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My Punk Beginnings &  
Are Rock Lyrics Poetry?
notes for a talk
by Richard Hell

According to Hell...
These are his personal notes for a talk given in Malaga, Spain on January 29, 2008. He'd been invited by the marvelous Ms. Silvia Grijalba to speak at a public seminar, sponsored by the city of Malaga. The four-day seminar was devoted to "poetry and rock" and his assignment was to speak about "punk culture." Greatly fearing public speaking, as he does, he made a lot of notes about rock lyrics as poetry (the second two-thirds of the below), but then finally decided to speak about his concept and experience of "punk culture," which would be easier to do extemporaneously. So almost all the notes went to waste! We don't like waste, so we're putting the notes up here. They're spontaneous and were just meant to organize some information so he wouldn't be at a complete loss when the time came--they have no style and aren't intended to be any kind of complete or final or fully thought-through statement. But they make sense and Hell stands behind them.

It's hard to tell the truth about the past because it's almost impossible to return to what things were like at the time that they were happening. Every intervening moment between then and now created a separate and different meaning for any event that came before it. Depending on what happens next, everything in the past changes. It's impossible to know again what things were like. Or it takes great care and art to attempt it, and that can't be done in a little talk like this.

When I started in music, "punk" wasn't being used to describe any new bands yet. The word punk as it's used these days was invented to describe the music a few other bands and I were playing at CBGB in 1974 through 1977.

We didn't think of ourselves or refer to ourselves as "punk" as musicians but rather as ones who knew what we wanted to try to do in music, which was change the way rock 'n' roll was being played at the time, and change general attitudes towards kids' music bands and what they meant and what they could do. What I wanted was for music to be about real life again, which the pop music at the time was not, and to me real life seemed dirty and crazy and intense as well as funny.

I was a high school dropout, who'd left school and home--from an unsophisticated place in farm country a thousand miles from New York--to get out on my own living in New York City and have a good time without any supervision. My idea was that I'd be a poet. I got to New York in the last week of 1966, just after I'd turned seventeen.

I had an interesting life in New York for four or five years before I started in music. Or it seems interesting in retrospect. At the time it was boring and maddening and difficult. I had a million dumb jobs, though each one was interesting for a few days, I took a fair number of drugs, but they were all psychedelic drugs or stimulants--never narcotics or tranquilizers--, I got involved in the poetry world, including printing things on a cheap little electric printing press I bought, but I was also hungry a lot and depressed and angry and dissatisfied. Life wasn't really matching my fantasies and desires and needs. I wanted to make things happen on a bigger scale. I wanted to shake things up and confront the world with how things seemed.

Those years were the years of the Vietnam War, and the huge youth wave of psychedelia and political protest and civil rights activism and Black power and talk of revolution and a few acts of revolution as well as talk of peace and love and flowers. I was a bystander. I was horrified by the American government but I didn't feel a part of the mass youth movement of that psychedelic era either. I didn't identify with any group or community, and everybody at that time seemed to be so sure about how everybody else should act, it just made me feel even more removed from any school or trend of thought or behavior.

New York now is very expensive, and primarily the home of rich people, but in those times life in the city was possible for people like me, who were young and broke and didn't mind filth and squalor very much. Cheap apartments were abundant as long as you accepted that the heat went off in the winter sometimes and that the apartment would be broken into and robbed every couple of years and that there was a holdup or a rape on the block now and then. If you could handle that, New York was yours, with all its mental and physical stimulation--bars with bands, small specialized bookstores, artist's bars, cheap movies everywhere including many showing great vintage films, etc., etc.

As a writer I found my models in 19th century France--Lautreamont and Baudelaire and Rimbaud--rather than in the beat writers that were most influential among other young poets at the time. Lautreamont and Baudelaire and Rimbaud were not socially committed writers. They weren't ideological or political. They were subversive aesthetes. Rimbaud certainly identified with and sympathized with the downtrodden and he believed in liberty and rebelled against the authorities, but he was more interested in ecstasy and humor and literature and piercing the veil of habit and convention and making astounding and beautiful works, than in any kind of social consciousness, or mission of social reform. [Whereas for instance the Romantic poets in England were reformers, as were the hippie poets who learned from Allen Ginsberg.]

Probably the most truthful way to put it is that I wasn't suited to being a poet. Eventually I decided I wasn't suited to being in a rock and roll band either, but first a lot of things happened--namely ten years of living as a rock and roll musician and songwriter.

There were a few things that planted the idea of starting to work in music. I'd always gotten kicks, been turned on, by bands and radio songs. But only the same way most teenagers were. It was never a special interest of mine. And I sure had no tendency to idolize any bands or singers. It was a kind of contradictory mix--the groups that made records seemed to be on an unimaginable plane of existence, like everybody in packaged mass media, like, say, newscasters on tv, while at the same time I had no doubt I could do what they did at least as well as they were doing it. I just couldn't imagine what the process could be of getting to that alien standardized electronic plane where tv and radio and magazines came from.

I learned a little about the possibilities of this though in the poetry world. My favorite young poets were a gang in New York who, in a kind of ongoing phenomenon in the history of new literature, but that was brought to a fantastic peak of spontaneity and creativity by the young poets of the sixties and seventies, printed each others' works overnight on mimeograph machines in editions that were bound by staples. (This now being more or less superseded by online publishing.) As it happened, many of the most interesting of these poets, who otherwise may not have gotten any attention from the corporate publishers, eventually had beautiful books, made on the poets' terms, through the major publishers' conventional channels as a result of the poets having demonstrated the efficacy of their esthetic in the mimeos they made.

There was also a tradition of this kind of uncompromising artmaking in New York among rock and roll bands, though the music world, since it was such a major moneymaking machine on a mass level for the corporations, was much more conservative than the poetry world. Most rock and roll at that time was way pop. An exception had been the Velvet Underground. But they'd already come and gone by the time I started thinking about moving into music.

There were two immediate things that made my move into music possible. One was that my best friend, with whom I'd gone to school as a teenager, and run with away from school, played guitar and had vague dreams of being a professional singer/songwriter. He used to take his acoustic guitar to folk music clubs every now and then on amateur nights and sing two or three songs he'd written. The other was that the New York Dolls were showing that it was possible to stir things up on your own, just being street kids without corporate backing but only a lot of feeling and energy and smart ideas about what mattered.

I loved poetry, but I wasn't getting enough out of writing and publishing it. I was lonely and poor and ignored and I didn't see that poetry was going to ever change any of that no matter how well I did it. I was itchy, restless, dissatisfied. I wanted to have an effect on things--in the whole culture, rather than just the miniscule segment of it that was interested in poetry. I wanted to be in the middle of things. I'd always wanted that. I'd thought poetry might have that power, but I was becoming pessimistic, doubtful, and frustrated.

I don't tend to use the word "punk" myself, when I can avoid it. Partly I suppose because I do come from "pre-punk" times. But also, of course, naturally a person doesn't want to be limited by classifications like that.

And then there's the fact that the word only got a super wide circulation when the Sex Pistols made so much news in Britain and then the U.S. Because of that, because the Sex Pistols were such a powerful phenomenon, the model of "punk," the definition of it, became the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols stole ideas and had influences themselves (I was one of their influences), and there are many other bands that anyone could prefer as "punk," but to define punk, to specify what it signifies, the truest thing you could do would be to point to the Sex Pistols. Their behavior was the public face and mass media origin of it. That's part of the reason that the inner part of me doesn't think of myself as "punk." Punk is the Sex Pistols. I'm not the Sex Pistols.

I do actually like the word punk. It has power still. It means anti-authority, independent, tricky, unsentimental, dirty, quick, subversive, guiltless. It means not accepting the ordinary terms of behavior. It also means resisting classification, which is a good paradox, since of course "punk" is a classification.

Furthermore, though in some ways it's degrading to be part of a brand name, a designer house, namely "punk," it also has desireable advantages. After all every word for a thing is a classification, label. Take say the word "red"--there are many different colors that can be meaningfully called red and there are many connotations of red that may not apply to whatever is called red, like Communist or embarrassed or angry. In a way I make my living by accepting, even indirectly affirming my "punkness." It's the simplest, most efficient, way to describe my unmelodic version of singing, and the aggressive simplicity and dissonance of the instrumental arrangements and playing style of my bands, and the anger and aggressiveness and unsentimentality of many of my lyrics. I accept that it makes it easier for people to find me and understand my values.

"Punk culture" is a bit larger subject of course.

Personally, I am not a person with a very strong sense of community. I like eccentrics and outsiders. Because of the Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren, "punk" became associated with the political stance of "anarchy." My personal inclination is more in the direction of anti-sociability, which is different. Anarchists are actually social, because calling oneself an anarchist pre-supposes the importance of "society." I'm not that responsible a citizen and human being. One of the first songs I wrote was called "I Don't Care." My song "Blank Generation" has the refrain, "I can take it or leave it each time." My feeling is that most of the problems of history have been caused by people who are sure they know how other people should act.

I don't trust anarchy, because I don't have a lot of faith in human nature. There's anarchy on the wilderness frontier, like the old wild west, and frankly I'd rather have peace and quiet isolated in my New York cave, my private hovel.

So I don't really regard myself as a part of Punk Culture. I don't believe in any dogma or program for living and I don't feel part of a social group, punk or not. And so I'm not much of an authority on punk culture. I do like and identify with the kind of independence and anti-authoritarianism and do-it-yourself (rather than bent to corporate values) works, such as can be found in comics, zines, independent filmmaking, local bands and artist-run labels, etc., but to me it's all personal. I don't have much faith or belief, or (most of all) interest in alternative societies or alternative belief systems. I identify more with Robert Crumb (obsessive, neurotic, misanthropic) than with Allen Ginsberg (political, social, spiritual).

Questions for an Interview With Myself on This Subject

"You've been credited with initiating many of the stylistic traits that became associated with punk, whether it's the anti-love song and screaming howling singing and lyrics about apathy and hopelessness, or points of personal appearance such as the original punk haircut and ripped and written-on clothing. Is this true, and if so, were these styles calculated to have a message and an impact, to be influential?"

I had nothing to lose. But the playing was always the main thing. I will never forget the ecstatic thrill of first singing words to a driving guitar. It seemed like everything was possible. And I behaved that way: that everything was possible and there were no limits to what I could do. Everything was new. I loved the bands at the time like Slade and T. Rex and the Dolls and the Stooges too. "Glam" wasn't all bad.

Rock Lyrics As Poetry

[Wait a minute. They're awful. They are not poetry. Trite, grotesque, sentimental, ordinary. Any momentary doubts about that are strictly due to helpless inability to read the lyrics without emotional recall of the song and its recording…]

I have always been suspicious about the idea of rock lyrics as poetry. I get asked about it a lot. Usually I'm asked about the difference between writing poetry and rock lyrics, since I'm known to have done both. But the two are separate and dissimilar activities, with different purposes. Comparing poetry and rock lyrics isn't exactly like comparing apples and oranges, you could say it's like comparing apples and apple pastry. They have something fundamental in common, but that doesn't mean it makes much sense to try to compare them.

But I'm going to try to just because it's fun to "think," and I regard myself as being pretty good at thinking. But thinking is a kind of game. Works are more interesting than thoughts.

In a way I started a rock band to get away from poetry.

I love poetry, but poetry is intellectual, and getting more so as it's rendered more specialized by mass media. Reading is intellectual. Music is more physical and emotional.

Poetry is an acquired taste that's only likely to develop in a certain small segment of society. It's like polo that way, or astronomy. The very rich and athletic will play polo, the scientifically-inclined and cosmic will make a hobby of astronomy, and the verbally intellectual might be interested in poetry. It's rarified and specialized.

I don't expect anyone to have any interest in poetry. If you write poetry you will communicate with only a tiny number of people, and you won't make a living. I must say that the girls who like poetry are very attractive though, so that's a benefit.

All that said, I think I actually turned out to be a better poet as a rock lyricist than I was as a poet. My best lyrics are as good as or better than my best poems. Though I don't like being called a poet, because it's usually an insult, a way of saying a musician is limited, can't really measure up, whether that's what the accuser means to be doing or not. Still I do believe I brought skills to my lyrics that I developed writing poetry, and I think my best lyrics work as poetry that's as interesting verbally/intellectually/emotionally as literary poetry. This is rare though, and it's not tremendously relevant when talking about rock & roll.

We all know that many of the greatest rock & roll songs have practically nonsense lyrics, or clichéd banal lyrics. ["Tutti Frutti" or Phil Spector ("To Know Him Is To Love Him"?)]

"To Know Him Is To Love Him"
by Phil Spector

To know know know him
Is to love love love him
Just to see him smile
Makes my life worthwhile
To know know know him
Is to love love love him
And I do

I'll be good to him
I'll bring love to him
Everyone says there'll come a day
When I'll walk alongside of him
Yes just to know him
Is to love love love him
And I do

Why can't he see
How blind can he be
Someday he will see
That he was meant for me

Wait. That's great. Though no one would write it as a poem.

[note: realize I'm not including anything but my own province of literate rock 'n' rollers--no blues (some great lyrics), hip hop, heavy metal, etc.]

And some of the very best lyrics, lyrics that are right on target and tremendously moving in the context of their song, seem obvious and uninteresting when separated from music and performance, and coldly printed on a page. A good example of this is Dylan's "You're a Big Girl Now."

Our conversation was short and sweet
It nearly swept me off of my feet.
And I'm back in the rain, oh, oh,
And you are on dry land.
You made it there somehow
You're a big girl now.

Bird on the horizon, sitting on a fence,
He's singing his song for me at his own expense.
And I'm just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singing just for you.
I hope that you can hear,
Hear me singing through these tears.

Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast
Oh, but what a shame if all we've shared can't last.
I can change, I swear, oh, oh,
See what you can do.
I can make it through,
You can make it too.

Love is so simple, to quote a phrase,
You've known it all the time, I'm learning it these days.
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh,
In somebody's room.
It's a price I have to pay
You're a big girl all the way.

A change in the weather is known to be extreme
But what's the sense of changing horses in midstream?
I'm going out of my mind, oh, oh,
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart.

But, wait a minute. That reads pretty well. [Actually, in the course of this writing I've switched back and forth four times in trying to decide whether those stanzas actually do work on their own, on the page… The judgement is like roulette, like flipping a coin.] It moves me and surprises me and I believe it and isn't that plenty? Isn't that exactly what good poems do? Granted, for we who know the album it comes from, Blood On the Tracks, the typewritten lyric is hard to compare to poems because the words can't be fully extricated in one's mind from the song performance. But it works, line following line, no matter about so-called "rules" of writing it ignores, mainly rules about avoiding clichés. It's full of clichés and banalities (and even laugh-inducing carelessness, such as in the last verse where in the depths of this song of terrible heart-broken pain he compares being left by his love-object to "changing horses"). But there's something about the shifts of meaning from line to line--no matter how ordinary each separate line is-- [example: first stanza--three out of five lines are flat out clichés, but it's their juxtaposition that stabs you] as well as the music of the words themselves (take the long "a"s and internal rhymes in the third stanza: plane, shame, change; fast shared; last swear...), that keeps even these really conversational, cliché filled lines affecting. After all, many of the greatest poets in history were derided in their time for writing in the language of ordinary people (rather than the language of the scholars and intellectuals), for instance Dante--who broke ground by writing not in Latin but in Italian--or Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, all of whom were scandalous for the supposed informality, the street language of their poetry.

Of course Dylan is most famous for the poetic writing style on his earliest electric albums with their "thin wild mercury sound." I'm partial to the words of a slightly earlier song of his, written just as he was arriving at that style:

"Mr. Tambourine Man"
by Bob Dylan

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you.

Though I know that evening's empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship,
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'.
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you.

Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swinging madly across the sun,
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escaping on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'.
And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind,
I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're
Seeing that he's chasing.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you.

Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you.

Is that poetry? Is it good poetry? I submit that it works. It's emotionally moving, it has evocative imagery, it has metaphysical ideas, it has musical sounds (I mean strictly in its word arrangements). Why fight it? The truth is what works, just as in science. There is no other criterion for truth. If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, if it's silly like a duck, it's a duck. (Reminds me of the classic Turing test of artificial intelligence--if you can have a conversation with it, it's intelligent.) If the song lyrics produce all the effects of poetry, they are poetry. "Mr Tambourine Man" feels reeled off, it feels too casual to be poetry, and also indiscriminate in it's use of dramatic loaded words, but a lot of these objections are irrelevant because eclipsed by the musicality of the flow and the creation of the mood and the imagery succession. Everything has its weaknesses and strengths.

"Tambourine Man" and Dylan's "Hard Rain" (following below poem) always seemed to me to have things in common with Rimbaud's "Drunken Boat." Is it fair to juxtapose them?

"The Drunken Boat" [more or less rhymes in original]
by Arthur Rimbaud
[translated by R. Hell with Lizzy Mercier Descloux]

As I was descending cold-faced rivers,
I realized I had lost my guides:
Yelping Redskins are taking them for targets,
They've nailed them naked to painted poles.

I didn't give a fuck about the crew or cargo
Of Flemish wheat and English cotton.
When the screams of my haulers had finally ended,
The rivers let me go where I wanted.

In furious tongues of surf last winter
I, being deffer than a child's brain,
Ran! And the peninsula took off
Unused to such triumphant noise.

The storm has blessed my awakening.
More light than a cork I dance on the waves
That are called the eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the inane look of the lanterns.

More sweet than the flesh of sour apples to boys
The green water entered my hull of fir
And washed the vomit and blue wine
Off me, scattering rudder and grappling hook.

And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, star-soaked, milk radiant, gulping
Down the green sky-blue; where the pallid debris
Is stirred by the drowned man's passing thoughts.

Where all of a sudden the blueness is dyed: madness
And slow rhythms under the gleam of day,
Stronger than alcohol, more vast than our song,
The bitter red dots of love ferment!

I know the skies bursting with lightning, and the waterspout
And the undertow and the currents: I've been the evening,
The Dawn, as elated as the nation of doves,
And at times I've seen what man believes he's seen!

I've seen the setting sun, stained with mystical horror,
Light up the long purple jellies
Like actors of ancient dramas
The waves roll away their quivering shutters!

I've dreamed the green night of dazzling snows,
A kiss wells up slowly to the eyes of the sea,
The circulation of previously unimaginable saps,
And the yellow and blue dawn of crooning phosphor!

I have followed for many ripe months the cowish
Hysterical pounding of swells on the reefs,
Without supposing that the glowing feet of the Maries
Could kick in the face of the wheezing seas!

I have hit upon, understand, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers the eyes of panthers-in-
Man-skin! The rainbows tight as reins
Beneath the oceans to some glaucous flocks!

I have seen the enormous swamp ferment, fish-net
Where in the rushes rots a prehistoric whale!
Water collapse cascading in the midst of calm,
And distances that lead to a torrential emptiness!

Glaciers, silver suns, nacreaous waves, glowing embers of sky!
Hideous wreckage on the floor of brown gulfs
Where the giant snakes devoured by bugs
Sink, like torn trees, in black perfumes!

I would have loved to show the children these gilt-heads
From the ocean blue, these fish of gold, these fish that lyricize.
-Flower foam rocks my formless drift
And ineffable breezes make wings of me at times.

Sometimes, a martyr weary of zones and poles,
The sob of the seas gentled my rocking,
Lifting its flowers of shadow on yellow suction pads
And I stayed there, like a kneeling woman...

Nearly an island, tossing around my banks the quarrels
And dung of blond-eyed birds.
And I sailed along, as across my frail lines
Drowned men sank to sleep backwards!

Thus I, boat lost beneath the hair of coves,
Thrown by the storm into birdless ether,
I, the ruin drunk with water, would not
Have been rescued by the Monitors of Hanseatic caravelles;

Free, smoking, lifted by the purple mist,
I who pierced the smoldering sky like a wall
Which offers good poets that exquisite jam
The lichen of the sun and infinite-blue mucous;

Who ran, stained by electric half-moons,
Loony board, escorted by black sea-horses,
When the Julys were thrashing and smashing
The sea-blue skies of burning funnels;

I who was shaking, feeling fifty miles away the moan
Of the rutting Hippos and the thick Maelstroms,
I the eternal plyer of the blue immobilities,
I miss the Europe of ancient parapets!

I've seen sidereal archipelegos! and islands
The delerious skies of which are open to the wanderer
-Is it in these ancient nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Millions of golden birds, oh future Strength?-

But really, I cry too much! The Dawns are beyond hope.
Any moon is atrocious and any sun bitter:
The acrid love inflated me with its heady torpors.
Oh that my keel explode! Oh that I'm all the sea!

If I desire the waters of Europe, it's the puddle
Black and cold, where towards fragrant twilight
A squatting child full of sadnesses, releases
A boat as frail as a butterfly.

I can't anymore, bathed in your languors, oh waves,
Erase the traces of your cotton carriers,
Nor traverse the arrogance of flags and flames,
Nor swim beneath the horrible eyes of slave ships.

from "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
by Bob Dylan

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

"Naomi Poem"
by Bill Knott

With the toys of your nape
With your skin of mother-of-throe pearls
And your fire-sodden glances
From the sidelong world

We break rivulets off the river and wave them in the air
Remember the world has no experience at being you
We also are loving you for the foreverth time
The light, torn from leaf and cry
Even your shoulders are petty crimes

by Bill Knott

To look at things in a new slant is fine
But it's more fun
To jump into the slant and disappear forever
Like a spark's belly
Whooshing blue trisms
The circus-horse scissors used in haunting
The calendar's gills used in haunting
The keg of bees used in drowning

by Bill Knott

Cueballs have invented insomnia in an attempt to forget eyelids

"The Man Watching"
by Rainer Maria Rilke English
[translated by Robert Bly]

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the old Testament:
when the wrestlers' sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

by Patti Smith

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
melting in a pot of thieves
wild card up my sleeve
thick heart of stone
my sins my own
they belong to me, me

people say "beware!"
but I don't care
the words are just
rules and regulations to me, me

I-I walk in a room, you know I look so proud
I'm moving in this here atmosphere, well, anything's allowed
and I go to this here party and I just get bored
until I look out the window, see a sweet young thing
humping on the parking meter, leaning on the parking meter
oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
and I got this crazy feeling and then I'm gonna ah-ah make her mine
ooh I'll put my spell on her

here she comes
walking down the street
here she comes
coming through my door
here she comes
crawling up my stair
here she comes
waltzing through the hall
in a pretty red dress
and oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
and I got this crazy feeling that I'm gonna ah-ah make her mine

and then I hear this knocking on my door
hear this knocking on my door
and I look up into the big tower clock
and say, "oh my God here's midnight!"
and my baby is walking through the door
leaning on my couch she whispers to me and I take the big plunge
and oh, she was so good and oh, she was so fine
and I'm gonna tell the world that I just ah-ah made her mine

and I said darling, tell me your name, she told me her name
she whispered to me, she told me her name
and her name is, and her name is, and her name is, and her name is G-L-O-R-I-A
G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria
G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria

I was at the stadium
There were twenty thousand girls called their names out to me
Marie and Ruth but to tell you the truth
I didn't hear them I didn't see
I let my eyes rise to the big tower clock
and I heard those bells chiming in my heart
going ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong.
ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong
counting the time, then you came to my room
and you whispered to me and we took the big plunge
and oh. you were so good, oh, you were so fine
and I gotta tell the world that I make her mine make her mine
make her mine make her mine make her mine make her mine

G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria

and the tower bells chime, "ding dong" they chime
they're singing, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine."

Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A,
Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A, G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria
G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria,
G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria,
G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria .

"I'm Set Free"
by Lou Reed

I've been set free and I've been bound
To the memories of yesterday's clouds
I've been set free and I've been bound
And now I'm set free, I'm set free
I'm set free to find a new illusion

I've been blinded but now I can see
What in the world has happened to me?
The prince of stories who walks right by me
And now I'm set free, I'm set free
I'm set free to find a new illusion

I've been set free and I've been bound
Let me tell you people just what I've found
I saw my head laughing, rolling on the ground
And now I'm set free, I'm set free
I'm set free to find a new illusion

"You Gotta Lose"
by Richard Hell

I hope I don't seem immodest when I tell you that my, my
mother was a pinhead and my father was a fly.
That's why I love you darling with a love that's so unique:
Your glistening wings they complement your head's exquisite peak.

They all died by coin toss.
Love's a form of memory loss.
I can't forget that triple cross...
You gotta lose, you gotta lose

Not too long ago I knew a guy who thought he can't be beat
but he got rabies on his rubies now he can't unlace his feet.
And I for twenty minutes yesterday felt great, felt insensate,
But when you're twenty minutes late your fate is patient and will wait.

They all died by coin toss.
Love's a form of memory loss.
I can't forget that triple cross...
You gotta lose, you gotta lose

I know it's hard for you to face the fact Max Factor failed your face
and that your social life's misshapen cuz you feel so out of place
and that the most magic man you'd meet and ask your soul to keep
still could only love you from a distance one man deep.

"Blank Generation"
by Richard Hell

I was saying let me out of here before I was
even born--it's such a gamble when you get a face
It's fascinating to observe what the mirror does
but when I dine it's for the wall that I set a place

I belong to the blank generation and
I can take it or leave it each time
I belong to the ______ generation but
I can take it or leave it each time

Triangles were falling at the window as the doctor cursed
He was a cartoon long forsaken by the public eye
The nurse adjusted her garters as I breathed my first
The doctor grabbed my throat and yelled, "God's consolation prize!"

I belong to the blank generation and
I can take it or leave it each time
I belong to the ______ generation but
I can take it or leave it each time

To hold the t.v. to my lips, the air so packed with cash
then carry it up flights of stairs and drop it in the vacant lot
To lose my train of thought and fall into your arms' tracks
and watch beneath the eyelids every passing dot

I belong to the blank generation and
I can take it or leave it each time
I belong to the ______ generation but
I can take it or leave it each time

Of course, there do remain differences of kind between poetry and popular song lyrics. There's a big genuine overlap in what they are and how they work, but song lyrics tend toward the rhythmic and the rhyming and fairly straightforward meaning while poetry, in our time, tends toward a kind of submission to the whole range of functions and qualities of language. As Frank O'Hara put it in 1952, he was interested in "Poetry which liberates certain forces in language, permits them to emerge upon the void of silence, not poetry which seeks merely to express most effectively or most beautifully or most musically some preconceived idea or perception."

For instance, here is a randomly chosen short passage from O'Hara's great long poem "Second Avenue"

and I am like a nun trembling before the microphone
at a movie première while a tidal wave has seized the theatre
and borne it to Siam, decorated it and wrecked its projector.
To what leaf of fertility and double-facedness owe I
my persistent adoration of your islands, oh shadowed flesh
of my smiling? I scintillate like a glass of ice

Most song lyrics, even the best of them, start from an idea or perception that it's the lyrics' purpose to express. Though not always. John Lennon wrote some nonsense or anti-sense or purely abstract, expressionist lyrics that seem to come from language and speech itself as much as from any intention to express ideas or perceptions. And in recent years many bands have produced lyrics that sound freely-associative, without a lot of conventional meaning--bands such as Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Guided by Voices. Stephen Malkmus of Pavement even cites poet John Ashbery, O'Hara's close friend and aesthetic co-conspirator, as a stylistic influence. Here's an example of a Malkmus effort:

Type Slowly
by Stephen Malkmus

Sherri, you smell different
Get up early in the bed
For you morning comes so easy

Spells have been cast
And the urge has been lost
Snipers posted bills as they should
Of our midnight vacation

Back on the planet now
I'm beginning to see just how
Passion on your dreams
And they'll come true
Type slowly

One of us is a cigar stand
And one of us is
A lovely blue incandescent guillotine

The edge of creation is
Blurred and blushed
Not haa haa haa harder lot of rooms to grow
Inside this leather terrarium

People of the bay
It is excruciatingly grey, hey, yeah
Face the front
When he comes for you
Type slowly

Cherish your memorized weakness
Fashioned from a manifesto
Lady, I am no futurist, I'm my only critic

Trolls in the glen are consorting again
The liberals say they don't exist
But I know that they do

Reinforce your literal aaa, aaa, ass
Hit it on the first or second pass
Frozen images respected few
Type slowly

Nothing wrong with these as words to a good song, but as poetry I believe they leave something to be desired. Compare to Ashbery himself:

"They Dream Only Of America"
by John Ashbery

They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
"This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat."

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer's ash tray is more easily--
The lake a lilac cube.

He holds a key in his right hand.
"Please," he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.
That was before

We could drive hundreds of miles
At night through dandelions.
When his headache grew worse we
Stopped at a wire filling station.

Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.

"I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.

And I am lost without you."

I love that Ashbery poem.

I think that, since the focus in poetry is entirely on language, without its having to have some relationship to a drum beat or any other elements of musical accompaniment and melody and vocalizing, poem-writing as writing will be more sophisticated than writing which also has to take into account all those other elements. But I'm not sure. Malkmus's lyrics work perfectly well for his songs. Why couldn't it be possible that someone be as interesting and talented a writer as Ashbery and use that talent in songwriting?


[I see things other people don't or don't know how to express. In a way everybody knows the same things, but poets know how to express them [The lines of Rimbaud about being a seer and about seeing things others think they have seen; and Picasso's about not being ahead of his time but being fully in it ("I'm not ahead of my time... it's everyone else who is late.").]


Maybe the word "punk" should be like the word for "God" in Hebrew--you're not allowed to say it. The idea that nothing is sacred is a sacred idea. Nothing is sacred including the idea that nothing is sacred.


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