The Poetics of American Song Lyrics ed. by Charlotte Pence

This book took me an inordinately long time – weeks – to finish, but not because I didn’t love it. I loved it. It’s just dense, and took a lot of mental energy. And being a collection of discrete pieces, it was easy to take breaks. And it hit just at the end of a wonderful but wearying semester, so my mind was fatigued. [Post about the semester wrap-up to come.]

I’m going to let editor Charlotte Pence introduce this book to you as she did to me.

Not many editors can pinpoint the exact moment a specific project began, but I can say for certain that it was September 12, 2003, the day Johnny Cash died. I was living in Nashville, teaching composition and poetry writing at Belmont University where 27 percent of the entering freshmen are part of the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. The university sits on a hill that hovers at the end of Music Row, those legendary two streets that Nashville record labels and studios call home. When students miss class at Belmont, the reason often involves the words “touring schedule.” Essentially, the music business is an extension of the campus, and there I was teaching poetry and having students ask if they could bring their guitars to class for backup as they read their “poems” for the class to critique.

She goes on: when Johnny Cash died, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander gave a speak on the Senate floor in which he wondered why Tennessee English professors (“including those at Belmont specifically”) didn’t teach lyrics alongside poetry. Pence acknowledges their “differing politics,” but answers the call nonetheless, to explore this question. Poetry professors have a number of quick-and-easy answers to the question of how poetry and song lyrics are different – I’ve had this conversation with my own favorite poetry professor, Doug Van Gundy, who among others things (like citing a lovely quotation from Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) recommended this book to me. But Pence understood that it remains a question in many minds, Lamar Alexander’s and her own undergraduates’, and created a course investigating the issue. In seeking assigned readings for this course, she quickly realized that there was a major shortage of articles analyzing the content and techniques of song lyrics. Long story short, this book was born to answer that shortage.

Pence has more than this to say in her introduction, which I read with great interest. She explains the mix of contributors she’s pleased to present: poets and teachers of poetry; literature professors; and music scholars. They write on a wide range of musicians: Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe, Bruce Springsteen, Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co., Leonard Cohen, and a litany of country and rap artists. They generally depart, I venture, from the more standard poetry professor’s position that music and poetry are too different to share the same conversation. Obviously, here they share the room.

Each essay, naturally, varied in how it worked on me. There were a few I ended up skimming past or not finishing; but only a few. Unsurprisingly, many of them tempted me to stop and listen to an album or four before continuing (I mostly did not indulge in this further slowing of my reading, although I found a few single tracks online to aid me). Some of them made points that surprised me or opened my mind.

A few highlights, for me personally:

Pence’s own contribution, “The Sonnet Within the Songs: Country Lyrics and the Shakespearean Sonnet Structure,” was a good discussion of the traditions of a particular poetic form, accessible to my level of knowledge coming in. And it was exciting to see poetry and lyrics lining up.

“Gangsta Rap’s Heroic Substrata: A Survey of the Evidence,” by John Paul Hampstead, was another thrilling example of traditions of one form recognized in another, apparently very different form. Hampstead considers ancient and medieval heroic poetry (Homer, Virgil, and ninth and tenth century Anglo-Saxons) alongside Lil Wayne, Notorious B.I.G., Short Dawg, and a number of others. He finds five common threads: feasting, raiding, treasure, misogyny, and fatalism. I do mean thrilling: it gives me a thrill to see connections like this made.

Pat Pattison’s “Similarities and Differences between Song Lyrics and Poetry” serves as a good overview discussion of, well, the similarities and differences between song lyrics and poetry, and concludes that they are indeed different beasts: a view held in common with my friend Doug and the Maxwell quotation. It’s well defended here but also pulled apart.

I enjoyed David Kirby’s “The Joe Blow Version,” about the various versions of Otis Redding’s song “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and the richness offered by variability, as opposed to a single, definitive, correct version of a song, poem, play, etc. He quotes a textual scholar, Anne Coldiron, who says “The nineteenth century in particular was an age of canon founding,” the establishment of definitive texts; but the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Auden’s poetry, and Brecht’s music are all examples of work with variations. Kirby offers that “Some of the songs that get under our skin the most aren’t written so much as assembled,” that differing versions “remove the mystery and, in so doing, heighten the pleasure.” This essay, by the way, is itself a lovely work of art: Kirby’s arguments are packaged within a narrative of his travels in Macon, Georgia, researching a book on Little Richard and visiting with Otis Redding’s widow and daughter. It is a finely crafted essay and a beautifully executed argument about the value of variation in art, and of the transparency of the creative process.

I also responded to essays studying Okkervil River and Magnolia Electric Co. (the latter a band I’m just discovering through a friend, which is a story unto itself, and a synchronicity that strengthens the reading experience). Those essays are by Stephen M. Deusner and Jesse Graves, respectively. And while the two essays studying Michael Stipe and R.E.M. appealed to me less in their particular subject matter, I was enchanted by the idea of “investigat[ing] the assumption that lyrics should provide literal meanings… ultimately inviting listeners to co-create rather than simply receive meaning from the lyrics.” (Jeffrey Roessner’s “Laughing in Tune: R.E.M. and the Post-Confessional Lyric.”)

I’ll stop there for now. I found The Poetics of American Song Lyrics a stirring and challenging read. For one thing, I lack an enormous amount of the vocabulary and background required for literary criticism of poetry; many of the terms confused me at least a little, and although there is a glossary, it didn’t solve all my problems. Maybe I’m holding myself to an unnecessarily high standard, but I don’t feel qualified to fully appreciate the criticism and in-depth critique in these pages. I felt like I was missing a fair amount. However, the most exciting part is that these essays do the kind of work I dream of doing for some of my own favorite musicians and lyricists: Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, Patterson Hood. I’m not much closer to being able to do that work myself, but I can see now that it’s possible to do such work, and that is exhilarating.


Rating: 9 fading trails.

One Response

  1. […] The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, Charlotte Pence, ed. […]

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