So, as those of you joining my online listening group next term will discover, I reckon pop songs and other assorted detritus from rock ‘n’ roll culture are a great jumping off point for writing poems. Whether it’s the thump of a tom-tom, feedback whistling round your brain, even the sheen of an ill-advised leather jump suit worn by a 70s prog rock tribute band, there is lots for your poetic ear and eye to latch on.
Below, in no particular order, are my favourite five moments in pop music when poetry has crash landed into it. Some of these are artistic, some of these are lunatic, some of these are obvious; hopefully all of them show that these two worlds are not as far apart as you might have first thought.
1. The Verve perform grand lyric theft upon William Blake
You have been lauded as the cosmic spokesman of your generation. Despite this, and your skyscraping acid fried rock, you haven’t been able to hold your band together, and you split with a fuddled acrimony and a strong and lingering sense of what might have been. What else are you to do except, through blatent larceny, attempt to claim that you are true inheritor of Blake’s wisdom of innocence and experience by, um, ‘being strongly inspired’ by ‘London’ and declaring on the single cover that ‘All farewells should be sudden’. Of course, when you perform the trick again a few years later, people nod sagely admiring how “dark satanic mills” have become “bright prosaic malls”, man.
2. The Waterboys corral WB Yeats into their big music
Wide-eyed charmer and modern troubadour Mike Scott has always evinced the air of man who would rather than have been a poet than a leader of a band of wandering minstrels, failing to hide his knack of bashing out a melody that milkmen spend days whistling. So it was no real surprise when, in 2011, he went the full poetic fig and pressed Yeats into service as a lyricist, and set a number of his poems to music on An Appointment With Mr Yeats. The wonderful surprise was that it worked a treat – who knew that with the right touch, William Butler could rock quite bloody hard?
3. Everything Everything rewrite WH Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ I think
If you’re not hip to Everything Everything, you really should be. One of Britain’s best young bands, they’re intelligent, hip, possessed of a thrilling artistry, aysmmetric haircuts and a fondness for dressing up in silly monk-like robes. They’re our Talking Heads and you’ll thank me when you can still see them in a small venue rather than at the back of Wembley Stadium. And in Jonathan Higgs they have of the most elusive yet lucid lyricists working today. Now, I haven’t yet had the chance to fully elucidate this theory, but my contention here is that on ‘MY KZ, UR BF’ he has basically re-written Auden’s classic. You can do your own compare and contrast here and here, but I think the clincher is something to do with the boy falling out of the sky, landing in the Faraday cage.
4. Patti Smith invites Kevin Shields into The Coral Sea
Seeing Patti Smith and Kevin Shields of art-rock noisenik pioneers My Bloody Valentine perform this at the Southbank Centre a few years ago was one of the more thrilling moments of my life, her incantation straining over the restless churning whirl of sound a moment of genuine revelation as to what can happen when a poetic text is liberated from the page. Inevitably the book when it appeared a few years later didn’t have quite the same force. Get the album, and revel in what a poem can do when it is sustained, and all-embracing in its sonic attack.
5. The Smiths muster at the Cemetery Gates
Come on, you didn’t think this wouldn’t be on the list, did you? Have you picked your side yet?
Dive into the lyrics, traditions, subjects and themes of great (and not-so-great) songwriters, on Rishi’s new online reading and listening group, The Lyric iPod. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.