Thursday, August 31, 2006

Poetry and Pop Music

This month I'm going back into the archives for a strange and as yet unrepeated experiment: poetry about listening to the radio (station-hopping late at night, basically). I've always been intrigued by the connections between poetry and music. Since I tend to write poetry that sort of rhymes, I take pop and rap's use of rhyme as proof that there is an inherent pleasure in hearing repeated sounds, even in our postmodern age. But few like-minded poets (even the New Formalists like Dana Gioia) who tout pop as reinforcing their ideas of poetry write much about pop music itself (though Gioia does have some poem about the Beach Boys, I think). So I'm exposing myself to ridicule by showcasing my own attempt in this area.

Prizes to those who guess more than 3 of the actual songs by the artists I've named.

Pop Music and Poetry: An Essay

i) Overture

John Cougar Mellencamp sticks up for small towns;
Seal shares the joker’s apotheosis;
Rod Stewart pimps in 80’s hotel rooms;
a woman conveys her own intricate crisis;
Annie Lennox barely gets by on recognizability;
Elvis Costello menacingly impersonates insincerity;
(finally nothing breaksa my stride);
Don Henley knows what it’s like to ride the same cruel wave till it gets too deep;
Edie Brickell, who really tried to wake us up, puts me to sleep;
Joan Jett’s alarm clock was preset— she wears its mechanism out
nearly explaining Ray Davies’s rut and Supertramp’s escapist route;
Fleetwood Mac seem circumspect (their mottoes are all the more corrupt);
Marvin Gaye’s tormented flight of confessional fancy brings no light but heat;
Michael Hutchence caps his act with even more posthumous threats, a fate the deejay seems to represent;
the music bristles as we speak;
Stevie Nicks is back to remind me why I try to soften the break with imagination’s anonymous riff when I learn to sing. Or rather if...

ii) Encore

Up and suffering, dark and early,
knowing that’s no excuse to feel holy,
I turn on the radio, find morality
getting static but shaking off artistry.

[Play Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” then the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”]

Yes, I’m a prisoner of my culture (Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is torture) but something tells me the adventure of guilt and anguish isn’t over... Trust Bette Midler and “The Rose” to get the last word... You refuse? Well, then Billy Joel serves you right— “My Life” it is, though much too late. Our demographic hits its peak and dies...

I listen to Dick Cavett preparing himself to orchestrate
a classical dirge but the Stones resurrect
the play-by-play I am doomed to conduct...
“Satisfaction” deserves respect.
I pay it like penance and find myself blocked,
like any transmission... Time to reflect
on why, suddenly, Sir Elton John
is unlistenable...

So much for that plan.

iii) Prestissimo

Tom Petty, obviously gone to some trouble
just to remind me that drugs were a feeling
I got used to responding to on the double
unplugging my ears to the sirens’ wailing
recalling what it was like to watch
TV when stoned— the old bait-and-switch:
what ends in hell faster, this world or my oyster?

Dire Straights informs me show biz is no better
but Cutting Crew, who once had a future
show me the ways of a one-hit wonder:
the acid of childhood I’ll never recover.

The Beatles’ notion of forever
seems like such an admission of failure—
therefore they intone with mannered
insolence, like a dutiful lover
confronted by endless prospects of sex...
“Thanks but thanks anyway”...— tight-assed hacks...

iv) Allegro

Gerry Rafferty tells me why
my parents are still married (happily).
The next song mentions the games people play
when their kids are grown up. So long certainty.

It doesn’t add up, despite the Femmes;
Steve Miller’s guide to success resumes—
his criminal couple are free, he claims,
while Mom and Dad are still serving their terms.

The Police at last interrogated
by hip-hop beats, words substituted...
Squeeze’s Eden adulterated
pleas for mercy reiterated
Limbaugh’s theme appropriated
opposite frequencies modulated...

v) Adagio

CSN wonders if it’s Y’s;
Queen decides it’s time to praise
the girls its savvy bassist lays
whenever his sexy line deploys;
The Who creates a hero’s noise
for blindness or he who can’t think
what he sees on British Rail is traditional
though the Shondelles are supremely real.

Jefferson Airplane met John Glenn
and decided to fly closer to the sun
but condescended, for just one song,
to threaten the unloved, outstrung
products of doing one’s only thing...

The Guess Who? also come on too strong
for such an enigmatic name—
The Who Asked You? would suit the wrongful
orchestra suggesting fame.

vi) pop haiku (and bored game)

buy your graffiti
with a shiny plastic wrap
rebel like crazee

(paper, scissors and classic rock...)

vii) Andante

Paul Simon, overfamiliar but fair,
holds deprecating thumbs to the fire;
I realize I’ve been overhearing
people having sex on the air.

Reruns predicted what I would admire:
the same song over and over and o’er
determined... Christopher Cross reimagined
a bathos as precious as Dudley Moore...

A woman seeks her self-control
in the finger I move on the dial;
Bono also includes my whole
mission of listening in his appeal.

Soon enough all radio’s goal
will be to absorb the signals reeled
back in from the pond about which
Sting is singing— listen to that...

The B-side of every record shall
soon exercise its receptive whorl...
Will Smith will be gotten jiggy with
by whatever it was. You do the math...

viii) Grave

Paranoid anthem with selfish pretensions:
“People are strange”...—an apt intervention
if unexpected... Dialogism?
I hardly think so. Beck is too random
a moralist for this dimension.

The chance to interpret as we progress
(vocals irrevocably lost)
the chicks too clean-cut, even in black;
they want to sing— that’s their tough luck...

Ventriloquists for a nervous wreck,
their wooden lips have gotten stuck
and shattered chords implode and ache
in bodies hanging from a hook.

Talking Heads reverberate
(they know I felled them at a stroke)
and Fine Young Cannibals react
with rubber-legged fits of pique.

ix) Coda

Rick Astley is still putting out,
as advertised, if you care to check.
I, for my part, am kaput
and going to bed. I won’t be back.
Prince pretends that he has no money—
those sound effects admit he’s a phony:
“We’re listening on borrowed time
but that doesn’t mean we’re broke”— Explain.
I suddenly hear the Doctor Who theme
on every station. Hey Twilight Zone—
my homies and I have gotten the hang
of other freaky-incident tunes...
What was it took my breath away?
An entire continent? But why?
Quaint Hibernian Vociferation:
“Pissing the Night Away: An Oration.”
That’s as much as any person
needs to know about my origin.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Doomed Fan Letters

Have you ever written a literary fan letter that you really, truly believed deserved an answer? Well, neither have I, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I wrote a whiny, begging letter to Phillip Levine about 10 years ago, after reading an article of his about the state of poetry that struck me as both perceptive and encouraging. Here was a man who would immediately see the merits of my work, I thought, so I sent off a few sample poems with some soothing flattery to help the medicine go down.
Did I hear back from the illustrious Mr. Levine? Sadly but unsurprisingly, no.
So this summer, ten years later, I decided to aim a bit less high. I’d been in Montreal and had picked up a pretty darn good book of poems (entitled "Hello Serotonin") by a semi-hipsterish-looking dude named Jon Paul Fiorentino. Not a major literary celebrity, that’s for sure. I mean, he’s from Winnipeg, though he rails violently against that fact, and claims Montreal as his second home.
I am still willing to say that the poems are pretty good, though I will now add the caveat they’re somewhat marred by an excessive use of theoretical jargon (he sprinkles in the word "performative" a bit too often for my taste). They hooked me by their skewed lyricism; the speaker knows he’s in bad shape, but can’t resist making a poem to celebrate that fact. A poem about singing with a throat full of strep is representative.
He also manages to seem quaintly rebellious without really offending my sense of social decency. He writes in tongue-in-cheek fashion about burning down Westmount, Montreal’s wealthy Anglophone enclave, where I lived for a year before deciding it was too anal retentive for me.
I’ve misplaced the book, so I can’t quote from it. Sorry. J
So for this month’s blog entry, I’m going to post the verse letter I emailed him. Qua poem isn’t not my finest effort, and qua fan letter it’s probably infuriating, but as a blend of the two genres it’s at least faintly readable.

Fan Letter
(For Jon Paul Fiorentino)

I bought your book on a whim,
on a wager with myself:
I offered to stop hating poetry
if I could read three pages without feeling
insulted, prodded or coddled.

I saw that you were as good as me,
maybe. Good enough not
to be threatened by me. And to say so.
Maybe even good enough to help me
get my difficult next book published.
(Forget I just said that,
but let the suggestion operate
on a nagging subliminal level.)

Let’s start our own school
of hypochondriac, narcoleptic poetry,
with honorary correspondence degrees
conferred on unsuspecting students.
Let’s read each other’s work and compare it
to what we thought our own could be.
Let’s be thankful for the silence
that distance enforces.
Let’s keep the secret of our perfect sanity,
insulated and apologetic.
Let’s respect each other’s jargon of innocence.
Let’s compare influences
and gauge their collateral damage.

Two men haunted by Sylvia Plath
are made for each other, in a medical sense,
as if growing alternate, duplicate organs
for sudden and gratuitous swaps.
This is not an emergency yet.
But do answer instantly, just in case.

Now why would anyone fail to respond immediately to this mixture of impertinence, grudging admiration and presumption? I ask you. No doubt I happened upon a dead email address. Though it never bounced back to me.

Feel free to share your experiences with this frustrating genre. See you next month (summer hiatus is over)