(from Angle Issue 8)
Philip Quinlan: Norman, thanks for agreeing to this discussion. My apologies that we were unable to publish it in the last issue, and that what appears here is necessarily a greatly shortened version of our wide-ranging exchanges.
As you know, in our inaugural issue of Arsy-Versy I had a stimulating talk with Claudia Gary which considered what one may call ‘serious’ music, and in particular the notion of setting poetry to music. I thought it would be interesting to turn things on their head here by considering popular music, and to at least begin by thinking about the connection (if any) between the lyric and poetry. Let me begin by asking two related questions:
1) Notwithstanding that, on the face of it, the popular song lyric is constrained by the requirement for immediacy (or, to be less kind, banality), the rule that a lyricist can’t be poet must surely have exceptions to prove it?
2) Or is it really the case that as soon as you get sophisticated you are no longer, almost by definition, doing pop?
Norman Ball: Thanks for reprising the discussion Philip. It’s allowed me more time to amass my confusion. I really enjoyed yours and Claudia’s discussion even as I confess much of it went beyond me. But that’s always good. The notion of closure that you discuss has, in popular music, been resolved by formula. In conventional forms, we express satisfaction when something concludes expectedly. No broken vessels, please. Popular movies embrace the monomyth for similar reasons. There is an inherent social obligation to placate one another. Maybe popular culture serves as a mass touchstone wherein all participants can be reassured we still read from the same page. This assurance is probably being taxed today with the fragmentation of screen realities. Even in the same home, each family member attends a different screen. Capitalism’s pernicious designs are in evidence here too: diversify/multiply cash-flow streams through separation and alienation.
I’ve always felt pop lyrics and poetry are streets apart. Of course, their shared recourse to words tends to muddy the dissimilarities. Lyrics often look tepid and flat on the page, mere attendants like the bass player whose name no one can remember. They are at best constituents, never lead singers.
Think of poetry’s task by contrast. Poems have to make it through the world unassisted, minus road crew and laser shows. Another stark difference? While lyrics revel in cliché and convention (there is an expectation, if not an ASCAP rule, that ‘baby’ must appear in a love song), poetry is allergic to cliché and addicted to inventiveness. Lyrics are lashed to tempo which demands a certain superficiality or surface-dwelling impulse, though not necessarily in a pejorative sense. Poems can be lingered over by the reader who elects his own tempo or even puts the book down ‘mid-song’ to make a coffee. Poems are vertical forms like monoliths and urns. Lyrics are horizontal time-shadows with little choice but to get dragged along. That all seems like diametric opposition to me. I happen to think Dylan’s lyrics are prodigious attendants, though clearly not tasked with the standalone mission of poetry.
We should warn the reader this discussion will be peppered with intertextual eruptions better known as plugs. Hah, speak of the devil! Lonnie Glass and I wrote a paean to Dylan years ago.
Now, temperamentally, Dylan is a total eccentric and, by that standard alone, a poet of sorts. A few years back, Bob Johnston—the producer of Nashville Skyline, and the guy who ‘brought Cash and Dylan together’—bought a song of mine, causing me to hang out with him a bit in Nashville where he related some great Dylan anecdotes. Dylan was all about spontaneity and fortuitous accident, a strict one-take guy. Yes, his recordings are littered with bum notes, but are the spirit of the times any less for it? He had an almost superstitious affinity for a crappy old mic that Johnson could never talk him out of. Eccentricity is the soul of the poet. The Immediate scoffs at after-effects, recognizing them as jealous assaults on all the After can never be: the moment of birth. Technicians are OCD jockeys always wanting to go back and shore things up. Digital studios are training us for tyranny. Spontaneity-killers. An old session player once said he could hear the number of takes a song took to record because ‘misery clings to tape’. To the trained ear, the fatigue of the players comes through. Joyless technical perfection departs from music. I never forgot that quote. I guess that’s obvious since I’m recounting it.
As you know, I’m also a big Bowie fan. Bowie was a flat-out genius, a natural poet who acclimated himself to pop music unevenly at first. Listen to his 1969 album Space Oddity and remind yourself he put that whole thing together at 22! Oh well, Wee Johnnie Keats was gone at 25. I recorded the entire 1970 The Man Who Sold the World album with a couple of North Country Lads, Wayne Corbett and Ian Miles, a few years back. My Bowie- Jung blog Red Book Red Sail deconstructs the massive esoteric-occult subtext of the Bowie corpus. I discuss some of the larger culture implications via poet Robert Duncan’s heraldic devices here.
PQ: I’ve never been terribly in favour or in tune with political poetry. It’s true that poetry can express sophisticated ideas about politics, but since it is such a niche genre it cannot seriously hope to have much influence on public opinion. Would you agree that when popular music addresses political issues, it usually does so in such an unsophisticated way that it is at best embarrassing (I cite Neil Young’s later output as an example)?
NB: Death by musical treatise. In poetry, we strive to show not tell, yes? Popular music is at its best when it scraps the outline, I think. Neil can get up to some laborious telling, though I tread lightly on Ole Shakey as a song from an old band of mine is on his War Protest video list (Spill My Wine (Fallujah), #65). But yes, all self-protection aside, politics ’n’ tunes seems an almost-certain recipe for grating POV-ness.
Springsteen took a beating from his politically conservative fans when he started channeling Woodie Guthrie. By the way, he and Tom Morello do a great live Ghost of Tom Joad. But is it Morello’s astonishing guitar work that takes your breath away or Steinbeck’s tragic character refigured in song? Maybe that’s a question best left to the ekphrastic section. Springsteen, millionaire hobo. That’s a tough swallow.
I think social comment is most effective in music when it is obliquely addressed. One song that walks the line beautifully is ‘Shipbuilding’ (Robert Wyatt version here) by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer. It’s steeped in Sisyphian bathos and bleak irony without the wagging finger. War is in the air but there are no flying limbs. In their time, Stephen Crane, the War Poets, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ knocked our socks off. This war stuff is hell. I spent a long time with ‘The
Red Badge of Courage’ recently, and wrote a musical I’m still flogging. In fact I own www.theredbadgeofcourage.org. War-is-hellism is an expectation now, much like ‘baby’ in the love song chorus. The movies that mine this theme are endless.
Anti-war poets are about as subversive now as new Pentagon weapons systems. Satire is about as close as I can get to it (here, here) or the blackest humor. In my TV book from a couple years back I got totally into Ginsberg and his emblematic lines such as, ‘turning lathes in precision parts factories’. Ginsberg is the most underappreciated American humorist. He’s got a youtube ‘America’ that just cuts me up. Ginsberg gets the Eisenhower military industrial madness by the throat, foreshadowing Costello’s dreary circle: ships built to create jobs for the boys in order to kill the boys sent out on ships.
Sanctimony kills art. It bears noting that if a cessation of hostilities was supposed to proceed from all the stanzaed hand-wringing then that effort has clearly failed across all war theatres. There’s a conspiracy theory making the rounds that today’s wars are a pretext for carpet-bombing folk music coffee houses. I could buy that. I might even welcome it.
PQ: I agree with you re: ‘Shipbuilding’ (particularly with Robert Wyatt’s rather vulnerable-sounding, shaky vocal). I tend to think the way to deal with a Big Issue is to approach it via the small details (one of the best WW11 films I know is ‘Ice Cold in Alex’, for instance, which does just that). To move on, though: knowing that popular music is essentially product, ought we to be wary of or feel guilty at taking pleasure in it?
NB: There’s a great youtube clip of Adorno lashing out at Joan Baez’ attempts to render an anti-war message in a form hopelessly wed to consumption; as he puts it, ‘taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable’. Elsewhere he refers to it as idiotism. Of course we tend to scoff at Adorno’s unhipness because, as you know, we’re all down for anything anymore, Daddy-o.
Years ago, I wed Adorno to war and language’s attempt to assist the effort with ridiculous euphemism.
Revisiting that clip caused me to look up ‘maudlin’ which, roughly paraphrasing, is the summoning of emotion well in excess of the stimulus. It can feel good to feel bad. Some folks watch horror movies for a good scare. Others peel onions when they want a good cry. We’ve made third world nations the onions in our midst and if we don’t stop it, a whole new crop of art school drop-outs stands ready to punish the world with stricken odes. I hope the Russians are listening.
PQ: Who or what is your guilty pop pleasure?
NB: I’m sure if I should plead guilty, but I recently formed an obsessive fascination with Jimmy Webb’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, playing it hundreds of times. I find it a marriage of existentialism and the imagistic movement. There’s no real narrative. It’s a haiku, Pound’s wet, black bough. A man on a pole keeping the lines open. Webb resists weepy narrative context. I was fascinated, maybe even a little disappointed, to learn in a subsequent Webb interview that it’s an accidental fragment. In a hurry to record, Glen Campbell convinces Webb to send over what he’d written thus far. By the time Webb wakes up the next morning, the shard is in the can. Wikipedia assures us British music journalist Stuart Maconie called it ‘the greatest pop song ever composed’, which is fine, except it’s not finished! There’s a lesson there for all of us.
PQ: Spookily, ‘Wichita Lineman’ has been a favourite of mine, too, for many years! And it is, as you say, one of those songs which seems to demand binge playing. I’ve always thought there was an art in making a song seem just too short so that you need another fix straight away, or maybe in this case it is just that fortuitous unfinished quality?
But on a more serious note: all systems are capable of being subverted, if usually only from the inside. Poetry is very much an outsider activity, it seems to me, and hence unlikely to subvert anything. However, is there no evidence of insider subversion of the highly capitalistic music industry (if not so much achieved by the nature of the product as by technology and the means of production/distribution)?
NB: Yes, I think there are artists who manage to produce a bifurcated product, satisfying the boardroom and the Muse in turn. Maybe that’s the original impetus for stereo. I love the adventurism of Scott Walker and have written of him more than once (here and here). One particular lyric from his 2005 Drift has lodged permanently in my mind: ‘Famine is a tall tall tower/a building left in the night’. The famine and compensatory vacuousness of extreme heights. Someone in Manhattan has very small hands.
PQ: Were either the punk movement, or the gender-bending of what may be loosely termed ‘glam rock’, ultimately subversive in reality, or were they just new veins of fool’s gold to be mined for profit? Alternatively, do such movements change anything (even popular taste) or just hold a mirror up to what is already happening?
NB: John Lennon famously called glam ‘rock ’n roll with make -up’. So he wasn’t fooled. When popular music drapes itself in the vernacular of ‘movements’ and ‘trends’ I think of kids shuffling around the living room in their dads’ work shoes. Come on, Marx spawned a social movement; The Cure not so much. Pop music happens so fast that trend-setters and trend-followers form an indeterminate echo chamber. Who besides bored rock journos deconstruct teen spirit into waferized phyla?
Having said that, while I don’t take great interest in the ripples across the pond’s surface, I do take the cultural implications of rock music dead seriously as I feel the form redounds into spiritual if not religious realms. My recent long essay on David Bowie’s Blackstar suggests we’re all being led to Hell. In fact I believe Baudelaire’s 1864 encounter with Lucifer (in ‘The Generous Gambler’) signals the onset of the ‘death of superstition’ movement, just as God’s cleverest angel suggested it would in that Paris nightclub which, I feel, was a premonitional glimpse of the Bataclan.
PQ: It would be useful to talk about your approach to writing poetry and how this fits in with your other interests. Is it all a continuum, or do you compartmentalise? You strike me as someone with an urge to communicate which is too great to be constrained by one genre.
NB: Well, I never get writer’s block. Some feel I just need to try harder. Genres are more colonnade impositions than natural formation, you know, Professor Ding does the Romantics. Tenure erects Chinese walls. What came first, the dusty syllabus or the dead-stop at 1914?
PQ: Interesting that your approach to writing sonnets rather reflects Dylan Thomas’ statement that he liked to pack his poems as full as a doctor’s bag. Reading your recent collection, ‘Serpentrope’, as reviewed by David Davis in Angle Issue 6, your love of the sonnet is clear. Also, your ‘propensity to density’. I found myself backtracking in many places, and sometimes many times, to unpick the sense of what was being conveyed (not a criticism, but an observation). And as David Davis said, one maybe needs to take them one at a time, rather than take a run at the whole lot in one go. But you are also a lyricist. I personally think that pop lyrics don’t have to be trite, but there is a sense in which they need to be ‘immediate’; if you are listening to a song, you don’t want to (probably can’t) backtrack to unpick the lyric. What motivates you to write lyrics, and how do you approach the task, as distinct from poetry?
NB: That was very nice of David. The sonnet fascinates me to no end as I never stop saying. I really appreciate that Thomas observation which I’d not heard before. Regarding my sonnets, I often have this mental image of sitting on an over- packed suitcase in an attempt to close it. How much can you pack in and get away with? Believe it or not, I’ve returned to the Angle masthead motto, ‘acute, possibly oblique, but never obtuse’ more than once. I’m aware my obliqueness often slips into obtuseness. Acuteness can be an ordeal. For some odd reason, that’s a tension I enjoy, though I realize it can be frustrating at times to a reader. How much line can you let out before you lose the fish?
I love the Eliot quote (paraphrasing): ‘poetry is often enjoyed before it is understood.’ Being accused of undue difficulty can be a false charge lodged by a reader starved for time. When someone says of a poem. ‘it didn’t grab me in the first line’, I think, wow, don’t make your OCD the poet’s problem. I think this gets at your suspicions about the affective versus the spontaneous (authentic). What’s the cart? What’s the horse? Does exercising the facial muscles into a smile create joy or is a smile the facial artifact that joy produces? Cognitive scientists are divided.
PQ: I recently had my sentimental interest in progressive rock rekindled by seeing a live tribute band. Going back over my collection of recordings I was struck in some cases by the cringeworthy pomposity of the lyrics, but in other cases (e.g. some of Peter Gabriel’s early Genesis lyrics) I was pleasantly reminded of the poetical possibilities. At the very least, it was an era in which lyricists showed some imagination regarding subject matter, and an eclectic allusiveness. Do you have any fondness for that era? Do you think that kind of lyricism could be usefully revisited now?
NB: Yes, ‘cringeworthy pomposity’ sums up much of it. As a kid, I wore out Foxtrot and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, among others. Youthful exuberance is something we’ll never get back. That alone tends to make old men withering back-handed critics. Poetical ambition is a good thing even if it doesn’t fully accomplish the poetic journey. You can’t beat being 22.
When I was 18, a college roommate turned me onto Jim Morrison’s ‘An American Prayer’. Now, I was edumacated enough (and taking a course on William Blake at the time) to know that Jim leaned a bit heavy on the modifiers. I think vodka will do that. But it didn’t matter. It blew me away for days. By the way, Michael McClure called Morrison the poet of his generation. Does he mean the best performance artist? That seems a stretch for me, even back then. But my youth was all over what Morrison was up to. Craft seemed too much an instrument of the Academy.
I find there’s some great young music out there in terms of construction and musicianship, but the lyrics suck. Like Iggy said, the kids have a bad case of TV Eye. He was noting the jaundice decades before Twitter.
PQ: I’m often nonplussed (read: irritated) by people who try to defend a certain kind of poetry (or other art) by appeal to the rubric ‘experimental’. The validity of the product is then usually argued by appeal to ‘concept’ and/or ‘process’. But, say I, regardless of all that any product has to stand on its own hind legs and function. There is a virtue, of course, in the use of some arcane procedure if it takes you somewhere surprising, and if that turns out to be a place worth being.
NB: Agreed. Experimentation can cover a multitude of sins: sloth, ill-considered objectives, intellectual laziness. It’s like the scrawny kid trying to win an unearned concession, ‘You can’t hit me. I’m experimental.’ Experiments are a lover’s quarrel waged between the artist and his mode of expression. Why invite along an eavesdropper or a disinterested referee? Less defensive carapace please. More turtle in the soup.
Hey man, that sucks.
Easy there, dude. It’s experimental.
PQ: There is a certain kind of poetry I particularly like which is anti-narrative, non-linear, and non-literal. But my caveat is that it must convey an emotion, and it must do so necessarily without directly expressing it, describing it, or ‘leveraging’, as I call it: the easy and cynical borrowing of an emotional package from the communal pool (e.g. using a title like ‘Poem on the Death of My Mother’); the small investment for a hoped -for large return. I happen to think that there is no mechanical process by which one can achieve that end (which, for me, is what makes poetry interesting). The only process of any kind is to genuinely feel the emotion you are trying to convey, and then to allow the words to write themselves. What say you?
NB: I think narrative dislocation can break loose a surprising and strange emotion. We’re ravenous for connection. But we’ve worn down the usual garden paths. The encroaching weeds have their own aesthetic sense of symmetry. The trellis wearies of being a doormat for vines. The next dead mom poem needs to be a tour de force of inverted taboo. How about an irate minister demanding payment before the service can commence, causing the family to start screaming and flashing credit cards? Death is hell. Death is a prohibitive expense. A vase topples over. The church isn’t free. Who is this poet? Isn’t he afraid of ghosts?
I think of Gysin and Burroughs’ cut-up method. They’re not messing things up. They’re creating worm-holes in a stultifying narrative blanket. Artists are channelers. There’s too much earnest threading of the needle. In some parallel universe, needles hate being poked in the eye and will stab you to death should you approach them thread in hand. No doubt the spirit world that has its own ideas about duration, causality and torn fabric. I find randomness asserts its own sublime POV when we let it. In that sense it may be the bossest universe of all.
The auteur allows himself far too much credit which the ego gratefully accepts. Recourse to French words is always the big tip-off. There is a market dynamic exerting itself too. Adorno and Marcuse were right. Royalty streams govern the chorus. Money protracts armed conflict. Protest is an auxiliary cash-flow. St. Joan of Baez is a Foreign Legion camp-follower.
The abysmal inventory churn rate of folk music necessitated a better business model. Noting an untapped rise in disposable income, Madison Avenue broke the teenager away and filled him with pimple anxiety. Previously, the teenager didn’t exist. So it’s a malleable capitalistic form. Suddenly social acceptance hinges on having this week’s hits. Last week’s were a whole ’nother set of Groundhog Days and booked sales. Dwell in the eternity-ago of last month and the girls are apt to notice your lousy complexion. On the darker side of the pop music ledger we find anxiety, alienation and social death. I yap about it here.
In a workshop environment especially, I’m always reluctant to vigorously critique a poem with bereavement as the subject matter. Others abide better by the guidelines and plow right in. Hey, the posting poet should know the workshop is not a venue for commiseration. I don’t know that cynicism is the best word, necessarily. Having only one mother, we can hardly get inured to her passing. But in the aggregate, yes, the artistic bar is set quite high for such poems. The artist, if not the grieving child, should be aware of what Harold Bloom called our ‘burden of belatedness’. (I really drove cliché into the ground here.) By sheer accident of birth, we write poetry in 2016, not 1516. That ensuing half-millennium has borne witness to a lot of dead mommies and grief-stricken poets. Making it new becomes increasingly difficult. Maybe this helps birth self-conscious experimentation too. But in all cases yes, feeelings nothing more than feeelings— although I’m way out of time as an Augustan poet. I’m a terminal thinker. It’s a problem.
PQ: Now then, translating back into the world of the pop lyric: somewhere up above we touched on the idea of the essential banality of protest songs. They always fail in my view because they purport to tell you something, but it’s something so plainly obvious that you can hardly not already know it; they do so in a crudely linear, narrative way; they leverage like crazy; and you can tell by attending to the surface of them that there is no actual emotion informing them. Given a choice I’d have the affective nonsense of the Beatles’ ‘Dig a Pony’ rather than the embarrassing platitudes of Neil Young’s ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up?’ any old time. The Neil Young nicely exemplifies (if in a negated sense) what Milan Kundera (as quoted by Roger Scruton) says about kitsch:
‘Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!’
NB: You’re really hammering Ole Shakey today, Philip. Sometimes when I hear Neil’s voice I think of my kid when he was seven. It’s that plaintive whiny sound. Why is the sky blue? Why is the man next door so mean? You want to help him through his discovery process. But at the same time, the questions can begin to grate especially when they get into that rapid -fire groove. Hell, especially when there are no answers. The sixties were sort of bullshit anyway. How do I know this? Look at the 2000’s. Permawar is wearing down protest. You might as well picket the inherent unfairness of death.
What would really fascinate me is a school of jingoism leading perhaps, with the breakout of actual hostilities, to the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school of drones. War-is-hell is a beaten Hallmark ploughshare. The Unspeakable overstayed poetry’s camp where it proceeded to become boring. I like the kitsch definition. What did Frost say, grief but not grievances? Kitsch is the narcissist’s desperate desire to feel, even if he has to kill somebody to do it.
Hey why did you shoot my kid?
Because I wanted to feel tears streaming down my cheeks at the sight of his prone little form in my front yard.
You sick bastard!
Sick bastard? I’m an arch-sentimentalist, a purveyor of kitsch.
PQ: Don’t get me wrong on Neil Young, I like Harvest and After the Gold Rush as much as the next man of my age! I think the simplicity and intimacy of the material and production heightens the songs’ emotional effect.
Poetry and pop music can be—are, at their best—affective, but they speak in different ways because (in my conception) poetry is a communication between the poet and the individual reader, where pop music feeds into (and off of) a shared experience and the subsumption of the individual in the collective. Are we simply talking about the mindful versus the mindless?
NB: Interesting formulation. Poetry addresses humanity one soul at a time, making a fuss over the dignity of the individual, feigning obliviousness to crowds.
Hey, there’s no one at your reading.
Relax, I’m a poet. Wanna book?
Pop music is a P.A. system hanging off a 30-foot tower blaring directions to the milling herd. The latter must be loud and repetitive in order to rise above the din of hooves and keep the masses on their stupefying march of tears. Revolution is hinted at, never actuated as that might topple the storekeeper’s kiosk. So you can never escape the meretricious hum, no matter how ‘serious’ the lyrics.
But yes, 4/4 time captures the quadruped, hoof for hoof. Whereas real poetry is insular and anarchic. Misconstrued poets are often coaxed to the tippy-top of clock towers to visit their strangeness on the ants below. Pop music monetizes social control, enforcing flatland stasis. No one gets hurt. People die of old age with nothing much more lurid in their lives than T-shirts screaming Megadeth and Rancid. (The titular heads often succumb at 27; the topping-off point for unfiltered hypocrisy. But they’re in the belly of the vacuum.)
I’m back to that vertical-horizontal thing. If you can keep people horizontal most of their lives, they won’t have that far to fall into pre-dug graves. Pop lyrics eliminate fanfare, laying tracks down. Good poetry takes a stab at uprightness. Immortality. An urn against the ages. Radical!
PQ: Not only that, Norman, but the Apocalypse has apparently been postponed yet again because of a glitch on the merchandising end. And, speaking of ends, there we must! Thank you again.