Paul McCartney can be seen on You Tube interviewed by the poet Billy Collins—and it points up the superiority of the pop musician to the poet, in our day: Collins comes across as a mere fan, asking questions of the ex-Beatle which merely elicit answers we’ve heard before. You would think perhaps a poet of Collins’ stature could have steered this brilliant pop songwriter into novel intellectual territory. But no. McCartney was funny, charming, and interesting. Collins was diffident and dull.
Collins said what was interesting about the early Beatles was “the chord;” they were playing new chords. But this is completely wrong.
Paul playfully pointed out how the melody of his song “Blackbird” was borrowed from a Bach riff and how jazz’s more sophisticated chords influenced the Beatles, and Paul repeated the story of how the boys went across Liverpool on a bus to learn the chord B7 from an older guy—which is really just an elaborate joke since chords can be found in a book and it only takes a few chords to play rock music; the anecdote is one of Pauls’s favorites because it points up what humble novices the Beatles were and the mock worship of a chord is the equivalent of a desire for a woman or a drug.
All of this went right over the earnest poet’s head, Collins so certain that the Beatles were “inventing new chords.” That wasn’t the secret or the appeal of their music. Billy, the Beatles were not introducing new “chords” to the world. If Collins knew anything about their music, he wouldn’t have ventured this observation; Paul was too polite to correct him; he merely turned to his rich supply of jokes and anecdotes to brush the naivé poet aside; Paul did remind Collins in passing, during his rambling reply, that pop music, including much of the Beatles music, is built on three standard chords.
It was not a correction, or a lecture; it’s not Paul’s style to be didactic or stern; he laughed at Collins, but no one knew. When faced with the assertion that the central beauty of Beatles music was the new chord, he merely dragged out the B7 story. Paul was greatly influenced by his jazz musician father. Paul probably knew exactly what a B7 was. But it’s a great story, anyway.
Collins also made the cliched observation that early Beatles music wasn’t nearly as interesting as the Beatles’ later period—when a host of characters invaded their music, like Eleanor Rigby and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Well, yes, sure, the later Beatles did expand their lyric content superficially, but this makes 1967 and 1968 far more important than 1964 and 1965 in a way which obscures the Beatles’ real genius. The early work was not just “love me do” and “yea yea yea.” And as Paul impishly pointed out, the “sophisticated” lyric content Collins was naively hellbent on praising, was mostly due to—“drugs.”
Genius has a simplicity which the bumbling, ordinary understanding misses. Collins hadn’t a clue what to ask Paul McCartney. Collins, the poet, was adrift on the notion that the Beatle song, “Penny Lane,” could perhaps pass as a poem.
Collins has written some very good poems and is obviously an intelligent man.
Blame the time we live in. The divide between poet and pop musician is so great, mutual interest can’t exist.
This demonstrates what John Crowe Ransom said almost a century ago: “the Modern” means specialization, and song and poetry, once brother and sister, are now different, have taken different jobs, and moved apart.
Whether this “specialization” is always a good thing, and whether poetry does not, in fact, live in great popular music, is perhaps the great aesthetic question of our day. How long will modernism’s “specialization” estrangement hold sway?
It wasn’t like Paul McCartney was saying anything interesting about poetry. He never asked Collins about the secret to writing poetry, or seemed the least interested in what Collins wrote. Here was the Paul that everyone hates, basking with a grin in the crowd’s adoration: “Yesterday. Maybe you’ve heard of it? wink wink.” (This aspect of Paul’s behavior makes one long for the more sour Lennon—the truism of why they complimented each other.)
When Collins asked Paul about the difference between writing songs and poetry, Paul was certain they were different activities—which perhaps dooms McCartney’s (attempts at) poetry, and makes McCartney, on the flip side, a fool like Collins.
McCartney, surely knowing that he is a certified “failed poet,” opined that poetry to him was like writing in a “diary;” one brings in “things” to try and make them “interesting,” and this was either Paul’s way of insulting poetry—the kind Collins and modern poets write—or, it was what Paul really thinks poetry is.
But McCartney’s feeling was telling, for “diary writing” does not make one famous; and Paul was sitting their being interviewed because he is famous, and Collins, compared to McCartney is not, and no poet today is, and so Collins wanted to know what Paul thought—Paul didn’t care what the Collins, the “diary writer” thought.
Soon after the interview began, someone brought Paul a guitar, and it was his prop, his crutch, his ticket to glory; McCartney couldn’t stop nervously fiddling with it, almost as if any moment the guitar was going to demand it be played; no serious talk about poetry was going to take place in this studio—Paul had brought ‘his Yoko’ (guitar) to Collins’ sacred interview—it was the rock star’s space, not poor Billy’s. The guitar was there. And where was Billy Collins’ instrument? Billy Collins could have used his voice to quote great poetry throughout the interview; what would Paul McCartney have thought of that? Collins didn’t dare.
Collins did get to play teacher to the pop genius for a couple minutes: that’s what most poets are today—university professors. The interview was at a college because Paul is a step parent of a college student. So Collins read a little from Paul’s book of published poetry, declaring it “good;” probably an agonizing couple of minutes for the pop star—McCartney’s “poetry”—and it must be obvious to everyone—is exceedingly average.
Collins did stumble on an interesting topic when he asked Paul about cover songs. Collins assumed that Paul had all sorts of opinions about others who covered Beatle songs, but Paul honestly said he was happy with anyone who played his music—“Wouldn’t you be happy if you heard someone on a street corner reciting one of your poems?” he asked Collins, and of course the sheepish response was yes.
This led to McCartney’s necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention anecdote, which does throw an interesting light on creation and performance: when the Beatles were first playing out in the shows that featured lots of other rock-and-roll bands, the Beatles used play-lists of “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard (1956 hit) and other songs by contemporary artists—the Beatles in the early days played other people’s material, not their own. What happened was, that bands who went on stage before the Beatles, would be covering the same songs—which the Beatles, fearing repetition, then couldn’t play. And so, simply to avoid this problem, the Beatles wrote their own songs.
Paul said he dreamed “Yesterday,” and that he was sure at first that he copped a song that already existed.
Paul’s humility—one which humbly celebrates that creation is nothing but a kind of absent-minded, fortuitous imitation—was something that Collins, the modern poet and “Beatles fan” couldn’t get his head around.
For imitation is finally at the heart of the whole matter: beware, beware, said Plato of imitation—do not trust art and its imitative reality.
To imitate is—to fool.
Today we have different brands of fancy yogurt—with 0% fat. Yogurt today, aping the original product, is robbed of an essential ingredient by diet faddists. Imitation of the old is practiced by the fraudulent—to lure fans to a fad. (Animal fat is good for you. Imitation non-fat yogurt, extremely popular, is actually bad for you. We should be wary of imitation, even as we admit how ubiquitous it is.)
The young, white Beatles played black music for millions of new, white “fans.” (Viewing on You Tube recently a June, 1965 concert in Paris, when the Beatles were at the height of Beatlemania fame, I noticed that the song played by the Beatles that got the audience most exited and brought out the most police protection was not a Beatles song; it was—Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.”)
McCartney knows what the game finally involves, and what a “fan” really is—a foolish, bankrupt, byproduct of purely cynical and expedient imitation which attaches itself to something else—race, sex, etc—specifically to cater to new audiences for new sales.
The irony that Paul’s claim to fame is called, “Yesterday,” and that, despite his enormous talent, he has not produced anything memorable or critically acclaimed in the last two-thirds of his long, productive life, hovers over his current notoriety—a notoriety still able to steamroll Billy Collins and any poet who sits across from him.
The Beatles were a business. They were in the music business. They wrote their own songs out of necessity, and those songs were created from a knowledge of other songs the Beatles absorbed as they were growing up and listening to their parents’ music—a vast, expansive library of old, lovely, tuneful music, too large for any ear to grasp, and later, American blues and country music, rock and roll music which already existed, which they learned as they played together in Liverpool, and then in Hamburg for hours and hours, weeks and weeks, months and months, and then back to Liverpool, over a period of years: the “10,000 hours to become proficient” formula was cited by Collins. Paul agreed that all those hours of playing, especially the long hours of performing in Hamburg long before the Beatles were famous, helped tremendously. It enabled them to play a great version of “Long Tall Sally,” for instance.
Paul did mention that he had a great English teacher in school who taught Shakespeare and Keats and Chaucer. Chaucer’s dirty bits got the students’ attention, Paul recalled, and he said if he were not a rock musician, his next choice of vocation would be a teacher of literature.
Why were the two—McCartney the lyric pop song writer, and Collins, the poet—unable to connect?
Collins played the fan, and Paul, the success.
Perhaps the great divide is this: Song: I love you. Literature: Let us examine what ‘I love you’ really means.
The theme of “appealing to girls” was a strong one. When Collins brandished students’ questions at the end of their talk, he made a point of saying that some of the questions were “can I meet you, later?”
Paul has often admitted, cheekily, the Beatles were formed “to meet girls,” and when he and Collins briefly discussed early Beatle lyrics the mockery was palpable: “love me, do;” “please, please me;” “she loves you.”
But the devil is in the details, and details were what the two refused to discuss.
This is what the “specialization” of modernism has done: it has made everyone generally ignorant.
The interview, by the logic of specialization, was forced into the following category: Famous Pop Musician Interview. This is where it remained.
McCartney, a phenomenal success in his field, seemed utterly ignorant of poetry; Collins, successful in poetry, seemed utterly ignorant of song.
In the modern age, we seem to like it this way. We prefer to be blind in a sea of “experts” and “specialists,” even when it hinders a great deal of interest and pleasure.
The English teacher—the one who obviously shaped McCartney—once imparted general knowledge: Shakespeare’s poetry was simply, the world.
But Shakespeare’s towering acheivement is now considered not “specialized” enough.
The student of poetry in the Creative Writing Program New Order is now a diarist who specializes in themselves. This is the specialization which now dominates everything and fosters general ignorance.
The truth is that “She Loves You” is a lot more interesting than “I Love You”—it is a whole order of magnitude more interesting. It involves three people instead of two, and is, in fact, a master Shakesperian stroke. Collins was ignorant of this, and even Paul seemed so, as well. Early Beatle work was dismissed by both men as juvenile. Popular song, even as popular as the phenomenal success of the Beatles, was assumed—by two men who should have known better—to have absolutely no poetic interest. And somehow love songs—music “appealing to girls,” was assumed to be vacuous, when, in fact, nothing is more interesting and complex than love and its attractions.
But this is what happens in an age of specialization.
Love belongs to friendship and sex to the prostitute.
Everything is business. Everything is expediently separated out—to the destruction of the whole person. This alienation brought about by division of labor overlaps the Marxist complaint—which makes sense on its own, without having to get into a Left v. Right quarrel, or a Socialist v. Capitalist one—more specialized nonsense that covers up what unites us. Division of labor here and there has its place, obviously, but one can see how, in modernity, it simply gets out of hand, killing the whole person.
When does division help? Certainly the Marxist complaint against division of labor can get out of hand, as well.
Why should we rue the fact that Collins is Collins and McCartney is McCartney? Perhaps it is good neither artist understands the others’ art—isn’t this what makes each excellent? Isn’t it good that song is with song, and poetry is with poetry? Perhaps modern specialization and its divisions make perfect sense. We simply can’t have Shakespeare anymore: the best we can do is have a McCartney here and a Collins there.
Or: perhaps the Beatles output as a whole could only have happened because of Shakespeare, and poetry in general will decline if we forget general knowledge and indulge in highly modernist, Creative Writing Program, specializing.
Paul’s song “For No One” belongs to the Beatles earlier period, or, perhaps more accurately, the middle “Yesterday” period—and this remarkable song has no chance in the Collins universe which divides the Beatles work into unsophisticated “love songs” and sophisticated songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Penny Lane.”
It might be argued that Paul wrote “Yesterday” as a revenge against “Long Tall Sally,” the song that perhaps in the boys’ minds remained their best Beatlemania song, despite all their original output.
“For No One” emerged during the “Yesterday” period, and received little attention—fans liked it, but it was just another “love song.” Critics liked it, too, and some admired it as more sophisticated than “yea, yea, yea,” but Billy Collins wasn’t going to bring it up. It remains an obscure Beatle song.
But this is the sort of Modernist mistake which boasts that everything 19th century is naivé and sing-songy and no one needs to write like Keats and Byron anymore, and that crunchy content is everything. But the truth of the matter is that simple words can be very profound, and the song “For No One” is a very profound song.
The modern prose poem which Collins writes relies on crunchy content to carry its message. And humor. And Collins happens to be very good at this kind of poem—Collins really is as good in this area as McCartney is in his.
The point of this essay is not that McCartney is a greater genius than Collins—only to observe the intersection between a sensibility based on modern poetry and a sensibility based on pop music within the context of: What is art? What is significant? What is valuable? What contributes to the making of art?
Music adds to what Paul is doing as a poet in his songs: “she loves you” written on the page is not the same as “she loves you” sung with music in the Lennon-McCartney composition. But that does not mean “she loves you” is not poetry, nor does it mean that poets do not have the music of words at their disposal—they certainly do, even as metrical language and rhyme tends to be eschewed by modern poets like Collins.
Another feature of modern poetry which is relevant and makes it so different from a pop music sensibility is the pride of exclusivity—the powerful New Critic idea that worthy, sophisticated poetry needs and wants nothing from outside. This New Critical view inhibits truth, for all art is formed by what happens outside of it, and this is one more unfortunate, if noble, error the modernists made.
The truth is finally what we seek—whether it is in science, in love, in politics, or in art.
If we view poetry through the modernist lens that a poem exists on an island of its own making, we cannot possibly see the truth of what makes McCartney’s music interesting.
Collins, schooled in modernist poetry, praised later Beatle compositions like “Eleanor Rigby,” since they feature “characters” in a little drama: there on the island of Paul’s song is a unique world, a unique character named Eleanor Rigby—enough to please any modernist New Critic. And the song is a good one, spoiled a little by the lyrics which telegraph its message: “look at all the lonely people.”
But what Collins cannot appreciate is this:
“Eleanor Rigby” features an interesting metrical/music based on a pronounced dactylic/trochaic rhythm.
The character’s name in Paul’s composition couldn’t be Eleanor Smith—based on sound alone.
If her name were Eleanor Smith, it would be a different song—rhythmically and melodically. A totally different song. But in a Collins poem, changing Eleanor Rigby to Eleanor Smith would hardly matter.
These sorts of considerations are just as important in early Beatle songs as later Beatle songs. They used to be important in poetry, too. Collins, the modern poet, is fixated on Eleanor Rigby, the character, but she’s not a character. She’s a piece of rhythm. Collins, as a modern poet, has a limited appreciation of pop music. Rhythm used to be crucial in poetry, but since modernism, it no longer is.
Paul, who was writing rhythmical poetry in his Beatle songs unconsciously, attempted to write what he thought was “real poetry” for his book, Blackbird Singing, and failed.
The truth is this: poems are not islands: it matters very much how they get made, and Paul wildly successful, and, at the same time, humble and humorous and without pretence, admitted that the Beatles’ creativity was extremely imitative and accidental—the Beatles’ “creativity” existed in the context of merely expanding a crowd-pleasing playlist containing a certain type of composition which they were basically imitating in the manner of excited boys trying to please girls.
But genius can grow in any soil, and the plainer and simpler the soil, the more profoundly is genius able to display itself. Genius is not a complication within a complication; genius is that which blows complication to bits. And the truth is always the larger truth: what are all the facts about this poem-song?
Paul wrote “For No One” on a ski holiday with Jane Asher in March, 1966, roughly a year after “Yesterday” and it has the same theme, only expressed in a slightly more dramatic way. But it wasn’t on Collins’ radar because “For No One” only uses “you” and “her,” and doesn’t have a real crunchy content. It happens to be one of those exquisite pop songs which teeters on the edge of “poetry,” and yet wouldn’t really turn heads as a poem, if it were just presented on the page.
But what is amazing is that “for no one,” the phrase itself, has a meaning that is ambiguous in the song—“cried for no one” refers to the woman who is leaving the man, the woman who has now moved on—and so we have emotion (“cried”) coupled with indifference (“for no one”).
“No One” turns out to have meaning outside the song itself, if we think of Paul McCartney’s actual identity as a writer of hit songs.
The phrase may refer to: 1. the faceless crowd (which is “no one”) 2. himself, who is “no one” compared to the famous songwriter Beatle, 3. The famous songwriter Beatle, who is “no one” compared to Paul, the person, 4. John, who was pulling away from him as co-songwriter and friend, and thus, “no one,” or 5. “no one” needs or truly expresses insincere pop song emotions in pop songs.
All these work—outside of the poignant and relevant meaning “for no one” has within the song.
This is the sort of territory we hoped Collins might have ventured into in his discussion with McCartney, but nothing like this could occur. Specialization—Collins’ role as humbled modernist poet/pop fan—prevents it.
There’s a You Tube video of Paul in the studio with just an acoustic guitar, as he first auditions “For No One” for Beatles’ producer George Martin, and one is struck immediately by the confidence, the melodic invention, the nonchalant effort of the genius, who plays the song quickly, it pouring out of him, seemingly without thought. And we notice something else: “For No One” concerns the saddest situation it is possible to experience in ordinary life: loving someone who no longer cares about you—and yet, despite the poignancy and misery expressed overtly by the lyrics, Paul, as he plays it in all its expressive sadness, smiles at one point, and is thoroughly enjoying himself. He is able to be two-sided, not weighed down by the weight, Paul McCartney taking flight into a heaven of accomplishment and pleasure—even in the very misery of the subject of the song.