Prose from Poetry Magazine

To Hell with Drawers

Poetry as cabinetry.

by Will Oldham

The difference between lyrics and poetry is that I don’t understand poetry. I don’t understand biology either. Someone must be there to guide me through the meanings of things. Lyrics, recorded and sung, have the opportunity to sink long and thoroughly; they can work on and with the subconscious. We have long ago passed the time when poetry is memorized without such aid, and sitting there on the paper a poem makes me feel ignorant and insane.

Even recited, words expressively coded and adjacented are like a miracle of phonetics but do not mean what they should. It’s about the structure, but a poem holds nothing up and nothing in. It sits there. And in a public space, a read poem fills the air with signs that I cannot use to direct myself anywhere except the restroom or the sidewalk, or inside of myself.

Recently I read a review of Shame, a movie “about” sex addiction, and the reviewer boldly and awkwardly quoted a Shakespeare sonnet in order to say something about lust: “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well/to shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” It made complete sense to me, and got me searching for the full sonnet. Unfortunately, the full sonnet made no sense to me, and even that quoted couplet became scrambled and indecipherable without the guidance of a critic to give it meaning—because it is poetry, and poetry is something that points to something else.

I also do not like drawers. There must be shelves, where the contents are visible. When things are hidden in drawers, they do not exist. Doors must be open. Prose is shelving. On lust, Iris Murdoch (about whom I know nothing except that her writing is mocked in a weird British movie I vaguely recall seeing) wrote: “The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular one and its indifference to substitutes is one of life’s major mysteries.” And that is a shelf with its contents quite viewable. It’s like: Yes. Whereas the versed lines of the bard are more like: Ouch.

Coding is fine, but mostly when given a clue or some other assistance to its solution. This can be done by setting the words to music and then singing them. Leonard Cohen sings, “I needed so much/To have nothing to touch/I’ve always been greedy that way.” I have heard that line so many times in my head that it functions like propaganda. It has become a part of my lang-scape. Take Cohen’s book Death of a Lady’s Man, in which each piece is juxtaposed with a counterpoint to shed light on both. I can read that shit. I can read most verse, but it dissipates so quickly because my stupid modern mind travels so fast to another place that the lines are gone.

Give me a melody—give me, better, a harmonized melody—and those words will become a part of me. This is what I, a child of the age, need. I’m ready for a return to epic balladry when it all comes grumbling down and we must actually use these memory cells we’ve been given. I am always crying inside to have things integrate and interrelate, but having grown up having to find and appreciate things on my own, and on my own terms, it now takes a grander force to pierce the defenses and get the party started in my soul than it may for many others. My mind isn’t a sponge, it’s a parasitic death-starry glob that is big and wet and angry much of the time, feeding on itself and allowing only the choicest and most-vulnerable bits in when its blood sugar gets low. It longs for a projectile to penetrate and obliterate its oneness, and let the stockpile plenish billions.

At least that’s what it feels like sometimes. My mind is kept in a drawer, in the end. And the drawer hides its contents from view, like a poem. So really, poems and cabinets only make me hurt because I resent those who love them.

Originally Published: June 1, 2012


On September 11, 2012 at 1:45am Patricia wrote:
"When things are hidden in drawers, they do not exist."

For me, this sounds lovely, this not-existing... To encounter something that is quite whole and complete, and to find that the initial explosion of meaning bursting from the gatheredness of a word just dissipates into nothing. Total stillness.

I agree, however, that this is more difficult to appreciate than, say, the stunning silence within music. (Yours in particular.) Something in us is more easily gripped and held and drawn to the abyss, as with the Sirens.

Maybe one day melodies will come to signify something precise. Short sequences of notes, a la communication in "Close Encounters" could mean "I'm hungry", "Fuck off", or worse, "I love you." How unwelcome if this really took root. How devastating if the urge to explain eclipsed the delivering thrust of what we need to hear.

On September 11, 2012 at 11:02am Penac Pendasta wrote:
I used to get frustrated by poetry and still do, at times. However, I grew
to like it very much once I was in grad school. Poetry is certainly more
difficult and obtuse and elusive than prose (Interestingly, I think song
lyrics can often times be even more obtuse and elusive than poetry). I
think that patience and multiple readings yield great reward, at lest in
terms of poetry. Many song lyrics, I just give up on because, as certain
songwriters have admitted, these are written with no intent of them
meaning anything. Just words sounding good together (Just to be clear, I
have never thought this to be the case in your lyric writing). I would
keep giving the poetry a try. Maybe it will turn into shelving, at some

On September 11, 2012 at 11:43am Storm the Palace wrote:
What is this bullshit?

On September 11, 2012 at 1:02pm Kasey Mohammad wrote:
Ron Padgett

Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer


On September 11, 2012 at 6:47pm Dale wrote:
Will Oldham is a fraud, with a fake moustache, and fake country albums,
and fake folk albums, and fake rock albums. He always struck me the
ultimate hipster--and here he proves it. He's like that Smog f*^K, who
thinks that 400 year old poetry is... poetry. How about this Will ( a fake
name), let's compare a poem by James Tate or Jen Knox or Olena Davis
or Dean Young to a 400 year old song--who wins? Let's compare those
poets to you, fraud--you lose.

On September 12, 2012 at 10:25am Jack wrote:
Time to actually read some contemporary poems, Will. How about starting out on something easy but good like billy Collins and then taking your ignorant head out of your arse from there?

On September 12, 2012 at 11:17am Sam wrote:
I just love it when people get offended by words or symbolism. It
appeared to me that William was correct in that poetry is a
wonderful aspect of humanities past. Unless one lives under a rock,
it is fairly obvious that a very large percentage of the human
population keeps a distance from poetry.

I relate poetry versus lyrics to land-line telephones versus cellular
phones. When land-line telephones were still in widespread use I
remembered everyones phone number who mattered in my life
(and still do) but with the invention of the cellular phone, my phone
remembers all of the new phone number I will never memorize.

I, myself, have always thought of poetry as the creative medium for
non-creative people. Most likely b/c I am a visual artist who has
never had much use for words or their application. At the same
time, I do hold music lyrics close to my heart and I often remember
and relate to them. At the same time, I completely understand and
share the perspective which Will was illustrating.

All in all, if you love anything (poetry included) then that is a
wonderful thing. Don't let other peoples views and opinions degrade
that love. At the same time, be aware of the fact that some people
may resent your love for whatever reason. This is human nature in

On September 13, 2012 at 6:25pm Gilbert & George wrote:
They weren't good Drawers

They weren't bad Drawers

But, My God, the were Drawers

On September 14, 2012 at 4:49pm SD wrote:
"to hell with drawers" is a nice statement. unless you start living in an apartment, where your wife doesn't want shelves and drawers. you end up with most of your belongings scattered evenly across the floor. I hate it.

On September 19, 2012 at 3:06pm Tom wrote:
Some pretty hateful and shallow comments here, but funny that the
haters misread the essay so entirely. I'd think people around here could
follow a string of words.

On September 20, 2012 at 6:33pm Joan Taber wrote:
Well spoken, Prince Billy, not just because of your refreshing honesty,
but because you made some people here really angry. In my silly
naiveté and despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, I’m still
surprised when lovers of poetry froth at the mouth when someone
questions its meaningfulness or meaning or validity.

You’ve written a clear explanation as to why so many people hightail it
out of town the minute they sense a poem lurking outside their door.
Yes, some poems just sit there on the page, and we’re left all alone
with a bunch of words scattered on white, wondering what the hell it’s
all about. We’re five years old again and have to explain Pollack’s
“Shimmering Substance” for tomorrow’s show-and-tell. It happens to
me all the time. And then I’ll turn to, yes, Billy Collins or Charles
Bukowski or May Swenson. I get it. I feel better. All grown up again.

I admire your work, too. Thank you.

On September 23, 2012 at 9:25am Ben wrote:
My favourite poem is the one that starts 'Thirty days hath September' because it actually tells you something - GROUCHO MARX

On October 17, 2012 at 2:42pm Ada wrote:
For the Prince!

On July 30, 2013 at 10:19am Meg wrote:
So, just to be clear...

"When things are hidden in drawers, they do not exist." and "My mind is
kept in a drawer, in the end."

Maybe that's why you're feeling a bit stumped.

On July 30, 2013 at 11:45am Mark Granier wrote:
Personally I have little interest in sports but if I resented everyone who
loved sports I'd lose half my friends.

Poetry sits on the page in as much as the page is a magic carpet.
(Seamus Heaney: "Poetry is language in orbit.")

I was going to quote that sonnet by Padgett but someone beat me to it
so here's a riff/variation:


Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer
Something in that drawer

Poetry is a drawer in as much as that drawer is the ocean floor, the
firmament, "sawdust restaurants with oyster shells", "the lone and
level sands", the cloud-ceiling, one of those "places where a thought
might grow".

You pull out the drawer to find yourself standing in it, testing the
valley walls for an echo.

If it is jammed or stuck you're simply pulling on the wrong drawer.

Possibly this piece of furniture is the wrong size. Haven't you noticed
that it's taller than The Cliffs of Moher? There is a drawer for everyone.
Move a little further along the base or climb (there are plenty of
footholds) and you'll find yours. Then you can fold and pocket the
whole shebang and take it with you.

Poetry and music are old allies, as old as the
spoken/chanted/enchanted word.

A singer-songwriter who claims to dislike poetry would have much in
common with a swimmer who claims to hate water.

"Lang-scape" is a pretty dire pun.

On July 31, 2013 at 3:34am silva wrote:
why do i have to find this here? what a disappointment. who really cares
about what this person thinks? who is this person anyway?! obviously
just some modern pseudo-intelectual i feel sorry for.

On September 21, 2015 at 11:50pm Craig wrote:
Are the commenters blind to this bit of poetry within what looks like prose?

"Unfortunately, the full sonnet made no sense to me, and even that quoted couplet became scrambled and indecipherable without the guidance of a critic to give it meaning—because it is poetry, and poetry is something that points to something else.

I also do not like drawers."

This entire essay points to how poetry (and lyrics) point to more than themselves. A bit of history: Will Oldham always pretends that he's less than he is. That's his schtick. That's his success in music: pretend you're not a musician or a singer, and you can play and sing so many more things than even you might have expected.

But, back to the point, if I get it: modern poetry needs a hook, and that hook may be music. Which doesn't mean instruments -- it means that the best poetry may be verse, and verse that can be sung in ways that people now feel. And that doesn't mean to "pop" it out. Oldham's music is far from popular, but he knows how to mesh his words with his music.

And he is a poet. But he's also a musician. And he doesn't think they're different things. That's his point. And it's important because I think we've rarified the two away from each other.

So I'd ask, as one who loves language, who else gets how to make language visceral and musical in the direct way that a three chord song can grab me? Who can make the most complex, semester-long study of one sonnet resonate with a 3 minute melody? Certainly someone can...Because if not, what use is this language?

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This prose originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2012


Will Oldham works in music and as an actor. He puts records together using the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Collaborators include the Cairo Gang, Dawn McCarthy, Mike Aho, and Trembling Bells.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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