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[whitespace] Maybe I'm Amazed

Good song lyrics do not make great poetry, alas!

By Gina Arnold

IT'S AMAZING how little most people know about poetry. Even when you like the stuff, figuring out what's good and what's bad is positively confounding. Why, for example, is Ogden Nash ("The song of the canaries/never varies/and when they're moulting/they're pretty revolting") considered by most pundits to be excellent verse, and yet that of William McGonnagal (1830-1902)--"Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!/Alas! I am very sorry to say/That 90 lives have been taken away"--considered so horribly bad?

This conundrum is why, while attending Columbia University last year, I decided to take a poetry class. It was called "American Poets on American Poets," and sad to say, I came out knowing more poetry but less about it than I ever had before.

The premise was that famous live poets would lecture us about their favorite poet of yesteryear. We did Emerson, Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, HD, Edna St. Vincent Millay and all the other big guns of the 19th and 20th centuries, which would have been very interesting except that the people who'd been chosen to lecture us were each more peculiar and eccentric than the last.

I really don't want to mention any names, but suffice to say that the very first of these poets managed to make three grown girls cry at the very first lecture. I nicknamed him Professor Mumble, because he was so incredibly unintelligible, and the few times he was clear he was downright mean. At one point he shrieked at the class for not knowing the original Greek of something ("How did you all even get into graduate school?").

It was kind of embarrassing, but in retrospect, you have to laugh. Famous American Poets have to be the weirdest breed ever, and no wonder: they are incredibly learned, yet totally unread, unbeloved by the masses, monetarily unrewarded and bound to die in obscurity. They are, in short, the exact opposite of Sir Paul McCartney of the Beatles, who has just published his own book of poetry, entitled Blackbird Singing (Norton Press).

Blackbird Singing includes the lyrics to many Beatles songs as well as many original poems, and it's funny because the two things are diametrically opposed. After all, some of those songs--"Eleanor Rigby," for example, and "Penny Lane"--are the 20th-century's best-known poems, the modern-day equivalent of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

But the other poems, the ones we can't read with a tune running through our head? Ooh, baby! Do they stink! Gee, I'd like to see Professor Mumble dealing with a poem like "Big Boys Bickering," which goes, "Big boys bickering/That's what they're doing everyday/Big boys bickering/Fucking it up for everyone." He'd have an apoplectic fit.

NOT SO Professor Seamus Cooney of Western Michigan University, a self-proclaimed guru of bad poetry. According to Cooney, to achieve memorable badness in poetry is not an easy feat.

"Most bad poetry," he says, "is simply weak and ineffectual and lacking in interest and [fortunately] is soon forgotten. To achieve memorable badness ... [i]t has to be done innocently, by a poet unaware of his or her defects. The right combination of lofty ambition, humorless self-confidence and crass incompetence is rare and precious."

Professor Cooney would be proud of McCartney's verse, because he has--almost accidentally--managed to combine all three of those traits.

"Blackbird Singing" shows the folly of treating songwriters as poets--and, also, of treating lyrics like poetry. "Blackbird" is proof positive that even the best songs ever written are denuded of meaning when treated this way. There they lie, dead on the page, stripped of all their power, just a string of words and couplets neither better nor worse than a Hallmark card.

Why? I can't say, but I know it's true: poetry and song lyrics have almost nothing in common, and anyone who thinks they do is deluded or arrogant--or both.

Oddly, odes written as poems and subsequently made into songs tend to be OK. Perhaps this shows the ultimate superiority of poetry to songwriting, or maybe it's the nature of music itself, that it defies having its elelments separated.

I think the latter fact is true because I know someone who was trying to write a software program that recognized music the way other programs recognize words, and he found it couldn't be done: you can feed in the key signature and the time signature and so on, and a computer still can't find a way to pinpoint what it is that makes a piece of music unique. My friend thinks its because there's an emotional quality to music that defies electronic categorization, and if so, isn't that just the greatest news?

Silly Love Song

BLACKBIRD SINGING is actually just one small part of the Paul McCartney juggernaut, which you may have noticed rolling its way toward you, gathering momentum. Its most visible aspect was Paul's face on the cover of TV Guide, because in addition to this book and a Best of Wings LP that's about to land on us, there was also Wingspan, a two-hour documentary about Paul's post-Beatles life in the band Wings, that was aired last week on ABC.

Wingspan, which was made by Paul's daughter Mary, pretends to be a documentary about Wings, but it was really Paul's two-hour tribute to his late wife, Linda, with whom he was madly in love to a degree seldom seen in this world. Ever since he married her in 1969, it's seemingly been his life's work to justify her existence to the rest of the planet--a project he has singularly failed in.

Linda is Wingspan's main focus, but it's impossible not to notice just what a bad band Wings was. Despite 10 LPs and 11 hit singles (including "Jet," "Band on the Run," "Junior's Farm," "My Love," "Silly Love Songs," and "Live and Let Die," which are mostly so forgettable one hardly ever hears them even on oldies radio), the band really never rises above an incredibly trivial level.

They're competent, but not exactly deep, compared to the other monster rock stars of the day, like Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and David Bowie. McCartney is mysterious that way: despite his amazing run with the Beatles, he seems to have subsequently become a man with very little taste, just a vulgar way with melody.

Come to think of it, there's something not quite human about the Beatles and their whole history. In retrospect, they were absolutely mythic--and not even in a modern way.

Consider, for example, the way that their stories mimic those of Samson and Delilah, Hercules, and Merlin the Magician: both John Lennon and Paul McCartney lost their magical powers when they became bound to womankind. In the end, that may be the underlying message of both Wingspan and Blackbird Singing, and it's a good one: everyone on Earth is mortal, and fallible, and even kind of crass. Yup, even rock stars like Paul McCartney have feet of clay--but you know what? That fact only makes me like him better.

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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