‘If I puked up some sonnets
would you call me a miracle?’
Neko Case, ‘Night Still Comes’
I’m trying to unravel something about how I feel, and what I think, about the relationship between poetry and song. About my relationships with poetry and song.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last month or so, but suddenly it seems everyone else is too, because Bob Dylan has just been granted the Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize committee praised him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
This has initiated a lot of chatter about what is and isn’t poetry, and what that might have to do with music.
Why am I troubling over this now? Partly – mostly? – because I’ve been working on the final edits of my first collection. So many of the poems in it are linked in my mind with particular songs that I’ve made a playlist to go with it – a song for every poem. I like to make playlists for different occasions, with the rule that the songs have to already be in my library. I make them for visiting particular places, for particular seasons or journeys or events. Last year, for instance, I collected every song I owned which featured wolves, werewolves, shapeshifting or the moon, to play as I drove to a conference on Werewolves. The playlist was over three hours long. I began to notice wolves skulking in the background of songs I had never seen them in before. Songs help me think about what I think and feel about something, whether it’s a personal issue, or a creative or professional one. I have poems named after songs, and poems that couldn’t have been written without particular songs. Even choosing which poems might have to be jettisoned from the collection in editing, I thought of a particular song: a live version of Tori Amos’ ‘Honey’ I had on a bootlegged tape of The Bee-Sides. She introduces it by explaining how it was meant to be on Under the Pink, but got ‘kicked off in […] mastering’. ‘Honey’ was one of my favourites too. I worry about looking back and thinking ‘why did I let her get kicked off?’
It’s no coincidence that poets are always writing about music, and songwriters are always writing about literature. I could make a playlist of songs about writing and of songs which mention authors and of songs which mention fictional characters and have hours to listen to. We all – I think – know something of the long history of poetry and story as song, and how relatively recent any real notion of separation between them is.
But I need to work out what that means to me, not to the history of literature.
I have peculiarly vivid memories of watching the BBC schools programme Words and Pictures when I was three or four. I particularly liked Funny Bones, but I loved the general combination of images, rhyming and lyric storytelling, and song in the episodes. Both music and books were very present and important in our household, but Words and Pictures was an introduction to literacy outside the home, to a wider world of words and pictures and music working together that fed back into what I heard at home. Bearing in mind that I was speaking my own self-invented language at the time that I would sit and watch this show,¹ its presentation of literature as a lively, performed thing, and the relationship of the library hub to the outside and imagined spaces of the stories, was very formative. They even encouraged you to make your own words up.
As soon as I learnt to write I was writing poems, but I was also writing songs and tunes. Words and music were still and always wrapped around each other. I recently found some manuscript paper with a tune I wrote named ‘Tehanu’ after the fourth of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. It’s not a very interesting piece of music of course, but that’s not what I’m trying to get to.
That difficult stage before you can reach the pedals.
Growing up, our household’s taste in music was as eccentric and contradictory as my family members. It loved classic Hollywood musicals and Leonard Cohen, Glenn Miller and Queen, Ella Fitzgerald and Tanita Tikaram, The Kinks and T’Pau, James Taylor and Julie London, The Carpenters and Don McLean, Diana Ross and Simon and Garfunkel. I read my way through books of border ballads, the Oxford Children’s Poetry, The Child’s Garden of Verses, Revolting Rhymes, various anthologies of Great Poems, Spike Milligan, McGonagall and Verse and Worse, whilst my older brothers taught me to love Pearl Jam and Metallica and Bowie and Tori Amos and Extreme and Pink Floyd and Kate Bush and War of the Worlds and The Pet Shop Boys and Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians.
The summer of 1992 will be forever linked for me with Metallica’s Black Album, because of a tape my middle brother made of it which included the Guns n’Roses version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, and The Soupdragons’ ‘Softly’. My best friend came on holiday with me and my parents that year, and the tape became the soundtrack to our travels, and muddled up in our minds with two novels we were obsessing over – one about a vampire with a soul (The Silver Kiss) and one about someone who fed off other people’s youth (Personal Effects – I can’t trace this, but the main character was doing an Art Foundation which completely sold me on the idea, despite the fact she almost got sucked dry because she was just so cool). We listened to that tape until we knew every word, every chord, every beat. I began to grow my own collection of tapes based from songs I heard on the radio or saw on TV or that friends told me to listen to – Nirvana, PJ Harvey, 4 Non-Blondes, Tasmin Archer, The Cranberries, The Stone Roses, then Hole, Heather Nova, Radiohead, R.E.M, James, The Smiths … easing into the mid-nineties indie and Britpop years of Elastica, Echobelly, The Verve, The Cranberries, Pulp, The Wannadies, Blur and Oasis, Catatonia, Gene, Ash, Portishead, Mazzy Star, Ash, Supergrass, Massive Attack … more more more. All great storytellers in their different ways.
I didn’t really know then that contemporary poets existed, let alone that if I read a poem I liked, I could find a whole book by that same person, or that I might be able to hear them read aloud. As much as I loved poetry, I didn’t know of the world of poetry or how to access it. I did know how to access music. Music was my contemporary lyric. My poets were dead, my music was living. Sometimes the music even told me about poets. The Bluetones introduced me to Adrian Mitchell’s poem ‘Celia Celia’; The Verve to Blake’s ‘London’.
Music taught me about the world. It taught me about war and social injustice and global history and racism and feminism. It taught me how to negotiate being a girl and a woman in an often hostile environment. It taught me about joy and despair, and singing through them both.
So it’s no surprise that many of my teenage poems began as songs, or songs began as poems. Weird songs with weird lyrics. Poems which might have made more sense with music. By the time I was in lower sixth, I’d developed quite a collection of songs, and even started to record a few before I dislocated my knee and broke my elbow, putting me out of musical action, and setting me back at school. I never managed to go back and finish recording those songs, and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had.
After that, I felt I didn’t have the stamina to pursue music, or much at all for that matter. I found more and more I was turning to poetry to try and make sense of what I was feeling, and the incomprehensibility of my recalcitrant undiagnosable body. When everything else seemed physically impossible, I could still write broken lines.
The last time I wrote a song was in 2009. I wrote a few that year. It refers to a number of traditional ballads, Alasdair Roberts’ Polly songs, and an Emily Dickinson poem. There’s nothing deliberate in the fact I haven’t written a song since, it’s just worked out that way. Where a song comes from is as mysterious to me as where a poem comes from. Both are more likely to arise under the right conditions and with practice though. I am very aware that I don’t play as much as I used to, or rather that I play less now that I ever have, and I wonder what that might mean, for my writing and more widely. I also think whether I feel like playing and singing is a kind of measure of health. Still, our tiny living room is dominated by my piano, which was my gift to myself when I moved out of London ten years ago. I had spent seven years dreaming about discovering an extra room in the house with a piano in it and perfect acoustics, and vowed never to live without one again. A house is not a home without a piano squashed uncomfortably into it.
My piano. Not my cat.
In an overly lengthy way, what I’m trying to explain, is that (as for many poets) for me poetry and song aren’t just linked metaphorically, or historically, but very tangibly and practically.
I have used songs in my creative writing classes to make exactly this point, from variations on ‘The Silver Dagger’ (including Hey Rosetta’s lovely version of ‘Who is at my window weeping’ and Martha Tilston’s deceptively simple cover) to talk about the fluidity of ballad narratives, to using songs by Bonnie Tyler and Dar Williams to open discussion about gender awareness in childhood.
So why have I found myself feeling disappointed that Bob Dylan was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature, instead of elated, or vindicated? Am I a literary snob, or elitist, as some are accusing the nay-sayers of being? Quite possibly. I can’t shake a conviction that Dylan is just not a poet. I write this as lover of many of Dylan’s songs. I think many of his lyrics are brilliant. I know his songs have been incredibly important to many people, not just generally, socially, but specifically to some of the songwriters and writers I most admire, and who have been most important to me. I’m questioning my own bad feeling. My feeling that this is not the inclusive move it is meant to be. I wonder if it has more to do with the men who have tried to convince me over the years that Dylan is a poet, than with Dylan himself. I wonder if it has to do with how riled I get by the continual comparisons between Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who is unequivocally a poet and a novelist as well as a songwriter (and whose music I happen to have a much deeper and longer connection to). Is it that I think one of the best things about ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is that it made Sam Cooke write ‘A Change is Gonna Come’? Is it that I sometimes prefer Dylan’s songs when other people sing them? I would listen to Joan Baez sing ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ all day. Surely this should actually count for the quality of the writing, not against? It speaks of wider influence, of seismic change. Am I just being pedantic? Very possibly. Is it generational/formational? Many of the people I know, and have read about, who have been really delighted by the choice grew up with Dylan in a way I didn’t, either because they were teens in the 60s, or because Dylan was a part of their later household in a way he wasn’t in mine, as Simon Armitage has also found.
Partly I think what I’ve been reacting against is the reaction, as well as a sense that this radical choice is just not radical enough for 2016. The world already knows the work of Bob Dylan – what about highlighting the work of someone they’ve never heard of, or a kind of work they’ve never given a moment’s thought to? On a very basic practical level, there are many more opportunities for a musician of Dylan’s standing than for a poet. Is this important? Maybe. Does it come down to access to audience and livelihood? As others have said, I wouldn’t think twice about the aptness if it a culture prize, but there are more worthy (and necessary) candidates for such a prominent literature prize.
Then, don’t we always think this? Don’t we nearly always have a conviction, especially with the big prizes, that we could pick a far worthier winner ourselves? I’d be just as disappointed if Don DeLillo had won. The only difference would be that the writing world wouldn’t be having quite such a great enormous row about it.
Great songs create whole worlds in their narrow bounds just as great poems, stories and novels do. They live in and grow in your mind and memory. But music is a vital part of their world-building. A song is a complete text. I often say a poem on the page can be like a tune in manuscript, the white space and punctuation telling you how it sounds when you play it through the instrument of your voice, but this is only one story about poetry. It does speak of a difference between poetry and music though. A poem’s music has to be there in the words in the voice and the white space and the breath. A song needs actual music. Giving Dylan a literature prize under these terms seems almost to negate the complex communicative power of music itself. I have a particular soft-spot for lyrics that foreground the failure of words to express feelings or experiences. The shoop shoops and uh huh oh yeahs. One of the many moments that delight me in Neko Case’s last solo album is when she breaks down into ‘blah blah blah, blah blah blah, they talk about, oh oh’ in ‘Calling Cards’. Jenn Grant and Joel Plaskett (who feature heavily amognst my top played Canadians) are both excellent lyricists, but are also especially good at knowing when to employ the oh oh oh or la la la. As is Dylan, though. Maybe even making this separation argument is spurious, and nothing to do with the rationale behind the prize. Maybe it just becomes an easy way to justify either side of the debate.
I hate choosing between things I love. I can’t make lists of favourites, because they end up too long, and I worry about omitting something important.² I refused to choose between Blur and Oasis as a teenager, and could never choose between The Stones and The Beatles. I reject reductive binaries in every other area of my life and I reject them here too. I refuse to be cornered into pretending to choose between words and music. I want poetry and song. I want lots of them. I want them everywhere. I want the whole world to find it as impossible as I do to choose one over the other. And this is why I’ve decided to be glad Dylan won the prize, if only for what else this might make possible in the future.
Neko Case for literature laureate! John K Sampson! Laura Veirs! Basia Bulat! Dar Williams! Florence Welch! Thea Gilmore! What about Beyonce? Maybe she and Warsan Shire could get a joint prize?
I’m picking from my own playlists here, but aren’t you?
I could list pretty much every songwriter in those playlists though, because in their different ways, they’re all extraordinary lyricists and storytellers.
I’ll finish as I started, with a quote about writing from a song:
‘You see I’ve got this theory/that it’s only punctuation/that separates the list from you to me/and you can have your little war/of full stops and erotemes/but the real power’s in parentheses’.
Thea Gilmore, ‘Punctuation’.
Of course, Thea’s singing about good and evil, not literature and music. But the point still stands.
- True. Unexplained. Probably explains a lot.
- I’m trying my best not to keep coming in an adding more songs and bands as I realise I’ve forgotten something vital but …