Novelist, Will Self welcomes the latest collected lyrics of Nick Cave, one of my favourite songwriters. Fair enough. But in the process, Self takes a swipe at poetry.
“Moreover, I've come to an understanding of the nature and purpose of lyrics that satisfies me, while incidentally explaining the collapse of poetry as a popular art form. Nowadays, if we picture the poetic muse at all, it's as a superannuated folkie, sitting in the corner of the literary lounge bar, holding his ear and yodelling some old bollocks or other. Whatever need we have for the esemplastic unities of sound, meaning and rhythm that were traditionally supplied by spoken verse, we now find it supplied in sung lyrics.”
That “nowadays if we picture the poetic muse” – who is this “we”? Will Self, I suppose, and whoever else, obviously with little experience of hearing or reading poetry written in the last thirty years, but who are ready and willing to nod heads in ignorant agreement with his prejudices.
Really, Self may be correct on how many people view poetry. But his argument could have continued like this:
Cave’s oeuvre supplies something similar to poetry at its best, and people who enjoy the complexity of thought and feeling found on a Nick Cave album would do well to overcome current prejudices against contemporary poetry and buy a few collections to read in between albums. Those readers are unlikely to be disappointed.
Instead Self has bought in to a populist caricature of poetry. His refusal to challenge it is pathetic - all the more so given his status as an important literary writer.
Self ought to read a few quality, contemporary poetry collections and see a few quality poets in performance before making his daft assertions. I’ve been a fan of Nick Cave for many years, for longer than Will Self by the sounds of it. I agree that Cave’s lyrics work well when sung. But quality poetry can supply the unities of sound, meaning and rhythm that Self seeks, and the good stuff can do so with far more humour and depth than ninety-nine percent of music lyrics.