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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.

What It Is by Lynda Barry

This is an interesting piece. Coffee-table-sized, all done in graphic format, and for a number of pages I wasn’t sure there was anything like a narrative here. Four pages of the first 24 involve narrative storytelling; the rest are collage, often with text in comic-style boxes, but not necessarily linear or related text.

None of this is un-fun, but it’s not what I was expecting. The drawing style is fun and quirky and consistent enough throughout that I gradually got to know the artist; and the collage, which involves materials other than Barry’s own creations, is an interesting way to look at the world and her vision, too. There are nearly limitless possibilities to interpret text that’s been all jumbled up together. I kind of enjoyed that. But my narrative-driven, literal, logical-progression-type mind–the mind that struggles with poetry–missed having a thread to grab onto.

There is a narrative, as it turns out. It starts in earnest on page 25. It comes and goes, interspersed with the collage-pages, which come to hold together a bit more as the narrative and themes become clearer.

Lynda Barry tells the story of her childhood, with its devotion to imagination and play, and her childhood delight in stories and pictures, and then the adolescence that stole these delights, chiefly when two questions came to her that refused to leave again. The questions are, is this good? and does this suck? She continues on, to show us how a certain art teacher in college helped her find her own way, release those outside considerations (at least temporarily; they do creep back in) and find the joy and the imagination and the inspiration again.

The latter third of the book is more craft book or how-to (although keeping the graphic format; this is my first graphic craft book!), with plenty of exercises, and a few whimsical characters to help us along. Whimsy does not mean the tone is light, however. Barry is serious about the difficulties of artistic work (writing, drawing, or otherwise), those two questions always threatening to intrude again.

It’s a different take than I’m used to; and I am not personally big on exercises. But it was visually very interesting, and good practice for the brain to take on something different. I respect Barry’s multiple talents, and I appreciate her view on what it takes to make art, and her idea that we tap into something a bit unconscious, or a different consciousness, to do it. I’m intrigued.


Rating: 6 sea monsters.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart

This craft book has things in common with both Family Trouble and Fearless Confessions. Like the former, it addresses in part the difficulties in writing about real people, especially those we love. Like the latter, it takes a certain rah-rah tone, encouraging aspiring writers to go for it, you can do it, and don’t be bothered by all those nasty critics disparaging the genre that is memoir. I don’t mean to condescend, and I appreciate the support that Silverman and Kephart offer. It is a tiny bit peppier in tone than my personal preference would call for. But it’s valid support that I need and appreciate, and it’s backed up by both writing chops (publications) and a secure knowledge of craft.

So this is not a *perfect* book, for me, but a very good one. I really enjoyed Kephart’s boiling-over enthusiasm for the genre, and I’m inspired by her apparently wild success as (in her own words) an “entirely unschooled” writer. I love her annotated appendix of memoirs to read, categorized by subject (grief, childhood, “unwell,” “mothers, fathers, children,” and more): there are so many such lists out there, but I eat them up every time, looking out for the title that I’ve never encountered before (and there were several here!), for the different perspective. Kephart does a good job, introducing this appendix, of pointing out the subjectivity of such lists, the value a book may hold for one reader/writer and not for another, and the value in a book a reader doesn’t love.* Then she goes ahead and lists–with some discussion/description, which is great. Here, the title I picked up on was Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone by Mary Morris. I went ahead and ordered myself a copy on Biblio.

In the body of the book, Kephart offers discussions of what memoir is and what it is not (not revenge, not tone-deaf, not therapy, but rather making the “me” work for “us,” making one’s story universal). A number of short chapters offer prompts, or reminders to include weather, place, food, and sensory detail. Final thoughts on how to turn scraps of writing into a book; and exhortations to always work from and toward empathy, to not make stuff up. I appreciate that one of the central pillars of memoir writing, for Kephart, is the idea of making a story speak to the human condition. That my story is not interesting because of its particular, but becomes interesting when I make the unique universal, make the personal stand in for shared experience, draw conclusions, find meaning. (See Gornick’s The Situation and the Story–though it’s not my favorite articulation of this idea, Kephart appreciates it.)

There is much to love here, especially for hesitant writers new to memoir, or those without the benefit of an MFA program–though I am in a program I love and still found lots to appreciate!


Rating: 7 porcelain dogs.

*I am totally tickled when she writes, “You will blog about my inevitable injustice,” when I the reader find my favorite memoir left off her list. Here I am, blogging! But she listed several I love, by Kimmel, Bechdel, and Bragg; Dillard, Williams, Offutt; titles I haven’t read but have faith in by Sanders and Thomas; craft books by Klaus, King, Lamott; and Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, which I am anxious to get to. Sometimes she chose my second-favorite title by a given author. But I am certainly not here to blog about any injustices, no.

did not finish: Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways by Riley Hanick

I’m sure this is a good book, but not for me at this time.

The idea is definitely intriguing: three creations, linked by place and certain themes. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Jackson Pollock’s Mural; and Eisenhower’s development of the interstate highway system. Riley Hanick is in Iowa. Just four years after Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock’s mural for her Manhattan townhome (where “the narrow width of [her] hallway would have made [proper viewing of the painting] impossible”), she gave it to the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Later, Kerouac’s first draft of On the Road, on a single long scroll of paper, will be on display in the same museum. This museum will flood, and the art will itself end up on the road, in transit.

An interesting concept, to weave these three threads together, three movements. Jeremy recommended it to me in part because I was writing about Houston’s Menil Collection, and traveling home to visit it (after Hurricane Harvey, no less, with notes on what precautions the Menil took). This was a wise recommendation for obvious reasons. But as it turns out… Hanick’s style is sketched, abstract, sometimes taking the form of very short chunks, and conflating his two Jacks until I was often unsure of whom we were talking about. His pronouns run from ‘he’ to ‘they’ to ‘we’ to ‘I’ and I was frequently lost. It was nearly 100 pages in when he first quoted Gertrude Stein, and I thought, aha! that is my problem here: there is too much of the Stein here.

As I put this book down, I remain slightly interested, and in another world, one where I have lots of free reading time, I’d fantasize about picking it back up again. But in this life, when I have too much reading to do that will help me (as a student, as a writer, as a book reviewer) and that I can understand, Three Kinds of Motion is not for me.


I’m forgoing the rating this time.

Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family ed. by Joy Castro

Family Trouble is a delightful collection about the challenges of writing nonfiction about family. I loved the wide range here: of experiences related by these established (published) writers; of the advice they have to offer; and in the writers, themselves, who are of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, sexualities, gender expressions, and life experiences. Editor Castro contributes a pure-gold introduction, which incorporates quotations and references to all her contributors but also manages to offer her own perspective. I was on page 7–yes, in the introduction–when I found my first epiphany.

Essays are sorted into sections by outlook or strategy: “Drawing Lines,” “The Right to Speak,” “Filling the Silence,” “Conversations of Hope.” I have read some of the contributors before: Paul Lisicky, Alison Bechdel, Robin Hemley, Dinty W. Moore, Richard Hoffman, Sue William Silverman (and have attended classes with Karen Salyer McElmurry). Others I knew by reputation: Susan Olding, Susan Ito, Sandra Scofield, Lorraine M. L√≥pez, and more. I did have favorites, sure, but I emphasize, I most appreciated the interplay, the sum of parts: these diverse voices and perspectives playing off each other. The anecdotes from experiences are valuable (and often entertaining or humorous, although there is much pain here, too). The writing is lovely. It’s a hell of a collection.

Here are a few of my most treasured lessons.

“Good writing must do two things,” contends Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001). “It must be alive on the page, and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” Writing The Truth Book, I truly was on a genuine voyage of discovery, and these two driving questions* helped shape the memoir, guiding my choices about what to disclose and what to omit. If an incident, detail, or family story contributed in some way to the answering of one or both of those questions, then it went onto the page. If it didn’t, I didn’t even draft it.

From Castro’s introduction; and she mentions the *two driving questions earlier in the paragraph, but I submit that they don’t even matter here, for the purpose of the lesson she offers. I’ll try and recapture it: the memoirist must be driven to tell a story in pursuit of discovery or of answering a question or questions. The issue of whether to include certain material (which, I’ve said elsewhere, is a central issue in crafting memoir) then becomes simply an issue of whether it pursues the main question(s), the desired discovery. …This assumes that we know why we’re writing, and I don’t, always. Sometimes I just want to write a thing, without knowing what the burning issue is. So this becomes a multipart problem: figuring out why a story needs writing (what’s the burning question?), and then mindfully allowing that question to sort what needs inclusion and what does not.

This seems, now that I’ve thought it out, plenty obvious. But I had to get there, and Castro helped.

I also really appreciated the concept that the idea of family stories exists on a spectrum, with the immediately, intimately personal (individual) on one end, and a global human community on the other. From Aaron Raz Link:

A writer working with family materials stands in a liminal space where my story meets your story, meets the reader’s story, and becomes our story. Before I became a writer, I was a historian working in public museums. As a result, I see that family assembles our individual stories together to become the fabric we call culture and history. This process gives each of us some sense of belonging to a larger world.

Richard Hoffman’s first memoir helped put the man who raped him in childhood away in prison, and therefore offers a particularly stark example of personal or family stories having larger ramifications. He contributes to the same idea:

The trouble with the view put forth in dozens of books about family “dysfunction,” some of them interesting and helpful, is that it tries to understand the family without its community, without its culture and class, without its history and the relation of that history to–well, History.

Somehow, I feel like this relates back to some comments I made near the end of this post, about interdisciplinarity. Seeing the connections feels like some of the most important learning we can do, ever.

I loved that some essays took different forms, like Susan Olding’s contribution, “Mama’s Voices,” with its stop/play/fast-forward organization, involving tape recordings. I appreciated the far-reaching context and concerns of Faith Adiele’s “Writing the Black Family Home.” And I enjoyed and marveled at Ariel Gore’s “The Part I Can’t Tell You,” in which she does tell us. Or does she?

Much to be admired, and probably of interest to a fan of memoir as well as a hopeful writer of same.


Rating: 8 mournful duets about two people who never should have broken up.

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.

Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain

Justin St. Germain’s Son of a Gun is a compelling, heart-breaking piece of personal narrative, and it is told beautifully, with restraint and with artistry and structure. The first observation is one any reader might make; the second is the more subtle observation of a reader looking for writing tricks. This is a book that works beautifully on both levels.

The narrator was raised by a complicated woman named Debbie. She was a soldier, a strong woman who made impulsive decisions and charged ahead, took care of herself and her two sons through all kinds of hardship; she had poor judgment in choosing romantic partners, was married five times with many relationships in between, for which she was harshly judged in turn. When Justin was 20, she was murdered by her most recent husband, Ray, a former cop with the requisite mustache and mirrored sunglasses. Until then, Justin had thought Ray the most harmless one of the bunch.

This memoir is the story of Justin’s mother’s death: his shock and grief, his anger, the violent end of Debbie and, later, of Ray. It ranges between these individual instances of gun violence and others, personal and societal, as Justin visits with Debbie’s former partners, goes shopping at a gun show, and cycles back over and over again to Tombstone. Oh, did I leave that part out? Justin and his brother Josh were raised in Tombstone, Arizona, a town whose very existence depends on the legends of Wild West shoot-outs.

I appreciate St. Germain’s title, because it reinvents an old and meaningless saying in a fresh new way: making the point that he is indeed a son of a gun, of a gun culture that engineered his mother’s demise. I also appreciate the way he handled his own character, the narrator, in a spare way that acknowledges (for example) the problematic way in which the 20-year-old reacts to his mother’s murder. He does not always behave well, but who would?

It’s a hell of a sad story, one that recalls my recent read Love and Death in the Sunshine State by Cutter Wood (review to come), and A Woman on the Edge of Time. It’s a hell of a story, in the first place, and at the same time, tragically, nothing out of the ordinary: a 2017 CDC report concluded that nearly half of female homicide victims are killed by a current or former intimate partner. St. Germain does deal with this larger context, although his primary concern (understandably) remains personal.

A hell of a story, but also artfully told. I often think that creative writing, the kind I’m studying, has two parts: an interesting story, and the artful telling of it. A book can become successful, can please or entertain and sell, with either one or the other of those elements, but the best books have both a good story and a good telling. One of the key features of this book, I think, is the narrative restraint. Anytime a writer handles a story this close to home and this fraught–emotional, violent, graphic–it’s difficult to keep a calm perspective, and yet not be cold and distant. St. Germain walks that line. Another strength is the weaving in of the external, if you will, theme material: the history of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral (which St. Germain informs us actually took place “in a vacant lot to the north, between a back alley and what is now the highway. But try putting that on a T-shirt”). This is a classic gift to the writer from the universe: that he was brought up in Tombstone, that Tombstone and Wyatt Earp and the O.K. offer such a backdrop for his story and his reflections on it. This braided-in information is almost too perfect for his story; but this is why we say fact is stranger than fiction. It allows a very neat context for the narrator to think about not only his personal tragedy, but the larger cultural implications.

I was riveted as I read this book, all the way through in a day, because this story has momentum, suspense and crafted pacing. I was heartbroken for the characters, and struck by St. Germain’s gestures at the larger world. It’s a very fine book.


Rating: 8 arcane alphanumerics.
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