“I didn’t realize that you wrote such bloody awful poetry,” sang Morrissey in 1987. And indeed, the history of musicians with poetic aspirations is a long and patchy one. This year has already seen the publication of a couple of collections of poetry by famous musicians – we recently got hold of a copy of System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian’s book Glaring Through Oblivion , and Tom Waits has just published a collaboration with photographer Michael O’Brien called Hard Ground . Writing lyrics is a very different skill to writing effective poems, and the two disciplines rarely coincide. With this in mind, here’s a look at the best and the worst of musicians in poetry – starting with five whose work really should have stayed in their notebooks.
Honestly, we don’t want to be mean-spirited here, but this stuff is terrible. For example: “I feel I’ve become the victim of countless manipulations/Stemming from self-righteous shits of society/In the name of business, in the name of art/In the name of music, in the name of freedom/Country, and other fucking bullshit.” It’s well-intentioned, sure, but it’s not poetry – it’s totally devoid of rhythm and meter, and frankly, it would never, ever have been published if its author wasn’t a musician guaranteed to sell more copies than your average creative-writing professor.
Morrison’s grandiose lyricism worked within the context of The Doors’s music. Without musical constraint, it was free to ramble in any direction its creator saw fit. Unfortunately, his poetry was also unrestrained by any sort of compositional self-discipline or concession to coherency. The result was things like this: “Ancient wise satyr/Sing your ode to my cock/Caress its lament/Stiffen and guide us, we frozen/Lost cells/I sacrifice my cock on the altar of silence.”
As with Tankian’s work, Jewel’s notorious 1998 book A Night Without Armor has the air of a series of dear-diary confessionals that should have stayed firmly in said dear diary. The poems in the book are heartfelt but often mawkish, and the language is often more clunky than airy: “you don’t call/I check again/I become uneasy –/is this a frame?” It’s a sad state of affairs when a parody of your book gets better reviews than the book itself.
Whatever you think of Billy Corgan (who has spent most of the last decade trying to sully his legacy), he remains a dizzyingly talented musician who’s also written some great lyrics in his time. But like plenty of other musicians, one thing he’s not so good at is poetry. As with Morrison, without the constraints of a song to give it shape and rhythm, Corgan’s work wanders all over the place. Calling something poetry doesn’t somehow justify a surfeit of sentimentality and overblown imagery, like “Revealing now the poetry of my heart/Think birds in flight and you will start to come close.”
Hip hop works because of the intricate interplay between rhythm and rhyme. On the page, hop hop lyrics often read badly, because it’s all in the delivery. Tupac’s poetry is no different – because, in fact, it’s not really poetry at all, it’s lyricism set down in print. Recorded, something like, say, “And 2Morrow” could have worked well. But as a poem, it’s a series of slightly awkward high school couplets: “Today is filled with anger/Fueled with hidden hate/Scared of being outcast/Afraid of common fate.”
Smith’s music has always blurred the line between rock’n’roll and poetry; indeed, her earliest performances consisted of simply reading her poems to a backdrop of Lenny Kaye’s guitar, and there are still people who’ll tell you that was when she was at her best. Some of her poetry can be too romantically impenetrable for its own good, but when it’s at its best, it’s full of strong, direct imagery and clever wordplay.
Another musician whose literary endeavors preceded his songwriting, Leonard Cohen had already published four books of poetry and two novels by the time he recorded Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967. There’s often a cross-pollination between his songs and his poems – “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and “Hallelujah,” for instance, both started life as long works in verse – and both deal with similar themes, both melancholy and lightened with unexpected humor. But the key point is that Cohen understands what’s a poem and what isn’t, and divides his work accordingly.
It’s been one of the great pleasures of recent years seeing Gil Scott-Heron healthy and performing again. His descent into addiction and obscurity over the 2000s was especially tragic as he remains one of the greatest writers America has produced over the last few decades – angry and literate, possessed of a fierce humor and a strong sense of social justice. As with Cohen, there’s a strong overlap between his poetry and his music, and like Smith, he started as a performance poet backed by musicians. Songs like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or “Home is Where the Hatred Is” work equally well with or without music – a rare thing indeed, as we’ve seen.
It’s rare for a book of poems by a singer to get reviews as favorable as those enjoyed by Berman’s 1999 collection Actual Air . Indeed, most of the reviewers who rhapsodized about the book seemed to miss the fact that Berman was also the mainstay of Silver Jews. His poems are certainly most excellent indeed – beautifully constructed, keenly observed and rendered with a light touch that’s the antithesis of most self-important rock star poetry.
Ranaldo’s ongoing fascination with the Beat Generation is well-documented, and they’re a strong influence on his own poetry. His work is full of the same ebullient language that characterized Jack Kerouac’s writings, and his last book (2007’s Hello from the American Desert) created poems by reusing phrases from the spam messages that piled up in Ranaldo’s inbox. Surprisingly enough, it worked a treat.