When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a poet friend, whose opinions I value, told me she was disappointed John Ashbery had been overlooked. It wasn’t a question of whether a songwriter should be eligible for a literature prize, but instead, in the context of public discussion swirling around the idea of Dylan’s lyrics as poetry, that he was filling a precious slot in a prize that honours novelists far more regularly. Dylan’s slot, the poet’s slot, she argued, should have been Ashes’. He was a poet, almost without peer, who towered over the last seventy years of English language poetry. She worried that the next time the prize was awarded to a poet he would no longer be with us. She was right.
On first glance I don’t have a beef with the idea of Dylan as a poet. He exploded the possibility of pop lyrics in his brilliant mid-sixties trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde where he yearned for his ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, offering ‘warehouse eyes’ and ‘Arabian drums’ to her ‘sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row’. That masterpiece ranges across five octaves of AAABBCCCB, every unexpected image suspended with an elegant caesura. When I first heard it, in my mid-teens, it was a masterclass in the power of unexpected images colliding. The surrealism of ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ and ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ helped me unlock French symbolism, cracking open the field of my own writing in the process. Add in Desire, Blood on the Tracks and a smattering of other songs from his five decade career and the poet label fits snugly on his shoulders.
But Dylan is Dylan. Other songwriters scale heights on this verse or that song. Father John Misty’s ‘Total Entertainment Forever’, to use a recent example, derides our epoch of distraction with incredible concision:
Bedding Taylor Swift
Every night inside the Oculus Rift
After Mr and the Mrs
Finish dinner and the dishes
Courtney Barnett’s ‘Depreston’, from its slangy portmanteau title to its refrain stitched from a real estate agent’s obscene patter (‘If you’ve got a/ spare half a million/ you could knock it down/ And start rebuilding’), encapsulates Australia’s housing mania better than anything else I can think of. Kendrick Lamar demonstrates a poet’s gift for twisting tropes as he both toys with the conventions of gangsta rap and cinematically evokes his own Compton childhood on Good Kid/MAAD City. There are plenty of examples, but in the ocean of popular songwriting they are dispersed archipelagically. This isn’t supposed to diminish the craft, power or significance song writing. They are just different modes. I can’t overstate the influence lyrics have had on my own work. When I first started writing poetry, they were only models I had. Poetry was punishingly difficult to find in sleepy suburban mid-90s Brisbane; instead I gravitated towards Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Penny Flanagan and Q-Tip. To this day, songwriters are a central source of inspiration, helping to shape how I want to say things.
When it comes to extracting poignancy from a phrase songwriters have a natural advantage over poets. Rhythm and melody garnish words, helping to elevate them beyond the unforgiving whiteness of the page. Poetry doesn’t have these tools. The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a great example. As a pop song of the highest rank, it is incredibly effective at conjuring the drudgery of working class 1960s London life. But paste it onto the page and its power evaporates:
Dirty old river, must you keep rolling
Rolling into the night?
People so busy, make me feel dizzy
Taxi light shines so bright
How else is a taxi light going to shine? Rolling is repeated twice, in service to the cadence of line but the repetition doesn’t function as a poetic device. Busy people make him feel dizzy? Is the greater doggerel the rhyme or the hackneyed expression? This isn’t meant to diminish the song, but instead to illustrate the fact that the words weren’t intended for the white page and they don’t succeed there. Ray Davies is one of my favourite songwriters and marooning his words on the page is unfair.
The fact that song lyrics rarely sing off the page has never stopped people from using poetry as a term of praise for a particularly pleasing array of words, a nifty metaphor or a timeless image. And many of the most successful lyrics share some DNA with lyric poetry (the clue is probably in the name). But much of contemporary poetry, particularly work that lives in the slipstream of the long modernist moment, places a premium on invention. Deeply indebted to Stein, Pound and Rimbaud, it is far more interested in exploring language’s plasticity than perfectly encapsulating a scene or event. Consider Rimbaud’s dictum from ‘A Season in Hell’: ‘One must be absolutely modern.’ Where in pop lyrics do we find this urgent drive to reinvent form? The baroque rhymes Inspectah Deck used to introduce the Wu Tang Clan to the world on ‘Protect Ya Neck’ are a good start:
I smoke on the mic like smoking Joe Frazier
The hell raiser, raising hell with the flavour
Terrorize the jam like troops in Pakistan
Swinging through your town like your neighbourhood Spiderman.
But hip hop is the exception. Rapping isn’t singing, it’s about the timbre of the words, the way they sound bouncing off each other in harmony and discord. Just like poetry. The reality is that while musically pop or rock or whatever we want to call it has mutated from Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s All Right’ to The Beatles to Can to Patti Smith to Slayer to De La Soul to Nine Inch Nails to Lady Gaga to a thousand other places, lyricists by and large still strive for the heights Chuck Berry hit on ‘You Never Can Tell’:
They furnished off an apartment
with a two room Roebuck sale.
The coolerator was crammed
with TV dinners and ginger ale.
Compare this to an extract by Lionel Fogarty, one of Australia’s leading contemporary experimental poets:
But chemical behaviour complicated
Software human mindfulness,
But to give connection in neatly summarised
Fluids make the suggesting scientists
Are possible elsewhere.
—’Minds over poets’
Berry’s verse is a masterful display of scene setting, a narrative’s diamond glint; Fogarty, while arguing for the irreducibility of the mind, is focused on disrupting language, stripping out prepositions and seeing what happens. The fact is what we think of when we think about contemporary poetry—or at least its more experimental and formally inventive stream—is a long way for Berry’s perfect pop, particularly in its fascination with form over narrative.
Which brings us to the recent work of Sun Kil-Moon, the vehicle for the second phase of singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek’s career. His first band, Red House Painters, were moderately successful 4AD darlings in the mid-90s. Their brand of mopey pop, which Wikipedia classifies as sadcore, won them a loyal fan base. When that band dissolved in 2001, Kozelek started making music under the Sun Kil-Moon moniker and for about a decade the band’s music seemed almost interchangeable with his earlier work. It is worth mentioning here that in recent years he’s found himself mired in a string of controversies including a misogynistic onstage rant directed at a female journalist, a performative feud with War on Drugs and spikey crowd interactions.
While the early work was largely conventional (the kind of songwriting frequently exalted as poetry), since about 2011 his songs have become increasingly prosaic. ‘The transition began when I ran out of metaphors,’ Kozelek said in a rare interview with comedian Rainn Wilson, best known for playing beetfarming sociopath Dwight Schrute on the American version of The Office. Ground zero is ‘Sunshine in Chicago’ an almost stream-of-consciousness confessional on touring life that begins with a description of the crap in his guitar case:
Pulling my guitar out of its green velvet case
A hundred setlists are staring at my face
And a note from a fan named Estefania
A notice of inspection from Air Canada
He goes on to describe his hotel room and a wander down Lincoln Avenue. In what will become a familiar trope, he pivots from a memory of his father who used to summer in the Second City to his own mortality, realised in his declining sex appeal: ‘Lots of female fans’ have been replaced by ‘guys in tennis shoes’. But while the lyrics signal a shift, the song is still fundamentally folk pop. His baritone pleads over a classically strummed, nylon stringed guitar, squeezing the lines into the songs gentle 4/4. In the third verse a xylophone chimes in, echoing the melody; the bright warmth of lucky sun in a grey metropolis.
This early mode reached its apogee in 2014’s Benji, a commercial and critical hit that shipped triple platinum in the US and camped out in critic’s top ten lists. It is a searing account of mortality built around a series of threnodies including a pair for a cousin and an uncle who were both killed burning rubbish in their backyards. He mourns the 26 children and their teachers murdered in Newtown, Connecticut and spends a day with his dad’s friend Jim Wise, under house arrest for allegedly mercy killing his wife. Characters, like Mark Denton who ‘always sat on his porch passing the time/ And drinking a beer and smoking a pack/ Until one day poor Mark had a heart attack’, are instantly recognisable to anyone who has read a Trump Country explainer or two. Massillon, Kozelek’s north eastern Ohio home town is in Stark County, where voters overwhelmingly voted for Trump after opting for Obama in ’08 and ’12. In its depictions of a hopelessness amid a grinding existence, it is a more empathetic and honest account of Rust Belt stagnation than JD Vance’s calculated Appalachian apologia Hillbilly Elegy.
If Benji is the undisputed critical high watermark, it is the songs he has written since that really challenge conventions. Kozelek has always kept himself busy but his latest phase is something else. Post-Benji he’s released four Sun Kil-Moon albums (Universal Themes, Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood, This Is My Dinner and, most recently, I Also Want to Die in New Orleans), two collaborations with British experimental rock group Jesu and a handful of solo albums and live recordings. He owns his label which enables his prolificacy. It’s a complex discography that I don’t entirely have my head around.
The critical reception to these records has been mixed but the common theme has been the volume of words. While Benji clocked in at over 5,000 words, an already noteworthy tally, the albums that have followed are crammed with many, many more. The three longest songs on Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood alone contain 3619 words (not including the 33 repeats of the refrain at the end of ‘God Bless Ohio’). The album has 16 tracks. The word count has to top out somewhere above 10,000. I can’t think of another record with anywhere near as many words. By way of comparison, Dylan’s ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of Lowlands’, which fills Side D of Blonde on Blonde, has 530. And this is the rub. It’s why I wonder: is this poetry? Not in the rock critic sense, but actual poetry. That isn’t to say examples of heightened language and pointed detail aren’t easy to find, they are, but ultimately the work is too urgent, too frantic and too sprawling to husband felicity into bloom. Its principal subject is life, its excitement and its drudgery, its joy and its tragedy. Frequently mired in the mundane, it closely tracks a mind’s meandering path. Intensely diaristic, the songs are more simpatico with Frank O’Hara’s ‘I did this, I did that’ poems or Bernadette Mayer’s suburban December-22-1978-as-epic Midwinter Day than they are with the early work of Leonard Cohen. ‘Philadelphia Cop’, a rangy song from Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys, begins with an anti-social media rant before aiming its cannons on access-obsessed fanboy journalists before eventually reflecting on the passing of David Bowie, charts its way through January 2016 with a set of clearly identifiable markers: the lone wolf terror murder of a Philadelphia police officer (January 8), David Bowie’s death (January 10), Sean Penn’s infamous El Chapo interview (January 10), a Sun Kil-Moon gig at the Regent Theatre in Los Angeles (January 14), the Deontay Wilder – Artur Szpilka world heavyweight title fight (January 16), Mohammed Ali’s birthday (January 17) and the death of Eagles’ founder Glenn Frey (January 18). It is obsessed with the day-to-day and while Kozelek’s life as a peripatetic musician may be fundamentally different to yours or mine, he’s still swimming through the same media currents, buffeted this way or that by the latest breaking news.
The diaristic element is even more central to 2018’s This is Not My Dinner where four of the album’s seven original tracks begin with a seat number: ‘Seat 14 C Swiss Air’ flying from Baden to Copenhagen in ‘Copenhagen’, ‘Seat 12 C SAS Copenhagen to Stockholm’ in ‘Candles’, ‘Seat 2C, Oslo to Warsaw, Norwegian Air’ in ‘Linda Blair’, and ‘22C, Paris to Barcelona’ in ‘David Cassidy’. (He likes aisle seats.) Literally written on the road, the songs are sculpted out of the near-to-hand, the passengers he’s travelling with and his memories of the places he’s visiting. Consider ‘Candles’:
And my favorite restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden
Is right down the road
It’s called Pelican
I like the salmon but I never eat the reindeer
Something about the idea of eating reindeer brings my eyes to tears
I don’t understand how any of you can eat reindeer
When I was a little kid my favourite Christmas special was Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer
He had that stuff nose voice
And I still love Rudolph
I saw a reindeer carpaccio on the menu recently
And I wanted to shoot myself
These words aren’t weighed with Solomon’s deliberation. Kozelek admits as much in ‘Copenhagen’ when he describes ‘writing my long crazy man scroll’; lyrics heavy on bland description and droll remembrance, seasoned with sprinkling of cliché. One of the faux mavens at leading indie music magazine Pitchfork blasts this approach as ‘musical manspreading, built on Kozelek’s fundamental belief that everything that happens to him, from the disappointment of a cancelled tour stop to the elation of great Italian food, is worthy of the world’s attention. Assuredly, it is not.’ But this just betrays the arch-conservatism embedded in much rock criticism. If Duchamp taught us anything, it is that the alchemy of art can transform any object. Nothing is fundamentally more, or less, worthy of our attention. There is a century’s worth of art, in every conceivable form, which explores this notion. It is a commonplace barely worth noting were it not for the hostility to formal innovation espoused by critics at publications like Pitchfork. And these songs are focussed more squarely on form than content. By stretching the number of words you can pour into a song, Kozelek is expanding the boundaries of what song lyrics are. This willingness to test form is why I think these songs may be poetry.
Another way Kozelek foregrounds form is in his use of found text. Mostly this is about using what is close to hand, like the note from the ‘nice promoter named Max’ that he ends ‘Sarah Lawrence College Song’ with: ‘Dear Mark, first of all thank you so much for playing Sarah Lawrence College. Even though we have a really small school and don’t get much attention, we have a really lot of passionate kids. I know every single one of them is thrilled to have you come.’ It continues like this for another two minutes. In ‘I Love Portugal’ a tour progress report comes courtesy of another promoter’s note: ‘Dear Mark, Dear all at Sun Kil-Moon I have really, really, really bad news. We’re deeply afraid but see ourselves in circumstances that unfortunately urge us to have to cancel. The Sun Kil Moon show at Dachstock Reitschule, Berne, the open space in front of our house Reitschule, Bern is causing increasing troubles with violence and sexes.’ These lengthy excursions prove to be the opening acts for the record’s closing track, ‘Chapter 87 of He’, where he reads the 87th chapter of Irish crime writer John Connolly’s novel about the life of Stan Laurel over a jazzy backing. That’s it. The beautiful words Red House Painters and earlier iterations of Sun Kil-Moon were renowned for have been well and truly jettisoned.
This is a kind of dada-inflected songwriting that seems musically adjacent to noise rock, or some other avant- iteration, but rather than wrestling sheets of feedback out of an amp or, as Einstürzende Neubaten did once, micing up a shopping trolley and pegging spoons at it, the words are the noise. In this context Pitchfork’s animus seems especially selective. The publication that has disparaged Kozelek’s songs as ‘more diary extracts with soundtracks than proper albums’, has done more than most to champion bands as transgressive as Nurse with Wound or Coil and there is nothing about their albums that seems proper. If their records illustrate anything it is that a notion of a proper album only really exists as a marker of a something to be transgressed. There is no reason why lyrics don’t deserve a similar latitude.
Kozelek’s interest in, and oftentimes reverence for, traditional pop structures brings his lyrical maximalism into stark relief. If he were a spoken word artist, reading over a soundscape—and a song like ‘Chapter 87 of He’ fits this description—then that could be pigeonholed. The work might be a bad example of that form, but we’d have a shared vocabulary for talking about it. Instead he frequently wants to have it both ways. Even some of the most expansive songs still tack back towards verse-chorus-verse giving Kozelek an opportunity to showcase his beautiful baritone. This chiaroscuro is innervating. Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood’s longest song, ‘Stranger than Paradise’, is a great example. Kozelek is a true crime fan and the song begins with him stanning his way through a night at Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel where Canadian Elisa Lam was found floating naked in a water tank on the hotel’s roof in 2013. The coroner ruled her death accidental drowning, but the unusual location of her body coupled with grainy security footage, allegedly of a seemingly distressed Lam exiting and re-entering an elevator, which went viral after it was released by the LAPD, has turned the case into a full blown conspiracy theory. At the hotel Kozelek sleuths around the fire escapes and has a cursory chat to a parking attendant. Like so many in the age of Info Wars, he isn’t buying the official version of events:
‘Cause I see no evidence to support her death besides
Vague news reports and one photo of what were allegedly her parents showing up
At the LAX airport
Talk of lawsuits but no legal documents that I ever seen to support it
For what it’s worth, a basic Google search reveals what definitely appears to be a legitimate copy of the coroner’s report and mountains of media coverage. There are legitimate questions about how she died but her existence and her death aren’t among them. The song then shifts locations, recounting a chance meeting with the actor Richard Edson (Google him, it’s worth it), a set visit to Cameron Crowe’s television show Roadies where he chats to Luke Wilson and a stopover with his girlfriend’s brother’s family in Long Beach. A fun weekend and so so so many words, but the song is anchored by its pop-sweet singalong chorus:
I’m walking around LA
Walking around downtown LA
And the sun is shining today
For pushing 50, I’m feeling great
Without this chorus and the stage it creates for Kozelek’s voice, this would almost be a spoken word record and while it is a great tale I’m not sure how it would hold up to repeated listens. But the tension of the expected and the unexpected, transgression and convention, makes it crackle.
As I said songwriters have always been central to my poetry. As I write this I’m listening to The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, a reliquary of some of pop’s pithiest put downs:
Frankly, Mr. Shankly, this position I’ve held
It pays my way and it corrodes my soul
Oh, I didn’t realise that you wrote poetry
I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly
These are lyrics I’ve loved since my early teens. Their snide anger is something I’ve tried to encapsulate in my own work. They are incomparable in their way. But they’re probably not poetry. Very few songs are. The fundamental conservatism of the form, its enslavement to verse-chorus-verse and the diktats of rhythm and melody leaves little space for transgression. This conservatism is reflected in much of the dismissal of Kozelek’s recent work by critics who overemphasise content and fail to grasp the implications of formal experimentation. Kozelek’s recent songs aren’t poetry because they use heightened language—if they did they might be better songs, but they wouldn’t be poetry. They’re poetry because they careen into the new like the pilot of busted billy cart hurtling down the side of Red Hill, succeeding or failing, dusting themselves off, driven back up the hill by the exhilaration of trying something new.
Liam Ferney’s most recent collection is Hot Take (Hunter Publishing). It follows on from Content (Hunter Publishing) which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award and Boom(Grande Parade Poets) which was shortlisted for Judith Wright Calanthe Aware and the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry. He is a media manager, poet and aspiring left-back living in Brisbane.