Parallel Lines and Power Chords: A Meditative ABC on Rock & Roll and Poetic Composition
"The power of music that poetry lacks is the ability to persuade without argument." —William Matthews
A then, is for "Are," as in, Are you sure that's rock? In this essay you'll find references to Jazz; there's Pop on the way, too, and some folks you might call Folk. There's going to be some Hip-Hop as well. This blurring of boundaries, I think, is essential. Pound's trinity of pattern-expectation-surprise fits many a form, and rock, in terms of expression and influence, is no exception. Think of it as a genre of confluence, one big kick-ass prose-poem. Country, R&B, and Soul are all part of the pantheon, either through influence or inclusion or bald theft. I think of The Bad Plus, my new favorite Jazz trio, deft musicians all, original composers and pure fans of music, evident in works that pay homage to both jazz and rock greats. Listen to their versions of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," Blondie's "Heart of Glass," or the Pixies' "Velouria," and enjoy the art of genre blur.
I suppose it's time to confess that I grew up listening to Fusion, that odd and much maligned amalgam of jazz and rock: think Miles Davis, Jeff Beck, Weather Report, Bill Bruford, Stanley Clarke, and even some of the pre-Grammy Carlos Santana. Purists might label Fusion as reverie with a pulse, but I liked its middle ground, its associative, lyric-less space ripe with a rock-bite and the modal improvisations of jazz. I appreciated the lack of language; even at 13 I knew that white space speaks louder than forced text. And I could even begin to put language in those spaces. Even today, when it comes to playing music as I write, I find that more ambient fusions of hip-hop, jazz, rock, pop, and r&b can allow me to enter a zone where music generates mood that influences language. Galaxie 500. Kruder and Dorfmeister. Morecheeba. Sterolab. Yo La Tengo. These bands are clearly very distant cousins of Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. But even the classic rock pantheon has its influences. Zep's "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "Going to California"; U2's "Bad" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"; and the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For the Devil" and "No Expectations" haven't directly led to poems, but they generate an ambiance that parallels the gut-check immersions of composition, of moods ripe for language.
A is also for AC/DC: Specifically, their LP Back in Black. Some call the music derivative and the lyrics juvenile—"So don't worry about tomorrow / Take it today / Forget about the cheque / We'll get Hell to pay" —but I love it; At 13, Angus Young and Clearasil were my best friends. Who can forget "You Shook Me All Night Long"? Is it way out of line to talk about the alternating power cord opening of 7 licks, 6 licks, 7 licks as somewhat reminiscent of Emily Dickinson and hymn meter? I like to imagine that somewhere in Amherst there's a teen listening to her iPod and finding something heavenly in "Hell's Bells."
B is for Blues. Blues—tonic in line 1, subdominant and tonic in line 2, dominant and tonic in line 3. Precursor. Papa Legba on the crossroads of Highways 8 and 61 in Mississippi. Let the man tune your guitar; he'll give it back and ask you to play. You might lose your soul but you'll have game. Donald Hall's comment—that poetry's main task might be the embodiment of disparate feeling—suggests the Blues: lyrics of lament can in their shells have a heart that beats simultaneously angry and proud, crushed yet hopeful. Skip James. Willie Dixon. J. B. Lenoir.
Famous Bees—a nod to James Brown, professor of the primal, head-facilitator of funk. A nod to David Bowie as well. Many a suburban child went from Sesame Street to Tolkien to Star Wars to find alternative universes, but here was a living and breathing paragon of teenage alterity. We made room for a Martian singing about Ziggy, and we were better for it.
C is for cadence—Phrase endings in music replicate clauses or phrases in language...a phrase ending is called a "cadence" (Italian for drop or fall) and I'm curious about how that translates to poetry, where the line—end-stopped or enjambed—doesn't necessarily match the syntax of the sentence. I wonder if one of the reasons why song lyrics don't often seem to "match up" to good poems is this very sense of the line and the sentence...does the music inevitably enjamb more seamlessly than the line? The line resembles the bar in music; William Matthews reminds us that the bar is a useful tool for musical notation and analysis, but, like the foot in prosody, it doesn't occur in nature. We compose by phrase in both realms, and yet in song the music tends to bleed beyond the language: notes and phrases can enjamb even if the lyrical line is end-stopped, which might explain why some lyrics, when stripped of their excellent musical clothes, reveal nothing but heavy-handed end-rhyme. (Think Cat-in-the-Hat, or, for Adam Sandler fans, of what I call the "Happy Gilmore Syndrome"—per the angry, sing-song exchange of rhyming imperatives in a golf clubhouse.) It's the rhythm and not the words that usually drives communication.
Think of the frenetic vivace instrumental burst in Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same," followed by the adagio lyrics, arriving at:
California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain,
Honolulu starlight—the song remains the same.
Monster rhyme? Not quite. Of interest: the musical bar hasn't yet ended when we get to rain, and again for same. That tension between bar and line—which is aural and not discernible on the page alone—is perhaps the musical equivalency of the tension poetry generates between line and the syntactical laws of grammar, the sentence-sense of a poem.
C is also for the conditional—or perhaps I should stress a kind of conditional: The Subjunctive Mood, which can communicate contingent or hypothetical action (as well as present grammatically subordinate statements). Rock and pop, with their major and minor atmospheres, often speak about potentials, about what-ifs. Listen again to Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love" and note its roster of hypotheticals—Ifs, What-I-would-Dos, If-I-coulds, etc. Such conditionals strike me as a common denominator of rock and pop and poetry. The subjunctive accommodates possibility, the hypothetical, the imagined. Conditionals led me to fall in love with pop music first and Wallace Stevens soon afterwards.
D is for Nick Drake, whose guitar work was brilliantly confident even while his lyrics, as James Owens writes in The Rough Guide to Rock, suggest that you're "watching someone shape up for a dive into an empty pool." Listen to the first 10 seconds of "Cello Song" or "Hazey Jane" and fall in love with Drake's nimble picking. Beautiful voice, too: soft, wise, understated. A voice I'd like to have in my work. The more obvious and overstated D would be Dylan. Hasn't enough been said? The plethora of sincere if sometimes-mawkish proclamations about his lyrics-as-poetry might rival the page count of the Upanishads.
E is for "ending." I'm always a sucker for the long, extended, reflective, meditative jam at the end of a song that swells towards a conclusion, simultaneously meditative and edgy. I think of Frank Zappa's meditative solos in "Watermelon in Easter Hay" from his crazily operatic Joe's Garage, or Talk Talk on their album Laughing Stock, or any number of narratives ("Telegraph Road" comes to mind) by Dire Straits. Perhaps my personal favorite: the Pixies' "No. 13 baby" on their Doolittle release. It fronts the edgy lyricism of petulantly savvy Black Francis and ends in a satisfying feast of surf guitar rhythms, Kim Deal's pulsing bass, and a sharp Joey Santiago solo that fades off into the songset—put on the 11th cut and take note when the song hits the two-minute mark—the next minute and 50 seconds are exponential bliss. Download Tom Petty's song "It's Good to be King" and wait out its simple lyrics until the melancholy pop slides into something ethereal. The tension between beauty and power and the more tentative or reflective creeping out into new territory inspire a kind of reverie, a poetic dreaming.
F is for fragment, our cultural bellwether. Find it in the sound bite, the jump cut, the sample, the appropriated image or text: "A glimpse suffices to trigger an entirety," says Cole Swenson.
I've taught with Ann Carson's collection of Sappho's fragments (If Not, Winter), asking students to generate their own language within the bracketed spaces, indications where missing papyrus once housed language—letting them use the Sapphic fragments as springboards to work of their own. The work of discernible fragments and gaps rife with potential for play reminds me of listening to Rock as a child. In singing along or deciphering, fragments and snatches were the order of the day, with mistakes and missteps de rigueur. Echoing the compilation of misheard song lyrics, 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, I remember how a friend once thought that the refrain in the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" was "Take the back right turn." I've always loved the space to play off of a text, and Sappho's fragments remind me how Rock lyrics, in drips and drabs, clear or garbled, can also generate a play space for language. Speaking of play space and the letter F, let us praise funk—as in Parliament, as in George Clinton. Funk with bagpipes and strings? Oh, yes.
G is for Peter Gabriel and his range. The poets I've always admired have had signature sounds yet have pushed the envelope by exploring new directions and stylistic conceits. Lowell comes to mind. More recently, poets like Charles Wright and Larry Levis moved from spare lyricism to more discursive and exploratory forms as their careers progressed. Think of Jorie Graham's work with its metaphysical, epistemological, and syntactical concerns—how her restless explorations of phenomena, its requisite sensory experience, and philosophical discursiveness have formally progressed, from book to book, as she recalibrates how the lyric can capably communicate. Gabriel's journey as musician and songwriter features great songs but also a great arc. Genesis, the band he co-founded, was all about theatrics and storytelling early on. As Gabriel moved into a solo career, the work became more introspective and confessional. World music made its mark on his work later still, with Indonesian and Senegalese influences, to name two. And along the way, he didn't forget how to pen a purely enjoyable pop song (e.g., "Sledgehammer").
H is for Hip-Hop, which has captivated listeners as much (if not more) as rock has in the last decade. I'm a little old-school, but A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul strike me as highly literate and highly polyphonic influences all about mixing, melding, and blending. Sometimes I teach lessons that juxtapose the aural music of the anonymous 14th century poem "Alysoun" with that of Quest lyrics, specifically "Excursions" or "Check the Rhime" from The Low-End Theory. Textual euphony as layers of sound.
I is for interstate, the one that travels back and forth between investigation & identification. Interstate suggests Springsteen. I love the sheer wind-in-the-hair joy that "Born to Run" or "Jungle Land" induce—but I'm more fond of Nebraska. A Moody boy, I'll take my minor-key melancholy with me for snack just about anywhere. I like his identification songs, but his laments seem more keen on investigation.
Music and poetics that invite investigation as opposed to declaring identification have always been somewhat more attractive to me, but perhaps not as a teenager. Investigation might very well lead to identification, but without the former, without the cerebral play of a Stevens or the musical play of a Zappa, I feel we're not meeting our potential as souls and sprits, as well as bodies.
If approaching the ineffable or unspeakable are our best ambitions for language, then what we are talking about is desire, hunting, and seeking. Music tends to do that hunting for us far more successfully than language. If you take away the bells and the background pulsation of "Born to Run," the lyrics aren't that moving, are they? But the primal yell in the song, now that's another story. It still gives me the chills—pent-up desire crackling over the airwaves! I'd like to yell like that in a poem or two.
J is for Jude, as in "Hey Jude," a seminal musical memory. I had a little red record player as a child, and I remember playing my little 45 with the half apple on its label: the single was "Hey, Jude." It was an early lesson in the metaphysics of transcendence, the building and layering of melody and pitch so that coming to terms with something large and unwieldy might be met with good feeling, a rising of sorts. Take a sad song and make it better. The song was also my first lesson in enjambment and its ability to sonorously mitigate any threat of juvenile, end-stopped rhyme (see C, above). I remember being distinctly aware of end rhymes, but the music literally didn't stop at the end of the line; here was language with rhyme that simultaneously conveyed a layered, subtle sentence-sense.
K —dare I follow the Beatles with a reference to Kiss? A friend gave me a copy of DoublePlatinum in college and it was like reuniting with a long-lost love. "God of Thunder." "Cold Gin." "Detroit, Rock City." Oh, my. And perhaps there's no more humorous a piece of cover art than Love Gun. Those boots! Those ladies!
Let L stand for Los Lobos, whom I first heard live in 1984 in a chapel at Oberlin College. Complex, as in fine wine, is there a voice more lovely or ballad-appropriate than David Hidalgo's? And after you've shed a tear or two, can any band rock out as well? Again, range is huge aesthetic plus—Pound's dictum of "make it new" as measured in all sorts of eclectic influence: traditional Mexican songs, folk, 50s rock. Just Another Band from East L.A. is seminal.
M is for Major and Minor. As Richard Hugo, for fun in The Triggering Town, once categorized American poets as belonging to the Faulknerian camp of Snopes (an outsider who desperately wants in) or the Hemingway camp of Krebs (an insider by birth who feels like an outsider), we might use two musical distinctions to talk about general modes of poetic expression:
Major mode: essential affirmative and optimistic.
Minor mode: more melancholy and pessimistic.
Wedding revelers avoid the latter and embrace the former; mourners reverse the equation. Try Chopin's funeral march in major mode or Wagner's wedding march in minor mode and you end up with comic relief that Frank Zappa would love.
M is also for metaphor and Elvis Costello's This Year's Model : "little triggers on your lips...."
Isn't metaphor a physical form of conditional grammar, a simultaneous moving away-from and toward? I borrow heavily here from a Tony Hoagland essay about Larry Levis in the winter 2001 Gettysburg Review. Metaphor is all about utility and equivalences, but it can contain rapture as well. It is a way to fly from reality, from what is right here, and it is also a way to cozy up to reality with more authority. Paradoxical, to be sure, but as Hoagland suggests, perfectly fitting for us as beings of both matter and spirit. So, too, with Rock—sometimes it's power and flight; sometimes it's cozying up.
N courtesy of Keats, is for negative capability—mysteries and doubts sans the irritable reaching after fact and reason. Sometimes it helps to listen to Rock this way. Are the lyrics inane? There's still voice conveying attitude. Are the lyrics indecipherable? There's still voice conveying presence. The gravel of Tom Waits, the banshee Janice Joplin. Then there's a band like Sigur Rós: imagine, simultaneously, a tempo that invokes molasses and voices that suggest the Northern Lights. Their songs feature lyrics in "hopelandic"—an invented language. Words? Instruments? Sound. Materiality unfolding. Process as presence. Poems?
Cole Swenson reminds us that Negative Capability is also "associated with a capacity for empathy and with a lack of self-consciousness." One certainly finds empathy in the narratives of Springsteen and Billy Bragg. As for a lack of self-consciousness, I'm not sure if The Smiths or Van Halen apply.
O is for Objective Correlative. Eliot's baby—the idea that objects/situations/chains of events can serve as formulae for particular emotions—has musical relevance, too. Music has objective correlatives all its own—major and minor keys, shifts, and individual instruments. The piccolo and the double bass. Fender Rhodes and a Stratocaster with a whammy bar. Different languages.
We can love what is satisfyingly spare (Lorine Niedecker); we can love (Frank O'Hara) what is deliciously baroque. P is for his royal purple-ness, Prince. We might eschew the purple from our prose and our poems, but leave it on the dance floor. I have one word for you: "Housequake."
I'd be remiss if I left out The Police, too: Is there any better lament than "The Bed's Too Big Without You"? In homage to what is lovely if naive, I must admit that my high-school sweetheart and I called "Every Breath You Take" our song. We didn't really pick up on the song's creepy aspects back then, but so what. I still hear it and feel what first love felt like.
Q is for Queen, purveyors of sport-anthem standards "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions." A success of synthesis: a terrific stadium band of well-documented concert flair with a sound borne of studio wizardry: vocal layering, multi-track guitars, etc. Such complexity mirrors a poetic goal—to have work that reads thoughtfully well on the page and comes across as musically adept out loud. Studio versions and live versions.
Q is also for Quo, borne out of Berryman. He is my poetic project, a lover of quotidian things who struggles with his status quo; he wants to make a manuscript of himself. He hopes that change will come through contemplation, music that can steep in the quotidian and then transcend it.
R is for reverie, that beautiful dreaming sometimes brought on by the low pressure of music, a state in which I like to compose poems. Bachelard calls poetic reverie an opening to a beautiful world and reminds us that "the word lives syllable by syllable, in danger of internal reveries". I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins and of Sylvia Plath, influential musicians whose lyricism rocks me from syllable to luscious syllable. But the reverie, too—that's key. The space to dream, the space to compose. I need something part Serge Gainsbourge, part Booker T and the MGs, to make mood and make space for language.
S is for Schopenhauer, who suggested that all other arts aspire to the condition of music. Poet Hayden Carruth suggested that Schopenhauer should have said, "ought to aspire."
T is for teenager and tension. William Matthews talks about what music means for a teenager: it "forms a screen between yourself and those parts of the world that you would like to keep at a distance." I'd add: or at least would like to approach on alternative terms. Tension is a matter of balancing such terms. Philip Guston knew a painting was finished when he came to that point where any further act would be experienced as a diminishment of that tension.
Musically, My Bloody Valentine comes to mind: In their 1990 release, Loveless, their songs are dominated by what sounds like distortion and feedback—loops of it. The simultaneously smoky and feminine lyrics of Kevin Shields and Belinda Butcher add something pretty to the mix and generate a palpable balance between consonance and dissonance, between the murky haze of distortion and the melodic hooks that begin to emerge out of the fog. Those simple melodic hooks work the foreground and render a terrific study in layered textures. (Listen to cuts 1, 2, and 6: "Only Shallow," "Loomer," and "I Only Said"). I think that's something I can say I'm after in my work—I want music, I want referentiality, but I want those tensions, too—what's simultaneously present and a little bit peripheral, power chords and reverie, metaphors on the interstate between presence and absence.
In my own personal pantheon, U is for Ultra-Vivid Scene, but have you heard of them? Let's say U2, then. Rock has as its bedrock a sense of protest, a sense of coming-of-age, but until I heard War in 1983 I had made few conscious links between voices that were musical and those that were political. It didn't hurt that it was a rocking, good album, either. My political coming of age in the Reagan 80s was shaped by LPs like War and Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. Even then I could discern the difference between Bono's pre- and post-song prattle about the band's songs vs. listening to the actual music; even then I could hear the ironies and frustration in Springsteen's album while it was used as blind party jingoism. Politics, then, in its own realm of human relations, and in both good music and good poetry, is complex, far from simplistic or black and white. What is partisan is not what is political. Find, if you can, one of my favorite political poems which was written, I believe, in the same era: Stephen Dobyns' "In a Row."
Poetically and musically, V is for Voice. In a poem, tone of voice—as influenced by diction, syntax, music, figuration, and lineation—can establish the presence of particular thought and feeling. It's not hard to distinguish the respective voices of Amiri Baraka and Mary Oliver. Voice, in Rock, also delivers attitude (from angry rant to contrite lament) and more generally serves as an identifying signature. I'm fond of Van Halen's "Running with the Devil" and the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," and it's not hard to differentiate the two. Think of Geddy Lee, lead singer for Rush, whose high registers polarize listeners. Try to imagine a Rush song without him and you can see why Rush numbers rarely shine on the Karaoke stage. Think, too, of the Rolling Stones and their signature flavors: Jagger's wail and Richard's rasp of "But I just can't seem to drink her off my mind" in "Honky Tonk Woman" provide notation that's just as crucial as the song's signature between-line guitar licks.
The first announcement that a lyric poem often makes is the credible presence of a speaking voice, an assurance of personhood, as Alan Grossman might say. I don't know that good music makes me feel that way—other than that I can identify the difference between Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music and Dean Warham of Luna.
The Who supposedly took their name from a conversation with a club manager. Told that the band was called The Detours, he responded, "The who?" And so came the band that brought us the bubbly sneer of protest better known as "My Generation." I loved the song, even if I never signed on to the sentiment of "hope I die before I get old." Still, I was blown over by the rock-opera Tommy, and I secretly loved the dark glee with which Pete smashed his guitars and Keith kicked over his drum sets. It wasn't like anything I'd found in my 9th grade poetry anthology, to be sure.
X is the last letter in Stax, the classic soul label in a grittier vein, the flip-side of Motown's somewhat more slick sound. If you haven't ever, listen to Otis Redding "Try a Little Tenderness." Three minutes and 51 seconds of beauty and salt.
I've been a fan of Y , for Yo La Tengo, since the mid-80s after seeing them at The Bottom Line in New York. Ira and Georgia look like people I went to college with. My best friend's first dance at his wedding was the tender "Our Way to Fall" from the disc And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. There's something comfortable and familiar about them on stage and in the mood of their music. Poetic parallels? Lowell once talked about the "raw" and the "cooked" in the poetry, and the adjectives are frequently evoked to draw a black-and-white binary categorizing poetry that is either formal or unrestrained in its music and structure. That said, I think of Yo La as a band that likes to break down the distinction as it applies to rock—the hard rocking of reverb guitar vs. the soft, subtle ballad. Their balance of raw and cooked is so great because even when they're cooked, they're a little raw. Let's say rare as opposed to well done. Isn't that what we love in our art?
Finally, Z is for Led Zeppelin. What can I say? One of the most formative imaginative periods of my life was listening to Physical Graffiti and reading T. H. White's "The Once and Future King"—It was like taking mushrooms as an 11-year-old. Hearing the lyrics of "Kashmir" (e.g. "I am a traveler of both time and space") while simultaneously reading about Merlin taking the young Arthur for a world-wide spin—as owls, if I remember correctly—was as close to a harmonic convergence as I've ever experienced. I still, to this day, play the 2:06 guitar solo that is "Bron-Y-Aur" at least three or four times before I move on to the next track. This Rock was all about shape shifting and metamorphosis. In The Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard says that reverie helps us descend so deeply within ourselves that we're liberated from our names, rid of our history. A stage is cleared for the conditional, and the combination of erasure and potential strikes me as distinctly teenager-ish.
Houses of the Holy remains my favorite Zeppelin album. The new-age prescient "Rain Song," the folksy strains of "Over the Hills and Far Away," with its break-out into heavy bass-and-chord rock. The funk of the "The Crunge," which ends with the question, "Where's that confounded Bridge?" That bridge is what makes this album seminal for me. We know the influences on rock—Country-Western, Blues, R&B—and I love how this album bounces around from influence to influence, from ballad, to blast, to blues. Does it rock more than the two albums that sandwich it, the best-sellers Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti? No. But it's still my favorite. The "radical innocence" that Yeats talks about in poetry—I find it every time I listen to "Dancing Days."
I should have seen the convergence of poetry and rock and roll coming. I grew up in a town that has one of the loveliest local libraries I've ever seen. One Friday evening when I was fifteen, I decided to take in my first screening at the library's film series. Had I suddenly entered into a more cultured state of development? Hardly. I went to see Led Zeppelin's movie, "The Song Remains The Same." Our library was named after William Cullen Bryant, a poet and journalist who laid the foundation for the reading room and lecture hall in 1874. Bryant was famous for his 19th century poem "Thanatopsis," which translates as a "meditation on death." Thanatopsis is what the library's board members must have performed as they considered the fate of the librarian who had put the film on the schedule. It was bedlam. The library's sound system was more suited to Bergman than to drummer John Bonham, and the richly paneled interiors were not meant to house a mob of unruly teens. The librarians didn't know what hit them. As for me, I had arrived. Here was concert footage of country and blues with an exponential pulse, all in the house of a poet.