Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jack Gilbert and Leonard Cohen

Two good poems in the March 2, 2009, issue of The New Yorker. Jack Gilbert's "Waiting and Finding" waits patiently in a childhood memory and finds out what to make of it. How what one does becomes what one is.

Then there's Leonard Cohen's "A Street." This poem is proof that a lyric with a chorus can make a beautiful poem—and it also supports my claim that lyrics have little or no enjambment. There is not a single line break in Cohen's poem/lyric where a syntactical unit is split across two lines. (If you want to argue about the expression "syntactical unit," I can analyze every single line break to show exactly what I mean.)

16 comments:

Joseph Duemer said...

Most lyrics that come out of the ballad tradition don't have enjambment because each line was a sung phrase. It is only when the ballad leaves the folk realm and enters the literary realm that enjambments and strong caesuras begin to appear.

Dave King said...

I would most heartily agree with those sentiments. Two great choices.

Andrew Shields said...

Dave: Glad you liked the poems!

Joseph: Yes, the history is on my side on this point!

Joseph Hutchison said...

I like Gilbert and have always loved Cohen, but I disagree with your statement about lyrics.

Here, for example, are the lyrics to Paul Simon's song "Call Me All." I've tried to break the lines in a way that matches the breaks across the 4/4 time structure he uses. (In other other words, each discreet line represents one measure of 4/4 rhythm.) I don't know how much of this will come across in blog format, but I hope you'll be able to see that Simon freely and inventively breaks the lyric across the base rhythm:

A man walks down the street    He
says    why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle when the
rest of my life is so
hard    I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon in a
Cartoon graveyard

Bonedigger Bonedigger
Dogs in the moonlight
Far away my
Well-lit door    Mister
Beerbelly Beerbelly
Get these mutts away from me    you
            know
I don’t find this stuff a-
musing anymore

If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost
Pal

I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me you can
Call me Al

A man walks down the street    He
says    Why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention and
Woh my nights are so
Long    Where’s my wife and family
What if I die here
Who’ll be my role-model
Now that my role-model is
Gone Gone    He
ducked back down the alley with some
Roly-poly little
Bat-faced girl    All
Along along there were
Incidents and accidents    There were
Hints and allegations

If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost
pal

I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me you can
Call me
Al    You can call me
Al

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the Third World
Maybe it’s his first time a-
round    He doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the
sound    the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages

He looks a-
round, around    He sees
angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity    He says
Amen! and Hallelujah!

If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost
pal

I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me you can
Call me
Al    you can call me

Nah nah nah nah nah etc.

I think if you were to examine other of our better lyricists you'd find that the play of lyrics across the measure and the resulting violation of syntactical units is pretty common.

Or did I misunderstand your point?

Andrew Shields said...

Joseph H: I've had songs from Graceland in my head all day!

I took a look at the booklet and the lyrics for all the songs are written with line breaks that almost always respect syntactical units (with a few minor exceptions). I'll give a listen to that song with your lineation suggestions and the booklet. My hypothesis is that the lines you've produced here have to do with the singer's phrasing and not with the lyric as such, if that makes sense.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Ah! I taste what may be the bone of my contention, which would be that from my point of view the singer's phrasing is the lyric form, which is why some song lyrics that knock your socks off when you hear them seem flat when presented in some normalized form on the page. The key word, I suppose, is "some"; lyrics of the "Call Me Al" type are clearly in the minority....

Andrew Shields said...

Joseph H: Well, I definitely cannot agree that the singer's phrasing is the form of the lyrics, if only because the singer is not always the same person as the person who wrote the song. As Otis Redding said when he heard Aretha Franklin's version of "Respect": "That little girl done stole my song!"

Joseph Hutchison said...

Maybe there's a difference between the singer/ songwriter and the person who performs other people's songs. I would take Simon's version, for example, as authoritative, as the legitimate form of the lyric. No?

Andrew Shields said...

Joseph H, have you read James Longenbach's "The Art of the Poetic Line"? I just read it, and JL distinguishes between three types of lines: end-stopped, parsing, and annotating. "Parsing" lines follow syntax, while "annotating" lines break syntactical units. So my claim is that lyrics generally do not use "annotating" lines.

To me, the phrasing of a singer may imply caesuras *within* lines, but I still have not had time to listen to your example to see if I agree with your analysis of it.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Maybe it's a crucial issue either way. The "base" lyric—the written one—is as open to vocal interpretation as the originally sung version, I imagine. I just wonder if part of the modern(ist) project with the lyric isn't to acknowledge in form the syncopation of spoken/sung language....

I'm using Longenbach's book right now in a class, in fact. The three types of lines and their rationale are advanced tools for talking about all this, but I hadn't thought to apply it to a lyric like Simon's. Longenbach, after all, is talking about line endings, which I'd tentatively say might support my position. The lyric as sung is being annotated—that is, new "line endings" are being imposed, along with internal caesuras and other effects. No? So what is the real "base" lyric form?

Oh! Now, now ... maybe you're right. What Simon does, after all, is offset his lyric lines; i.e., he begins each line after the first 4/4 beat, which creates the syncopation. So maybe the "annotation" involves that "offsetting," which is generally applied to the "base" lyric throughout the song. Hmmm....

Now I have a headache, but a pleasant one. It'll be interesting to see if the next poem I write brings all this with it. Assuming, of course, that there is a next poem!

Andrew Shields said...

As I'll probably mention in a post soon, I am thrilled by Longenbach's terminology, which so simply captures something I've been describing in much less crisp terms for years! I'm curious about line endings that disrupt syntax, as a possible fourth category.

As for lyrics, I like the idea that annotation comes in through the singer's internal phrasing of end-stopped or parsed lines of melody.

Jonathan said...

Obviously (obviously to me at least) the equivalent to the line is not going to be necessarily the measure, but the musical phrase, which might be two, four, or eight bars long. Second point, musical phrases don't always begin on the downbeat. Usually there's a pickup in the measure before. So with the enjambment "He / says" in Joseph's example the word says might be sung on the downbeat, but the musical phrase begins right before. So for example, if we are singing "We wish you a merry Chrismas" the word wish comes on a downbeat, but we wouldn't say that this means that the lyric is "enjambed" because the word "we" is sung in a different measure!

Joseph Hutchison said...

You're right, Jonathan. Then the question becomes: what is the "true" lyric? The highly regularized version we might see in print, or the syncopated version as sung? I started out convinced that the latter is the true lyric, the other almost it's shadow. Now I'm not so sure. I do think that Williams changed our expectations of poetry, which certainly helped to change the formal expectations of song lyrics. Did Dylan know Williams work at all? It seems to me he (Dylan) was the first to bust up the received lyric forms....

Jonathan said...

Are you asking how lyrics should be visually represented on the printed page, or "which is the true lyric"? The way lyrics are printed, when they are printed, is a matter of convention. We could write them out as prose or put slash marks where bar lines occur. Any number of practices might be imaginable. It would depend on what the purpose of the visual representation was.

Joseph Hutchison said...

What I'm suggesting is that the lyric on the page ought to at least approximate, visually, the lyric as sung. I'm suggesting this because it seems to me the that the lyric as sung is the "true lyric." I wrote here about how annoying I found Kay Ryan's readings of her poems because her line endings clearly bore no relation to the poem as spoken. This seems analogous to presenting a lyric on the page in some normalized form that doesn't align with the lyric as sung.

I'm perfectly willing to consider that this is simply a personal prejudice, of course. But there it is.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Quite by accident I stumbled on* an example of what I've been talking about, in a book called The Blues Line. According to the publisher (Mushinsha / Grossman), the aim was "to avoid stereotyped methods of reproducing the songs in print, the orthography being utilized to the fullest extent possible to represent the poetry of the songs as it actually moves and sounds." You can see samples of it here. (You'll need to scroll through the partial preview to see some of the lyrics.) Now, all I'm suggesting is that this presentation is closer to the "true lyric" than a more standard presentation.

*The description of the then-forthcoming book on the jacket of the Cid Corman / Kamaike Susumu translation of Basho's Back Roads to Far Towns led me to look for the book online.