Monday, June 04, 2007

Will Self, Nick Cave, and Poetry

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.


Ben Wilkinson said...

Here here, Rob - if Will Self is going to dote on songwriters to provide him with the experiences and new perspectives that have for so long been associated with poetry (and for good reason), he'll have a small crop of quality contemporary songwriters to choose from, amid the predictable and formulaic dross that many singer-songwriters churn out. If he turns to contemporary poetry, however - Armitage, Duffy, Paterson, Duhig, Muldoon, Feaver, Nagra, Wicks; to name just a few diverse and distinct poetic voices of integrity - he'll find much excellent writing to revel in.

I don't think songwriting, even at the level to which Dylan took it, has yet to fully replace or emulate the transformative and revelatory power of poetry. For one, poetry is a merging of sound and sense: it is a form of writing which creates its own internal music to add a kind of mysticism to its message, "a little machine for remembering itself", as Paterson puts it. Conversely, I don't think song lyrics, not even the best ones, stand up fully without the music they were written to accompany. They lack the singularity that the good poem possesses.

Andrew Shields said...

I'm teaching a course on poetry and songwriting right now, and many of the students are in bands (and though they are Swiss, they sing in English). Reading their texts, I am very conscious of the distinction between songs and poems: songs, as Ben put it so well, "lack the singularity that the good poem possesses."

This is a matter of phrasing: writing that can work well in songs often falls flat if read without music, because the presence of the music allows the songwriter to prop up phrases that are unable to stand on their own (too cliched, for example).

That said, I'll defend Dylan (and Tom Waits) as contemporary songwriters who have written many texts that stand up on the page, without the music.

Matt Merritt said...

I think you're right - someone like Richard Thompson, for example, is a great lyricist in my opinion, but it still doesn't make what he writes poetry, and nor is it trying to be. And much the same is true of Nick Cave, much as I like him.
On this subject, though, did anyone hear a programme that was on Radio 4 three to four years ago. It was Simon Armitage and Professor Alan someone-or-other (he was a musician) looking at songs and how they work? It was excellent, but at times even then I thought Armitage went a bit too far in treatiung some lyrics as poetry.

Rob said...

My gripe is more with Self's attitude to poetry. He says that it has been supplanted by sung lyrics, that it has collapsed as a popular art form.

That, in my opinion, should not go unchallenged. I would have thought a writer of complex literary novels would have been able to see the value of poetry, irrespective of the value of the best song lyrics.

The other day, I was in a Tesco store. I passed the book rack. Two woman were there, obviously trying to find a present for someone. The conversation went:

- Does he like books?
- Nah. Who reads books these days?
- You've got a point. I don't know anybody who reads books.

It's only a short step from Will Self's article to a casual acceptance that in the near future, the best computer games will kill of the literary novel as a popular (sic!) art form.

Anonymous said...

Yes, except Will Self is telling you what you already know: most people see poetry the way he does.

Poetry is Wordsworth boring you to death in a classroom at sixteen. It's in language you don't speak, talking about things you don't care about, in ways you don't understand, explicated by someone who's not on your wavelength insisting it's great (when it clearly isn't nearly as good as anything you and your friends are into). The teacher's pet likes it, and everyone else hates it.

School boards don't approve contemporary poetry for secondary education; it's Parents Won't Bother Us If We Cram Shakespeare and Keats Down Their Kids' Throats, and soon it's off to the real world, which, when you're eighteen or so, seems to have precisely zero relation to Shakespeare or Keats. And by then, for most, it's all over--poetry is filed away as a waste of time, along the same lines as Latin, Trigonometry and Jazz.

Like it or not, if poetry wants to reverse that perception, it has to dirty its hands with a lot of creative marketing. Performance poets and slam poets (most of whom are awful) are shooting rather slick Youtube clips and getting seen. They're putting on competitions in bars with cash prizes awarded to the night's best performers. All very gauche to be sure, but they're drawing crowds. For God's sake, I heard an utterly awful spoken word riff on a TV commercial for the Ford Denali, which means Ford is paying some knucklehead obscene money to rhyme poorly in bad rhythm about car features.

Loud and Bad beats Quiet and Good, and it requires the kind of chest-pounding market confidence that most real poets scurry away from (along with all sorts of other bright lights, loud sounds, and sudden movements). Which makes real poetry an easy target for a professional sneerer like Will Self.

Andrew Shields said...

RT: "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" reads wonderfully on the page, but it only really explodes into brilliance as a song.

Matt Merritt said...

Definitely, Andrew. After reading this yesterday I listened to a lot of Richard Thompson, and while there are lots of lines in his songs that I'd kill to be able to use in a poem, they need the music. They need his voice, a lot of the time