Poetic license or verbal abuse?


May 9, 2004


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 of poetry.)

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 like."

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 their troubles.

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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 records."

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 money."

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 me before.

"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 programs.

"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' came along."

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 Head.

"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 book succeeds."

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 alive.

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: three excerpts

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 Combat":

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