• click for details

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.

Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

A linguist argues for the legitimate and complicated contributions of the language he calls Black English.


Linguistics professor John McWhorter (Words on the Move) has a message in Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca: he exhorts his readers and the general public to recognize Black English (a term he prefers to African American Vernacular English or to Ebonics) as a language unto itself, not merely a mess of grammatical mistakes and slang: “a development that happens alongside the standard variety, not in opposition to it.”

McWhorter worries that academic linguists have relied too long on scholarly arguments in making this point. He does review some of those arguments–for example, Black English’s systematicity, meaning it has a grammar of its own–but then turns to global language patterns. Many cultures and language groups speak both a formal and a casual language in different settings, e.g., Standard Arabic and the local colloquial form (Egyptian Arabic, Syrian, etc.). While he acknowledges that racism partly underlies a general resistance to Black English as a legitimate language, he quickly moves on to what he sees as the larger problem: a misunderstanding of the value of diglossia, or speaking two languages. Along the way, McWhorter cites the relationship between modern Black English and the lingo of minstrel shows, makes the case for a recognizably black way of speaking (or “blaccent”) and examines usages such as “baby mama,” “who dat?” and what he perceives as two versions of the N-word.

Linguistics fans will be enthralled by McWhorter’s fascinating and logically presented study of two forms of English spoken in the United States.

This review originally ran in the January 24, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 6 vowels.

Women Lovers, or The Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney, ed. and trans. by Chelsea Ray

A sprightly, autobiographical 1926 novel of a Belle Époque lesbian love triangle, written in French by an American and appearing in English for the first time.

woman lovers

The works of Natalie Clifford Barney, an American who lived in Paris and wrote in French, are little known, and her 1926 autobiographical novel Amants féminins was published for the first time only in 2013. Woman Lovers, or The Third Woman is the first English translation.

A scholarly introduction by Melanie C. Hawthorne and a translator’s essay by Chelsea Ray place this work in the context of modernism and evolving gender definitions while detailing Barney’s biography. These introductory materials are revealing and absorbing in their own right, if a little dry in their academic tone. The novel, however, leaps energetically to life.

Barney’s protagonist N., who stands in for the author, believes in love among women as an ideal of pleasure and friendship. “Friendship is simply love without pleasure!” she declares. “Love is heavy for two to carry, and happiness is monotonous.” With a new lover, M., she establishes an “association” by which the two women will comfort those in romantic distress by sharing their affections. When she brings such a woman into her relationship with M., however, N. is unexpectedly left out, jealous and hurt.

Barney is perhaps best known for her aphorisms, and she uses such pithy fragments as well as screenplay-style dialogue, mock journal entries, a combination of first- and third-person perspectives and even drawings to tell her story. Woman Lovers, while brief, is thus a noteworthy and historically significant piece of experimental literature, queer theory and a captivating roman à clef all at once.

This review originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 chestnuts.

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles

Bibliophiles and historians will be thrilled by this enthusiastic, detailed account of writing throughout history.


Matthew Battles (Library: An Unquiet History) undertakes a mammoth topic with Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word. Rather than an exhaustive chronicle, however, he has composed an extended meditation, a roaming through the centuries. The result is a collection of narrative examinations of writing as a technology, as a means of wielding power, as artistry and as communication. As Battles quotes it, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a palimpsest as a “writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another.” His imagination is captured by this concept in fact and as metaphor, and Palimpsest is in part a drawn-out consideration of “mind as page” and “page as mind” (the titles of its opening and closing chapters).

Battles’s survey ranges from Mesopotamian cuneiform in the fourth century BCE to early printing, word processing and social media. He explores Thoreau’s views on Confucianism, the clay tablets of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the topology of Chinese hanzi and the fascination with writing in Great Expectations. He is intrigued by the politics of the printing press and various typefaces. Historians, writers, philosophers and anthropologists including Socrates, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Ralph Waldo Emerson provide context for the philosophical significance of writing. Battles points out that modern computer code is a type of writing as well, “a kind of text that can’t exist on its own. But what other kind of text has ever existed?”

Among other revelations, Palimpsest elucidates the original meaning of “pirated” literature: “not… the unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s work but the use of a printing press without proper license,” and Allen Ginsberg’s modern redefinition of “graffiti,” which originally referred in the Italian to words or ornaments carved in clay forms. How we learn to write changes as our cultural expectations of writing change; thus what Battles calls a “feedback loop” of change in writing technologies perpetuates. In other words, in an increasingly digital age, Battles argues that writing is in flux–as it has been since its beginnings.

Palimpsest returns more than once to an emphasis on writing as art, and Battles’s own writing style is often decorative. The meandering structure of this expansive essay on writing in history, as well as its formal and academic tone, may pose challenges for some readers. However, the reader and writing fan absorbed by writing’s miscellany will find much to love and sink into in Palimpsest.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the July 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 4 radicals.*

*For my personal reaction to his style, although the quality of writing and research are sure to please other readers.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 17-25; conclusions

(See my first two reviews: lectures 1-7 and lectures 8-16.)

First I’d like to share another example of something that I wished to debate with this professor. The discussion below contains spoilers regarding For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is probably my very favorite book ever ever (possibly competing with The Odyssey and The Jungle), so if you haven’t read it, you might skip this part of my review.

Spoiler begins

At about 32 minutes into lecture 19 (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Part IV), regarding the scene late in the novel when Robert Jordan’s leg is broken and Pablo is going to lead his small band onward without him:

The symmetry here is between Robert having a broken leg and Pablo having much head. He is the brainy one. This is the ultimate rewriting of the power dynamics in For Whom the Bell Tolls. We’ve been going along with the assumption that it’s the person with the knowledge and the technology, the person with the knowledge of the world, the person that speaks several languages, we’ve been going under the assumption that that person is going to be on top, that the future belongs to him. The ultimate irony of this novel is that in fact this is the person who’s going to lose out, who’s going to have no future at all.

While I see her point about the disruption of power between the educated, foreign-empowered Robert and the rather much maligned and dissipated Pablo, I couldn’t disagree more about the disruption of the reader’s expectations. I realize I can only speak for myself, but I think I can find some Hemingway to back up my impressions.

When I read this book for the first time (in a beach camp in the little town of Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico), I had a strong sense of foreboding about Robert’s fate, and indeed, the fate of Pablo, Pilar, and the rest. Robert’s daydreaming of his life together with Maria in other times and places – in Paris, in the United States, as the wife of a professor entertaining undergraduate students – has a tone of wistfulness, as if Robert suspects this will not come to pass. He likewise daydreams about suicide – his father’s, and the avoidance of his own – and is increasingly pessimistic about the fate of this band of guerrillas. The end of El Sordo has an air of doom about it, which reflects further than those who die on the hilltop; the odds are admittedly against a little guerrilla group in these mountains. When I read this book without knowledge of the ending, I felt sure that Robert and Maria wouldn’t make it out of these hills together and alive; I suspected Robert’s demise specifically, and worried for the rest of them as well. And while I know this is just one person’s reading, I think there’s evidence that Hemingway directed me toward these suspicions. So I’m not sure Dimock has grasped it when she says she’s turned all our expectations on their head. Hemingway has disrupted the power dynamic, yes, but intentionally and with foreshadowing; I’d argue that one of the messages of this novel lies in his statement on war and the value of military technologies, in the way that Dimock shows, but he didn’t surprise us with it so much as build us steadily towards this ending.

Spoiler ends

I am arguing with Dimock here not because I think she’s unintelligent or anything, but because I enjoy debating literature I love. I just wish I could be there and ask my questions and make my points, engage the prof and my classmates. In other words, I would like to be back in school again. What else is new.

I both enjoyed very much, and was very frustrated (see above) by Dimock’s study of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think this is natural. Next we studied Tender is the Night, which I reacted to similarly but less strongly; that’s a book I’ve read, though not recently, and I feel less strongly about it than I do FWTBT; it might be my least favorite Fitzgerald (I thought The Last Tycoon, for example, was better), but ho hum. And then there was Light in August, the only Faulkner I’ve read, and if you read my two reviews of that, you know I’m settling in as not a Faulkner fan. So, the final question of this semester of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner: for me personally, did this class help me understand and enjoy Faulkner, or make me want to read more of him? And to that, a resounding “no.” I am discouraged by Dimock’s repeated confession that he is difficult, makes little or no sense, that she often does not understand what he’s up to. I was turned off by the other two works discussed in this course, and the final four lectures on Light in August shed precious little (wait for it…) light.

I now want to go back to school and study more literature; and I want to avoid William Faulkner from here on out. Those of you who enjoy him are welcome to your enjoyment and I’m happy for you. I’ll be over here.

As for Wai Chee Dimock’s course: I think she fails to articulate her thoughts sometimes; also, I disagree with some of them, but respectfully. I would certainly be happy to take courses from her if I were going back to school. As for this course via iTunes U, however, I give the combination of Dimock’s speaking style and the poor audio recording quality a C-, at best. However, I listened to all 25 lectures at ~50 minutes apiece. If you’re interested, they’re out there, and for that I’m grateful. We’ll see if I have any success with iTunes U in the future.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 8-16

Well, compared to my earlier review of lectures 1-7, I confess I’m a little less enthused with this second set of lectures. (By the way, for clarity’s sake, I downloaded all 25 lectures at once with no indicated break. These breaks for review purposes are random and my own.) I continue to find some audio issues – volume variations, breathiness, background noise – distracting and a little frustrating; I can better understand other users’ complaints as I go on and as this annoyance builds. And I have decided I do not want to read any more Faulkner. It’s not encouraging to have this professor repeatedly confirm that he is difficult; and what I’m learning about the two studied works I haven’t read (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying) is not motivating. I am perplexed by Dimock’s characterization of As I Lay Dying as “Faulkner’s version of To Have and Have Not” (this is at 15:00 or 14:55 of lecture 16, if you want to hear more). I confess listening to Dimock acknowledge Faulkner’s esoteric nature, combined with being thrilled to hear Hemingway discussed, is only serving to cement me further in my feelings about these two men. And that’s not really the purpose of academia, is it! I wish I could attend this class with classmates and participate in the study sections she refers to; I’d love to write papers as assigned and get feedback on them; maybe one day I’ll still go back to school and do these things, but for now, listening to these lectures is… still worthwhile, but sometimes frustrating. I hear things I don’t agree with, or need further explained, and there’s no platform for that. I could criticize and pick apart Dimock’s thoughts here, but it doesn’t feel entirely fair. I’d feel much better about doing it in the format intended: class discussion. Besides that, it’s difficult to articulate my arguments for you here, in front of this keyboard, after having listened to the lectures while driving my car and thus not taking adequate notes! These are the limitations of “study” under these terms as a busy professional. I’m still listening. But part of what I’m getting out of these lectures is just more regret that I’m not a full-time grad student!

I will choose one concept to argue here. It struck me hard enough that I made a note and went back to listen to this quick bit at home so I could share with you.

This is in lecture 16, covering For Whom the Bell Tolls (for the record, my favorite Hemingway novel). Dimock reads briefly from a conversation between Robert Jordan and Anselmo (whose name, inexplicably, she pronounces more like Ensalmo; it drives me nuts) in which Anselmo says of the gypsies,

To them it is not a sin to kill outside the tribe. They deny this but it is true.

Dimock comments.

Usually, for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period, right? So there’s just no qualifying after that… [but for the gypsies] outside your tribe you’re free to kill anyone. That’s an incredible charge to level against the gypsies.

She continues on to argue that this accusation, that gypsies lack some moral rectitude that the rest of us possess, is a statement that Anselmo is making about the gypsies’ inferiority; she goes on to discuss Robert Jordan’s apparent ignorance of Spanish culture & history based on a comment that he makes about the Moors. Well, I’m not so sure that Robert Jordan is all that ignorant, but that’s another argument. I think Dimock missed a key piece of irony in that statement about gypsies killing outside their tribe. What struck me about Dimock’s response was her dismissively clear-cut understanding of “our” rules about killing: “the injunction is again killing, period.” First of all, the groups that Anselmo and Robert Jordan belong to (the Abraham Lincoln brigade; guerrillas; Spanish republicans) certainly don’t have a universal injunction against killing people: they kill fascists, don’t they? In other words, depending on how you define one’s tribe, they also feel that it’s permissible or justifiable to kill outside the tribe. Or let’s take this a step further: nowhere does Anselmo, or Dimock, note that it’s okay or not okay to kill humans outside one’s tribe. No, she states that “for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. People kill sentient beings by the billion: to eat them, to take their habitats, as collateral damage during our search for fossil fuels, on and on. To take a more modern approach, we as a society not only kill all nonhuman things as a matter of course and without a second thought; we also seem to accept under certain circumstances that it’s justifiable, at the very least, to kill nonwhites, or non-Americans, or non-Christians; in the post-9/11 United States, there was (is) a certain acceptance of our right to kill Muslims or brown people who live in certain countries! Now, Hemingway didn’t live to see 9/11, but this brand of ethnocentrism is not unique to my generation’s experience. I believe that Hemingway, unlike Dimock – and likely Robert Jordan too – saw and intended the irony in Anselmo’s statement about gypsies killing outside the tribe. It’s all a matter of how you define one’s tribe. Dimock herself pointed out in an earlier lecture that Hemingway’s work is simply dripping, saturated, with irony. I think she missed a fine example here.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 1-7

This is a series of 25 lectures – a semester course, presumably – available on iTunes U here. The description provided says…

This course examines major works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, exploring their interconnections on three analytic scales: the macro history of the United States and the world; the formal and stylistic innovations of modernism; and the small details of sensory input and psychic life.

Some of the user comments/reviews on iTunes U accuse Professor Dimock of being difficult to understand; I’d like to speak to that first. These are not ideal audio recordings, it’s true. She’s a little faint, as if the mike was not pinned to her lapel but in the room somewhere (students coughing and rustling are audible); or maybe sometimes she has it too close to her mouth, and we get unnecessary breathiness. I had to crank my volume way up, and Dimock has some (natural, I think) variations of volume that had me making adjustments and occasionally jumping when she speaks up. And she does have an accent. And she does use “ums” and pauses; but again, I think most of us do. While she is not the most articulate, professional speaker I’ve ever encountered, I think she’s plenty fair for a college professor. (They don’t get to be professors by being professional speakers, kids, in case you didn’t know.) And the recording quality is partly to blame for the minor difficulties I had understanding these lectures. All that said, I found it entirely possible to turn up the volume, concentrate, and receive what Dimock had to say; and it was well worth it.

Now on to the content.

In the early episodes, I can’t say that Dimock presented any ideas that were wholly new to me. Here’s where I’ll take some credit for having read at least a little Faulkner, a medium-sized chunk of Fitzgerald, and most of Hemingway (repeatedly), and read similar proportions of biographical material on each, and studied literary criticism in the past. However, I haven’t tried to think in such academic interpretive terms in some time, and this warming up (if you will) of that part of my brain was useful and welcome. It felt really good to think in academic terms again.

I have to say that I couldn’t get on board with all of Dimock’s concepts. For example, her conflation of the “vagueness” of The Great Gatsby (that was, I believe, Maxwell Perkins’s word) with her “counterrealism” of same is problematic to me. I think you could be vague in your portrayal of realism, and I think you could be precise and use clear outlines in representing counterrealism; so I don’t think it works to substitute the one for the other. In addition, I’m 90% confident that in discussing Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp, she first asserts that childbirth is a manmade event (because it takes a man’s action to bring it on, of course) rather than a natural one; and then later comes around and asserts that it is as natural as rain (which I am much closer to agreeing with than the first assertion, by the way). I don’t always agree with her concepts, then, and I don’t always think that she is all that consistent or puts her arguments together all that well. However, all that aside, I’ve really enjoyed having these parts of my brain stretched out again, and I would very much enjoy being in this class to argue these points with her. So my disagreements and criticisms wouldn’t have me pulling out of this class, in other words, and I won’t stop listening now, either.

One big hope I had for these lectures was that they would help me to work my way through my difficulties with Faulkner. In that respect, they’ve been moderately successful. On the one hand, I am vindicated by Dimock’s saying that The Sound and the Fury is really difficult to understand! Now, I began that book at one point, years ago, and I don’t think I made it 15 pages; but already things are illuminated. So perhaps, as I suspected, Faulkner would become comprehensible to me if I had a good teacher looking over my shoulder and consulting page-by-page. I still don’t think I’m going to try The Sound and the Fury again anytime soon. But I look forward to hearing about my recent read, Light in August.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sections on Hemingway so far haven’t given me anything I didn’t know. I suspect I’m fairly well-informed, for an amateur, on that subject.

So in a nutshell, I’m feeling stimulated and am enjoying these lectures very much so far, and will be continuing through all 25.

%d bloggers like this: