• 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.

Object Lessons by Eavan Boland

I recall studying a poem in high school by Eavan Boland titled “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me.” As I approached this semester’s critical essay, one of the talented faculty in my program, Diane Gilliam, recommended this work of prose, for my topic on objects. Diane’s words, to the best of my memory, were, “Every woman artist needs to read this book.” I’m so glad I did; especially when I got to page 231, where “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” makes an appearance, as the only poem of her own that Boland chooses to feature. Synchronicity.

Object Lessons is an examination of the conflict Boland has experienced between her self as poet and her self as woman, with the overlay of Irishness on it all. She leaves Ireland at age five, to a London that largely rejects her kind, to return to her home country in her teens and to study poetry at Trinity in Dublin, a charged literary atmosphere. It takes some time for this young person, still discovering herself as a woman, a sexual creature, and a person of a nation, not to mention as a poet, to see the holes in the legacy she has inherited: there is no place for her in this history. “It was not exactly or even chiefly that the recurrences of my world–a child’s face, the dial of a washing machine–were absent from the tradition [of the poet’s life], although they were. It was not even so much that I was a woman. It was that being a woman, I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.” Names are important. “Every art is inscribed with them. Every life depends on them.” Further, about the poet-versus-woman tension: “For anyone who is drawn into either of these lives, the pressure is there to betray the other: to disown or simplify, to resolve an inherent tension by making a false design from the ethical capabilities of one life or the visionary possibilities of the other.”

Over the course of this book, she lays out the problems she found and her own best efforts at solving them, a job she acknowledges is unfinished. But she hopes that a book like this helps future women poets, by giving them a starting point, something else to point to. Heartbreakingly, by contrast, she relates that the first woman poet she knew of as a young woman was Sylvia Plath, and that name she knew first as a suicide, not a poet at all.

I was also very interested in the way this memoir started: with the missing, imagined, scantily sketched biography of her grandmother. The narrator explores the history, the meager records of the woman; she imagines; and she travels to view a grave and a hospital. It’s a lovely study, the story of someone absent, and a consideration of what we get from an ancestor we can’t really know.

Boland has plenty of good thoughts about place, sense of place, and nation as aspect of our selves and our writing selves. She makes much of the Irish poetic tradition to conflate the feminine and the national. Her musings can get pretty cerebral and abstract, so this memoir took some slow, thoughtful reading; but I think it’s worth the time. Also, I am very interested in Boland’s assertion that she structured the book like a poem: “in turnings and returnings.” I have more thinking to do.


Rating: 7 high heels tipped with steel.

Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk

What an extraordinary, slim little book. Many thanks to my classmate Andrew, who I think was the one to recommend it for my critical essay topic about objects.

Martha Ronk is a poet, so insert my usual hesitation about making intelligent commentary on a genre I’m not terribly comfortable with. This book is organized in three parts: Objects, People, and Transferred Stories (in the table of contents) or Transferred Fictions (within the text). That last discrepancy, I assume, is an editing error; but I kind of enjoy having the two options to choose from. On the other hand, my copy transposes a number of pages in the middle of the book: clearly an error, and a very annoying one, and I keep getting books with missing pages or transposed pages or whole sections replaced by duplicate sections; what gives? Anyway–I did have all the pages, and thank goodness, because they are good pages.

The section “Objects” is further subdivided into “Various Objects,” “The Book,” “Photograms,” and “Collecting,” and the first subsection is all prose poems, a breed of poetry I feel more at home with: just one or two paragraphs of lyric observations, and right up my alley, topically. I loved “A Glass Bowl” and “A Lost Thing” especially. As the book continues, prose poems give way to short essays, but there remains a dreamy note of not-quite-reality, and an attention to lyricism, rhythm, and sound. These words deserve to be read aloud.

Can I get away with sharing one of these prose poems here? If I choose a very short one? This is “The Cup,” the very first item of the book.

The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first morning glass of water, the running of the water now clear after the silty water yesterday, the large dragonfly drowning in the cup, now in the bottom of the sink, and the sudden understanding of the whirr that edged the room last night, the unlocatable whirr that stops and starts and finally falls still as the lights are put out and what is left is the neighborhood barking, unidentified sounds pushed to the edge of consciousness, the sudden storm in the middle somewhere, and the knowledge that there must be a reason for what is now silence, a reason lodged in the absent muted clatter, as in the sudden morning appearance of venational wings, each the size of a thumb, folded inside the cup from the top shelf.

Go ahead, read it aloud.

Ronk quotes heavily from other writers, most especially Henry James (blurbs call James the “patron saint” or the “major genie” of this work). She studies various objects that move her, and a number of these are works of art–sculptures, paintings–making this partly a work of ekphrasis, recalling Doty (again and again). She has a piece called “An Obsession with Objects”–yes, I see you seeing me. She slips in Lolita and Posada (I look up at the Posada print on my wall), as well as her mother’s death and her own study of kung fu and fear of mortality; but it is the objects, always, at the center. The title concept is the transfer of qualities between objects, people, and places, an evocative thing to consider, especially for a person with my obsessions. She has a special care for bowls, and for blank space, for the air contained in bowls and other voids. I love it.

I found lots to love, to quote, and to save for future work, both critical and creative. At just seventy-nine pages, this book came as a small but powerful gift to me, not unlike (again) Still Life With Oysters and Lemon (also by a poet–hm). If you share my interest in “stuff,” by all means, make this a point.


Rating: 9 frames.

residency readings, part I

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


I posted last month about the readings (etc.) I’d be doing to prepare for this upcoming semester and residency. As I worked my way through the assignments, I wanted to share a few highlights and my general impressions. Again, you can take a look at the readings and seminar descriptions here.

In order of appearance, and therefore the order in which I read and viewed them:

Because of my longstanding problem with poetry, the packet assigned for Diane Gilliam’s seminar on “reading as a writer” was fairly mysterious to me, though not unenjoyable–I just didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. Maybe I’m too much a control freak for poetry. Because the contents of her packet weren’t spelled out at the link above, I’ll just list the poets here. It included works by Louise McNeill, T’ai Freedom Ford, Theodore Roethke, *William Stafford, *Ross Gay, Eavan Boland (author of “The Black Lace Fan” that I remember studying in high school), Li-Young Lee, *Lauren Rusk, W.S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, *Audre Lorde, Charles Simic, and *Eleanor Wilner. (My favorite poems were by the *asterisked names.)

Jessie‘s assigned readings for “writing in the gaps” included an excerpt from Housekeeping (so at least I was a little familiar, if also ambivalent); a craft essay I really enjoyed by Andrea Barrett that had plenty of personal essay to it as well; and, among other things, Albert Goldbarth’s essay “Fuller.” That last was a reread, and I got so much more out of it this time. Jessie is smart, and deep, and I have no illusions that I am grasping the point of her seminar yet.

Next was Katie Fallon’s packet, which I loved and swooned over, although it was indeed hard emotional stuff. It begins with Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” a poem I felt I got. Brian Doyle’s “Leap” was a reread but an always-welcome one. “NeVer ForgeT” by Matthew Vollmer resonated with me in many ways, especially when he meditated on the distances we feel from tragedies close to home, and the different ways we mourn. And though I loved everything in between, the final piece, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always stands out. I’ve read it a number of times now, though I haven’t written much about it. I had such a wild time with it again on this reading that I had to amend my “best of the year” post to put it at the very top. I felt close to Katie as I read this packet, too, knowing her as my first semester’s advisor, and knowing from reading her Cerulean Blues of her own experience with trauma. I am very interested in her seminar on “writing personal responses to public violence,” and I imagine that teaching it will cost her something, but I also know she has a lot to teach.

Jacinda Townsend’s packet of magical realism blew my mind. I guess I should be reading more of this stuff?! I loved Byatt’s “A Stone Woman,” and then the next and the next and the next. This was not the first enjoyable reading of the residency assignments, but it was the first time I lost myself. Go find these stories immediately! Wow. I’m really looking forward to this seminar.


That’s all for now–this began as a single really long post but I’ve taken pity on you. Come back on Friday to read about the rest of my assigned readings for this residency period. Thanks for sticking around!

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo

A delightful, short, rich book about writing, deserving of (literal) pocketing alongside Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

This book is subtitled “lectures and essays on poetry and writing,” but I found it as intriguing as a creative work in itself as it is a wise craft book. On the surface, it appears aimed at poets, but I think all writers can benefit. Hugo has a refreshingly irreverent attitude and I wish I could have known him–he died the year I was born.

His self-effacing, humorous, but somehow also very serious approach to writing makes perfect sense to me, and his ideas about practice and luck mirror things I’ve been thinking for some time: that all the “bad” work we put in makes room for the good, and that practice allows for luck. (See the title essay, “The Triggering Town.”) There are some lovely essays in this book, as pieces of craft in themselves. How do we count a craft book? I considered annotating either of the last two, “Ci Vediamo” and “How Poets Make a Living” (that is, writing a craft essay for school about one of these essays). The line between craft books and creative works can be broad and fuzzy, can’t it. Recall again Strunk & White, which is such lovely, humorous, personality-rich writing. I’ll be returning to this one for encouragement and warm feelings. And maybe I’ll get around to annotating some, even.


Rating: 9 cartons of cigarettes from Spinazzola.

One Big Self by C.D. Wright

One Big Self is a poetry collection inspired by, and meant to record, visits to three Louisiana prisons. C.D. Wright accompanied photographer Deborah Luster on a few of the latter’s trips, and the poems in this collection borrow heavily from the speech of inmates–their vernacular, their direct quotations and their concerns–as well as from signage and other found text. Some of the words on the page are Wright’s, but some are collected. Themes include family ties; the trauma and damage caused by incarceration; and the boom of the for-profit prison industry. Of course much of the subject matter refers to violence, crime, faith, and local culture.

Especially because these are offered to me as persona poems, I am very curious to know how much is transcribed directly as found speech and how much it has been manipulated. Unlike the other persona poems I’ve just read (Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead,” Shara McCallum’s “Calypso,” Ted Hughes’ “Hawk Roosting”), these do not read to me as being about one persona per poem, but rather the collective–the persona of the incarcerated mother, say–by a series of individual contributions. This concept is in the book’s title, One Big Self.

It’s hard for me to see from here who said what. Sometimes individual lines are attributed, but often I’m left wondering. Which lines are quotations, which paraphrases? Why skip the quotation marks, which would have made clear where the speaker stops and the poet begins? And what does each choice contribute–the inmate’s words, against those of other inmates, or against Wright’s?

Sometimes the references or language hint towards Wright. This is my bias at work: when I have to look up a word or a name, I suspect that it’s a decorated poet and not a prison inmate speaking. I looked up terms like cicatrix; the Heisenberg principle; Gramsci; Fila Brasileiro; metonymy; Cioran. Cultural references like these, that go outside of Angola, Louisiana, feel external to the personas in focus here. On the other hand, certain repeated phrases fit our expectations of the setting and scenario: “She was a slab of a woman.” “That’s the tattoo that says Real Men Eat Pussy.” Mostly, I’m guessing whose speech is whose. And perhaps this guessing game, this blurring of the lines between poet/recorder and inmate, is what’s really being got at by Wright’s project, and by her title, “one big self.”

I can only close by repeating my usual lines about poetry. This was pleasant and thought-provoking to read. I like it. I don’t understand it.


Rating: 7 plastic soapdishes.

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, ed. by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Back to residency today, and so here is one of the assigned readings, for a seminar entitled “Boy Breaking Glass: Political and Protest Poetry,” taught by Mary Carroll-Hackett. (She assigned a good-sized packet of poetry and articles, additionally.)

You know that poetry often mystifies me. I struggle to release my need to understand or dissect every line and choice; but I’m getting better at that (and of course I’m in school to help me understand such choices). This collection was easier than usual for me to get behind. For one thing, it begins with a lovely foreword by Juan Filpe Herrera, and introduction by editors Alarcón and Rodríguez. These gave clarity, context and passion to the poems that follow; they made clear the backstory that yielded these works, and made their point matter to me. In a word: this collection began when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol building in 2010, in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070, the “reasonable suspicion” bill. The students’ civil disobedience was followed immediately by a poem Alarcón wrote in response; and then by the Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 2070,” which in turn gave birth to a spreading protest poetry movement. This book is one of the many results of that movement.

The poems selected for this collection were voted on by poet-moderators; their authors are diverse in geography and ethnic/national backgrounds; some are new and emerging writers and others are well-established. Most of the book’s contents are printed in English. Some are in both Spanish and English (and one, in Irish, Spanish and English). A minority are printed only in Spanish, so those of us less than fluent in that language will miss a few pieces, or struggle over them. I appreciated this as an effect, though.

I feel less confident about my ability to write about these poems’ content. I don’t generally review poetry. But I found this reading engaging: politically moving, thought-provoking, stimulating, and comprehensible in a way poetry isn’t always for me. I’d recommend this book to anyone, for its artistic value as well as for its political worth. That’s all I have to offer today; Poetry of Resistance has it all.


Rating: 7 poems become bread or water.
%d bloggers like this: