Paul Muldoon’s “Sleeve Notes” is a series of responses to LPs (as we called them in my day); the one about Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man ends:
his songs have meant far more to me
than most of the so-called poems I’ve read.
This is probably meant to be provocative, but is it not true for almost all of us (not about Cohen necessarily, for you it could be Cole Porter or Public Enemy or Regina Spektor)? The vast majority of educated people nowadays get a lot more of their cultural calories from songs than from even accomplished serious poets like c.d. wright or Ben Lerner (or Paul Muldoon). Well, the vast majority of educated people have never heard of any of those poets, but that kind of makes my point.
I am not saying that anyone is to blame for this–it’s just a fact about our culture. It has certainly not been true in other times and places; for example, I believe that poetry has always played an important role in the lives of Russians, a fact that made it worthwhile for the totalitarian state to persecute poets. (Not too long ago, in a doctor’s waiting room, I overheard a Russian couple discussing Osip Mandelstam, the famous poet murdered by Stalin. How often does that happen with random Americans?)
And of course as you go back in time, poetry takes up more and more of the space now occupied by prose (people used to write philosophical treatises and farming manuals in verse). Not coincidentally, poetry was also more closely associated with song. The idea of calling poems “songs,” which in modern times is just an affectation (Dreamsongs, Song of Myself) was meant literally back in the day. The word for poem in Old English was leoth (song), likewise with Latin carmen, and the Gothic for “to read” was singwan (IIRC; my Gothic is from a long time ago).
So I thought I’d offer some relatively recent songs that have meant far more to me than most of the poetry I read (“recent” being taken somewhat loosely). The first is by Dessa, who actually started out performing spoken-word poetry, a kind of poetry that seems to represent an attempt to restore the connection to an acoustic and social context that most highbrow poetry has abstracted itself away from. I particularly admire her her sense of sound and rhythm in the way she says lines like “Everybody knew you as the wife of a famous man, everybody who knew said “There goes Dixon’s girl again,” following the beat but also tugging against it. Her songs are also humane, and free of the obsessive “let’s hook up” and “I’m so badass it’s not funny” that can make hip-hop tedious.
Dessa, “Dixon’s Girl”:
I have not quite gotten over the feeling that, when you start really digging Joanna Newsom, it’s a sign of hidden brain damage. But what can I do? I don’t know why I find this song so compelling and moving, though I would point out the very tasty percussion, which gives the song so much bounce and drive without taking up a lot of space.
Joanna Newsom, “Good Intentions Paving Company”:
Sufjan Stevens is rescued from sentimentality by his trademark goofy orchestration and understated delivery (none of that so-emotional-my-voice-is-cracking, yes I’m looking at you Brandi Carlile). Oddly, I particularly love the line about the Tuesday night Bible study.
Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”:
The last song is perhaps not as awesome as the others, but is a fun continuation of my discussion of love songs:
Magnetic Fields, “Book of Love”: