The first lesson you learn as a poet is to eschew the preformed phrase. Whatever you want to say, come up with your own way to say it; preferably it’s one that’s never been used before. I worked hard to learn that lesson; reading over some of the stuff I was writing at the end of high school, it’s almost difficult to imagine that I ever had the nerve to print pieces out, show them to people and put them up all over my dorm room. Sorry, Terrance.
But maybe I’ve been too hard on myself. Working on my discipline as a songwriter as well as a poet, I’ve always been amused by how close everyone else seems to think they are related, but how far apart they are in actual, practical usage. It’s more like the difference between swimming and scuba diving—questions of depth, equipment and training—than simply putting something down on a scribbled-out notebook and deciding arbitrarily if it’s poetry or lyric.
“I’m blazin’ a new trail / From your cold, cold heart” Luke Doucet hisses at his ex-girlfriend in one of my favorite songs off my favorite album of his. Later, he comes out and says, “I’ve got a broken heart,” about a half dozen times in a different song. This is pretty open, pretty bold to someone of my sensibility. As a poet, I’d take the same basic idea and approach it from the side, but never head-on like that. “I’ve got a broken heart.” Super. You and the rest of the world. Watcha gonna do about it?
Check out the video.
“I sang a love song for you
alone in the city. And it seems I felt
sorry you didn’t have a chance
to stretch silence thin with harmonies
blowing in the trees. And it seems
things can change without someone
even noticing. Maybe
sitting in that circle, holding borrowed
strings, it only felt like
I loved you. And it seems
all I ever had to give you
is gone, fast as the words
I gave up to the night.”
That’s the last section of a poem I wrote back in June called “Cooler Heads.” Actually, as an editing-process aside, I’m almost frustrated enough with it to send it out to a few magazines and call it a day. It’s not quite as on-the-nose as Luke’s take on the same feeling. As a matter of fact, I hope it’s clear the speaker of the poem’s going out of his way to avoid saying just that. But, thinking about it, is that the right way to approach such issues as a songwriter? With a poem, you’ve got pages and pages to dance around your point—you can play with that space, use the length of the piece itself as a part of the point. With a song, though, it’s different. Everything exists as a sound in a moment. Nothing sticks around to inform all the other pieces of the song.
I’m starting to see that Luke’s got it right: when you’re worrying about the guitar strapped around your neck, the stage lights, the throat infection in the summer that turned your voice all raspy and rough, it’s a little silly to put any thought into whether or not the audience got the metaphor in the second line as clearly as you want them to. The song simply has more things to pay attention to, worry about, and organize; subtle poeticism is probably just… lost, most of the time. At least both disciplines have a goal in common: honesty, authenticity, always, whether it’s presented deliberately or accidentally.
At the core, a really intense emotional response is what you’re going for when you’re writing; when writing pop music, I guess you need to paint in broad strokes to reach a wider audience. People will fill in the specifics themselves. With poetry, it’s different. You’re conveying an image in a way that’s never been thought of before, a set of concepts and ideas only accessible through the lens you give the reader. The lens itself is part of it; without that, you may as well just scream, “I’ve got a broken heart” on the street. At least you’ll be the loudest. Music, being much broader than poetry and made up of so many more pieces, is necessarily much less specific in its wordplay. That being said, I feel like Luke Doucet circa 2005 and I circa six months ago had a lot in common. And I guess if he can make me feel like that, he’s doing a damn good job, whether as songwriter or poet.
Little red wagon’s got a broken wheel / So long.