Skylark, have you anything to say to Billy Collins?

We are surprised to learn poetry ever makes the news. But over at the Poetry Foundation, we found, under “poetry news,” this, from a Billy Collins interview in the Wall Street Journal: ‘“Lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,’ Billy Collins recently told The Wall Street Journal. ‘I assure them [his students] that Jim Morrison is not a poet in any sense of the word.'” So, it’s an argument of definition: what is poetry, and, whatever it is, can it exist apart from its accompaniment? This is when Jack Benny folds his arms, brings his hand to his chin, looks over his right shoulder, and sighs, rolling his eyes upward, to the corners, and wide, “Well!,” for surely Billy Collins is as wrong as a jackhammer on a holiday, and we find ourselves agreeing with Kristen Hoggatt, over at The Smart Set: “…come on, poets, let’s get off our high horses….”

But whether he’s on a high horse or a low one, isn’t lyrical poetry what Billy Collins writes? But Collins isn’t the first critic who would close the sacred canon’s door to songs – Leslie Fiedler opened that door in Liberations (1971), his delayed thesis of “The Children’s Hour” the right trap for those waxing pedantically like Collins, but, alas, the door keeps banging open and shut, in spite of Fiedler’s attempt to nail it open: “…downright contradictory notions of what poetry is or ought to be…stated…by different spokesmen to different audiences, existing in mutual ignorance or contempt of each other.” And to what end? For what Fiedler values, which he makes clear at the end of his essay, is “…remembering…as if there were ever a time when, at the levels touched by song, we were any of us anything else [young].” For it’s the song that we remember, and the song allows for poetry.

Yet there’s more to song lyrics than what we hear in popular rock music. Does Billy Collins also think that Noel Coward “is not a poet in any sense of the word”? Or Hoagy Carmichael? Or Johnny Mercer? Woody Guthrie? And what of the libretto?

But to Billy’s point that “lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,” as Fiedler illustrated, almost embarrassingly, poetry began in song, so, yes, exactly so, as so much of today’s poetry is also separated from its music, from its musical source, and, where there is no music, it continues to be argued, there is no poetry. How can Billy remain so malinformed? For we’ve been canonizing non-literary systems for some time now, in literature and in art, and, increasingly, though not soon enough, in religion. Consider this, for example, from 1991, by Rakefet Sheffy (Tel-Aviv University) already nearly 20 years old, but right on: “The Case of the Modern American Popular Song and its Contact with Poetry”: “Once the artistry of songwriting was recognized in literary terms, a canon of popular song began to be reconstructed in various ways, for example by reconsidering antecedent non-literary texts, issuing lyrics in book form, writing the history of the popular song, exploring and documenting its forms and styles, and institutionalizing its own criticism. Consequently, a whole body of cultural elements, which up to that moment were considered trivial, worthless or subversive, came to be regarded as a legitimate repertory available also to avant-gardist songwriters, this time, however, regardless of their initial ideological background or their affiliations with the literary system.”

Come back to the raft, Billy, we got a song for ya. But you have to sing it – it’s a dose of orality.

See also prior post referencing Fiedler and the either/or poetry definition fallacy here.

“Skylark,” music by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, has been covered by many artitists (e.g. K. D. Lang in the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

J. D. Salinger’s Advice to Adelia Moore: Write as a Child

Adelia Moore, apparently an old fashioned English major, knew Jerry, had tea and lunch with him, even argued with him (over Vietnam), and received this stunning bit of advice from him, when she was but 20 years old: “If you haven’t published by age 21, you might as well forget it.” Adelia calls it “…his blunt advice about writing.” But is it advice about writing, or sarcasm about publishing? Was it meant to be taken literally, a literal cutoff – as if to say, “If you haven’t published by the time you’re old enough to drink, forget about it.” Or is it a practical kind of cynicism, as if to say, “You want to make it early, so like me you can kick back and not have to write anything more.” Salinger’s first short story was published in 1940, when he was 21. His last published work was in 1965, when he was 46. He died, a little over a month ago, at the age of 91. In “Tea with Jerry” (March 1, Christian Science Monitor), Moore shares her experience with the private writer in 1969, four years after his last published work. Did he know at the time – might he have added, “As for me, I’ll never publish another word”?

“There is a feeling in many quarters that altogether too much fuss is being made about J. D. Salinger,” Henry Grunwald wrote in his introduction to the 1962 collection of critical pieces titled Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, a major effort to explain a “good minor writer,” whose popularity with the general interest reader rankles some of the critics. Salinger wrote at a time when the general interest reader still read stories, when the New Yorker still opened its pages, after The Talk of the Town section, with a couple of short stories, and general interest readers looked forward with general interest to a Saturday afternoon with The Saturday Review. No doubt the twittering in those days went on at Saturday night cocktail parties, face to face, where faces were faces and books were books, even if the faces were books to be read and not the other way around. And Monday one met with one’s shrink to purge the weekend’s bluish-bile.

I don’t know if Adelia Moore became a writer or not. Perhaps “Tea with Jerry” is her magnum opus, the satisfaction of a writer’s spring aspirations killed by a late frost growing back in fall. One of Grunwald’s chapters is called “The Cures for Banana Fever,” a reference to Salinger’s short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” where we get Seymour Glass’s breaking: “The disease has two symptoms: a kind of incapacity to purge one’s emotions, and a chronic hypersensitivity or sense of loss” (p. 126). These symptoms describe a childhood disease.

Why would Salinger have told Adelia to “forget about it” if she had not published by age 21? Perhaps the answer is found in Leslie Fiedler’s piece in Salinger, “The Eye of Innocence”: “The notion that a mere falling short of adulthood is a guarantee of insight and even innocence is a sophisticated view, a latter-day Pastoralism, which finds a Golden Age not in history but at the beginning of each lifetime” (p. 242). Perhaps what Jerry was trying to tell Adelia was that she had to write as a child; it would be no good to write as an adult.

Leslie Fiedler and the Either/Or Fallacy of Poetic Criticism

Perhaps there are only two kinds of poetry, still only two kinds of poems. Dichotomy makes for easy argument by eliminating all other possible alternatives. We often hear there are two schools of thought, and any ambiguity is quickly brushed away. The one poetry might be represented by T. S. Eliot, and is characterized by recondite allusion, objects removed to libraries for safe keeping, the other poetry represented by William Carlos Williams, and characterized by everyday objects close at hand, the red wheelbarrow, the icebox. How quickly though this argument ignores the actual words, as we forget Eliot’s elusive but simple, figurative cat hidden in the fog of Prufrock’s meandering thoughts, and we forget too Williams’s “The Yachts,” a poem that discourages an easy swim.

Leslie Fiedler, in his essay for Liberations (1971), “The Children’s Hour: or, The Return of the Vanishing Longfellow: Some Reflections of the Future of Poetry,” argues that there are two kinds of poetry, or poetics, identified by the poems we sing and get by heart, and the poems we must read and read again to recall, for the latter can exist only on a page, poems that Fiedler says are “…dictated by typography…; for it is a truly post-Gutenberg poetry, a kind of verse not merely reproduced but in some sense produced by movable type” (150). These poems are contrasted with popular song lyrics, automatically memorized, that simply don’t work when typed on a page. To illustrate, one goes to a poetry reading, where the poet himself appears not to have his poems by heart, since he must read them from pages; or one goes to a Bob Dylan concert, where the wandering minstrel still has all the words by heart. But Dylan Thomas, reciting from memory, singing unaccompanied, disposes the either/or fallacy of the poetry reading/pop-concert argument.

Speaking of either/or, last night’s snow, still a surprise this morning, has us thinking of our south Santa Monica Bay home again, where we were surprised and nostalgically saddened on a visit to Hermosa some time ago to find the old Either/Or bookstore closed. But then again, not surprised, for the either/or fallacy often leaves too much unresolved, fails to reach the heart of any poem, fails to hear the coming of the end of one song, and the beginning of another. The bookstore was now a clothing store; apparently someone fell into the old either/or fallacy of either books or clothes, but not both.