Friday, September 11, 2009

Music and poetry

I have this ongoing conversation with my students about how pop music, my great love, doesn't contain many lyrics that stand on their own as poetry. I try to explain how song lyrics sometimes seem more persuasive or more artful than they actually are, because they have the communicative scaffolding of the music to supplement the lack of precision etc in their words.

Still, I aspire to the transportive expressivities of music.

Tonight I listened to two songs whose effects I covet completely. "This Tornado Loves You" by Neko Case (whose strategies of perspective would fit very nicely in the collection I'm working on now) and "Soft Dangerous Shores" by Chris Whitley. In the case of Case, the lyrics actually achieve moments of poetic clarity and precision: "Smashed every transformer with every trailer," as a line of poetry, offers a model of balance and variation, cadence and detail, and compressed force. But these moments cannot be sustained over the entirety of the song, nor should we expect them to be, because the music is there to guide our response, to ensure that we attend to the right beats, the right emphases, the right nuances of tone.

The lyrics of the Whitley song are largely impressionistic, and would make for a disappointing and disjointed read as a poem. But that wave of sound that rises up on both sides of the head above Whitley's murmur-growl....Sheesh! I know exactly what my body is supposed to feel about those lyrics even if I don't know what, exactly, they denote.

I would give all ten fingernails to be able to reproduce in language alone what these songs manage to communicate in four bars. Poetry, poetry, you are such a frustrating gig: all compensation and recuperation, all the time.

1 comment:

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Interestingly, I was a music major in my undergrad years because I was so moved by the combination of music and meaningful lyrics. In the end, though, I burned out on music and still loved words. So I went back to school for a master's in English. The rest is history.

However, when I was on the job market last year, I was asked about interdisciplinary classes I'd be interested in teaching, and I said that I would love to teach a music and lyrics class. That gained some interest from the people who interviewed me -- I mean, not enough to hire me, but they seemed surprisingly enthusiastic. (That particular job lost funding. So it goes...)