The Word on the Street - Rock Lyrics, Paul Muldoon, Faber and Faber, 96pp, £12.99 (hardback)
Songs and Sonnets, Paul Muldoon, Enitharmon Press, 48pp, £9.99 (paperback)
Horse Music, Matthew Sweeney, Bloodaxe, 96pp, £9.95
Here is a stanza, plucked at random from Paul Muldoon's new book of rock lyrics, The Word on the Street:
Raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime
What do I care?
Blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin and plum
Call me for dinner, honey, I'll be there
Actually, I'm fibbing. The lyrics above are taken from Bob Dylan's groundbreaking country album, Nashville Skyline, released in 1969. I can't imagine that even Dylan devotee and noted literary critic Professor Christopher Ricks would rate those lines from 'Country Pie' as a significant literary addition, but they work in the context of a charming country bagatelle. Dylan was simplifying and cleansing his previous lyrical style in Nashville Skyline, dispensing with acid street symbolism in favour of the emotionally open, blue-collar verse of the working man. Lyrical context is everything. Instead of the brooding symbolism of Blonde on Blonde in 1966, in which 'The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face,' country Dylan's language was a form of demorative factory floor verse, as in this central couplet from 'Lay, Lady, Lay':
His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean
And you're the best thing that he's ever seen
Former poetic wunderkind Paul Muldoon has been drawn to the creative traffic between words and music for many years. As early as Quoof (1983), the poet was namechecking the album The Songs of Leonard Cohen. His sequence, 'Sleeve Notes,' in Hay (1998) includes a poem dedicated to the Canadian troubadour - 'his songs have meant far more to me/than most of the so-called 'poems' I've read' - and others inspired by Dylan, Paul Simon, and Warren Zevon, Muldoon admitting that the latter's sardonic songs 'are inextricably part of the warp and woof/of the wild and wicked poems in Quoof. ' Muldoon famously collaborated with the hard-living Zevon on songs for the latter's penultimate album, My Ride's Here (the title song was later covered by Bruce Springsteen) and the late songwriter's lyrically jaundiced musical manner remains a big influence. But while many of the lyrics in The Word on the Street have been put to music by Princeton-based band, Wayside Shrines, it's a fair bet that most readers of Muldoon's latest collection won't experience these lyrics as anything other than words on the page. And there's the rub. Again, lyrical context is everything. Words - even those produced by Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot Prizewinners - need to be anchored to familiar melodies to resonate in our hearts and minds. Shorn of their musical settings, even the lyrics of Dylan, Simon or Cohen (Muldoon's book carries the rather pointed dedication, 'For Paul and Leonard') can occasionally look flimsy or nakedly pretentious outside their musical settings. And Muldoon sometimes wants to have his lyrical cake and eat it. When not indulging in allusive, collegiate cleverness, like a post-modern Princeton version of Cole Porter, the author of such landmark poetry collections as Why Brownlee Left and The Annals of Chile can create a heady cocktail of heavily ironic, Springsteen-style blue-collar poetry and high table talk:
I think of Botticelli
When he juxtaposes
In the Sistine Chapel
The foundling Moses
With Jesus in the creche
Jersey fresh Jersey fresh
It's not allusiveness or lyrical complexity that are the main concerns here, but more simply: how genuine or singable are these verses as lyrics? And a related question: can some rock lyrics be too clever for their own good? Similar concerns were raised in the 1970s, when Clive James produced dozens of lyrics for singer and talented musician Pete Atkin. For all their 'poetic' qualities, lyrical complexity and positive reviews, the albums produced by the unique literary-musical duo never troubled the charts. Reviewing Muldoon's Songs and Sonnets, a companion volume from Enitharmon of 'poems and lyrics,' with a title inspired by Donne, Alan Brownjohn in the Sunday Times felt 'the book soon begins to resemble an exclusive post-modernist club that demands a lot of passwords for admission,' adding: 'There's an absence in these songs of the relaxed appeal of the many lyrics of the past that encouraged you to sing along with references you didn't understand as long as you picked up the general drift. A feeling creeps in here that these don't often qualify as popular lyrics at all.' Brownjohn prefers 'the clearer or gentler love lyrics,' with 'Hey Rachel' from the awful diner appearing to fit the bill: 'Hey Rachel/If That's your name/The light under your bushel/Is dying of shame.'
Songwriting is generally an organic art practised by bona fide musicians, but poets outside that process - even fabulously gifted ones like Muldoon who play guitar on stage - can often seem aesthetically isolated, supplying polished but ultimately contextless words, rather than true song lyrics. In fact, this is not Muldoon's first appearance in print as a song lyricist. In 2006, he published General Admission (Gallery Press), a chunky book of lyrics for Rackett, the other so-called 'music collective' with whom Muldoon has played 'three-car-garage rock.' That collection seemed to garner little critical attention, but the Faber and Faber imprimatur and Muldoon's literary standing - 'Winner of the Pulitzer Prize' is trumpeted on a golden hardback cover resembling a star sign on Hollywood Boulevard - means The Word on the Street will be widely noticed. Reviewing the book in the Guardian, Adam Newey welcomed the fact that Muldoon's lyrics widen the scope of most mainstream rock music - exploring everything from the war in Afghanistan to Albert Einstein and T.S. Eliot - but voiced this reservation: 'The difficulty with reading these pieces is that you don't quite know whether to read them as song lyrics...or as poetry, in which case you find yourself tripping up on some of the repetitive refrains, and quickly become aware that they don't display anything like the full range of inventiveness of his best verse.' Indeed, when Muldoon turns down what Michael Donaghy once characterised as 'the obsessive wordplay of a demented philologist,' the reader can, conversely, feel slightly undersold, as though one of the most technically resourceful verse technicians since the Second World War, Princeton professor and the New Yorker poetry editor is slumming or submerging his genius for rhyme in heavily ironised, over-familiar and repetitious rock tropes, as in 'I Don't Love You Anymore' and 'It's Never Too Late For Rock 'N' Roll.'
Muldoon, of course, is well aware of the issues raised by the poetry v. song lyrics aesthetic debate. Interviewed by Nicholas Wroe in the Guardian earlier this year, he admitted: 'The tradition of reading lyrics on a page is a little bit iffy...You can see how people might be slightly disconcerted - these things are not quite poems, and yet they are sort of like poems.' Last year, Muldoon delivered the Poetry Society Annual Lecture on 'The Word on the Street Parnassus and Tin Pin Alley,' during which he identified the boundary lines between poetry and song: 'The song lyric is designed to be heard once and understood almost immediately. The pressure per square inch tends to be a lot less than it is in most poems. As we've heard more than once, for it's been true more than once, the poem brings its own music while the song needs music to become what it was destined to be.' And later on: 'While one would never say that the poem can't take in everything and anything in its hold, I can't help but think that the song lyric may often be even more capacious, allowing... of various ragbag, rough and ready registers.' Muldoon also welcomes the fruitfully creative two-way traffic between song lyrics and his poetry. But artistic tensions remain in Muldoon's song lyrics. The poet's trademark whimsicality, comparison-making impulse and juggling of 'high' and 'low' cultural references often displace the simple emotional honesty we expect from rock songs. Perhaps the linguistically hyperactive elements of Muldoon's poetry, when transferred to his lyrics, also leave too little space for the essentially collaborative business that is listening to rock music. Muldoon seems to be searching for a literary third way in the cross-fertilisation of poetry and rock lyrics. But The Word on the Street and Songs and Sonnets suggest his lyrics are still struggling to narrow that aesthetic gap.
Muldoon's fellow Irishman, Matthew Sweeney, originally from Donegal, sticks to poetry for the page in his latest and tenth collection. But his macabre tales still sing. For more than thirty years, since his 1981 debut, A Dream of Maps, Sweeney has been creating what the late Mick Imlah called 'lugubrious fables, in which domestic rituals are intruded on, and sometimes overtaken, by the surreal...His chief concern is mortality.' Death and the business of dying, often filtered through a darkly comic imagination shaped by German and east European poetic models, remain constants in Sweeney's work. In the Spring 2013 bulletin of the Poetry Book Society (PBS), which made Horse Music a Recommendation, Sweeney explains: 'All our experiences inevitably affect the way we write. My father dying, for example, then my younger sister, then my mother. How could I not let that stuff into the writing? The problem was finding a way to do so. Exploring form gave me ideas on how to do that.' Sweeney filters and shapes life's raw materials through both form - there's a moving villanelle to his sister, 'A Princess' - and via the darkest, furthest recesses of the imagination. Spirit creatures (specifically, crows), drunken dwarves, sick cows, glass eyes and anti-social gnomes populate the collection, often accompanied by a John Coltrane soundtrack. In the Jack B. Yeats-inspired title poem, spectral horses sing 'a wrenching lament/for a red-haired woman.' Human beings are often sidelined or subsumed by the dark forces of the natural world in Sweeney's macabre but plainly stated fables. Having divested himself of lyrical richness in his later work, Sweeney produces narrative-driven poems of hard won simplicity, which still remain mysterious and constantly open to the possibilities of imaginative adventure - or the nightmares of 'The Poison Dwarfs':
The poison dwarfs are in the room,
getting closer, though they never move.
Their shadows are their reinforcements.
Their stare is mutating into a scream.
Starkly stated but conversational, Sweeney's obsessive tales from the mind's darkest hinterland have carved out their own imaginative terrain. But away from the macabre, the poet is still capable of open-hearted tenderness ('Little Flower') and a lyrical insouciance shadowed by grief ('Doodle Doo'). Horse Music is one of Matthew Sweeney's most emotionally charged and imaginatively various books to date.