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Pop Star Poetics

Rock Bards, the Spoken Word Revolution books, and the rise and fall of “poetic” lyrics.
Ever since Hermes created the lyre to confound Apollo, poetry and music have gone together like milk and cookies. Music critic David Browne navigates the sometimes rough seas.

Like many of my generation, I came to poetry through the back door of pop. In sixth grade, Mr. Johnson, our mustached, sideburned teacher, brought in his copy of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends. After he played it for the class on his portable record player, he led us in a discussion of the lyrics, focusing on the teen suicide ballad “Save the Life of My Child” and the panoramic “America.” Paul Simon, Mr. Johnson said, was a poet of our time. A few years later, a high school English teacher made a similar case when he passed out copies of the lyrics to The Who’s Quadrophenia, and my classmates and I sat around trying to decipher the meanings and metaphors behind Pete Townshend’s Mod-Squad concept album.

Anyone under the age of 40 is probably rolling his or her eyes at such stories. Yet, absurd as it may seem now, there actually was a moment when rock stars were being touted as poets, inheritors to Blake and Yeats, articulators of personal journeys and societal change.

I still own two telling mementoes of that period: The Poetry of Rock, a 1969 paperback, reprinted the lyrics of usual suspects like Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, and Jim Morrison, touting their work as “some of the best poetry of our time”; even odder, and more unintentionally comical, was another book, Grandfather Rock, in which rock stars were literally represented as inheritors of the wisdom of epic poets. An excerpt from The Iliad ran alongside the lyrics of Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses”; a portion of Thoreau’s Walden was paired with Stephen Stills’ “4 + 20” as then-and-now expressions of loneliness and existential crisis.

Even then, I was dubious of such connections. Sure, I was entranced by the way the Byrds’ otherworldly harmonies elevated lines like “Rain, gray town / Known for its sound” in “Eight Miles High.” Yet printed straight-up in The Poetry of Rock, those same words seemed flat and pretentious. Rock felt like its own, distinctive type of poetry, which was further confirmed when I bought coffee-table volumes devoted to the lyrics of Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Although both know more than a thing or two about memorable couplets, their anthologies only made me want to go back and play their albums. Rock lyrics, I decided, were generally only poetry when couched in song. Yet, perhaps because of that early training in Mr. Johnson’s class, part of me is still drawn to the words in a song.

My experience with traditional poetry is limited and fairly pathetic, limited to college courses, poems plastered in New York City subway trains, and all the volumes of Leonard Cohen I purchased after I became a fan of his music. I still remember the wonder I felt when finishing “Leaves of Grass” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” But whether it was figuring out who was who in Don McLean’s “American Pie,” marveling at the way Cohen turned a letter to a rival into poem-lyric in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” or realizing that Husker Du’s “Pink Turns to Blue” was about an overdose, I’ve had an equal number of moving moments from, yes, the poetry of rock. (This month, Sony has remastered and reissued Cohen’s first three albums. His sublimely perfect 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, remains the standard for the fusion of pop song and verse. The way Cohen’s near-recitations blend with the chamber pop around him truly make him sound like that rare amalgam of poet and pop star.)

As it turns out, the rock-as-poetry movement has not vanished along with the LP. Two years ago, The Spoken Word Revolution (Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2003), a book and companion CD, offered up a primer on new-generation poets, especially those working in the slam field. Its just-published followup, The Spoken Word Revolution Redux (Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2007), presents a new batch of young, unconventional poets. Flip through it, and a few surprising names crop up: Jeff Tweedy, leader of the alt-country band Wilco; Billy Corgan, once and future auteur of the Smashing Pumpkins; and Vernon Reid, the guitarist in Living Colour.

The Spoken Word Revolution Redux takes me back to those heady days of rock lyrics as literature, and not simply because Mark Eleveld, the Chicago high school teacher who co-edited the first volume and compiled Redux, is a Mr. Johnson of his time.

In the years since The Poetry of Rock and its ilk, expectations for pop songwriting have fallen dramatically. As rhythm has come to dominate pop, pop lyrics have become increasingly functional. The few who strive for grandness—Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Tori Amos—mostly end up with precious or irritatingly obtuse platitudes. (Only Dr. Phil could appreciate Coldplay lines like “Your heavy heart is made of stone / And it’s so hard to see clearly / You don’t have to be on your own,” from “A Message.”)

Frustrating overwriters like Bright Eyes auteur Conor Oberst abound, too. It’s telling that the only complete song lyric reprinted in Redux is poet and R&B singer Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which dates back to the early ’70s: The contributions of more recent pop stars are poems, not lyrics.

And what a mixed batch they are. If I were to hear Jeff Tweedy sing a line like “an emergency / worse than a clarinet” in one of his songs with Wilco, I’d probably barely notice such a clunky line. On the page, though, in “Another Great Thing,” it feels like free verse that’s, well, a little too free. It’s easy to imagine Billy Corgan’s angsty “Poetry of My Heart” couched in an old, crashing-cliffs-of-Dover Smashing Pumpkins song. On the page, though, it merely seems like the work of an overly self-conscious blogger. (“Those birds and you moving the speed of light over the blue / Well, if you were the sun, you’d laugh too!”) They remind me less of rock as poetry than that far worse trend that still plagues us—rockers as poets. Those slim, forgettable volumes by Jewel and Alicia Keys and Corgan himself, sharing bookshelf space with Wallace Stevens and Ginsberg at your local Borders.

The most poetic rock-related moment on The Spoken Word Revolution Redux, Jeff Buckley’s “A Letter to Bob Dylan,” is just that—a note the late cult singer/icon wrote, four years before his 1997 death, to one of his heroes. In a moment of manic onstage improv, Buckley had tossed off a Dylan impersonation at a club; although meant affectionately, it offended some of Dylan’s friends, who just happened to be in the audience. Brokenhearted that his remarks had been taken the wrong way, Buckley wrote Dylan a letter and then read it onstage at a poetry reading (from which this recording is taken).

“It just kills me to know that whatever they told you is what you think I think of you,” he recites. “Not that I love you. Not that I’ve always listened to you and carried the music with me everywhere I go. Not that I believe in you.” The cadence, especially in those last three lines, is effortlessly lyrical, hushed and intimate. Buckley sounds like a poet. (He had the striking, wounded look of a young Byron or Wilde, too.) Even his death was something out of a Romantic writer’s life: wading (in his Doc Martens) into a tributary of the Mississippi River, his body vanishing for days before washing ashore at the mouth of Beale Street, Memphis’s renowned music row.

Part of The Spoken Word Revolution Redux is also devoted, as it should be, to what one of its contributors, Chicago poet Kevin Coval, calls “hip hop poetica.” Revitalizing the idea of charismatic stars possessed by language, rap picked up where much of rock left off: “We are, at our foundation,” Coval writes, “a generation of storytellers firmly rooted in the realist tradition of narrative, an extension of Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg.” Hip hop in the ’80s combined anger, frustration, and humor into a distinctly lyrical (and very human) flow. As much as their rock predecessors, everyone from Kurtis Blow to Chuck D. to Ice-T sounded like true modern bards, minus the literary self-importance.

But as The Spoken Word Revolution Redux reveals, hip hop, too, eventually dropped the literary ball. Rap lyrics gave way to a coarseness and hostility rarely as inventive or funny as the rhymes of rap’s founders. (One obvious exception: the dizzying and lyrically and emotionally complex rhymes of Eminem. Few have approached lines like these, from his second album: “And since birth I’ve been cursed with this curse to just curse / And just blurt this berserk and bizarre shit that works / And it sells and it helps in itself to relieve / All this tension dispensin’ these sentences.”) The staccato rhythms churned out by modern R&B producers, and heard in styles like crunk, only served to reduce hip hop lyrics to exhortations and shout-outs. The return of the gangsta, starting with 50 Cent’s ascent, has only led to numbing boasts, taunts, and gunplay imagery.

Still, with their emphasis on snaky, long-winded wordplay, indie, underground rappers from Black Star (the early work of Mos Def and Talib Kweli) and El-P are doing their best to pick up where the old school left off. But they’re fighting a losing cultural battle. Coval’s “The Day Jam Master Jay Died,” a terse, eloquent eulogy not just for the gunned-down Run DMC DJ but for beat-boy culture itself, is a highlight of The Spoken Word Revolution Redux. The piece opens with Coval hearing the news from his girlfriend (“Hung up and my apartment was silent / Like there was no music in my apartment”) and then transforms into a heartbreaking spin through hip hop’s fallen heroes, including, at last, Jay: “He’d send shine beams on vinyl / Into the distant homes of the sun starved and let us bask in his light scratching scarce sounds.” The piece is even more powerful when Coval reads it on the accompanying CD.

It seems telling that Coval is a slam poet, not a rapper. What’s become apparent is that the lofty aspirations of most rap lyrics have given way to a more straightforward narrative realism. Tha Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, last year’s most musically and lyrically arresting rap album, chronicles the lives of two dealers who, by album’s end, realize they’ve reached a dead end: By the last track, “Nightmares,” Malice and Pusha T are coked out and paranoid (“These four walls are closin’ in / These voices ain’t my friends / They hauntin’ me”).

As much as thug gangsta rappers, country-folkies have long prided themselves on a writerly sense of detail and storytelling, but even those are sharpening into a kind of stark realism. On her current West, Lucinda Williams lives up to a line in one song about how words “remain my only companion / Loyal and true to the very end.” She still has a knack for knowing when to use imagery without overdoing it (“He can’t change you / Change the summers of your beauty / The thunderstorms within your purity / He can’t change you”) as well as desolation-row concision (“Anoint my head / With your sweet kiss / My joy is dead / I long for bliss”). One of her clear-cut successors, Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards, knows the devil is in the details, too. On last year’s Back to Me, she uses the idea of “Copied Keys” to sum up her feeling that she doesn’t belong in a lover’s life and home. Like a rapper, she gets both real and visual: She’s drawn to a clear bad boy (“I can spot your kind a million miles away / Buckle-down boots and a bloodshot gaze”) and describes a broken-down romance in terms of its detritus (“Desk drawers filled with picture frames / Postcards tucked in underneath”). I’m not sure what Mr. Johnson (or Mr. Eleveld) would think of it, but in pop, realism is more than ever, the new poetry.

Illustration by Marianne Goldin.

  • David Browne is a journalist and author based in New York. He is the author of Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley (HarperCollins) and Amped: How Big Air, Big Dollars and a New Generation Took Sports to the Extreme (Bloomsbury). His articles and reviews have...


Pop Star Poetics

Rock Bards, the Spoken Word Revolution books, and the rise and fall of “poetic” lyrics.
  • David Browne is a journalist and author based in New York. He is the author of Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley (HarperCollins) and Amped: How Big Air, Big Dollars and a New Generation Took Sports to the Extreme (Bloomsbury). His articles and reviews have...

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