The Independent newspaper features ‘Lyric’ – a new book I’ve curated, introduced and illustrated – which brings together song lyrics from a range of writers and presents them as poetry.
ARTICLE, full text
“So Shakespeare is now officially 400 years dead. This enormously wonderful and argued over figure who may be responsible for some of the finest ever works in English. Or, on the other hand, might not, being simply a cipher, a name used to conveniently disguise another shadier character or, as some argue, a secret group of writers. What is certain is that not a word of his entire Collected Works exists anywhere in manuscript form, written by him. Not one. Strange. My subject here is not Shakespeare (though thanks, Bill, love your work), the point is that the works have survived as a result of sound – the sound of voices on a stage, written down at some point, by someone. Homer is the same – the ‘singer’ of the Iliad and Odyssey was an illiterate performer whose words were so profound that someone decided to write them down.
In a new book called Lyric, I am arguing for the central importance of sound to poetry – and trying to heal some of the wounds that have been opening recently between poets and songwriters. One particular poet has been moved to denounce songwriting, saying that the white of the page eats the songs’ words, as soon as they are removed from the trinity of melody, harmony and rhythm. He goes on to insist that no ever talk to him again about songs as poetry. The wound clearly runs deep.
I was shocked when I read that. For me poetry and songwriting are the same thing – born of the same impulse, occupying the same space, and that really matters.
I grew up in an underclass Northern factory town, escaping the lime sludge, smoking furnace heaps and dead rivers through tattered paperbacks with titles like Modern Poets – graffitied and doodled over. In those words I found my way out to sun and sky. Most of my songs have a reference somewhere to the words of a favourite writer.
So I wanted to make a volume that denied that claim, a book of songs presented as poetry – black on white, words printed onto the expanse of the page shouting to the world and the doubters that ‘this is poetry’. I couldn’t clearly cover all styles and genres of music, so focussed particularly on writers networked around roots and acoustic music. This was because of Laurel Canyon, that arroyo on the edge of Los Angles, in the Hollywood hills where more than anywhere the ‘singer-songwriter’ was born. Poetry and song that had flirted so sensuously and relentlessly through Bebop jazz (Coltrane and Parker’s howling saxophones underscored by Kerouac, and Ginsberg’s written Howl), finally moved in together there and set up house (the Our House of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which they shared with Joni Mitchell). It felt right for me to start with the Canyon’s lost grandchildren. Some of the writers are here because I was taken with the power of their words. Iain Archer has written number one hits for Snow Patrol (Run) and was nominated for a Grammy this year for James Bay’s Hold Back the Rover, which he co-wrote. His words sing from the pages of Lyric. Jess Morgan’s lovely narratives describe richly observed moments in the life of someone allergic to the Modern World. Still others (and I would include my own contributions here) are nearer to the metaphysical, relating perhaps best to writers like Dylan Thomas, with a subtle helping of zen for good measure. I included a number of writers because of their popularity – with hits for Jake Bugg, Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ (Come on Eileen), Gentle Giant, Tired Pony, Nizlopi and even Cliff Richard to their names. I wanted to know how much it was their words that achieved that. I didn’t, though, want to pull any punches, or tell it like it isn’t. If song is truly ‘poetically wrong’ then so be it, I wanted to know, however much that might disappoint me. Look in the book for the pages where the “white eats the words” as Glyn Maxwell would have it, and those where it does not. Pop music can be reductive and trite, fulfilling in its comforting predictability a social need for reassurance in this wild and strange Universe. Music functioning like concrete and street lighting, divorcing and shielding tiny, timid humanity from the immensity of its context. But so much of popular music is entirely other – pushing the limits and boundaries of who we are, picking at the holes of our hermetic, socially–mediated world views and waking the imaginations of generations. I have represented both poles in this short collection, and touch moments in all the territories between. The Lyrics tell their own stories. I have thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, and I hope you will, too.”