Reviews by Cooper Renner
In the late '60s, a few well-meaning if wrong-headed English professors
argued that pop music lyrics deserved serious study as poetry, citing Bob
Dylan, Paul Simon and even the later works of Lennon-McCartney as
evidence. They were wrong, of course, as are the editors of the recent
Library of America offering American Poetry : The Twentieth Century,
Volume Two, who have included, alongside e.e. cummings, Hart Crane and
Yvor Winters, the lyrics of Bessie Smith, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein
II, Ira Gershwin, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Woody Guthrie and Robert
Johnson. No one, I think, would dispute that these and other included
lyricists were fine songwriters, and it is even arguable that the editors
try to make their case by including plenty of weak poetry that reads no
better than song lyrics : after all, the book represents only American
writers born from 1894 through 1913 and yet contains almost 900 pages!
But the case is not made, either here or in the also recent publication
of (Sir) Paul McCartney's Blackbird Singing.
Reviews by Cooper Renner
In the late '60s, a few well-meaning if wrong-headed English professors argued that pop music lyrics deserved serious study as poetry, citing Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and even the later works of Lennon-McCartney as evidence. They were wrong, of course, as are the editors of the recent Library of America offering American Poetry : The Twentieth Century, Volume Two, who have included, alongside e.e. cummings, Hart Crane and Yvor Winters, the lyrics of Bessie Smith, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira Gershwin, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. No one, I think, would dispute that these and other included lyricists were fine songwriters, and it is even arguable that the editors try to make their case by including plenty of weak poetry that reads no better than song lyrics : after all, the book represents only American writers born from 1894 through 1913 and yet contains almost 900 pages! But the case is not made, either here or in the also recent publication of (Sir) Paul McCartney's Blackbird Singing.
The reasons why song lyrics virtually never work as poetry are many, paramount of which is that they are not written as poetry. They are written to be sung, generally to a specific tune. They are, that is, half of a work, not an entirety. They are almost always intended to be grasped-- or at least to make a profound aural impact-- at one hearing, though in a tiny minority of cases repeated listening reveals more. Lyrics are full of words and syllables necessary for the rhythm but useless to the "meaning"; full of cliches and banalities, of emotive but nonsensical repetitions, of throwaway glitter. McCartney's "Yesterday" provides an instructive exampe-- the working title of the tune, which came first and created the structure the words had to follow, was "Scrambled Eggs." McCartney, an adept composer and lyricist, later wrote the melancholy lyrics appropriate to the melody. But the simplest perusal of those lyrics on paper, without the lovely tune and performance to embody them, reveals a narrator so self-pitying and reliant on "sad song" cliches that the song might almost be taken as a parody. Bob Dylan rarely fares much better:
You dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime
In your prime
Didn't you? (copyright 1965)
So opens one of the most justly famous songs written by an American since World War II. The sneer survives the transmittal to paper, but not much else. And if we could, perhaps somewhere in Bhutan, locate a person who doesn't know Dylan's performance, what do we think she would make of those words, told they were poetry? Juvenile jingling? Paul Simon?
You're breaking my heart
You're shaking my confidence
Daily. (copyright 1970)
The words are wound in and out of the melody in a clever fashion; the rhymes are tucked slyly inside the clauses; but I don't see any sign that Robert Lowell needed to fear the competition.
And don't get me started on Jewel.
Am I arguing that it is impossible for a song lyric to approximate poetry, or -- conversely -- for a poem to be sung? Certainly not. In the second case, alongside a few German or French art songs, one can lay such fine performances as Donovan's setting of "The Song of Wandering Aengus" or the Waterboy's mostly spoken, rather than sung, adaptation of Yeats' "The Stolen Child." But when one looks for "literary value" in works originally written as song lyrics, the quest is not a simple one, and (Leonard Cohen notwithstanding) generally the greatest success is to be had not with the deliberately traditional rhymed and metered works of neo-folkies like Dylan and Simon, but among the avant-garde, self-consciously arty songs of folks like Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, who increase their chances of success by decreasing their fidelity to pop song strictures. Both have shown themselves willing to eschew rhyme and a rational narrative, employing instead a more expressionistic approach. A fine example of this post-modernist approach is Anderson's "Let X = X," the penultimate song on her first major release, Big Science (and unconscionably left off her recent career overview Talk Normal). At this early point in her career, Anderson was mostly talking, not singing, over musical textures and rhythms that might today be called ambient or world music. Thus she created no expectation in her listener of standard formalism.
"I met this guy," she begins, "and he looked like he might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink. Which in fact he turned out to be. And I said, 'Oh, boy, right again'."
The rhythms are the rhythms of prose, but prose employed as performance, full of important pauses (after guy and clerk and said) and overly emphasized pronunciations-- none of which, to be sure, transfers to the page. But what does transfer is the intelligence and the craft. The initial hook of what begins in a cliched fashion-- after all, the Shangri-Las might have sung a song beginning "I met this guy"-- is her assumption that the guy looked like a hat check clerk at an ice rink. Who, we have to wonder, thinks like that? In the first sentence Anderson gives us both imagination and humor, because the unlikeliness of the assumption makes it funny.
The initial hook is her assumption that the guy looked like a hat check clerk at an ice rink. Who thinks like that?
That she follows this up with the discovery that the guy is a hat check clerk is both unexpected and not-- in the real world, he almost certainly wouldn't have been a hat check clerk, but in the world Anderson is already creating in her text, perhaps he would almost have to be. The otherworldliness of this initially mundane text is heightened by her reflection-- "Oh, boy, right again"-- which gives us the tone of her narrator's history, her world-view, and the circumstances of her daily life.
Anderson follows this paragraph with an apparent non-sequitur, the title, "Let X = X." Or maybe her mathematical injunction is more clearly connected than it seems to be-- if the first "stanza" of the song introduces us to a mysterious world like and unlike our own, then maybe the math should both reassure us, with its concreteness, and tell us to relax. Because this is a problem we don't have to solve-- let the unknown, Anderson tells us, remain unknown.
Next she jumps to "You know, it could be you." Who could be you? The hat check clerk? The girl who can spot hat check clerks at a glance? "It's a sky blue sky. Satellites are out tonight. Let X = X." Another pop music cliche, followed by something more unexpected. But this is the modern world after all, isn't it? Satellites are as common as stars, aren't they? And then, again, the injunction.
"You know, I could write a book"-- pop music cliche-- "and this book would be thick enough to stun an ox"-- cliche enlivened by unexpected, funny imagery-- "because I can see the future"-- oops! another surprise. It's not the narrator's past that is so compelling-- "and it's a place about seventy miles east of here where it's lighter"-- what? Then the big science kicks in : because isn't whatever is east of us in the future? As I write these sentences, it is not quite 11:30 in El Paso, but almost 1:30 in New York-- the future-- and yes, even seventy miles east of here, the sun is a little higher, the day is a little further advanced, and the future is going on right now.
But is "Let X = X" poetry? Not really.
Then Anderson jumps again, straight back into cliche, but delivered with such drollery that one wants to laugh-- "Linger on over here." Then, "Got the time?" The question isn't a punchline, but it functions like one. Anderson's narrator has metaphorically X-ray eyes, she can see the future, but she has to ask her listener for the time-- and this after the obvious come-on, "Linger on over here." It's like a coworker praising your beautiful brown eyes before hitting you up for a ride home from work.
The song so far has been playing out over a lovely melodic line that sounds like a xylophone but is probably electronic. Now Anderson jumps both thought and music, moving into a staccato shift out of this song and, by implication, this conversation she has been having with the listener. "I-- I feel-- feel like--" she begins, almost in a verbal enactment of a Fibonacci sequence. What she feels like is that she is in a burning building and she has to go : another cliche, though one turned inside out, since usually we say this sort of thing of others rather than ourselves. And "Let X = X," its mysteries unresolved, its "meaning" apparently nothing other than the experience it creates, dances along into "It Tango."
Interestingly though, "Let X = X" and "It Tango" are presented as a medley on Big Science and the titles printed as "Let X = X/It Tango", which creates the visual pun that the final song on the album is the "exit tango". Rewritten so, the two titles read "Let X = Exit Tango", in which case the unknown is in fact given an identity-- the way, or ways, in which two people leave : the scene, the stage, or maybe each other. Since "It Tango" consists verbally of a sequence of "She said"s and "He said"s, such an interpretation may not be far out of Anderson's mind, although she loses the imagery by separating the songs (as on Talk Normal). And if one lays such a performance as "Let X = X/It Tango" next to a more conventional, if still clever, song such as Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," the strength of Anderson's indirection and trust in the listener's ability to think becomes even more apparent. But is "Let X = X" poetry? Not really, even if it comes far closer to poetry-- which is, for me, as much a state of expression as a form-- than the usual patterns followed by almost all pop music lyricists. In fact, it comes closer than a great deal of the actual "poetry" included every year in The Best American Poetry volumes or in this new, thick-enough-to-stun-an-ox American Poetry : The Twentieth Century.
"Let X = X" by Laurie Anderson, copyright 1982
Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.