Category Archives: Lyrics and Poetry

Remembering J.D. McClatchy: 1945-2018

J.D. McClatchy is a name I kept running into everywhere but which had not been attached to any particular poetry. As if he was more of an essayist or critic. I should have thought “librettist,” a title which he earned over and over again with his many well-received libretti. But in fact he was first and foremost a poet, and a masterful one at that, particularly with form. This article describes him as a “thrilling, passionate” teacher who made his students focus first on form, which gave at least the writer of that article the understanding of the effective power of restraint (form). Quoting him from an interview in The Paris Review, the article gives us his take on the value of form:

“It’s like adoring the open sea, the clash of elemental forces, the overpowering scale of water and sky, the sleek majesty of sloops, the billow of sail and pull of line—and wanting to study and pay homage to it all by building a model of a favorite boat—and then deciding to do it inside a bottle,” he said.

Exactly. I love this guy.

More on his life and work can be found here. As longtime Editor of the Yale Review, and recipient of many awards and grants, he certainly made his mark in the art of poetry. His subject matter penetrates beneath his poetry’s polished exterior. Here are a couple gems:

Mercury Dressing

To steal a glance and, anxious, see
Him slipping into transparency—
The feathered helmet already in place,
Its shadow fallen across his face
(His hooded sex its counterpart)—
Unsteadies the routines of the heart.
If I reach out and touch his wing,
What harm, what help might he then bring?

But suddenly he disappears,
As so much else has down the years…
Until I feel him deep inside
The emptiness, preoccupied.
His nerve electrifies the air.
His message is his being there.

——————————-

Resignation

I like trees because they seem more resigned
to the way they have to live than other things do.
—Willa Cather

Here the oak and silver-breasted birches
Stand in their sweet familiarity
While underground, as in a black mirror,
They have concealed their tangled grievances,
Identical to the branching calm above
But there ensnared, each with the others’ hold
On what gives life to which is brutal enough.
Still, in the air, none tries to keep company
Or change its fortune. They seem to lean
On the light, unconcerned with what the world
Makes of their decencies, and will not show
A jealous purchase on their length of days.
To never having been loved as they wanted
Or deserved, to anyone’s sudden infatuation
Gouged into their sides, to all they are forced
To shelter and to hide, they have resigned themselves.

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Filed under Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Lyrics and Poetry, Poetry, Poetry in forms, Poets, Remembering Poets, Song Lyrics

Remembering Leonard Cohen

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Even though he was 82 years old, Leonard Cohen’s death feels untimely. A life filled with amazing songs, of which some, at this moment in history, are particularly meaningful. His lyrics “made grown men cry,” not to mention countless women. Those who say song lyrics are not poetry—even though Cohen actually started out as a poet and novelist, not a songwriter—will find a strong rebuttal in the body of his work, of which the two below are powerfully relevant to the catastrophic and shocking election of Donald Trump. His own words are a lasting tribute to Leonard Cohen’s genius.

Democracy

It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.

It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we’ll be making love again.
We’ll be going down so deep
the river’s going to weep,
and the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on …

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Anthem

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

(Ring, ring, ring, ring)
Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee

(Ring, ring, ring, ring)
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring (ring the bells that still can ring)
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

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Filed under Lyrics and Poetry, Music, Poetry, Remembering Poets

B B King Dies: “The Thrill is Gone” and Lyrics vs Poetry

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The legendary Blues artist B. B. King has died, and it seems only appropriate that his most-loved and most famous song was “The Thrill Is Gone.” The lyrics form an especially moving element of this song, although there is no doubt King’s performance is why the song gained prominence and a major factor in its power.

Poetry, on the other hand, is supposed to stand on its own, words alone, against a background of silence. Matthew Zapruder, in this article in the Boston Review, says,

It seems absurd to me to contend that lyrics inherently have less literary merit than poetry, or are easier to create, or are less valuable in a cultural or human sense, and therefore somehow do not deserve the rarified title of “poetry.” But I also think the desire to consider lyrics as literature reflects some unfortunate and persistent biases that are detrimental to both poetry and song.

In fact, he believes the difference between lyrics and poetry are rather simple and obvious, and imply no valuation of one over the other.

Words in a poem take place against the context of silence (or maybe an espresso maker, depending on the reading series), whereas, as musicians like Will Oldham and David Byrne have recently pointed out, lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’’s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way. The ways the conditions of that environment affect the construction of the words (refrain, repetition, the ways information that can be communicated musically must be communicated in other ways in a poem, etc.) is where we can begin to locate the main differences between poetry and lyrics.

With that in mind, note the similarities between the two in the example of lyrics to “The Thrill Is Gone,” written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell. Like poetry, the meaning of these lyrics apply to a subject other than that intended by the author and singer: a reflection of an appreciative audience on the bluesman’s death.

Thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone, baby
The thrill is gone away

You know you done me wrong, baby
And you’ll be sorry someday
The thrill is gone
It’s gone away from me
The thrill is gone, baby
The thrill is gone away from me

Although, I’ll still live on
But so lonely I’ll be

The thrill is gone
It’s gone away for good
The thrill is gone, baby
It’s gone away for good

Someday I know I’ll be open armed, baby
Just like I know a good man should

You know I’m free, free now, baby
I’m free from your spell
Oh, I’m free, free, free now
I’m free from your spell
And now that it’s all over
All I can do is wish you well.

Except perhaps the part about being “free from your spell.” Who really wants to be free from the spell of a spellbinding performance?

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Filed under Essays, Lyrics and Poetry, Music, Song Lyrics