When poetry was killed off in the first half of the 20th century by the tendentious artlessness of Modernism, did it go somewhere?
Yes. It went into popular music.
It went here:
Somewhere there’s music.
How faint the tune.
Somewhere there’s heaven.
How high the moon.
Somewhere there’s music.
It’s where you are.
Somewhere there’s heaven.
How near, how far.
The darkest night will shine,
If you come to me soon.
Until you will, how still my heart—
How high the moon.
Lyrics by Nancy Hamilton
The sultry romance of poetry, sentimental as it might be, just happens to be a significant template for poetry, the art.
Let us admit, at once, that this kind of poetry is perhaps the worst kind of poetry possible, whenever it fails, and it fails often.
This is perhaps why many conclude—in error—that poetry of romance is of a lesser quality than other kinds of poetry, an error which has been perpetuated by a certain tribe of academics.
The error comes from not examining the reason for this kind of poetry’s rather vast failure, which is twofold:
First, since sentimental love poetry is by far the most well-known and practiced of the templates, there will inevitably be a great number of failures, providing countless wretched examples for those looking to dismiss this kind of poetry as poetry.
Second, it is easy to fail in rather spectacular and embarrassing fashion when writing love poetry precisely because of the significance of the template itself. The template lives in a place where all poetry lives—skill at meter, versification, sentiment, irony, universality, unity, richness, and originality will naturally aid the poet attempting love poetry, and, it also lives where we all live; because it lives close to the heart, to the social embarrassment, and drama, and ubiquitous nature of love and romance, writing this kind of poetry will have a greater risk of failure, since readers are passionately familiar with the tropes involved.
This does not mean, however, that this kind of poetry is inferior in any way to other types of poetry, and it may be superior, in fact, no matter what academics may say, and which is why, perhaps, it tends to be more popular—which should never be a strike against anything good.
Take a song like “Autumn Leaves.” One could almost say it’s inevitable that a song like this exist in the ‘jazz standard’ category, given the mood, subject and sentiment of the ‘jazz standard’ love song. Now the critic must ask: should such inevitability be held against “Autumn Leaves?” Or should we honor it for the very reason that its existence seems destined? We must know the category intimately to appreciate the example. The category is a simple one (not inferior for that reason) and consists of six sub-categories.
1. The Beloved Receives Heavenly Praise —All The Things You Are
2. Praise Without Quality (ironic, indirect) —My Funny Valentine
3. Love Gone Wrong (Revenge) —Cry Me A River
4. Love Gone Wrong (Resigned) —Autumn Leaves
5. Introspective (Narrator talks with their heart) —My Foolish Heart
6. Love Against the World (Time, Fortune, Necessity) —When Sunny Gets Blue
The whole category of the jazz standard is simple, but already we see some complexity. “Autumn Leaves” invokes, with its natural fact, the fourth sub-category—sad resignation of lost love—as we might expect; the leaves of “red and gold” falling past the window of the bereaved lover join other things in the mind: “summer kisses, the sunburnt hands I used to hold” and the dying leaves are then used with the idea of time, already invoked by “summer” (before the leaves fell) with: “but I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall.” This is rather brilliant. It is one thing to come up with autumn leaves as an image for the sad resignation of lost love, another to use the image economically and in a way that feels inevitable. The drawback to these songs working as poetry: extreme brevity within a simple and well understood context—is precisely that which allows us to see the challenge overcome if we are alive to both the challenge and the traditional actuality of the love lyric itself, so that instead of dismissing it for that reason, we instead appreciate what is, in fact, a poetic challenge, an extremely difficult one, to be poetically met and overcome.
The brevity of the effect in these songs is such that the title practically writes the song. The immediate is almost everything.
The jazz song usually has a lot of minor keys and notes (brilliantly used to multiple effects of course) with the general tendency to heaviness, intricate mellowness, and melancholy, so we would expect a lot of ‘love gone wrong’ and sad songs, and that’s what we do indeed have. This musical fact will of course impact the lyric. This general sadness is probably why jazz is not nearly as popular as other genres—but its poetry, as we attempt to isolate it, has its own, and under-appreciated, excellence, and the sad also happens to be a richer field for poetic loveliness.
As for jazz’s “sophisticated” reputation; the term is empty; there is nothing smarter about jazz; the ‘maudlin refined into beauty’ perhaps best sums it up; it cannot substitute long for the best of classical music, and the worst of it is horribly chained and pretentious.
Its reputation for being “sophisticated” may be due to the fact that jazz contains very little story-telling, and here is where jazz distinguishes itself from Folk and Country, its hayseed cousins. Frank Sinatra self-consciously introduced the slight exception, “It Was A Very Good Year,” which almost tells a story, as a “pretty folk song.” One can’t imagine Sinatra singing one of those endless folk ballads like “Frankie and Johnny”—even though this song is on some ‘jazz standard’ lists. ‘True art’ has a certain reticence; the jazz femme fatale doesn’t say very much; as “Yesterday” puts it: “Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say.” The best heartaches are beyond analysis.
In fact, anyone who makes a list like this one has probably had their heart broken, has it associated with a song, which, for that reason, will not be on the list, the ultimate reticence of heart-broken cool. So if you notice a song you think should be on the list below and it is not, be comforted. The song is playing somewhere—and breaking a heart.
1. SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW “That’s where you’ll find me.” Poignantly ideal.
2. YESTERDAY Formally perfect.
3. SMILE Best and saddest advice.
4. AUTUMN LEAVES “I see your lips, the summer kisses, but I miss you most of all when…”
5. STORMY MONDAY “Tuesday’s just as bad.”
6. MOON RIVER “waiting round the bend”
7. ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE “when all the things you are, are mine.”
8. THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU “Your eyes in stars above…my love.”
9. MY FUNNY VALENTINE “Your looks are laughable, unphotographable”
10. DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF ME “stars fading but I linger on”
11. DON’T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE “couldn’t bear it without you…”
12. MOONGLOW “way up in the blue…”
13. IT HAD TO BE YOU “even be glad, just to be sad, thinking of you.”
14. ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL “half a love never appealed to me”
15. WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MADE “and the difference is you.”
16. SPEAK LOW “speak love to me and soon”
17. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN ” be sure your umbrella is upside down”
18. AS TIME GOES BY “hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate”
19. SUMMERTIME beautiful impressionism.
20. I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN “until I smile at you.”
21. STARS FELL ON ALABAMA “we lived our little drama, we kissed in a field of white…”
22. I’M A FOOL TO WANT YOU “to want a love that can’t be true…”
23. HOW HIGH THE MOON “somewhere there’s music…”
24. CONQUEST “the hunter became the huntress”
25. SINGING IN THE RAIN “I’m laughing at clouds”
26. I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO “little trolley cars climb halfway to the stars”
27. PRELUDE TO A KISS “that was my heart trying to compose a prelude…”
28. STRANGER IN PARADISE “if I stand starry-eyed…”
29. ALL OF ME “you took the part that once was my heart so why not take all of me?”
30. AINT MISBEHAVING “I’m home about eight, just me and my radio”
31. THE NEARNESS OF YOU “it’s not the moon that excites me…it’s just the nearness of you…”
32. UNFORGETTABLE “That’s why, darling, it’s incredible…”
33. THE MAN I LOVE “One day he’ll come along”
34. IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR “soft summer nights, we’d hide from the lights on the village green…”
35. QUIET NIGHTS AND QUIET STARS “quiet thoughts and quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams…”
36. WHO’S SORRY NOW? “Who’s heart is aching for breaking each vow”
37. I DON’T STAND A GHOST OF A CHANCE WITH YOU Well of course not if that’s your attitude!
38. THE LADY IS A TRAMP A unique way to admire.
39. THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA “she looks straight ahead not at me”
40. WHAT KIND OF FOOL AM I? “Who never fell in love” Sammy Davis Jr. nailed this.
41. WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR “makes no difference who you are…”
42. SEPTEMBER IN THE RAIN “The leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember…”
43. ALFIE “what’s it all about?”
44. MONA LISA “they just lie there and they die there…”
45. HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS “a shining star upon the highest bow…”
46. A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A FOOL “a sad and a long lonely day…”
47. STARDUST “You wander down the lane and far away…”
48. WHEN I FALL IN LOVE “the moment I can feel that you feel that way, too…”
49. SEPTEMBER SONG “When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame…”
50. FOOLS RUSH IN “but wise men never fall in love, so how are they to know?”
51. YOU’D BETTER GO NOW “I like you much, too much…”
52. JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings…”
53. BLUE MOON “I saw you standing alone…”
54. YOU BELONG TO ME “Fly the ocean in a silver plane, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain…”
55. I GOT IT BAD “and that ain’t good.”
56. IF I HAD YOU “I could start my life anew”
57. A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON “my imagination will thrive upon that kiss…”
58. WALK ON BY “and I start to cry…”
59. I THOUGHT ABOUT YOU “every stop that we made…And when I pulled down the shade…”
60. WHEN SUNNY GETS BLUE “Hurry new love, hurry here…”
61. THE GOOD LIFE “kiss the good life goodbye.”
62. IS THAT ALL THERE IS? “I remember when I was a little girl…”
63. STORMY WEATHER “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky…”
64. TWILIGHT TIME “heavenly shades of night are falling…”
65. I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN “I have tried so not to give in…”
66. EMBRACEABLE YOU “you irreplaceable you…”
67. NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT “won’t you tell me how?”
68. HERE’S THAT RAINY DAY “Where is that worn out wish that I threw aside…”
69. GEORGIA ON MY MIND “No peace I find, just an old sweet song…”
70. FOR ALL WE KNOW “Tomorrow may never come…”
71. MACK THE KNIFE “and he keeps it out of sight…”
72. I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING “I can make the rain go…”
73. CRY ME A RIVER “I cried a river over you.”
74. IF YOU GO AWAY If you go away on this summer day…”
75. WHAT ARE YOU DOING THE REST OF YOUR LIFE? “East and west of your life…”
76. MY FOOLISH HEART “it’s love this time, it’s love, my foolish heart.”
77. ALMOST LIKE BEING IN LOVE “What a day this has been, what a rare mood I’m in, why it’s almost…”
78. LET’S DO IT “even educated fleas do it…”
79. AINT SHE SWEET “now I ask you very confidentially…”
80. LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF “potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto…”
81. FLY ME TO THE MOON “let me find out what love is like on Jupiter and Mars…”
82. TILL THERE WAS YOU “There were bells on a hill, but I never heard them ringing…”
83. A STRANGER ON EARTH “The day’s gonna come when I prove my worth and I won’t be a stranger…”
84. I’LL BE SEEING YOU “I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing you”
85. TROUBLE IN MIND “the sun’s going to shine through my back door one day”
86. ROMANCE IN THE DARK “we’ll find romance in the dark…”
87. SOMETHING Sinatra said this Beatle (Harrison) song was the best.
88. ON A CLEAR DAY “rise and look around you…”
89. THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY Made for Judy Garland.
90. IT’S ALL IN THE GAME “Many a tear has to fall…”
91. WHY SHOULD I CARE “Will she wake up knowing you’re still there? And why should I care?”
92. LOVE IS HERE TO STAY “the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay…”
93. IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU “Don’t count stars or you might stumble…”
94. I SURRENDER DEAR “We played the game of stay away…”
95. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT LOVE IS “Until you’ve faced each dawn with sleepless eyes…”
96. COME RAIN OR COME SHINE “I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you”
97. LAURA “The laugh that floats on a summer night…”
98. I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS “And I know what time it is now”
99. DO NOTHING TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME “if you should take the word of others you’ve heard”
100. THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME “the way we danced till 3″