression-era boyhood: “And the strings will quiver with it / A long time before the held pedal / Gives up the sound completely—this throbbing / Of the piano’s great exposed heart” (“After-School Practice: A Short Story”). Others reach even further back: “There was an hour when daughters / Practiced arpeggios; / Their mothers, awkward and proud, / Would listen, smoothing their hose—/ Sundays, half-past five!” (“Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents”).
Dana Gioia’s “Lives of the Great Composers” adopts the repeated, recontextualized phrasing of music’s fugue form to create an equivalent in language. Famous names flash past in startling counterpoint, humanized by their daily burdens while aspiring to celestial song: “The relatives of Berlioz were horrified / to see the horses break from the cortege / and gallop with his casket to the grave. / Liszt wept to hear old Paganini play. / Haydn’s wife used music to line pastry pans.” Gioia isn’t the only poet inspired by fugue form: Weldon Kees’ spare, somber “Fugue” is widely known (“Light will fail, / Alive will fall; / Sun that blinded / Will be gone”), as is renowned German-language poet Paul Celan’s Holocaust-haunted “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”). I also highly recommend the book Domestic Fugues by expatriate poet and Charflies songwriter Richard Newman.
This discussion of song and poetry would be incomplete without a look at that hallmark of contemporary fandom, the published book of lyrics. But rather than the usual suspects easily Googled at Amazon (Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, et al.), a glance at British songwriter and visual artist Robyn Hitchcock’s Somewhere Apart: Selected Lyrics 1977-1997 might be more fun. Hitchcock is a fascinating figure who, for decades, has thrived on the verge of greater renown. His closest brush with wider notice may be Jonathan Demme’s Storefront Hitchcock, an arthouse document of Hitchcock’s 1998 concert and spoken-word performance in an abandoned New York clothing store, but Hitchcock has also performed or collaborated with several generations of lauded songwriters: R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, XTC’s Andy Partridge, the Decemberists, esteemed producer Joe Boyd, and Kimberley Rew, the guiding intelligence behind Katrina and the Waves, and Hitchcock’s former Soft Boys bandmate.
Described as a “rock and roll surrealist” on his back flap bio, Hitchcock has extended the reach and tactics of surrealism in song through a catalogue of strange beauty and dazzling range. (His charming pen-and-ink drawings, like underground comix crossed with di Chirico, decorate the book.) Acknowledging André Breton as their source, Mattison and Suarez are careful to define “surrealism,” that overused term, as a “tactic”—the means to an end—in which the creative act is severed from reason, as well as from moral or aesthetic considerations (“The Fantastic: Beyond Surrealism and Psychedelia,” Poetic Song Verse). Hitchcock’s use of surrealism as a tactic is varied and, perhaps contrary to Breton’s conception, used to achieve specific ends. The result are lyrics that shimmer with disquieting imagery, powerful emotional content, memorable wordplay, and/or plain verbal grace—though they are, often, it’s also true, very funny. (Proof of the latter, from Hitchcock’s “Executioner”: “I know how Judas felt / But he got paid / I’m doing this for free / Just like Live Aid.”)
Sometimes the tactic is the point. In his Soft Boys era classic “Kingdom of Love,” Hitchcock’s beloved insect imagery takes savage hold—“You’ve been laying eggs under my skin / Now they’re hatching out under my chin”—a vision arising from the song’s “primitive jungle of love” where desire, violence, and nightmares mix. The ’90s college radio standard “Madonna of the Wasps” (recently covered by Neko Case) is gentler in tone: “Lost Madonna of the Wasps / She’s dying in the frost / I wonder what she cost me?” Hitchcock’s wordplay playfully echoes famous paintings—if there are Madonnas of the Goldfinch and the Rocks, why not a Madonna of the Wasps?—but the song, in fact, is wistful. To observe a dying insect freezing is to uncover a metaphor: for the love that has its season, for the costs we bear in loss: “Is this love?” Hitchcock asks repeatedly, receiving no answer. Despite its carapace of imagery, “Madonna of the Wasps” is less surreal (by Breton’s definition) than it is powerfully metaphoric—an example, really, of poetic song verse: a lyric that is “linguistically rich” and “invites repeated visits.”
Hitchcock is equally capable of lyrics about the real world, time-haunted in tone and enriched by unexpected turns. “52 Stations” finds its speaker counting stops on the London Underground’s Northern Line after a painful breakup—“In sorrow not in anger / You forget the best”—while “I Often Dream of Trains,” one of the singer’s most admired tracks, moves fluently between realistic detail and unsettling dread:
I often dream of trains when I’m awake
They ride along beside a frozen lake
And there in the buffet car
I wait for eternity
Ultimately, the dreamscape turns into one that the speaker hopes to share: “Maybe we’ll meet one night / Out in the corridor…” Could his loved one share the dream, or even enter it? When “summer turns to winter overnight,” love is the only shelter from time’s relentless ride, and the lyric ends with the speaker’s open invitation.
“I Often Dream of Trains” isn’t the only lyric containing supernatural tropes used toward some subtler purpose. In “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” a ménage à trois unfolds without the knowledge of the wife who’s alive: “My wife and my dead wife / Am I the only one who sees her?” It seems he is, for the living wife “stares into air / There’s no one there,” while the speaker serves “coffee for three” and accepts his dead wife’s remonstration, “‘You know I don’t take sugar!'” The song ends ambiguously at the beach where, as the living wife sunbathes, the speaker stands hand in hand with his dead wife as if ready to join her “deep in the sea.” The song’s emotional stakes are clearest earlier when the speaker articulates his crisis: “And I can’t decide which one I love the most / The flesh and blood or the pale smiling ghost.” As much as it’s ostensibly about a ghost in the household, “My Wife and My Dead Wife” is a song about emotional ambivalence—does the speaker idealize the ghost to his current partner’s detriment?—and much more, too: memory’s involuntary surges, the past’s relentless hold, the painful slowness of our release from grief that haunts us.
Within his still-growing body of work (Hitchcock has been if anything, even more productive since 1997, the new book’s cut-off date), the songwriter casually tosses off lines that almost any poet would envy: “It’s in the past / It’s in the bracken / Did something happen? / The sky just blackened” (“No, I Don’t Remember Guildford”); “Is your wax doll still crying in the fire?” (“Wax Doll”); “And I saw the apples hanging / Like moments in the orchard” (“When I Was Dead”). “Airscape,” a stunning lyric, is gorgeous on record and on the page as it deftly conjures life cycles both biological and emotional:
And in the element of laughter
The quick explosion and the slow
Return of sorrow
The tide recedes upon the bones of
Something beautiful and drowned
In coral and in jade
If there’s a better example of “poetic song verse” out there somewhere, I don’t know what it is.
On North American Review‘s blog, poet and punk rocker Gerry LaFemina comments on the difference between writing lyrics and writing poems: “The best person I heard on this subject is David Bowie, who once in an NPR interview responded to a comment about the poetry of his lyrics, that he was no poet, and I paraphrase, that poets didn’t have the luxury of having music to cover-up weaker moments of language.” LaFemina continues, “I don’t know why song writers would want to be poets—surely the audience for poetry is smaller than that for lyricists, and the paycheck for a bestselling song far outweighs the paycheck of a bestselling poem. Still, song writers often want to be hailed as poets, and my students…get irate when I say their favorite singer-songwriter isn’t a poet.”
Even as the reach of literary poetry wanes, a low-burning flame of status flickers still. Mattison and Suarez sum it up: “Few poets wouldn’t crave the mass adulation and impact of rock musicians. On the other hand, rock stars, not content to be assembly-line products of popular culture, craved the gravitas and cultural prestige of poets.” That Poetic Song Verse focuses mostly on famed icons of the ’60s-’80s makes sense: that period is the last time literary poetry held a wider cultural influence beyond the coteries of a divided poetic cosmos. At the same time, Mattison and Suarez are supporting their contention and establishing a canon: one that submits the songs praised by countless music reviewers to a more perceptive, thorough analysis than music journalism provides. In future studies, the poetic song verse of younger voices—Andrew Bird, Lucy Dacus, Rhiannon Giddens, Aoife O’Donovan, Colin Meloy, Conor Oberst, many more—will, under equal scrutiny, reveal riches. And like James Merrill’s attentive dog called to seemingly spin forever, ear cocked toward a label’s gramophone, we’ll listen till the last chord fades while the art we love—whatever we call it—“[g]ives rise to harmonies beyond belief” (“The Victor Dog”).
Poems & resources (links as available)
Anna Lena Phillips Bell
“Jubilee”; “June Swim”; from Ornament (University of North Texas Press, 2017)
David St. John “Guitar”: https://poets.org/poem/guitar-0; from The Last Troubadour (Ecco, 2017)
“Old Guitar”; from This Bed Our Bodies Shaped (Able Muse Press, 2012)
Ernest Hilbert “Recessional”: https://www.literarymatters.org/1-2-recessional/ ; from Last One Out (Measure Press, 2019)
Austin MacRae “Mountain Dulcimer”; “The Luthier by His Window”; from The Organ Builder (Dos Madres Press, 2012) Keeper (Austin MacRae’s music): https://austinmacrae1.bandcamp.com
“The Man Becomes the Music”; from Articulate as Rain (Waywiser Books, 2018)
Stephen Kampa’s music: https://stephenkampa.com/music/
“The Candlelight Lounge”; from Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 2021)
David M. Katz “Cyndi Lauper Sings ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ for the President”; from Stanzas on Oz (Dos Madres Press, 2015)
“The Last Time I Saw Dylan”: http://www.fishousepoems.org/the-last-time-i-saw-dylan/ ; from Honeymoon Palsy (Measure Press, 2017)
J.D. Smith “The Cool of ’94”: http://www.poemeleon.org/jd-smith/ ; from The Killing Tree (Finishing Line Press, 2016)
Tracy K. Smith
“Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55520/dont-you-wonder-sometimes ; from Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011)
“New York Hardcore”; “One by One We Vanished”; from Steam Punk (Smalls Books, 2012) “On Lyrics and Lyrics” (April 14, 2014 blog entry, North American Review): https://northamericanreview.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/on-lyrics-and-lyrics-by-gerry-lafemina/
The Downstrokes (Gerry LaFemina, band member): https://thedownstrokes1.bandcamp.com
“Traveling with Guitar”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58409/traveling-with-guitar; from Small Buried Things (New Rivers Press, 2015)
The Bone People (Debra Marquart, band member): https://debramarquart.com/the-bone-people/
“Speakers in the Devil’s-Walkingstick”:http://www.unsplendid.com/4-1/4-1_dawson_speakers_frames.htm ; from The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press, 2014)
“After-School Practice: A Short Story”: https://newcriterion.com/issues/1986/10/after-school-practice-a-short-story ; “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents”: https://lastyearsalmanac.wordpress.com/2009/04/20/nostalgia-and-complaint-of-the-grandparents-donald-justice/ ; both poems from Collected Poems (Knopf, 2004)
“Lives of the Great Composers”: https://www.writersalmanac.org/index.html%3Fp=10768.html; from 99 Poems: New and Selected (Graywolf, 2016)
“Fugue”; from The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees (Bison Books, 2003)
“Todesfuge”/”Death Fugue”: https://poets.org/poem/death-fugue; from Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020)
“The Victor Dog”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/39366/the-victor-dog; from Collected Poems (Knopf, 2001)
Other poetry collections mentioned
leadbelly (Verse Press, 2005)
The Stones Jones Canzones (Finishing Line Press, 2013)
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Saint Sinatra & Other Poems (Word Press, 2011)
Domestic Fugues (Steel Toe Books, 2009)
Charflies band (Richard Newman’s music): https://charflies.bandcamp.com
Also by Ned Balbo (see all)
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- Fluent Phrases in a Silver Chain: On Finding Poetry in Song and Song in Poetry - February 19, 2022
- “Shimmering with Fragile Grace”: Poets of Public and Personal History - February 22, 2021