So, decades ago, I studied the rhythms and rhymes of the written word. An English major with a bent toward creative writing, I took courses on crafting fiction, nonfiction and poetry alongside classes that analyzed the same. Which is to say, I put pen to paper and played with meaning, meter and metaphor just about every day and, when not doing that, read classic and contemporary works. Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara and Wallace Stevens were and remain among my favorite poets. (Astute readers may recognize some or all their names, as I’ve referenced each in various musings through the years, including here, here and here.) Certain works by them – and others – bonded with my soul.
But I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life writing about TV, massaging metadata and, as evidenced by this blog, pontificating about “music, memories and other stuff.” At best, then, I’m little more than a casual aficionado who browses the Poetry Foundation website and such webzines as Passengers Journal from time to time; at worst, I’m an aging jester who’s fool enough to think himself king, pronouncing edicts on everything. To borrow a few lines from Walt Whitman, “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,/Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,/Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,/Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine…”
Just as with music, in other words, I’m not an omniscient overlord when it comes to poetry, literature and art. I know what I know and, more importantly, what I don’t. At the end of the day, I’m just someone who enjoys weaving words together into tapestries, aka essays and reviews, even when the results turn out, as they often do, somewhat frayed.
I share all that for context’s sake.
I can say without equivocation, however, that one mistake many folks make is to equate song lyrics to poetry. Lyrics can indeed be poetic – but, then, so can prose. Rhymes alone do not a poem make; in fact, rhymes aren’t even a requirement. A good poem is akin to a painting, in a sense, with each syllable a brush stroke. The words, syntax and structure combine to create an image (or series of same) that celebrates and questions, loves and longs, and always, always, crystallizes a truth about the oft-messy essence that is life. Lyrics share many of those same traits, of course, but calling them poetry is like calling a screenplay a short story or novel. They have much in common and a similar purpose, but are different art forms.
That’s not to say all songwriters aren’t poets and all lyrics aren’t poems; exceptions exist – Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith come to mind, as does Suzanne Vega. But when left naked on a page, lyrics still work in concert with their accompanying melodies, which have (often) long been hardwired into our brains. They are half – sometimes less, sometimes more – of a larger whole. Poems, on the other hand, stand on their own.
I assumed a tome of song lyrics was what Courtney Marie Andrews had planned when, last fall, she announced her intent to release a poetry collection. As I’m a fan, I thought the idea grand even while I admittedly winced at the word choice. Then I read a few poems that she shared on Facebook, Instagram and her Patreon club, which I belonged to for a spell. They weren’t lyrics divorced from music, as I feared, but free-verse accounts of moments in time – and thankfully shorn of the faux sophistication and greeting-card sentimentality that mars many a would-be poet’s efforts.
Old Monarch is the title of said collection. It’s named not after Elizabeth II (or, for that matter, Carl XVI Gustaf), but the butterfly, which is a solitary creature. It contains 71 poems broken up into three sections that loosely equate to the arc of her life to date: “Sonoran Milkweed,” “Longing In Flight” and “Eucalyptus Tree (My Arrival to Rest).” The poems travel from her childhood in Arizona through to the present, ending with her wish to be buried in a garden. The poems reflect her specific journey, no doubt, but we see aspects of ourselves in them, as well.
Me being me, however, I didn’t read the collection in order, but instead fluttered back and forth through the timeline. The realization gleaned from “Modern Nostradamus,” that many folks only share their forewarnings after the fact, fell before “Before It All,” when she recalls when she “was still mystified/by earth’s daily treasures” (though there is more to the poem than that). “Messenger,” about how the death of a great horned owl now seems an omen for a faltering relationship, still landed in the middle.
Along the way, we’re introduced to her flawed but loving mother and, in one of my favorite pieces, her grandfather, who avoids eye contact in order to keep the kids from seeing his “old sorrow too long in the sun.” Those early years, like many childhoods, weren’t perfect but, as the Swedish TV series Blue Skies reminded me recently, “if you don’t know your past, you can’t understand the present and can’t shape the future.” That she’s looking back and seeing things as they were, not as she wishes, is important.
To that end, she muses philosophical while exploring matters of the heart, often turning her lens inward (“I am a lonely merry-go-round circulating togetherness”). She exorcises her past and present in “Morning Meditation” by imagining a meadow in her mind. If she can reach it, she knows she can “make it another day.” It’s a propulsive poem, I should mention, and in some ways I see it as the centerpiece of the collection. In “Point of View,” she owns what she perceives a flaw in her approach to love (that I’d argue isn’t a flaw but a strength): “The problem is, I see/the Nantucket sunset once/and believe it’s forever.”
Through it all, she employs a filbert brush to create vivid word pictures, often conveying complex, philosophical thoughts with a few deft strokes. Rhymes are rarely present, but a gentle rhythm is. Some poems are concise meditations, no more than a few lines long, while others span the page or pages. (Breathe easy, however: There’s nothing near as long as W.H. Auden’s “New Year Letter.”)
All of which leads to this: No matter how one reads the book, in or out of order, it’s well worth the endeavor. An audiobook version, in which she reads her poems in a neutral tone, is also available; it, obviously, presents the poems in order and runs a smidgen past an hour. I listened to it yesterday morning and again today – it’s quite compelling to hear her recite her work, and I often found myself reading along in my physical copy. It also features what, in an online conversation with the poet Karla K. Morton, she called “zen instrumentals” between sections. (Literally, just a harp-like strum of the guitar.) She also sings one line in “If I Were a Painter.”
I won’t lie and say that the poems in Old Monarch have displaced the favorites of my college years. But I’m not a curmudgeon forever exclaiming things were better in the olden days. (Though, truth be told, some things were.) My mind is open. Instead, I’ll simply say that – just as with her music a few years back – her poems have taken hold of my imagination. I look forward to her next collection.
Thanks OGC! Wonderful essay on poetry, literature and art.
Need to listen more to CMA. As you know, we think along similar lines when it comes to Neil Young.
Never really found Neil’s work to be poetic in the sense that you mention Bob, Joni , or Patti.
As the days roll by, we do find ourselves saying is anyone coming up creating art for the ages?
So much today is so awfully dreadful it astounds how anyone can present as “art”. But that seems to be the definition of art .. anything goes. oh well.
Well, hopefully, CMA is one such soul with purity of creative soul.
Walt Whitman, “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,/Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,/Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,/Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine…”
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Finding great “young” artists is a challenge in today’s landscape, no doubt, but they are out there!