when you've got trouble
I've just come back from seeing the singer-songwriter Liz Longley, for the second time this year. It wouldn't surprise me if you, too, found yourself hearing her in a public place, and wanting to hear her again, by next year-- she's got one of those once-in-a-generation pop voices, completely "natural" in the sense that the sounds are never divorced from the sense, and yet able to glide four notes down or two notes up on a single syllable and make that sound natural too: this enthusiastic Boston listener tells no less than the truth. You'll like Longley if you ever liked Alison Krauss, though the country and bluegrass forms that come naturally to Krauss were apprentice trappings for Longley, evident on her not-so-hot earlier albums but totally absent on her nearly perfect record out late last year.
Instead, that record, with its spare arrangements, the songs drawn from it, and the new songs that sound like they could have been on it, call attention not just to her amazing voice, to the characters she projects (students, disappointed ingenues, kids moving out of the house-- she's young), but also to how the songs she writes fall together. You can't-- I can't-- listen to her without thinking about where the lyrics fit the chords, where they fit each other, where (more rarely) they miss, and because they're so effective when she sings them but so clear, so banal at times, when read silently, they're a great excuse to think again about how poetic lines are like the words in songs, and how they couldn't differ more.
If you haven't heard Longley yet (and you probably haven't) and if you have any affection for singer-songwriter styles (and you may not), stop and watch and listen to "When You've Got Trouble," or maybe to "Goodbye Love" or to "Out of My Head."
OK. Take "Trouble" (also the lead song on Hot Loose Wire): "You've been kicking in your sleep, tossing and turning, relentlessly, and I know you'd be lying if you told me you were fine." Or take "Out of My Head": "I found your mix tape for the road, and two tickets for the show, and your sock underneath my bed, and now I can't get you out of my head." If you read them before you saw the video or heard the music, did you notice how the long vowels line up, from "know" to "told," "road" to "show" to "now" and "out"? Did you see the words as naive? as beautiful and accurate about emotion and its causes? as too flat to be poetry? as all three?
Berklee College of Music, which Longley attended, has a songwriting major, teachers of lyrics-writing, and a somewhat scarily practical guide to the writing of lyrics for would-be hit songs, whose mere existence might remind you, if you doubted it, how different the working of words-for-music can be from words for recitation, for reading aloud or reading silently without music to back them up. It's a truth that certain verbally dense masters of songcraft (one named Elvis, one named Bob) can render obscure, but other masters, or gifted practitioners (Longley counts here as a gifted practitioner), render unmistakable: if you're not used to hearing how words work with music, even before the music gets written, you might not see how the euphonies and clarities in her lyrics, in Sondheim's words for "Tonight" or Marcy Mays's words for "Charles," make them such powerful songs.
W. H. Auden-- who was writing about opera libretti, not pop hits- went so far as to say that the demands of lyrics stood directly opposed to the demands of poetry proper, since the former had to sound incomplete, unsatisfactory, without music to complete it. Ezra Pound once claimed that whenever the art of poetry drifted too far away from the art of music, the former stood in danger; but if you read Pound's own poems, they don't sound like he meant it literally-- he was not writing words meant to be sung (or rather, he sometimes was, but that's not the Pound we usually read). Poetry, lyric poetry (hence the name) evolved from song, but it's not song now; it's usually not sung, and the best lyricists aren't making words we read as poems. I want to hear Liz Longley sing what she writes (and what other people write too).
To me the great mystery about poetry and lyrics, poetry and song, isn't so much whether they are the same thing-- they are not-- or whether they are related-- they certainly are-- as why we keep mistaking their relation for one of identity. Why do we so often want or expect (and "we" hear includes both naive and critically sophisticated readers) poems and songs to overlap as categories? why do we think they're alike?
Is it because poems use, as songs also use, overt acoustic patterns as ways to carry meaning and emotion, though in poems, the acoustic patterns are all in the words; in songs, they are partly in words, but partly external to them, imposed on them, by singers and instruments? Is it because songs and "lyric" poems both present souls, personae, speakers without bodies, their inner lives made into vibrations in air, so that we can imagine (as we use our outer or our inward ear) that we are them? Is there some other reason? When you hear your favorite song, your favorite singer, are you moved in the same way as you are moved by your favorite poems?
Want to read more on these questions? There's more about the idea of lyric just now up in online essays (so recent I've barely had time to scan them) from the critic, poet and songwriter Franklin Bruno, and there's a lot more about song lyrics and the nature of poetry in the last chapter of Robert von Hallberg's thoughtful book Lyric Powers.
And here is as good a place as any to apologize for an unlyrical omission: a year and a half ago I wrote about poets, some based in Chicago, who wanted their poems to be less like talk, more like durable objects, and sometimes a bit more like song. I credited the city and the University of Chicago for some of those poets, but I should have credited von Hallberg, who seems to have taught a lot of them, at that time too. Points to Robert Baird, who quite rightly called me out on it at that time.
Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...