Preface to Beowulf to Beatles: Approaches to Poetry

(Free Press, 1972)

Laughter and unqualified ridicule are the usual reactions within the halls of academia to any mention of rock and roll lyrics as poetry, although it would appear that such reactions are no longer entirely justified.  Over the past few years there has indeed emerged something we can call “the poetry of rock,” something that can at times be quite good.  The beginnings, of course, were far from promising.  Despite the fertile sources on which rock music of the 1950s drew, it was musically innovative and vibrant but lyrically almost unrelievedly banal and trivial. 

If it contained any poetry at all, that poetry was pedestrian, adolescent doggerel full of unrefined slang and trite neoromantic convention.  But in the early 1960s there burst upon the scene a number of exceptionally talented artists, perhaps even poets, who managed to bring together in various degrees all the many elements of what we now call rock and to make something of quality.  It is true that Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and John Lennon in their early years were not much of an improvement over Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley, but they grew rapidly, sorting and mixing and improvising until things like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Bleecker Street” and the lyrics of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band demonstrated that rock musicians could be poets too; that there could be and in fact was a poetry of rock as deserving of respect as the poetry of the English Renaissance or of the early Romantic period.  Suddenly rock has become respectable—as respectable as rock can be—and it is fashionable to quote rock, to “study” rock, to criticize rock as one would criticize new volumes of poetry or new symphonic performances.  There now exists a substantial and growing body of what we might call rock criticism, and one expects—or fears—that it will not be too many years before critics and criticians will be crawling over the still-living bodies of Bob Dylan and John Lennon, just as they now crawl over the still-warm corpses of Eliot and Frost.  Rock poetry has arrived, although many are still unaware of its arrival.  Perhaps it is already departing.

This book accepts the idea of a poetry of rock and uses that poetry in conjunction with the poetry traditionally taught in poetry courses.  It accepts the fact that most rock poetry is bad poetry; but so also is 50 per cent of all published poetry, and so too was most of what was written during that incredible productive decade of English literature between 1590 and 1600.  And as we know only too well from experience, even bad poetry can serve a pedagogical purpose.  Those who are unwilling to accept the idea of a poetry of rock may still find it useful to use rock as a vehicle into more traditional material, which is also contained in this volume.  Whatever we wish to discuss about poetry, be it imagery and metaphor, alliteration and euphony, dramatic monologue and complaint, or simply the careful use of language in all its many aspects, we can find that in rock.  What is more important, the idea of poetry becomes more immediate when it is demonstrated that everything we designate as “poetic” can be found in rock lyrics, because the college generation is most obviously “into” rock.  To approach poetry through rock has the advantage of demonstrating the relevance of poetry and poetic criticism to a generation that is highly skeptical about everything its parents and grandparents found worth studying.  Poetry suddenly becomes not a thing far removed from the ordinary sphere of human experience, but a thing at the very center of our lives, a thing with which we are all familiar—which is, of course, what poetry always was and still is (despite the opinions of the majority of Americans to the contrary).

Some will agree with Robert Cristgau’s dictum that “poems are read or said.  Songs are sung,” and go on to argue that this fundamental distinction between music and poetry ought to be made, and that this distinction invalidated the entire idea of a poetry of rock.  But such a position is narrow and historically inaccurate.  Virtually all early poetry was sung, or at least chanted to some kind of musical accompaniment.  Many medieval poems were written to be sung, including that most treasured lyric, “Summer Is Icumen In.”  Those lyrics in Shakespeare’s plays were songs before they were poems, as were the ballads we read in poetry anthologies.  The fact is that lyrics make good poems, just as poems make good lyrics for musical compositions, and the distinction is not as easily drawn as Cristgau would have us believe.  Hearing Vachel Lindsay perform his poems on record, one might doubt that any distinction at all exists.
Others will quarrel with the organization of this anthology, arguing that it is impossible to find good poetry that relies exclusively on, say, alliteration or metaphor; that poetry really cannot be dissociated into component parts; that some method of structuring an anthology that does not break poetry into pieces would better fit the purposes of a college course.  There is a certain amount of truth to that argument, of course, but the alternatives are not at all attractive.  Either we must forget about some very useful critical terminology entirely, or we must use it haphazardly, as the individual poems demand.  Neither of these approaches is pedagogically useful or sound, and I have accepted the structure I use as the most useful of all possibilities, even with its limitations.  This structure allows sstudent to discuss poets and poetry in general, examine words as symbols and as sounds, engage in generic criticism, develop the ability to read poems in aggregations, and, finally, to form some qualitative judgments about individual poems.

The nature of the organizational apparatus changes as the text proceeds and students presumably develop their capability to “handle” criticism.  The first chapter relies almost entirely on analysis presented in the text (except, of course, in the closing selection of poems, which is where students are concerned more with poetic content than technique), on the theory that students have the right to examine examples of the sort of critical writing and thought they will be expected to produce before they are actually asked to produce it.  The following four chapters—“Words as Meaning,” “Words as Sound,” “Genres,” and “Sustained Performances”—move gradually from author analysis to reader analysis as students develop their ability to think critically when stimulated by the right kind of questions.  Analysis diminishes and questions become more frequent and more complicated: in the early chapters distinctions are usually drawn between questions that are easily answered and questions that are not (with a preponderance of the former); late in the text the questioning becomes more open-ended.  Poems begin to appear without either analysis or questions.  Over these pages students should develop the ability to distinguish between a good question and a bad question, between a question that will take them somewhere and one that will not, between a question that can be answered and one that will produce informative discussion but no definite answers. 

They should also develop the ability to formulate questions on their own—the sort of questions that will take them into a poem on their own, without the aid of his text or teacher.  (The real function of a teacher is, after all, to teach his students to do without him.)  As students develop the ability to frame questions and to distinguish between useful, fruitful, productive questions and sterile, dead-end issues, the questions in the text disappear, leaving them to confront poetry with nothing more than a few textual notes and the aid of an instructor—and, ultimately, without even the aid of the instructor.  Ideally, the organization of this book will, by a carefully controlled process, enable students to produce thoughtful, sensitive criticism of poetry without the aid of an instructor.  The students’ performance in dealing with the poems of the final chapter—“A Selection of Poems”—should provide some measure of the text’s success or lack of success.

Still, some who use this text may wish to reorganize the contents to suit their own bent—to move from narrative to dramatic to lyric poetry, for example—or to replace the apparatus here presented with some other of their own devising, or even to discard all critical apparatus.  The lyrics and poems contained here are not wholly dependent on the apparatus and structure I have given them; the selection is good and various, and will support a variety of other pedagogical and critical approaches.

Some people will argue that if poetry is at all like music, then it ought to be heard, not read.  I agree entirely, and for that reason have provided an Appendix of recordings of songs and poems contained in this volume.  At a relatively modest cost, a department can build a substantial library of recorded poetry—students are usually more than willing to loan rock albums—which can be used either in a listening room of the library or on tape in a language lab to supplement the printed words that appear in this book.  Frequently I have referred to recorded versions of both poems and songs in the discussions of this book; on such occasions tapes or records might with considerable profit be brought into the classroom to provide the basis for discussion.

A brief note on the texts of the rock lyrics.  Only one who has dealt with these lyrics as poems can fully understand the textual problems they present—problems complicated beyond all telling by the fact that they, like medieval lyrics and ballads, seem invariably to have been sung before they were written; by the fact that those who perform them in a recording studio seem to take only the most casual interest in their publication in printed form; by the fact that the music indicates no line lengths and frequently no punctuation; by the fact that transcription from recording to printed version (as on the jacket of Sergeant Pepper) is done in the most careless manner imaginable; by the fact that manuscript versions of some lyrics (Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” for example) serve to confuse rather than clarify the problems; and by the fact that every time a lyric is printed somewhere it appears in a slightly different version.  It is also apparent that rock singers have a distressing tendency to forget lyrics (sometimes their own) or to improvise upon the spot, so that what is sung on a record is not necessarily what appears on the lead sheet, and vice versa (Judy Collin’s “Story of Isaac” and Leonard Cohen’s lyric are virtually two different poems). 

This is not to chastise the composers and the singers; it is merely to observe some of the difficulties involved when one attempts to set an oral culture in print.  Suffice it to say that when the variorum Bob Dylan appears, it will be a very sizeable volume.  Meanwhile, we all labor in a cloud of unknowing.

And a final note concerning the selections.  I have tried to strike a reasonable balance between the contemporary and the traditional, the fresh and the familiar, the sacred and the profane, in both rock and poetry.  If that balance seems to favor the contemporary, the fresh, and the profane, it is because I believe that such a proportion is necessary to correct an imbalance other textbooks have created in favor of the traditional, the familiar (even stale), and the sacred—an imbalance that I believe has contributed greatly to the current American distaste for poetry of all kinds.