by carl wilson

From Bad to Verse?

I'm writing a review, a bit belatedly, of the Silver Jews' great new album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, and it occurred to me - aside from the Jews' David Berman, Leonard Cohen and Jim Carroll, are there any other English-language pop (or semi-pop) singers who have published books of poetry (not their lyrics) that stand up as excellent poetry with no jot of special pleading?

I have mixed feelings about Dylan's Tarantula (I like it, but I like his liner notes better, and it feels impossible to know how one would feel about it without knowing Dylan's music). I think Patti Smith's poetry works a lot better when she's performing it than on the page. I generally feel that way about dub poets, too, though that could be a failing on my part. There must be more, but they're not springing to mind. (Oh, wait - Ed Sanders of the Fugs, though the Fugs themselves sometimes require special pleading.) The crossover seems a lot more common in other cultures, as in Latin America, Africa, France, even Quebec.

(If you say Gord Downie, I'll try not to be dismissive - I've only read a couple of poems from his book and I'm a bit kneejerk about the Tragically Hip.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, July 28 at 1:06 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (28)



Jordan, how could I not have known that! Apologies to Franklin.

Andrew, I also have a record of Steve Lacy's settings of Robt Creeley pomes. There must be tons of examples like that.

I'm sure there are tons of poets who play an instrument well, as there are tons of people in most fields who play instruments well. So I was thinking more about people who can move between the two sorts of writing, in this case. But instrumental composers who write poetry or poets who compose are also an interesting subset. Jackson Mac Low and John Cage (if you class some of his writing as poetry) come to mind. And Cecil Taylor, but I don't think much of his poems.

Posted by zoilus on August 1, 2008 1:44 PM



this may be an old(er) post, but i had a couple other thots:
1.its important to distinguish. the 'oral' poetries section of the recent joris/rothenburg anthology contains ma rainey & robert johnson. plus tom waits of course is in ron mann's 'poetry in motion'. but for me - id agree strongly with john..songlyrics aint pomes!
2.i suppose sound poetry doesnt belong in this thread? is it hard to imagine fans of henry rollins or leo cohen listening to our own Four Horsemen or kurt schwitters or michael mcclure? i think yes it is .....hmmm again the thot of yoko ono rising (pardon the pun). truly a visionary.
3. to go in the opposite ie/ poet to musician direction, ive read that clark coolidge was in a band called 'serpent power'. any clues to that one? he is still a decent jazz drummer. which also reminds of the late great paul haines' collabs with carla bley etc. what was it about that jazz scene that they felt incorporating poems into the work was important? oh! also ive heard that steve swallow put some poems of bryon gysins' to song in the early eighties.
4. and to add to owens comment - virgil thompsons score of steins opera '4 saints on three acts' is a must listen - it is calm and even serene at times enough to allow the incredible music of steins words to come thru
5. fantastic topic, this.

Posted by andrew on August 1, 2008 11:26 AM



He has two. One from Seeing Eye in LA, one from Lame House in Saginaw.

Posted by Jordan on August 1, 2008 9:09 AM



But Jordan, Franklin doesn't have any collections of his poetry out, does he? Above, John Samson was even sceptical whether one book is sufficient evidence. But that's all consistent with Franklin's talent for avoiding the spotlight...

Posted by zoilus on July 31, 2008 3:30 PM



Look for a poem called "Yachting?" by Jeff Tweedy. It's the best poem from Adult Head, mentioned earlier.

Posted by Jeff on July 31, 2008 12:47 PM



Well and of course Franklin Bruno.

Posted by Jordan on July 31, 2008 8:31 AM



Oh, another one that's just occurred to me thanks to Charles Aaron's remarkable presentation at last spring's EMP Pop Conference: Labi Siffre.

Posted by zoilus on July 30, 2008 1:24 PM



Graham - Tupac's poems are very moving but they were things he wrote as a teenager and they were only published posthumously. And they're certainly a case where you wouldn't look twice at 'em if you didn't know who the poet was.

Posted by zoilus on July 30, 2008 1:18 PM




Posted by Graham Preston on July 29, 2008 7:37 PM



I was waiting for someone to pop Hank's name in there. But man is his poetry dreadful.

I recall reading some Chuck D./Public Enemy lyrics presented as poetry in some Lower East Side reader years back, and being struck at how well the words lived quite apart from the music. Especially "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."

Cave's book was good! Assuming you mean the novel. The wee poetry collections I've seen less good.

Posted by cfrey04 on July 29, 2008 10:52 AM



Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Haven't read much of it, but the ones I have are amazing, plus he remains one of my favorite lyricists, so... ('though he may fall into the S. Williams and Hall bracket as well).

Damn! Gotta start reding those R. Hell books soon.

Posted by Chris M on July 29, 2008 4:34 AM




Wait, forget I said anything, I'm trying not to post on the American Idol/What a critic's job is topic.


Posted by Matt Collins on July 29, 2008 12:00 AM



Good call, John.

In a way, lyrics are incomplete poetry, meaning that they require a musical setting for their meaning to be conveyed. There's a reason why sonnets don't often find their way into classical song.. they're too hard to set.

W H Auden's collaborations with Britten are extremely successful works of song and opera, and very popular. As a result, Auden's poetry was a popular choice for young composers to work with throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. And most of the results are not so hot... Auden changed his style enormously from poetry to lyric to libretto. His poetry is complete and can't benefit from any musical accompaniment.

(Except Samuel Barber, of course, his version of Dover is beautiful--and many other of his settings.)

Similarly, I've always thought that a Truly Great Song would never make a great music video, beer commercial, or film soundtrack.

Has anybody read Nick Cave's novel?

Posted by Owen on July 28, 2008 10:56 PM



I like that you are trying to draw a line between lyricists and poets. Too often people smear at the border, saying, “Burton Cummings is my favourite poet,” or something, which is sort of like saying The Sopranos is your favourite movie. They are different art forms, not better or worse, just different. And it often seems to me that it is a not-so-subtle dig at poetry, a way of passive-aggressively saying, “I just don’t get poetry,” which is just another way of saying, “I refuse to engage with poetry.” It was flattering but a bit scary to see my own poems in that link above (some of them I like, and were recently published in Matrix magazine and elsewhere, and some are from a chapbook I made for friends and family 15 years ago, and are lousy, and make me feel a bit ill to revisit). I don’t know if they would have been published if I wasn’t in a band that some people know. I kind of doubt it. So for the record, I think of myself primarily as a Lyricist. It is quite a different thing to have a melody to weave words into, as opposed to the blank page. There is a great tradition of Sunday Painters, and I think of myself as a Sunday Poet. We Sunday Poets adore the art-form, and maybe might occasionally make something that is really fine, but don’t have any illusions that we are some neglected John Ashbury or Adrienne Rich waiting to be discovered. I don’t know if any of the lyricist/poet examples given really work for me. I don’t think much of “Tarantula.” David Berman comes closest, I guess. “Actual Air” is a really great book, but was published almost 10 years ago, and maybe has just the slightest whiff of a master’s thesis about it? And is one book a body of work? I actually quite like Gord Downie’s “Coke Machine Glow,” but it does contain some song lyrics, and the melodies creep in as you read. I’m not saying these books shouldn’t be taken seriously as poetry; of course it is all art, all expression, all valuable in some way. I just think that the way our culture privileges pop-music does a disservice to the great full-time poets who are marginalized and belittled by the market economy.

John Samson

ps: What about non-lyric musicians who are poets—I love the Scottish poet Don Paterson, who is apparently a strong jazz guitarist. I wonder how that influences his poetry, and vice-versa. There must be other examples.

Posted by jks on July 28, 2008 7:02 PM



@John: I had a Drunken Boat album (that name being a dead giveaway that there's a poet in the ranks) way back. And hey, it seems that Todd Colby's also a very active blogger (not to mention Iron Man athlete!):

Posted by zoilus on July 28, 2008 5:30 PM



I remember picking up a book of Jim Morrison's poetry when I was a teen and thinking it was great... But can't say I've returned to it - or The Doors for that matter - since.

Posted by JKelly on July 28, 2008 3:45 PM



Richard Hell, yeah, that's true - maybe never took his poetry as far as he might have (he's spent more time on prose), but he's not a dabbler, unlike Moore, Tweedy and (to a lesser degree) Ranaldo. I'll have to check out Childish.

And sure, someone like John S Hall, although in his case, just like someone like Saul Williams, for example, that's more a case of a spoken-word poet putting some of his stuff to music and some of his stuff on the page, sometimes the same stuff. I suppose I'm making an (admittedly somewhat artificial, possibly pernicious) distinction between performance poets and "literary" poets.

Katherine, you're right that John Samson's poems share a lot with his lyrics - it's a little hard to read them without imagining them sung. Still, a few definitely hold up. But yes, no book yet for JKS.

I forgot Pernice had published a book of poems as well - I've always meant to read that. Sure it would have some gems. (Pernice has an MFA in creative writing - like Berman, Cohen and John Darnielle [except that the latter's not published his poetry as far as I know], he's more of a poet who fell into music in part because it was a more populist vehicle.)

I suppose I was thinking not just of musicians who've published some decent poems but of people who have a dual poet/musician career - who are really part of both communities/industries.

Which reminds me that I should also mention Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500/Damon & Naomi, who's put out two collections and (with Naomi) runs the Exact Change avant-garde-classic reprint press. I'd almost count Yoko Ono, too, whose conceptual pieces often seem as much like poems to me - I read Grapefruit as a book of poems. And then there's Shel Silverstein and in the UK, perhaps Ivor Cutler - though neither of them did much poetry for adults, I don't think, good children's poetry counts.

It still seems to me that Cohen, Carroll and Berman are close to the only ones that one could say have been more or less equally *acclaimed* in each realm, the way that Felix Leclerc was in Quebec, Victor Jara in Chile etc.

Oh, and, of course, Jewel.

Posted by zoilus on July 28, 2008 3:15 PM



what do you consider poetry? do david byrne's labelled drawings or paul mccartney's children's book fall into the category?

Posted by allana on July 28, 2008 2:32 PM



Brian Joseph Davis!

Posted by stuberman on July 28, 2008 2:26 PM




I heart King Missile, but, not having seen his book(s?), I was under the impression that John "not 'Still the One'" Hall's poetry reprinted his lyrics -- not that they don't deserve it. Or maybe his book(s?) include(s?) lyrics and non-song verses?

Posted by john on July 28, 2008 1:09 PM



Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo both have books of poetry published. It's okay stuff! Thurston is a man that writes well about feminism, and I dig that.

Posted by Pete Forde on July 28, 2008 12:33 PM



John K Samson hasn't, as far as I know, published his own work in a single volume, but he was published in Jon Paul Fiorentino & Robert Kroestch's Post-Prairie Anthology (2005), so I'd guess he fits the spirit if not the letter of what you're seeking. And I wouldn't be surprised if a volume of his own work popped up at some point.

I can't put my hands on my copy of the anthology right now, but I did find some of his stuff here.
What interests me about it is how much I hear his music in his poetry even when it isn't there- something about the rhythms of his syntax maybe that's consistent with the way his lyrics are carried in song. A lot of similar thematic concerns. The (untitled) poem here feels like a continuation of a couple of songs on Left & Leaving, all that walking and mapping. These might have been songs. But I do think they work as poems.

Posted by katherine on July 28, 2008 11:27 AM



I've enjoyed Joe Pernice's short book of poems - but not as much as his entry in the 33 1/3 series.

Posted by Thierry on July 28, 2008 10:50 AM



I've seen a book of Thurston Moore's, but it wore his Beat influences too obviously to hold my attention.

Posted by alex on July 28, 2008 9:39 AM



Seconding the Richard Hell and Todd Colby mentions. I'd add John S. Hall. Lee Ranaldo's published work is worth a look.

Posted by Jordan on July 28, 2008 9:22 AM



I'd definitely put Billy Childish out there. The guy's published tons of great, mostly very dark poetry over the years, a recent collection of which is called The Man with Gallows Eyes - Selected Poetry 1980-2005. Caught a reading/performance in Montreal a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it.

Posted by Chuck on July 28, 2008 8:47 AM



Jeff Tweedy released a book of poems called "Adult head" in 2004. No idea if it was any good or not, but it exists.

Posted by frank on July 28, 2008 6:49 AM



I haven't read any of it, but Richard Hell has published poetry.

Todd Colby was in a band called Drunken Boat, which I've never heard; interesting poet.

I would like to mention W. S. Gilbert, who was a hugely popular poet before hooking up with Sullivan; but I don't think he sang.

Woody Guthrie's collections of (non-song) verse, misc. prose, and letters brim and bubble with brilliance.

I haven't read Robert Hunter's poetry, but anybody who translates a Rilke volume has to be sincere and serious at least. Best known as a lyricist, he does sing too, and has at least one volume of non-song poetry.

Posted by john on July 28, 2008 3:19 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson