Friday, February 26, 2010

Lyrics and Poetry

Historically, a lyric was a poem.  Poetry was made to be sung, accompanied by a lyre (the root of lyric) and thus we still emphasize the sound and the rhythm as crucial elements of poetry.  The jazz influence of the early 20th century showed that these sounds could work through dissonance as well as euphony, and contemporary poetry continues to experiment with the sounds of words.

I've heard it said that poetry is dead, but the radio speaks otherwise.  Perhaps that's a dated reference: Pandora speaks otherwise.  At any rate, I can't talk about poetry and not also talk about music.

Most of what I hear is fairly stupid or banal--the lyricists have not aspired to poetry--but some lyricists have clearly tried for something greater.  I mentioned Johnny Cash's song "Folsom Prison Blues" in class a few weeks back, and I stand by that as a well-crafted narrative poem.  It's spare and surprising in all the right ways, and this is why it's stuck with us for so long.  Brian mentioned "Avalanche" by the Butthole Surfers yesterday, and I said I'd stand by that one as well (although I'll admit I've never cared for the band's name). 

Here are the lyrics:

Marky got with Sharon,
Sharon got Sharee,
She was sharing Sharon's outlook on the topic of disease,
Mikey had a facial scar,
and Bobby was a racist,
They were all in love with dying,
They were doing it in Texas,
Tommy played piano like a kid out in the rain,
Then he lost his leg in Dallas he was dancing with the train...
They were all in love with dying,
They were drinking from a fountain,
That was pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain.

I don't mind the sun sometimes the images it shows,
I can taste you on my lips and smell you in my clothes.
Cinnamon and sugary and softly spoken lies,
You never know just how to look through other people's eyes
Some will die in hot pursuit in fiery auto crashes,
Some will die in hot pursuits while sifting through my ashes,
Some will fall in love with life and drink it from a fountain
That is pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain.

I don't mind the sun sometimes the images it shows,
I can taste you on my lips and smell you in my clothes.
Cinnamon and sugary and softly spoken lies,
You never know just how you look through other people's eyes

Another Mikey took a knife while arguing in traffic,
Flipper died of natural death, he caught a nasty virus.
Then there was an ever present football player-rapist,
They were all in love with dying they were doing it in Texas.
Pauly caught a bullet but it only hit his leg,
Well it should've been a better shot and got him in the head.
They were all in love with dying
They were drinking from a fountain
That was pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain.


This one isn't narrative like "Folsom Prison Blues," but from the first lines on, I know these lyricists care about sound.  (Alliteration and assonance abound.)  And I like what's left UNsaid.  Too many writers (myself included) give too much.  They don't give the reader a place in the poem. 

Here's what Louise Gluck wrote on the unsaid:

What I share with [poets in my generation] is ambition; what I dispute is its definition. I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum. … It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.  (Gluck, Louise. "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence." Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry. New York: Ecco, 1994. 74-75.)

It takes a great deal of confidence in your images and your language to give up control and leave things unsaid, but ultimately, this is one of the features that great poetry shares: it lets the reader share the questions and the discoveries and it doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

Now I'm not saying that the Butthole Surfers song is *great* poetry, but I will say it's better than average and has a lot of the traits I'd like to see from the young writers submitting to us at Trillium.  The lyricists give us images of people in various states of moral decline and lets us draw from it what we will without telling us how to feel or what to think, the way less confident writers might.  It strikes me that this is worth thinking about.


  1. Yes, Yes, Yes and I am in my time machine heading back to that glorious decade of flannel and doc martens which I still wear today. What a great assignment which means that I am going to have to find the perfect song (HiFi Top 5 List remember) let's discuss this on Thursday hopeful (Snow in the forecast for my house). B

  2. The name of the BH Surfer's song is "Pepper," not "Avalanche." It's a great song. I remember it fondly from the 90's, reverberating from my stereo tuned to Z-Rock (the best station ever!).

    Matt Varnell