Sunday, November 16, 2008

Booby's the Best Musician-Poet in the World, Now?

Huh? What's up with that lit-shit? I tried to leave a comment to set Billy Collins straight; but, The Times didn't consider it of a quality to match Mr. Collins, I guess . . . C'mon, gimme a brick (from the Berlin Wall, even) . . .

Mr. Collins asserts "the top spot" on that "poet-musician" slot belongs to Mr. Dylan (a.k.a. The Beatnik Bard); however, I brag to differ: It abso-deffo belongs to Leonard Cohen, a fact which posterity shall most assuredly confirm. "Hallelujah!" (But, lovely piece, glerror notwithstanding nor worth taking down-sitting.)

Guess "Democracy" still ain't hit the good ol' US, eh?

p.s. I challenge anybody to prove otherwise to me; and, if they can so do, I will gladly gift them with my secret decoder Leo ring, the gold one with the interlocking unified hearts he so loves. Do you wanna make a deal?
p.p.s. He dated my BFF in uni; and, he was awful to her, ICK!
p.p.p.s. Before he achieved the stardom after which he always lusted? He [allegedly] stole another friend's guitar, a Martin D-28 [allegedly], no less, the [alleged] creep . . .
p.p.p.p.s. He spawned SpringSprung. EEK! I rest my case


  1. Yep, Cohen rocks. Well, actually I guess that's the wrong term. A funny memory I have is back in '74, the kids in the family I lived with during a semester in Florence were listening to a record that sounded familiar––wait a sec, that's Leonard Cohen. These two didn't understand a word of English. Now there is one circumstance where I would have thought Dylan would be preferable, as Cohen doing Cohen wasn't exactly melodic, but, hey, at least I had a break from the 50s style love/broken heart ditties popular in Italy at the time.

  2. I knew you were a dame of superior taste and exquisite fancies, Nannette. No wonder I like you so more than ever :)!

  3. Hi Judith,

    Billy Collins says this in the article:

    Whenever the question comes up--and it does nearly every term--of whether or not rock lyrics qualify as poetry, I offer my students a simple but heartless test. Ask all the musicians to please leave the stage and take their instruments with them--yes, that goes for the backup singers in the tight satin dresses, and the drummer--and then have the lead singer stand alone by the microphone and read the lyrics from that piece of paper he is holding in his hand. What you will hear can leave only one impression: the lyrics in almost every case are not poetry, they are lyrics. Some are good lyrics (A Whiter Shade of Pale), others not so good (Hats Off to Larry), but certainly lines like “Come on, baby, light my fire,” repeated many times, do not, and were never meant to, hold up on their own. Of course, then it’s time to mention the few exceptions, and the top spot on that short list is perennially reserved for Bob Dylan.

    The hurdle that Billy Collins leaps successfully, is to define what poetry is, to pick a definition, that if we take all the musicians away, take the singing away, would a song's lyrics fly as a poem? If so, then it can be a poem. The conflation happens, because there is a broader definition of poetry that is inclusive of music, painting, architecture, and so forth, even athletics, the poetry that makes these arts rise to the major league level of fine art. In this broader definition, is Bob Dylan the singer-songwriter a poet? Yes, a great "poet." But in this sense, so was Jimi Hendrix, so was Frank Lloyd Wright, so was Muhammad Ali in his day.

    "Oh," the objection might come, "but Bob Dylan infused music with the poetry he studied, bringing poetry to songwriting and performing." This attitude affirms a category of songwriter/poets that would include Leonard Cohen, but also John Lennon, Eminem, and let's add in Joni Mitchell for Camille Paglia's sake.

    This morning, I was listening to John Lee Hooker, and specific to this topic, I'm Bad Like Jesse James. As does Eminem in his award-winning song Lose Yourself, Hooker does far more talking than singing. However, these songs do not pass Billy Collins' test, that the musicians cannot leave the stage. The lyrics are not poems. It occurred to me while enjoying Hooker's music, that a poet could only listen blues lyrics, great blues lyrics and have as his greatest influence for poetry, not Billy Collins, but John Lee Hooker. Such a poet could certainly become a great blues poet. But without the music, never a great blues songwriter. Just because an artist is highly influenced by a genre, does not make his work part of that genre, even if the influence is unmistakable.

    Let's flip the coin, and ask if a major league poem can become a major league song. We ask this, because it could be that often enough, Bob Dylan writes words first and then renders them into song. The answer is: sure, why not? For instance, the great Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt has rendered William Butler Yeats poems into song, for instance The Stolen Child and The Two Trees. The result, however, is that we have a poem that when we read it, we readily accept it in words and, peculiarly enough, a song that is a different work of art altogether. The problem we have, though, is when we subtract the musicians and, if there is any, the singing from the lyrics of Eminem and John Lee Hooker, we do not have a major league poem left. That a poem would not come of this exercise, major league or not, applies with scant exception to Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Joni Mitchell.

    So I agree with Billy Collins as far as he goes: "What you will hear can leave only one impression: the lyrics in almost every case are not poetry, they are lyrics." But take his point one step further to ask would Bob Dylan's poetry, never rendered into song, be accepted as well as his music, or at least in the same league as Billy Collin's poetry. We know. for instance, that E.E. Cummings was a great poet, but also an artist, a painter. Are Bob Dylan's poems as good as E.E. Cummings' paintings? I don't think so. He may be technically good at poetry, with a certain style and studied ability, but Bob Dylan is a songwriter primarily, not quite the switch hitter. Indeed, his body of poetry is most important because he is a most important singer-songwriter. Pablo Picasso was a poet too, technically very good. But great poetry goes beyond the technical mastery. As heavily as we read Picasso's and Dylan's poetry, we do so because of their greatness in their primary art forms. They would surely be quite minor poets if it weren't for the fact that they were two of the most important artists of the last century.

    Bob Dylan is not a true switch hitter, in the sense that he could get up to bat in the major leagues of art swinging from either side, from both songwriting and from poetry. Yes, he writes in the minor leagues like so many excellent writers, but not the major leagues. E. E. Cummings probably defines the cusp at which someone becomes a major league switch hitter of the arts. Although his art is not as great as Picasso's, not everyone can approach being the very best. Indeed, Cummings' poetry is not as great as Picasso's painting. Picasso, like Bob Dylan, is not a major league switch hitter either. And we can accept that, a little easier because the words don't get in the way of our judgment.

    In this sense, however, Leonard Cohen is a major league switch hitter. His poetry may not be as good as Billy Collins' or E.E. Cummings', but oddly enough some would make the case that this assertion is not so. His poems make his case, without the argument necessary for Bob Dylan's case: Leonard Cohen: poems.


  4. STANDING O, RUS; and, now that I have had time to digest what both Nannette and yourself have written, I doubt there's much I could add to the air-tight arguments you tender, one by way of demonstration, the other by way of explication. Thank you; and, I think, Nannette, that in your terms, one could say the same thing concerning Jacques Brel's recorded compositions (or, come to think of it, Nick Cave's or Guy Clark's).

    Yes, you'd expect to hear BD in that context; and, I did hear that nasally twingeing voice all over Europe / Africa / Asia during my first two visits as a rudent during the late sixties / early seventies (from Spain to Sweden to the Sahara). Him and Cat Stevens nearly swathed each country (although I didn't go to Turkey; I had been warned).

    Interestingly, when I returned for the last visit during the mid-nineties, I *only* heard LC, most likely because he'd just released his Live CD (produced and engineered by Leanne Ungar who, BTW, also worked with Manhattan Transfer).

    At the time, The Future had already become part of Europe's musical currency while the Live album had just hit frontracks; and, both the cassette and the CD dominated every carrefour and general corner store in France. What a thrill; and, even more thrilling, IMO? My students all owned it, too; thus, no matter where I went — and, I did go to all their villas for dinner — that distinctive gravelly drivelly baritone enveloped listeners loudly and proudly).

    He rocks, Nannette; last year, his induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fave proved it, right? I thought him better suited to becoming a member of the Grand Ol' Opry; but, truly, his work transcends narrow formatics, as we who love it know.

    Rus? I can't believe you created that argument so quickly; and, I must say, it's exactly right, right down to the switch-hitter aspect, the best argument I've heard yet.

    For most everyone else in the singer-songwriter arena — no matter how one undresses the words — they don't become poems in their own right; and, I got hell from a lot of Canadians for panning Joni Mitchell's "poetry" collection on precisely the grounds you articulate. Difference between grass and astro-turf, IMO.

    I could argue Stompin' Tom Connors is a poet, though; but, I bet even he'd disagree with me on that score ('course, he'd argue with a post if you let him).

    And, yep, truly: One could put many of our great poets' work to music without losing anything in the translation. Gerard Manley Hopkins received this treatment; and, now, I'm wondering if someone such as Frost ever did?

    I can imagine "Stopping" being done in three-quarter time, for example; however, that component always attached itself to the work of Robbie Burns or Ben Jonson. Now, I'm thinking, who's gonna tackle Keats, Milton, Browning, Whitman, and Dickinson, for random starters?

    Not me. Art Durkee, mebbe? No, I need him for the upcoming BITE Inaugural Haiku Competition (as an entrant, I mean since now, I've found the perfekk judge who knows no one here nor there and who really is learned, sensitive, and infinitely fair).

    And, JSYK, at the turn of the millennium? The Globe and Mail conducted a poll and guess who the three most influential artists of the twentieth century turned out to be?

    1. Marshall McLuhan
    2. Leonard Cohen
    3. Glenn Gould

    So, it ain't just you and it ain't just me; it's millions upon millions who agree with we. La la la la la la la la la la (name that tune) . . . LOL.

  5. Hi Judith,

    Here's an excerpt from a 2001 Boston Globe article Road is Taken to Sing Frost: Von Trapp's musical plan stirs poet's fans:

    The granddaughter of Baroness Maria von Trapp--who led her family through the mountains out of Nazi-occupied Austria--Elisabeth is the only von Trapp of her generation to emerge as a professional singer. Supporters say her sensitive soprano will illuminate and interpret Frost in a new and surprising way.

    But traditionalists--including Frost's granddaughter--say they're certain the poet would have turned a cold shoulder to von Trapp's initiative.

    "'Robert Frost disliked having poems set to music. Not because he objected to the music--he objected to what it did to the poems," said Frost's granddaughter, Lesley Francis, 69. "Frost, himself, would have objected. He would have strenuously objected."

    Here is Aesma Daeva song "Sanctus", which is an adaptation of a letter by John Keats. They also do the song, When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be, using a Keats poem as lyrics.

    Here is a conversation about Emily Dickinson's poetry set to music. But there are people making the case that most of Emily Dickinson's poems can be sung to The Yellow Rose of Texas. This would apply to the theme song to Gilligan's Island as well.

    And, on Walt Whitman, comes this tidbit from Joseph Horowirz on the American Composers Orchestra's web site:

    According to Michael Hovland's Musical Settings of American Poets, the poetry of Walt Whitman has been set to music 539 times - more than that of any other American poet with the exceptions of Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

    Some clips available here: CD Universe: To The Soul - Poetry Of Walt Whitman / Thomas Hampson CD.

    But that Longfellow point is just a great example, one of the greatest, of a poem becoming a song: Christmas Bells. And it opens the door to the discussion of poems becoming hymns, even being written to become hymns, which leads to librettos being written by poets, and given to composers to create operas.


  6. The Frost/y people mildly concern me since, there's a long and majestic tradition of setting words to music that's none-too-shabby, that form of music called opera, right? I wonder if they thought this through? The attempt to come across as elitist actually backfires and turns them into a bunch of provincials. Why do so many poets write libretti, then, too?

    (I was working on a libretto for an opera of Finnegans Wake; and, at some point in the future, may return to that project when I can afford to do so.)

    I had no idea there were over five-hundred renditions of the work of Whitman, Dickinson,; a real ear-opener. Amazing. I would think Whitman would love it; and, I do believe Longfellow's verse actually "begs" to be set to same. (LC often mines his work for allusive and thievery purposes both.)

    Of course, Rus, your summary answers my earlier question; but, I've been listening to the music and some of it I find enjoyable, some not so agreeable, I guess.

    John Cage would've done some interesting things with some of the work; but, then, he could have done some interesting thing with pizza flyers.

    Still, Philip Glass did do some interesting things with LC's poems from Book of Longing. Even there, however, purists really howled about the travestatious nature of his experiments.

    There's a long tradition of the troubadour in courtly love, etc. as well, one that seems to have been conveniently forgotten (since poetry as we now know it, the art that does exist in and of itself on the page with its own rhythmic dynamic), finds its shoots in Roman, Greek, Asian, Far-Eastern, Galician, French, and Anglo-Saxon roots (to ID but a few). I see no problem with it as a corollory to contemporary study; but, I would object to it being a replacement for same.

    Interesting aside? Once a troubadour had reached the end of his career, it was tradition for him to retire to a monastery, something LC actually did for five years (to mend de broken heart).

    You mentioned Loreena in an earlier comment and her work with Yeats is hauntingly gorgeous to the point I think it improves his stuff (but, I am not a huge fan of Yeats and never really have been. Not sure why. I like "Speech After Long Silence," often recite it to myself as a reminder that conversation does exist and is happening somewhere when I haven't spoken for several weeks on end, for example).

    Perhaps because I am songwriter and do have that catalogue as well, I am not a purist in the highest sense of the word (although I doubt I'd want my poetry to be set to music; and, conversely, I doubt I'd want my lyrics to be set up as poems, either). They are different and the approach to writing them reflects that difference, which brings us back to the fact LC's a switch hitter (and it's a booby trap to consider BD in the same class because he isn't).

    You can define the parametres to achieve that judgment; but, they're necessarily prescriptive, not descriptive; and, thus, Collins — whose work I do like very much — can make such a pronouncement within the confines of a narrow definition; but, when it comes to The Book of Eternity, he's simply reaching, IMO.

    BION, at bottom, this argument concerning whether Dylan or Cohen's the better poet of the pair generally issues from nationalistic concerns, ISTM.

    Of course, in Canada, there is one academic who actually headed up a committee to nominate Dylan for the Nobel prize in literature, a fact I found stunning and rather dismissive (especially since he's quick to jump on the LC bandwagon when it suits his CV purposes). The exception (in all senses of that word) that makes the fool.

    Did find the Hopkins poems set to music and discovered Paul Mariani, the biographer of Hopkins (most recently), had given Sean O'Leary's efforts a glowing review, FWIW.

    LC's also an artist, a brilliant novelist, and a doglover. For me, that seals it :).

  7. Hi Judith,

    Carrying on with the painter/poet tangent, here is a quote from Anthony Maulucci's recent article Poets have long explored their work through painting, wherein he discusses "the double image":

    One of my inspirations for this exercise was the work of D.G. Rossetti (1828-1882), the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter. Rossetti wrote poems about his paintings or, conversely, did paintings about his poems, as was the case with “The Blessed Damozel.” He called this process “the double image.” Here are the two opening stanzas from “The Blessed Damozel”:

    The blessed damozel leaned out
    From the gold bar of Heaven;
    Her eyes were deeper than the depth
    Of waters stilled at even;
    She had three lilies in her hand,
    And the stars in her hair were seven.
    Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
    No wrought flowers did adorn,
    But a white rose of Mary's gift,
    For a service meetly worn;
    Her hair that lay along her back
    Was yellow like ripe corn.

    Many modern poets have explored this dual process in a casual way, but many were or are practicing painters, including e.e. cummings, Eugenio Montale, Derek Walcott and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.


  8. Hrm. Now, see, the look of Maulucci? That's my idea of handsome; but, that's neither here nor theresome, ehsome?

    Terrific column, Rus, thanks! It's one I didn't know existed; but, amazing it does, at all, really.

    Of course, the corollaries and connections make perfekk sense to me. Personally, I'd never take up painting nor, for that matter, sketching; so many do it so well (and, I don't find it soothing because it bothers me I cannot do it exquisitely and excellently).

    Went looking for the Rosetti and found, along my cyberway, a sight I'd forgotten for a time (at my own peril, natch), a great 'site, Neurotic Poets (which offers the poem entire); quite the recollected I-opener; but, no repro of The Blessed Damozel; so, I went to the source, The Rosetti Archive, where I did find it.

    Strangely, think C. the better of the two Rosettis in the wings (or arms) of poetry; D.G. would abso-deffo be the better popainter, though :). BTW, do you paint (or work in other media)?

    For me, this all comes down to a point that cannot be stressed strongly enough, IMO . . .

    There are a pair of aspects integral to making a poet a great one: Not only are the great ones aural (that is, they write by ear as well as by what they hear), they're also visual, confabulating by what they see (or believe to be sightworthy). The unseen seer?

    I dunno. I do know, in one poem, adddressed to one of my best friends (who's an amazing photographer and Rhodes-Scholar philosopher), Avrum, I remember the lines, "We who see what we cannot believe / And believe what we cannot see" bears upon vision and its over-arcing intrinsic /extrinsic value in terms of both creating and appreciating poetry (for me).

    Art's the true utility infielder among us, as far as I can tell; he does it all; and, natch, he does it all insanely well. (LOL.)

    Very well, I shall wear my trousers rolled (and, come when I'm called sweetly; and, do as I am told).

    Yours truliously, Sweetly :)
    p.s. Must brag a swaggadocio, though: The cover of River? I took that shot from the thirteenth floor of the Maple Aparts. during the year I wrote in rez @ Windsor; and, guess which camera I used?

  9. Hi Judith,

    Photography has become a respectable art. And one of the reasons is that cameras have been kept out of my hands for the most part. My first wife was a professional photographer, and she let me hold her equipment once in a while, while she kept her eye on me. However, for the first time ever, I got a cellphone this year. And it has a camera that I used. All this to say, that I would not know what camera you used for River. But I'm curious, which one? It's a cool picture.


  10. :)

    Absolute truth: The camera was a Kodak FunSaver, you know, the disposable ones? Yep. My fave part of the pic is the Canadian flag on the freighter (and, you'd never know it was the Canadian flag unless I told you).
    p.s. Glad I checked before I checked out till next Monday; have a wonderful one t'all . . .

  11. Let me say here what I've said elsewhere many times over the years: I don't even consider Bob Dylan to be a poet to begin with. Jim Morrison, yes. Patti Smith, yes. Lee Ranaldo, yes. Leonard Cohen? Certainly, having published numerous volumes of verse (plus two novels) before he even entered the music industry. I've never considered Dylan to be any more than an above-average songwriter who hit a chord with a generation in the early to mid '60s, courtesy of a few cleverly crafted pop-folk songs that look and read terribly on paper in most cases. I also consider Dylan to be an idiot savant, putting him in the same league with Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney and Ted Nugent, among others. He has even admitted to not knowing what a communist was well into his early 20s. I don't think any of the Ramones were even that bad, before or after Carbona.

  12. Excellent points, all, R. W. Watkins (but, no offense, of course: My idea of proof involves textual support, an item I mention only because of my offer of the gift of the collectors' item Leo ring which I shall happily bestow upon any individual who can show Booby's got a poetic leg-up on Leo in approximately how many words that requires, give or take).

    I do know you weren't angling for the prize; but, I ought to have made that clearer; so, thank you for allowing me to do so at your expense (and, forgive me for my apparent rudeness in so doing).

    One point you make really does go a long way towards establishing this self-evident irrefutable truth, however:

    LC had already earned critical acclaim for his classics forever preserved in The Book of Eternity, especially Spice-Box of Earth and Flowers for Hitler (to ID but two of several astonishing works). Booby didn't do that (and, by may way of thinking, never will).

    BTW, you wouldn't happen to the Ghazal Guy, would you? Nah, I don't get *that* lucky :).

    p.s. Speaking of getting lucky, it would be fortuitous indeedly if Mr. Collins himself could justify his statement of Booby's brilliance; after all, a poet of his calibre certainly possesses the intelligence, eloquence and, not to put to fine a point on it, the guts for so doing . . .

  13. 'Ghazal Guy'...? That's a new and more reputable moniker.

    Thanks to the fear and conformity that the internet instills in most people (i.e., mob mentality), I'm usually referred to as 'fascist', 'paedophile', 'nutter' or 'Hinckley-wannabe' online, given the complexities of some of my philosophical, sociopolitical and sexual views--not to mention my poetic subject matter.

    I realised many moons ago that the internet is not exactly the cradle of rational, logical thought, and I've definitely developed a penchant for adding fuel to the fire! Dogmatic Oprah and Harper worshippers, beware!!!

  14. Great! Happy you're that R. W. Watkins since I can tell you in the fresh how much I admired your "essay" on Kerouac's On the Road versus his more appropriately designated work, The Dharma Bums (in terms of "the Beat movement").

    Lovely, the way you pulled those strands together into a finely finished and coherent whole tapestry. Kudos!

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