POETRY FOUND DEAD, SURVIVED BY PROSE, POPULAR SONG

“I woke up with a lovely tune in my head. I thought, ‘That’s great. I wonder what that is?'” He got up that morning in May 1965, went to the piano, and began playing the melody that would become “Yesterday.” At first, lacking lyrics, he improvised with ” Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs.”

I’m a sucker for the golden mean.

I love the idea of music that appeals to all.  When I have ideas about music, my thinking tends to go in the direction of popular song.  Is this why I’m a poet? 

I enjoy pure music without any ideas.  Popular music, on the other hand, fills me with ideas.

I wonder, for instance, if John Ashbery could write ‘Yesterday?’  I know Ashbery could write ‘Scrambled Eggs,’ but could he write the lyrics to a song classic, like “What A Difference A Day Makes?” 

Who would win a popular ballad writing contest—Silliman or CollinsArmantrout or LeithauserWC Williams or Edna Millay?

To get the attention of Mr. Grumpy businessman gulping his morning coffee and reading his newspaper with a song (let us write off poem as hopeless) would be quite a task, something akin to moving a very large boulder.  It would require great force, and in order to find such a force, invention and ideas would need to follow.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to interest Mr. Wry, an MFA Poetry professor, in a poem (something so mundane as a song not being a possibility) I would merely have to produce a little speech on how nothing resembling an idea should ever be trusted, that ideas are for businessmen and for people who want to do violence to large rocks, and finish it off with a description of some random thing, and voila!, Mr. Wry would be mine, my task done, no boulder would need be moved at all.

The first task, involving Mr. Grumpy, though not intellectual in itself, requires ideas to effect.

The second task, involving Mr. Wry, bristles with intellectuality, but requires nothing resembling an idea—in fact, rejects the very idea of an idea as something hopelessly violent and oppressive and obvious.

As much as a scientist is a genius, the more universal are his concepts, the more universal is the practical application.

In the old days, the author wrote for everyone and was more the genius the more he appealed to everyone.

The formulas and gadgets of the scientist may be obscure and difficult to comprehend, but the end of these complex formulas is always universal application.

The poet is not a scientist just because the poet produces formulas and gadgets that are not easily understood; to be understood in his ‘gadgets and his formulas’ is precisely why he writes fiction, and not science.  To be understood is the writer’s calling.   The scientist impacts the material world, the writer impacts people through words, and as much as those words are understood the writer is a writer; otherwise he would be a scientist.  

An obscure writer may be a scientist, but while he is being obscure, he is a scientist only, and perhaps a very great one, but not a writer.  The obscurity may eventually blossom into real-life material impact, and that material impact would be proof of the science involved; but obscurity is never the writer’s domain—unless he be a scientist and not a writer, and then we expect some material and practical impact from his obscurity.   The scientist, too, may be understood by the many, but only if formulas and gadgets lead to practical results is there ever a reason to celebrate obscurity in what the scientist does.

The composer is writing songs, then, while the scientist is developing new instruments.  A songwriter may use an instrument, a songwriter may even write a song so interesting that it demands a new instrument, and in that sense art can inspire science, but a song is a song, a poem is a poem, always comprehended as such on the surface as far as they are so, and those who would call them science do a grave injustice to songwriter Sam and scientist Sally.  The two may end up in bed.  But they are not the same.

I am really not sure why song-writing is not a part of every poet’s arsenal.  Bob Dylan is known as a poet because he wrote songs; music did not come looking for Dylan’s words, as Schubert’s music came looking for the poems of Goethe, and thus poems were converted into songs.  The talents used to be more separate, the gifted lyric-writer and song-writer often lived in separate worlds, and the singer in still another one.  Then Robert Zimmerman turned into Bob Dylan and millons have followed in Zimmerman’s footsteps.  Now poets are like half-persons with no music.  Have the poets spurned the singer, or have the singers rejected the poets?   The poetry certainly makes songs better.  “Yesterday” would have died unknown had it remained “Scrambled eggs.”  And did Shakespeare write opera without music?  Was Shakespeare not a half-person at all, but more whole than we realize, completed by a high-speech music?  Is this all elevated speech is?  Speech as a kind of music?

Does poetry not really exist?

Is there only prose?

And music?

Is poetry only the ingredient common to both, but invisible, causing them to rise, like yeast, but never tasted in the bread, never perceived in the product itself?

Is poetry written as poetry a great mistake, the isolation of what cannot live in isolation?  And, when we succeed in writing it, are we not really writing it at all—but only a prose or a music that devoured it when we were not looking?

Maria Grever, the prolific Mexican songwriter, composer of “Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado” (What A Difference A Day Makes).

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