Two weeks ago, the Rev.
Joseph Simmons -- better known as "Run" of hip-hop legends Run-DMC -- was
rejected in his bid to become the poet laureate of his native Queens, N.Y.
(The judges ruled against him because he currently lives in New Jersey, but
the panel also split over the question of whether rap is a legitimate form
In September, Billy Corgan, the former leader of the Smashing Pumpkins,
did his debut reading at the prestigious Poetry Center of Chicago, only to
be savaged by the editor of Chicagopoetry.com for "his forced, sophomoric
attempts at creating what he must have thought poetry is supposed to sound
In 1999, singer-songwriter Jewel published a book of her verse, A
Night Without Armor: Poems, and the reviews were brutal. They must have
had some effect: Amazon.com currently lists 144 used copies for sale, with
the price as low as 49 cents.
Popular musicians attempting to cross over into the realm of poetry isn't
a new phenomenon. Nor is it out of the ordinary for them to be scorned for
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In 1971, Macmillan published a still-controversial book called
Tarantula, a novel masquerading as poetry -- or perhaps a collection of
poetry trying to be sort-of-a-novel -- marking the best-known attempt by a
rocker to make a grab at literary immortality.
"[The book] is not a literary event because Bob Dylan is not a literary
figure," harrumphed the New York Times. "It is a throwback. Buy his
That critique was penned by a rock critic, Robert Christgau; many of the
literary reviewers were even harsher. Even the book's publishers expressed
doubt about the worth of this tome: In an unsigned introduction, the editors
wrote that they "weren't quite sure what to make of the book -- except
The book remains an obscure collector's item -- a souvenir for the
hard-core fans -- rather than a significant literary achievement, and the
same is true of the many poetry collections that have followed in the years
since from musicians-poets such as Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Lydia
Lunch, Richard Hell and Leonard Cohen. Despite this daunting legacy, two of
the most respected and successful rockers who've ever called Chicago home
are set to try once again to breach the world of poetry.
Corgan will issue Blinking With Fists, his first collection of
poems, under the aegis of well-respected publishers Faber & Faber in
September, a few months before the release of his first solo album.
Meanwhile, Adult Head, the first book of poetry by Wilco's Jeff
Tweedy, has already arrived in bookstores. Adult Head was published
by Omaha's prestigious Zoo Press a few weeks ago, preceding the release of
Wilco's fifth album, "A Ghost Is Born," which is due on June 22.
Corgan and Tweedy both say they've been writing poetry for years, in
addition to penning lyrics for their songs. They both know that their books
will be greeted with some skepticism from fans and literary critics. So why
make the move from sharing their thoughts as lyrics released on an album to
issuing poems between the covers of a book?
"I see my poetry as totally distinct from my lyrics; they're two separate
things," Corgan said. "I started writing poetry about four years ago because
I think there are things that I can do that I can't do in my lyrics. I don't
think the poetry is going to be for everybody, but I've never let that stop
"There are things I wanted to express, and I don't think I have to play
the guitar to do that. And I don't know why I shouldn't be allowed to try to
join the club."
C.J. Laity, who's the editor of Chicagopoetry.com and a major figure on
the city's thriving poetry slam scene, isn't necessarily opposed to rockers
joining the poetry club. He is a fan of Frank Orrall and thinks that Poi Dog
Pondering's leader is a very good poet. But he believes that Corgan is not.
Laity reviewed Corgan's debut reading at the Art Institute of Chicago
sponsored by the Poetry Center of Chicago last fall. Tickets for the event
were $35 -- a level previously reserved for the likes of William S.
Burroughs, Carlos Fuentes and Allen Ginsberg -- but organizers defended the
steep charge because it was a benefit to fund the center's educational
"For the most part, his poetry was so bad, it was comical, sounding like
a pile of high-school assignments composed by the C-minus student in the
class," Laity wrote. "His poetry contained no energy, no rage, no dazzling
metaphor or impressive usage of language, no unique voice, no imagery, no
passion: in short, no Billy Corgan."
Kenneth Clarke, the executive director of the Poetry Center, disagrees.
He defends the reading and Corgan's poetry in general. "The overwhelming
response was positive," he said.
"From talking to Billy, I think that he does understand the difference
between song lyrics and poetry lyrics. He's been writing song lyrics for a
lot longer than he's been writing poetry lyrics, and he made it clear that
this was his first poetry reading. He didn't say, 'I've been doing this for
100 years, and I'm the world's best.' I think it was a vulnerable moment,
but he pulled it off."
Tweedy also knew that he was opening himself up to criticism when he
entered into the realm of poetry. "Publishing my poetry is a no-win
situation," he said. "I will only lose. But I like poetry, and I've always
written poems. I tear them apart and make songs out of them."
Zoo Press created its Nightingale Editions imprint with the intent of
exploring "the relationship between song and word" and "the literary merit
of contemporary popular lyricists," according to its mission statement. Its
Web site goes on to note that, "The Greeks referred to singers and poets
with the same word, 'aoidos,' long before the word 'poietes'
Publisher Neil Azevedo was unfamiliar with Wilco's music before a friend
brought it to his attention, but he was impressed enough with Tweedy's
lyrics to seek him out and ask if the musician wrote poetry. He then worked
with Tweedy to select and edit the 43 poems that are compiled in Adult
"When I started listening to the music, there was something that seemed
more ambitious than the trite narratives you normally hear in popular
songs," Azevedo said of Wilco. "When I initially spoke with Jeff, I was so
impressed with his intelligence. We do kind of high-brow stuff, and we
wanted to do a serious book of poetry. He took it and ran with it and wrote
some really incredible stuff."
Azevedo couldn't be happier with Adult Head -- though as a
non-rock fan, it's doubtful that he knows the title comes from a pun on the
Flaming Groovies' hit, "Teenage Head." "It's already been well received in
my world -- the poetry world," the editor said. "Jeff wrote a literary book
-- he wrote a book of poems; he didn't just throw a bunch of words together
-- and he uses a ton of rhetorical devices.
"He used a French received form -- sestina -- in 'The Singing Combat'
poem. The prose poem 'The Bench-warmer's Daughter' is right out of the
notebooks of Apollinaire, and I mean that in an homage way, not a rip-off
way. There are poems like 'Yachting?,' which are really funny, and 'Doris,'
which are straight narratives. I think for the most part, every poem in the
Azevedo believes that rockers with poetic talents as strong as Tweedy's
are rare, but they should be encouraged -- hence the mission of Nightingale.
But Clarke believes that we'll see more musicians crossing over into poetry,
and that's something that should be encouraged, if it helps keep poetry
To that end, the Poetry Center will sponsor more events like the Corgan
reading, Clarke said. On June 4, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams will
share the stage with her father, Miller, a renowned poet. (Tickets are $35
for general admission, $20 for members; visit www.poetrycenter.org
for more information.)
"When somebody like Billy Corgan or Bob Dylan branches out into another
set of aesthetics or a whole other world of the arts, there's always going
to be some crotchety old men and women saying they don't belong," Clarke
said. "It's a tough world, and there's an inherent cronyism in any kind of
thing like this. I am a poet, but I am also a big fan of rock 'n' roll.
"I've always been confused by the difference between song lyrics and
poetry lyrics, and I know from my graduate school education that the lyric
song and the lyric poem come from the same place. If you go back 5,000
years, there is no difference. Like the psalms -- they're set to music and
they're poems. The poet singer is still an idea that is relatively current
in France and in Europe. That's a big reason why I was interested in hosting
musicians reading their poetry."
Now, I'm not a knowledgeable-about-what-constitutes-good-poetry critic;
in that world, I just know what I like. But I do know good rock 'n' roll,
and in my realm, Tweedy is one of the best lyricists of his generation.
Corgan has had his moments, too, especially since he's grown past the
angst of the "Siamese Dream" and "Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness" era
into the maturity of "Adore" and the new Chicago songs.
But as Steve Allen proved on his television show way back in the '50s,
rock lyrics cannot and should not be divorced from the music that drives
them -- the words are only a small piece of the pie -- and this holds true
no matter how many former English majors turned rock critics subsist on
reviews that do little more than quote the choruses.
Attempting to ridicule the great Little Richard, Allen (who really should
have known better, given that he sometimes backed Beat poet Jack Kerouac on
piano) famously read the song's lyrics as poetry, solemnly intoning each
word: "Tutti Frutti, aw, rootie/A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop bam boo."
In the context of the recording, with its rampaging rhythm and
hell-bent-on-salvation-through-sex vocal performance, rock has produced few
lines more brilliant or profound. They're poetic, but who cares whether they
work as poetry? As part of a timeless rock song, they're something better,
since the combination of words and music affect us in a way that the written
or spoken word alone can't touch.
This is to say that while we can wish Corgan and Tweedy well in their
hobbies while moonlighting as poets, we should hope they don't lose sign of
their primary careers. Rock 'n' roll needs them right where they are.
Rockers as poets:
aretha in the blues dunes -- Pluto with the high crack laugh & rambling
Aretha -- a menace to president as he was jokingly called -- go -- yea! &
the seniority complex disowning you... Lear looking in the window dangerous
& dragging a mountain & you say "no i am a mute" & he says "no no i've told
the others you were Charlie Chaplin & now you must live up to it -- you
must!" & aretha saying "split Lear -- no of us got the guts for infinity --
take your driving wheel split ...& aretha next -- she's got these hundred
Angel Strangers all passing thru saying "i will be your Shakti your outlaw
kid -- pick me -- pick me please -- ah c'mon pi me" & aretha faking her
intestinal black soul across all t fertile bubbles & whims & flashy winos --
jinx, Poet Void Scary Plop all skipping to hell with their bunnies where
food is cheaper & warmer & Nuclear Beethoven screaming "oh aretha -- i shall
be your voodoo doll -- prick me -- let make somebody hurt -- draw on me
whoever you wish! a pretty please! my bastard frame -- my slimy self --
penetrate unto me -- unto me!" Scholar, his body held together by chiclets
-- raw beans & slaves of days gone by -- he storms from the road his pipe
nearly eaten "look! she burps o reality" & but he's not even talking to
anybody -- a moth flies out of his pocket & Void, the incredible fall apart
reminds you once more of america with the dotted line -- use less motive --
the moral come on & silver haired men hidin' in the violin cases ...on a
mound of phosphorus & success stands the voluptuous coyote eagle -- he holds
a half dollar -- an anchor sways across his shoulders "good!" says Nuclear
Beethoven "good to see there are some real bird around" "that's no bird --
that's just a thief -- he's building a outhouse out of stolen lettuce!"
signs. Aretha -- Sound o Sound -- who really doesn't give a damn about real
birds o outhouses or any Nuclear Beethoven -- approval, complaint &
explanations -- they all frighten her -- she has no flaws in her trumpet --
she knows that the sun is not a piece of her.
the audio repairman stumbles thru the door with "sound is sacred so come
in & talk to us" written on the back of his shirt.
From Jeff Tweedy's Adult Head, the poem "Singing
just as you approach... a package
pulling at its bow, I see your face
retreating from singing combat
from falling down a flight of stairs
our good days, our parents old, radiant beauty
back there behind the sunshine
I believe your sorrow was sunshine
murdered for longing, your broken package
a crushed open can of a pure bug's beauty
crawling up lip and lash on your face
before afternoon smiled for climbed stairs
all because your laugh suggested combat
it seems worthwhile to wish for combat
steadying knees knotting in the sunshine
bracing knuckles unskinned on stairs
where the tree-lit pattern and wrapped package
conceals no thoughtless purchase of your face
and kills no surprise of beauty
attacked by love laughing with beauty
the four winds blow and the brave combatants
have no weapons, no face
no fear, no mirror to hurt sunshine
they pry to know this ticking package
but none can climb so many soft stairs
they fall in heaps at the bottom of these stairs
wounded and comforted only by beauty
they come tangled in twine to tie this package
and limping away whisper combat
and say later it was a somewhat shaded sunshine
approaching along with your face
Billy Corgan, "Atwixt the Twine"
A twixt the twine the flowers divine
Devise the deign in this copper wane
Aghast the mask of ripping change
Aloft amongst the highest paid
Blend in the softer hues
Bespeak of melon and her honey fuse
Light my ire's with playful trust
For devour you insatiable I must
So mixed the mire the many did soar
Sour the supine on slippery floor
Green the grievous poured wound into salt
Salacious and sated the savory sport
Don't get certain, play tricks with mine pull
Gather your colours and ever your sulk
No manners in me matter the most
Than playing valor to your consummate host
Pillow the phenom on purring divan
Mellow the missing on vanilla white toast
Laboured among the living lull last
Repay the repast in revolting rake
Never come give it up, whatever you may squander
The figs in the pockets and the cousins down under
By blood are the passions passing us up
By pill is the poison feeling
The heat it kills me everyday
By graveyard vigil and candles I bake
And kitchens are aching for archangel falls
Of soft baby bottoms and polished skulls, amen