When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature there was plenty of guff about challenging the distinction between high and low art, about whether his lyrics were "good enough" to be called poetry, about what it might mean to be "waiting for a voice"
instead of a text. This comes down to a division between poetry (important art) and musical lyrics (unimportant art) that, despite lip service towards oral traditions of poetry, generally finds its end in the following convenient definition (here, courtesy Dylan himself): “Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem. Anything I can’t sing or anything that’s too long to be a poem, I call a novel."
I'd consider Joanna Newsom a poet just going by the most cursory read of her written lyrics
, but here's the thing. The question is not "Can... the lyrics hold up without the music, just the words on a piece of paper?"
(the form of acid test that, say, Leonard Cohen handily passes), but: is it desireable to separate them? How useful is it to exclude performance (because it is the fact of popular sound recordings being the dominant "art delivery vehicle" that is the contentious issue here) from a definition of poetry or literature?
Newsom writes allusive and complex lyrics dense with metaphor, pun and obscure references. The music that backs them is similarly complex, in time signature, melody and structure. The operation of lyric and music are, functionally, indivisible. I can't figure out how a Newsom song works until I figure out how to sing it, and this is often because of the density and surprises of her rhymes and how they dictate rhythmic structures.
Often too, meaning, metaphor, and connection are only fully awoken or active in the context of being sung, the performative twist, or the melodic or album structure. Her narratives and musical forms are circular, repetitious, and echoing (in Divers
, for instance, the last song's final word is "transcend", cut off abruptly halfway into "tran"; and guess what, the first song's first word is "sending"). While an album can be likened to a poetry collection in the way its components speak to each other, an album is also a fixed performance, a statement of text's sound
, and for Newsom, sound is a critical aspect of poetic language.
Taking this down to a very basic level, consider the rhymes of Goose Eggs, from Divers
(2015). Newsom's sweet, mouthful vocal style may be an acquired taste (she is, of course, a weirdo, which is always to be encouraged) or initially seem like a cheap reliance on cutesiness. But once you've clicked in to her vibe, it's apparent that she puts immense effort and thought into both writing and performance. Goose Eggs demonstrates how deeply the stuff of words, of poetic meaning and correspondence, rely upon performance -- on the way she manipulates words and lines in her mouth -- instead of the written text.
Highlighted below are the two most important vowel sounds in the song, the "geese" sound (represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet
as /i/) and the "goose" sound (/ʉ/ in the wild, rhyming with "moose", but the way she sings it here, it's /u/, further back in the mouth).
The most striking line, to me, is "A goose, alone, I suppose, can know the loneliness of geese" in which she bends every dominant vowel sound, the /ʉ/ of goose (and vamoose) and the /o/ of alone, suppose, know, loneliness, into a /u/, identical to the way she pronounces use, refuse and news, until we smash hard up against change, the /i/ of geese. Moreover, "suppose" is really "'spose", to preserve the scansion in which /u/ appears every other syllable.
This is a choice of performance and writing together
and it has meaning. From the preceding verse /u/ has been the terminal rhyme, high and remote at the back of the mouth, associated with the past and failure, and the narrator (the singular goose) who is focussed on her work instead of relationships and the natural world. After this point the /i/ of the plural geese explodes into the song and becomes the dominant terminal and internal rhyme, as the narrator opens herself up to her and her friend's wider stories, and what they mean, and where that leaves them.
(I particularly love the choice of "Vs", the flight patterns of flocks of geese, as an /i/ rhyme).
Again, this is a choice. The sound often occurs with an unvoiced /s/ (as in "geese" and "recently") and she regularly ignores final consonants (there's no t in "east", apparently). Similarly, you /yʉ/ (which typically rhymes with goose, ie "you silly goose") is avoided, turned into ya /yä/ or y' /yə/ where necessary.
This attention to using words for the way they sound is everywhere. Newsom commonly inserts rapid internal rhymes in her lyrics: built/stilled, train/plain, learn/burn, and so on. The final stanza has a great example of this in her California vowel shift (/ɑ/ becomes /ɔ/) that turns talk, cause, and flock into rhymes. These rhymes also rely on the unreleased velar stop of /k/ that is also associated with /o/ in other verses (spoke, broken); an /o/ that also determinedly features in the manipulated lines "had to go
/ and you caught that flight out of Co
The song (and her entire oeuvre) is filled with moments like this, that wouldn't "work" in the same way as plain words on plain paper would, read by anyone anywhere. Listen to the way she trebles the /ɛ/ sound in "at last (at least)": /ɛt lɛst ɛt list/. In my normal spoken accent, this doesn't occur, and the relationship between "last" and "least" is diminished, where the /a/ in last is a wide open sound that happens in the middle of the mouth, instead of the more frontal and constricted /ɛ/ and /i/.
The "written text" definition of poetry prioritises multiplicity over fixity, the privacy of language, the internal and reading process and the alchemy by which another's words become one's own. In this sense, it sets the reader above the author, that heralded New Criticism democratisation, and one of the great recuperating claims Literature makes for being not irrelevant -- it is high art because
it is of the people, you see: the idea that Dylan is the voice of the commoner, the downtrodden, the people, is no small part of how he got away with the Nobel.
But there is also power in hearing the author, the poet herself. Goose Eggs contains an arrogant authorial request: listen to me, the way I want to say it. I picture Newsom singing as she writes, pen in hand, looping spirographic connections between words and stanzas and songs as she manipulates phonetic and morphemic correspondences, references, and doublings. While it's relatively common for celebrated lyricists to put out collections of their lyrics as little books of poetry, and I could not object to Newsom for doing so, it almost seems beside the point: this is a literature and an exploration of language that's meant to be heard, not read.