Wednesday, March 29, 2006

My poetry was lousy, you said

No, this is not a post about whether rock lyrics can be poetry. That question's already been answered. Convincingly. By the folks over at Minstrels. If you don't believe that rock lyrics can be poetry, I refer you to the works of M/s Simon, Dylan, Mitchell, Cohen and Knopfler as collected on their site. (see, in particular Thomas's commentary to Tambourine Man) There are other artists who've written songs that deserve the title of poetry, but that should do for now.

Nor is this a post about songs that actively reference poetry. Like S&G's Richard Cory [1]. Like Joni Mitchell's Slouching toward Bethlehem. Like the Cranberries singing Yeats' Grave (with its rendition of 'No Second Troy' in Dolores O'Riordan's hypnotic voice). Like Joan Baez quoting Neruda on No Nos Moveran. [2]

No. This is a post about something different. This is a post about songs that have somehow, over the years, come to remind me of particular pieces of writing. Not because the songwriters necessarily saw the connection or were trying to make the link. Not because I happened to be listening to the song and reading the piece at the same time. But because some obscure connection in my head got triggered by the song that made me think of a poem, or a play, or a book. It might have been a turn of phrase. Or the general tone of the song. Or something else entirely. At any rate, every time I listen to this song now, I can't do it without thinking about the piece of writing again. And vice versa. (does this happen to other people, by the way? or is it just me?):

1) Jethro Tull: Broadsword [William Blake: Jerusalem]

Let's start with something simple. Is it possible to hear Jethro Tull singing Broadsword and not think of the lines from Blake: "Bring me my bow of burning gold! / Bring me my arrows of desire! / Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold! / Bring me my chariot of fire!"? [3] Personally, I've never been able to hear the song go "Bring me my broadsword / and clear understanding / Bring me my cross of gold / As a talisman" without making the connection.

2) Led Zeppelin: Gallows Pole (William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure)

To begin with, let me say that I think Gallows Pole is one of Zeppelin's most underrated songs. I love the way it starts off being so slow and plainitive, and then just grows and grows in tempo until it ends up being an explosion of frenzy. And the screaming desperation in Plant's voice is so apt.

What Gallows Pole always reminds me of, for some obscure reason, is Measure for Measure. I think it's the whole "Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand / Take him to shady bower, save me from the wrath of this man" bit, with its echoes of "Sweet sister, let me live:/What sin you do to save a brother's life, /Nature dispenses with the deed so far/That it becomes a virtue". Not of course, that Gallows Pole is the only song to deal with that scenario - Dylan does something similar on Seven Curses, though this time it's a daughter, not a sister who's involved. But I've always felt that the Zeppelin song, with all its talk of gold and soul and bowers has a much more medieval, mystic feel.

3. The Doors: The End (T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men)

Okay, here there actually is a connection. Remember Apocalypse Now? Remember that starting scene where he plays The End? Well, of course, Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness. Which is where Eliot got the "Mistah Kurtz - he dead" line with which he starts Hollow Men. See. Small world.

More generally, though, that entire "lost in a roman wilderness of pain" bit in the song always conjures up in my head a landscape that comes straight out of Eliot.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
This hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.

4) Simon and Garfunkel: Scarborough Fair (Christopher Marlowe: The Passionate Sheperd to his Love)

It's the motif of clothes made out of plants mostly (and more generally, the idea of doing all these impossible things for your love). But it's also the tone of the song, the way both song and poem cycle back to that one line, the way "Come live with me and be my love" is echoed in "She once was a true love of mine". In fact, I have to say that I actually like the S&G song a lot better than I like the original Marlowe poem - but then, I've never managed to be enthusiastic about Marlowe anyway.

5) Tracy Chapman: The Promise (John Donne: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

Every time I listen to Tracy Chapman's The Promise, I find the last four stanzas of Donne's poem playing over and over in my head. This is not because the lyrics to Chapman's song are particularly brilliant. It's more, I suspect, because of her voice, because of the depth of feeling that she manages to put into it, elevating the song into realms of emotion that Donne inhabits. What is, in Donne, a consoling conviction becomes, in Chapman's song, a dream of the future that the singer has no real faith in. The effect is devastating.

I could go on and on. There's Dylan's Tangled up in Blue, that always makes me think of Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. There's R.E.M's Falls to Climb, that always makes me think of Lermontov and Chekhov's Seagull. There's Suzanne Vega's The Queen and the Soldier, which reminds me of Tennyson generally, though I can't say why or what poem exactly (Maud perhaps?) .

The point is that people who ask whether rock lyrics are poetry are looking at it the wrong way. It's not the lyrics alone that make good rock poetic. It's the combination of the the words and the sound, the whole not the parts, that make rock, at its best, as moving a form of expression as good literature. Just as it's not the words to Dove sono or Pace pace mio dolce tesoro or Vissi d'arte that make those songs so moving. R.P.Blackmur famously said that poets are looking to add to "the stock of available reality". Great rock music, I think, just does that, fundamentally enhancing how we imagine ourselves and the world around us.


[1] Which, just in case you haven't figured this out yet, is based on Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem.

[2] Not to mention Zeppelin's infatuation with Tolkien.

[3] The Minstrels version I've linked to has a discussion about a rock version of Blake's poem as well.

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MockTurtle said...

I posted this a little late for yesterday's discussion, so thought I'd repost it here. Long story short you live rock 'n roll, you don't listen to it like opera and analyze its nuances.

The problem with falling backwards into Rock (notice I spell it with a capital 'R' like you did, to empathize with your subconscious awe for the genre) is that you elevate it to an art form that it is not.
Rock is life. Every song that my iPod shuffle spits up at me brings back partially buried memories - Dead's 'St. Stephen' reminds me of my first girlfriend, Ozzy's 'Mama I'm coming home' reminds me of a coffee shop in Manipal, Floyd's 'Dark side of the moon' reminds me of smoking in the doorway of a train to Delhi, Aerosmith's 'Eat the rich' reminds me of a bad car crash I was in, BOC's 'Don't fear the reaper' reminds me of a drunken motorcycle trip from Mysore to Ooty, Megadeth's 'Trust' reminds me of rum fueled brawls in college cult fests... I could go on forever. I never anayzed the songs for their artistic or lyrical merit. They just fitted in and were a part of the scenery.
If you don't grow up with Rock, you shouldn't try to compare it with classical music or jazz or poetry or any other form of art you grew up with. That's not what Rock is for. The artists here are usually a bunch of drug addled working class Brits who put their thoughts to music. You can relate to them, but shouldn't try to put them up on a pedestal and study them (unless you're a 17 year old groupie).
@d&c: I brought up Moby earlier to poke a little fun, but to be fair it's not like he's the Spice Girls or something. Google his lyrics, some of them are decent.

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

I agree with JAP, your blog should be avoided this week. Too much to say.

Visited your Minstrels' site, looked up Paul Simon. Doesn't work. It ignores the interweaving of Scarborough Fair and Canticle that multiplies the impact.

Jabberwock said...

Hey, thanks, you've whetted my appetite for all those long-forgotten Dylans. Not to mention S&G, Vega and "Falls to Climb", which was one of my favourite REMs. Just for this I'll forgive you that cheeky comment on Aishwarya's site.

And Quiller Couch, you "agree with JAP"? Uh, isn't that like Gollum agreeing with Smeagol?

Aishwarya said...

Completely unrelated (except..well..the Marlowe poem) but

How does one email you?

Ubermensch said...

This is my first time, dropped by after being referred by a friend; must say quite enjoyed reading ur entries, shall come back for more.

Abt this post, yes, nothing obscure about it.
Your first, Tull n blake supposedly deals with religion invading England.
Dunno about the second, Ive never much bothered about perspective of zeppelin.
Third is elemenatry, Brando(Kurtz) reads out hollow men in apocalypse.


dazedandconfused said...

well, thank god I didn't read this connection between ROCK (all caps, now whats the analysis?!) and dead poets society when I was 18. I might have thought ROCK was totally uncool and listened to Bhangra :)

mockt: Fear not, I listen to Moby too and I like their sound.

The Black Mamba said...

Think Scarborough Fair was an adaptation by Simon of a traditional English Ballad. So does make sense that it reminds you of Marlowe..

more here

Scarborough Fair

Falstaff said...

mockturtle: see my reply to your comment on my earlier post

aqc: Ah, but I'm quite happy to set off chain reactions. It's so much fun. About Scarborough Fair - I guess, though I'm not sure how you would bring out the interweaving lines. The Minstrels site (not mine, more's the pity) does have both parts, just doesn't put them together.

jai: Am so relieved to hear that I'm forgiven. But really, why interfere with the poor girl's rant? And huh? aqc and JAP are like Gollum and Smeagol? Am I missing something?

aishwarya: ah yes, the Raleigh reply. There's also, of course, the Donne take on this whole Passionate Shepherd issue:

as well as the Day-Lewis version that shows up on Minstrels (it's in the comments section of the Marlowe).

On e-mailing me - I've added my e-mail id to my profile - you can e-mail me there.

ubermensch: thanks. and welcome.

d&c: :-).

BM: True, true. Maybe Graves is right after all. Maybe we're all just rehashing the old Welsh bards.

Aishwarya said...

Thanks. And the Donne and Day-Lewis versions are in the comments to the post I linked you to. I have this wonderful vision of these men sitting around writing refutations to each other's work...though a bit of time travel might be necessary in some cases.

MockTurtle said...

Sorry, missed your reply on the last post and read it now.
You seem to assume that Hornby did not approve of people liking songs for the memories they conjure.
I don't think that's true. It seems to me that he was implying that while some music did bring up old memories, he enjoyed his favourite music just for the sake of the music itself.
Come to think of it, Hornby is an unsentimental ass. It's all very well to pooh-pooh at people who say their favourite song reminds them of their honeymoon in Corsica, but if there isn't at least one song in your record collection that you don't dare play because the memories break your heart, then you must be a cold-blooded snake who hasn't really lived.
Also, if I remember right John Cusack's character in Hornby's "High Fidelity" organized his record collection chronologically, according to the events in his life the records brought back to him.
I still maintain that music, especially rock music, can be appreciated best if you can relate to the mood the music evokes. Breaking it down into parts and analyzing it (or spending weeks checking on the significance of each line of "We didn't start the fire") takes away from the experience.

ozymandiaz said...

I guess I'm much more the simpleton as every time I hear a rock song (or jazz or classical...) I think about sex. For that matter when I am enveloped with silence I think about sex so perhaps there is no real connection there but suffice to say the only way I can escape sexual thoughts is to visit your blog…

Come on, how much conversation about rock and roll could there be with out getting sex involved, otherwise it is a statement that rock really is dead

Cocculus Indicus said...

Here's what James Fenton says about poetry and song. Song lyrics definitely tend to be 'thinner' as the music is a constituent part conveying meaning (I disagree with Fenton when he divides the creation of a song into discrete phases - lyrics and melody; librettist and composer; both can be created simultaneously). Really dense poetry can be too much for song: remember Richard E Grant speaking Shakespeare over some drum 'n bass beats? I think George Steiner argues something similar in The Death of Tragedy.

What do people think about Christopher Ricks' book Dylan's Visions of Sin which is 500 pages of ingenious literary criticism on Dylan's lyrics?? Too far???

Cocculus Indicus said...

Ballads are often studied as part of literature degrees. So despite being words and melody they are considered poetry. What is the Donal Og if not amazing poetry/song. Plenty of 'literary' people inspired to write ballads (though without music) too - Auden's As I Walked Out One Evening springs to mind.

I suppose there's no clear distinction but less dense writing may be more suited to be carried by a melody. Is 'Poetry' just making some words do something different?

Yada yada yada. I've just been listening to some Patti Smith and Dylan recently. Rock music can be so fucking amazing. Ryan Adams and Interpol today I'd rate up there with the best.

Falstaff said...

aishwarya: what? no mail? And yes, I should have scrolled down a bit more.

mockturtle: I don't disagree - the point I was making (and Hornby was making too) was just that a song doesn't have to be linked to a particular event in your life, it can be a song you love just for the sake of it - and many, if not most of my favourite songs are like that. Sure there are songs I have happy / sad memories of. Just as there are poems / books that come with specific associations for me. But it's not generally true that the songs I like the best are the songs that have memories attached to them. In fact, most of the songs that have memories attached to them aren't even songs I necessarily like that much. They just happen to be songs that conjure up particular life incidents. Hornby's point is that that makes sense, because only if the song is one you listen to relatively rarely will it get linked to a particular event. With a song you really love, you have so many memories to choose from that it's impossible to pick any particular one.

Oz: errr...agree about the sex-rock connection generally. Am still a little disturbed by the "only way I can escape sexual thoughts is to visit your blog" bit. But whatever works for you.

cocculus: Thanks. Some really interesting links there. If we're talking about poets writing song let's not forget Ginsberg and all the poems he wrote that are set to music as well. Don't know the Rick's book, I'm afraid, so can't comment.

Ubermensch said...

Hey thanks,I see youve added a couple more, But I thought It was Rock N Poetry? Paul simon? how come?

Abhinav Goyal said...

Well, there is Iron Maiden quoting "Charge of the Light Brigade" and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in ... heck, I forget the name of the songs ;)

Turn, Turn, Turn (the Byrds) from the Bible.

S&G mention Robert Frost in "Dangling Conversations"

PS: Discovered your site via blogger. Interesting posts!

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