Saturday, May 08, 2010

People say you shouldn't take your soul all that seriously. Disconnect your brain when the heart wants to travel its own path, and stop all the fantastic dreams of hope and promise. I dislike the flippancy, the disregard for meaning that this view is based on. But that doesn't mean it doesn't make a valid point. Case in point, well, you. Like I said, I really don't perceive any limits to my emotion, and so if you wanted - if you wanted - I'd gladly keep going down the same road. But maybe this is all jumping ahead of myself. There is merit in leaving the drinking songs and scarlet letters aside for the moment, and just talking. Let's see.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Revisiting the issue of my attempts at verse, I think part of the reason for my struggle with this form is that my real source of inspiration is songwriting rather than classical poetry. I've previously attempted to resolve the two cultures of these forms, but with no answer more definitive than the Xgau aphorism "poems are meant to be read, songs to be sung". But this is not the focus of the current post. I'm instead interested in considering why I don't write song lyrics in the first place.

First, poetry. I do love it, but it'd be disingenuous of me to claim I've pursued this love to the same extent as I have with songwriting. The latter is a full-blown obsession, as is no doubt apparent from my writing on this blog. So why try writing poetry? Indeed, it's patently clear to me that I don't have the talent, nor the patience, to pursue anything so delicately structured; but I do it anyway! I've certainly thought about writing a lyric that could accompany music. But dissecting lyrics, I find aspects* that I feel bashful at attempting. The use of a chorus, for example, feels quite natural when the words are sung, but on the page it almost feels like a cop-out. And throwing into casual terms like "baby"? Not in this lifetime! (How does Nick Cave manage it? ;-)) What's happening in this regard, I think, is that my medium of expression is all wrong. It seems that when composing lyrics, one really needs music to be involved at some stage. (Don't know how Robert Hunter wrote his verses, mind.) Not only because a melodic line may well suggest a written one, but because the mere act of projecting the words into music protects them. Couched in safety, then one can focus on getting emotion across with the combination of the two. In contrast, when the writing on the page is all you have, it's only natural to treat the work as an attempt at a poem, and judge it in these terms. This gets back (despite my promise of trying to avoid it) to the issue of what is different between a good lyric and a good poem. By its nature, the lyric only makes sense in the context of the accompanying music.

My attempts, then, are poetry with very modest goals (met even more modestly ;-)). Till I get around to learning an instrument, I suppose it will stay that way. (Which I could've told you at the start of this post, but I do like musing on such matters.) But I do believe that it is very much possible to improve in the niche area I've found comfortable writing in. Good poetry and good songwriting do teach me a common lesson: it's not enough to rely on a single feeling, or a single experience. Weaving something grander requires having something grander to work with. All ways of saying: life before art!

* One can very reasonably ask why the aspects of songwriting I mentioned are tied with the form; there's certainly no rule that says one's beloved be referred to more colloquially in a song than in a poem. So what stops you from avoiding these ornaments? Nothing, really. Except that it doesn't address the basic problem: "baby", for example, sounds quite alright to my ears when sung. The fact that it reads awkwardly is no surprise. By replacing it with something more Keats-ian is fine, but moves the lyric more towards a poem. So why not just write a poem rather than a song?

Indeed, it's not clear to me that lyrics tightened on the page sound good when sung. When Nick started throwing around "banal" and "jejune" on his last album, I cringed. I suppose this is because it seems to me like an obvious attempt to make one's lyric more serious and literary. I know Nick's work well enough to know that he mostly believes what he writes, but if it were some new indie musician, I'd definitely write him off as misguided.