We are surprised to learn poetry ever makes the news. But over at the Poetry Foundation, we found, under “poetry news,” this, from a Billy Collins interview in the Wall Street Journal: ‘“Lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,’ Billy Collins recently told The Wall Street Journal. ‘I assure them [his students] that Jim Morrison is not a poet in any sense of the word.'” So, it’s an argument of definition: what is poetry, and, whatever it is, can it exist apart from its accompaniment? This is when Jack Benny folds his arms, brings his hand to his chin, looks over his right shoulder, and sighs, rolling his eyes upward, to the corners, and wide, “Well!,” for surely Billy Collins is as wrong as a jackhammer on a holiday, and we find ourselves agreeing with Kristen Hoggatt, over at The Smart Set: “…come on, poets, let’s get off our high horses….”
But whether he’s on a high horse or a low one, isn’t lyrical poetry what Billy Collins writes? But Collins isn’t the first critic who would close the sacred canon’s door to songs – Leslie Fiedler opened that door in Liberations (1971), his delayed thesis of “The Children’s Hour” the right trap for those waxing pedantically like Collins, but, alas, the door keeps banging open and shut, in spite of Fiedler’s attempt to nail it open: “…downright contradictory notions of what poetry is or ought to be…stated…by different spokesmen to different audiences, existing in mutual ignorance or contempt of each other.” And to what end? For what Fiedler values, which he makes clear at the end of his essay, is “…remembering…as if there were ever a time when, at the levels touched by song, we were any of us anything else [young].” For it’s the song that we remember, and the song allows for poetry.
Yet there’s more to song lyrics than what we hear in popular rock music. Does Billy Collins also think that Noel Coward “is not a poet in any sense of the word”? Or Hoagy Carmichael? Or Johnny Mercer? Woody Guthrie? And what of the libretto?
But to Billy’s point that “lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,” as Fiedler illustrated, almost embarrassingly, poetry began in song, so, yes, exactly so, as so much of today’s poetry is also separated from its music, from its musical source, and, where there is no music, it continues to be argued, there is no poetry. How can Billy remain so malinformed? For we’ve been canonizing non-literary systems for some time now, in literature and in art, and, increasingly, though not soon enough, in religion. Consider this, for example, from 1991, by Rakefet Sheffy (Tel-Aviv University) already nearly 20 years old, but right on: “The Case of the Modern American Popular Song and its Contact with Poetry”: “Once the artistry of songwriting was recognized in literary terms, a canon of popular song began to be reconstructed in various ways, for example by reconsidering antecedent non-literary texts, issuing lyrics in book form, writing the history of the popular song, exploring and documenting its forms and styles, and institutionalizing its own criticism. Consequently, a whole body of cultural elements, which up to that moment were considered trivial, worthless or subversive, came to be regarded as a legitimate repertory available also to avant-gardist songwriters, this time, however, regardless of their initial ideological background or their affiliations with the literary system.”
Come back to the raft, Billy, we got a song for ya. But you have to sing it – it’s a dose of orality.
See also prior post referencing Fiedler and the either/or poetry definition fallacy here.
“Skylark,” music by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, has been covered by many artitists (e.g. K. D. Lang in the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).