If there’s something that you want to hear, you can sing it yourself.
— Gillian Welch, “Everything Is Free”
Gillian Welch is almost right. I can and do sing that line, with its sad downward inflection, myself: in defiance of the bright and busy morning on Broadway, or reheating lentil soup in the evening alone. It’s a line that baptizes my solitude with a note of self-love, of proud self-sufficiency, without requiring me to feel less wistful, less rueful, less wounded. But when I sing it’s not the same as when she sings. Her voice is unfiltered honey, it flows slow, and her guitar picks an alternative path through her pain, the muscle memory of the chords always one step ahead of her hard-won words. I have no guitar. If there’s something that I want to hear, I can’t sing it myself, quite, so it’s really the words that stay mine, and that I quote when someone asks me what poetry’s for: “If there’s something that you want to hear, you can sing it yourself.”
Where did the music go? My mother likes to say, “You listen for lyrics, I listen for melody.” And it’s true that I’m a nonstop party trick. It’s not so much that I’m good at burning through a rap track when it comes on at the club—I’m strong in my bracket (female, white-presenting) but a tricky flow (Kendrick Lamar, Big Boi) is hard for me to ride. It’s what goes on outside the club. I have a line at hand for every mood. Sometimes it’s Bob Dylan when I’m drawing blood on a writing deadline: “Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine.” On Tinder, it’s Jay Z: “Sensitive thugs, y’all all need hugs.” In moments of self-sabotage it’s also Jay: “An appetite for destruction but I scrape the plate.” Existential distress is Biggie: “I know my mother … don’t even love me like she did when I was younger / Suckin’ on her chest just to stop my fuckin’ hunger.” And always, every morning, dizzy with the northern light I can’t bring myself to black out, it’s Whitney: “How will I know? How will I know? How will I know? How will I know?”
The music is still there, the ghost in the machine of my quotation. I can’t get those harmonies out of my head. It’s not that I don’t hear the music, or that it’s secondary to the words with their promise of meaning, or that I don’t want to hold onto it all, the 808s, the horn solo, the catch in the breath. I try. In fact, I’m wired up almost always: on the subway, walking to class. Reading, even. But being wired up—grateful as I am for my infinite mixtape, my pocket-sized brain—is a kind of spiritual life support. I don’t feel I have Joni Mitchell’s “California” when she’s in my earbuds. After all, she’s just streaming. Queen of the (Spotify) Slipstream: “Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man”? Plugged in on another app?
The poet Robert Hass has a wonderful essay about prosody—rhythm, meter, form— called “Listening and Making.” He doesn’t explicate his title, but I think he’s pointing to the tight link between the two: listening incites making, but it’s a different activity. I like listening, but I’m with Emily Dickinson: “My Business is to Sing.” I like hearing, but I want to have. And I want to have because I want to give.
The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else.
— Bob Dylan
Emily Dickinson wasn’t famous for her sweet voice—though she sang hymns, collected sheet music and improvised at home on her father’s piano. She became famous, eventually and belatedly, for what we call poems. Recently there’s been a flurry of scholarship wondering what, exactly, she was making (poesis, from the Greek, “to make”). In The Gorgeous Nothings, Marta Werner and Jen Bervin return us to the materiality of Dickinson’s work. She often wrote on envelopes, meticulously sliced open and flattened out into a variety of shapes in a kind of domestic origami. Sometimes she’d bind them in little booklets with a stitch; sometimes she’d send them to her many correspondents with other tokens: a pressed flower, a pencil stub. It’s hard to say what the relationship was between her ear for music and her wish to produce these fragile, intricate objects—to “write.” I’m sure there are clues for anyone who cares to die busy in the 2,357 poem drafts and 1,150 letters and prose fragments that compose her archive. But the distinction between music and poetry ultimately isn’t meaningful to me. What’s meaningful is the impulse—lyric, let’s call it—to make it “My Business.”
Notice, though, that she doesn’t say: “My Business is to Write” or “My Business is to Sing My Song.” The line is passionate, self-possessed and possessive—but it does not express a desire for originality. The contemporary cult of genius can make it hard to see that the wish to be someone is not the same as the wish to say something new. What’s alive in her line is the hunger she has for her own voice. She doesn’t want the song just in her ear, she wants it in her mouth—and when it rolls off her tongue, she wants it inflected, I think, with her own accent. Sometimes we forget that “poets” like “Homer” were plural and were not ashamed to be so. That the art was an art, not quite of repetition, but of refrain. That Dylan began as a gifted mimic and never stopped stealing. That when Jay Z raps “I’m not a biter, I’m a writer,” his mouth is full at the table where we all eat and talk.
I’m a little reluctant to repeat the example of Aretha Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding—it’s been, you know, covered—but again I feel I must sing it myself. It’s better to remember that “Respect” is not an “original” because the thrill of the steal is part of what gives the song its volatility: tonight, tables will be turned and overturned. Even the one key revision to the lyrics in Aretha’s version (her sister Carolyn thought of it) celebrates that strategy: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” To me, in this body, here and now. In spelling out her repetition, Aretha Franklin articulates what we might’ve missed in all the moments we were locked up by the language we propagated: by respect, she does not mean respectability or anything related to the rule of law. By respect, she does not mean what Redding meant: a remedial respect for the black man in his home, a balm for the violence of disrespect in a racist world order. She is imagining a different kind of respect, at once sexier and more total, and to find out about it we have to bring fire and fight to her door (“Sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me”). It’s a dangerous game, repeating party lines slick with society’s neutralizing spit, but the payoff! A line already in our culture’s heavy rotation—show some respect—permanently torqued, made better through the use and abuse of repetition.
And so I want to make my own poems, but most of all, I want to make poems my own. The desire is not less rapacious. It’s just more primitive. I’m not trying to undermine the power of individual achievement, the thrill of the new, or the rewards of burning old scripts. I’m just wondering what it means for a lyric voice to “carry.”
Meu coração vagabundo
Quer guardar o mundo
My vagabond heart
Wants to keep the world
— Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso, “Coração Vagabundo”
In examining Dickinson’s personal effects, Bervin writes that her “one surviving dress has a large external pocket on the right side, where her hand would fall easily at rest. The economy of the pocket is worth considering. An envelope is a pocket.” The Academy of American Poets seems to agree, designating one day in April “Poem in Your Pocket Day.” I’ve never celebrated it—too corny—but they are right about portability. A printout of a lyric poem can fit in the back pocket of your skinniest jeans. A novel can’t. And even with smartphones, a painting, an opera, the collected films of Martin Scorsese… are they really on your person? In their entirety as works of art? To say nothing of their making. Dickinson, with her apron, reminds me of Audre Lorde’s observation that “poetry can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, on scraps of surplus paper.” The power of the poem—personally and politically—is in its low profile, the “economy” of its form. It’s never too heavy to carry. If you’re lucky, the poem will carry you.
I don’t want to discount the materiality of poetry and its making, but, for me, the poem—or what I’d rather think of as the lyric line—is already a pocket. Even the phrase “poem in your pocket” wants to work like that, as alliteration and iambic pentameter, as what we now call a “meme” (also from the Greek, mimeme, “imitated thing”). As the poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza recently sighed on Twitter: “poems r just less popular memes.” Poems, too, are memorable, portable, reproducible variations on a theme. The beauty of a line is evidence of its wish to be remembered and its technology for being so: the pattern-making of poetry, even beyond strict forms whose rhythms can be predicted, is the way it propagates itself without paper and ink.
The epic poems of our ancestors. And for thousands of years after we learned to write, after stacks on stacks of books, on my family’s island home: declamaciones, décimas, dichos, all the elaborately remembered words still richer and more ready-at-hand than most libraries. “Despacio voy, porque de prisa estoy” (I go slowly, because I’m in a hurry). These old, slow forms of remembering come to mind again in the hurry of crisis, as when the Russian poets, prohibited from publishing under the shadow of Stalin, would press their poems into the minds of friends. According Lydia Chukovskaya, one of Anna Akhmatova’s closest friends, Akhmatova would write out a poem on a scrap of paper, give it to her visitor to read, then burn the paper. “Hands, matches, an ashtray,” Chukovskaya recalled. “A ritual beautiful and bitter.”
Here, the sticky beauty of the line is obviously a mnemonic technology, deliberately deployed. But it’s possible to think of poetry differently: not as that which imposes a memorable pattern on the chaos of the world, but as those patterns we can’t escape, a ritual form for what we can’t stop remembering anyway. Sometimes I experience my memory for lyrics as a power, but mostly it’s a power over me rather than a power I wield. Recently I’ve been translating the Puerto Rican poet Marigloria Palma: “In my floating life, in my / yesterday, / I was a fly on flypaper. / Every idea / with a wig on it made me grovel, / tunneling through the eardrums of my onion soul.”
Yes, that: a fly on flypaper. Poems tunnel through my eardrums; they make me grovel. In “The Imp of the Perverse,” Edgar Allan Poe writes: “It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burden of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious.” But with Beyoncé’s Lemonade, with her un-sorry snaking between the lyric modes of song and poetry, my tormentor became my remedy.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
— Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
When “the door to your room was / the door to mine” (Anne Sexton) we tried to systematize my constant quotation. Instead of fragments we imagined delivering seamless soliloquies in homage to Akhmatova. The ambition was to memorize a poem a week; but mostly one poem took two. At a dinner party we stumbled through a version of John Ashbery’s “At North Farm” (“Somewhere someone is traveling furiously towards you”) in front of an older couple we were trying to impress. We couldn’t manage, couldn’t even save each other, and walked home, ashamed. Ashamed of our poor performance but also ashamed that we thought we’d achieve fame and fortune that way. Is that what poetry’s for? Or had we undervalued our anxious practice in the kitchen, forgetting “hardly anything grows here” because it’s a surprising line? Because it’s the part where the poem halts its breakneck prophetic pace and drops you in the harsh poverty of the present moment?
Very few of those poems have stuck. But that time is cradled by the fact that we tried at all, and each line I remember (“When I had no temple I made / My voice my temple”) points toward all we couldn’t carry. When we were moving out of the Chicago apartment we sat in foldout chairs at that majestic bank of windows overlooking the courtyard where gray rabbits were darting or invisible. Bags of things we wouldn’t keep were tied up in the shadows of our brief home. I smoked a bit of the blunt we had managed with a vanilla-flavored cigarillo from Walgreens. We didn’t think we would last long. And my crying over my living grandmother was a feral scratch in the night’s material where remembering bled out. And you were calm in the blood, you touched its silk with me. I think it was easier because we were leaving. “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” (Robert Frost). We would feed each other lines like that, when we wanted to speak but couldn’t pretend to know our own minds, let alone each other’s.
Isn’t it lovely that Elizabeth Bishop makes something hard to lose out of losing? “One Art” is such a memorable poem—a villanelle, all tightly folded—but what it invites us to master is not its making, but “losing farther, losing faster.”
Woke up the next morning,
Nikki wasn’t there.
I looked all over and all I found was a phone
number on the stairs.
It said thank you for a funky time.
Call me up whenever you want to grind.
— Prince, “Darling Nikki”
Recently I’ve started seeing someone new. Sometimes he likes to leave a note on my vanity when he leaves in the morning, or slip one in my pocket before we go to brunch with strict instructions to save it for later. Prince died. I don’t want to say so. But the latest note said, “Thank you for a funky time / Call me up whenever you wanna grind.” I would’ve loved any Prince lyric in the endless purple drift of his dear departure, but that one was a stroke of meta-poetic genius: he became Darling Nikki, I became Prince, and the note in the song became a real note, which today is tucked in the frame of my mirror. I like his bad handwriting, his old school tricks. But the note isn’t for keeps—it’s hard to save a scrap of paper forever, and I won’t try. For now, though, I’m Prince. I’m the Prince who saw Nikki “masturbating with a magazine,” and I’m the Prince who told us all about it in a song. When the note’s gone I know the song can take it back and carry it like before, a poem in the pocket of Prince’s live scream, and when I open my mouth to quote him, we’ll all be there—Prince, Nikki, all the lovers in the season of his death—remembering a music that can’t be repeated inside words that can.
Art credit: Vicki Ragan