Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More on the difference between poetry and song

From Patti Smith in American Songwriter:
Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
When I read "songs are for the people" and "poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit" I feel like puking. But she goes on:
We always write a certain amount of poetry for the masses. When Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” he didn’t write it for himself. He wrote it to speak out. To make a move, to wake people up. I think rock and roll, as our cultural voice, took that energy and made it even more accessible.

When I’m sitting down to write a poem, I’m not thinking of anyone. I’m not thinking about how it will be received. I’m not thinking it will make people happy or it will inspire them. I’m in a whole other world. A world of complete solitude. But when I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
Poetry for the people. I'm not sure why that conjures about issues of accessibility and/or direct address but I guess we're back to that. I'm wondering why "thinking of the people" necessarily means thinking either how it will make them happy, or inspire them. Does thinking of the people happen in rhyming couplets? If poetry is having a complex thought should she hide that away only for other poets, or translate into "people" speak?


Souverian said...

"If you want the masses to understand you and want to become one with them, you must be determined to undergo a long and even painful process of moulding."


"How to serve the masses? Elevation or popularization? Popularization means extending art and literature among (the workers, peasants and soldiers) while elevation means raising their level of artistic and literary appreciation. We must popularize what is needed and can be readily accepted by these masses. Consequently the duty of learning from the workers, peasants and soldiers precedes the task of educating them. This is even more true of elevation. There must be a basis to elevate from. ... This means not that we raise them to the level of the feudal class, the bourgeoisie or petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, but that we raise them up along their own line of advance."


"The work of popularization in our sense not only constitutes no obstacle to elevation but affords a basis for our work of elevation, on a limited scale only at present, as well as preparing the necessary conditions for our far more extensive work of elevation in the future. All the experts should keep in close touch with the popularizers."

- Excerpted from 'The Talks on Art and Literature at Yan'an Forum', given by Mao Tse Tung

Funny that the populist idea of merely-thinking-about-the-People (when writing a song or a poem) still ignores a century long argument for the true entry into "the fiery struggle", entry by action and biopolitcal presence rather than by some sort of conscientiousness; an argument that sought and seeks to eliminate the very ability of the populists themselves to speak of the People as something separate from an elite. How much do even the most populist innovative artists today undergo any remoulding on a non-conscientious level today, as driven as they may be for being artists 'for' the masses rather 'for' the exlusivity of their own lofty lines of advance? - is identifying some "line of advance" for the masses even something these artists-for-the-People care to do anymore? Has that gone out of style? The Mao argument seems so common today from so many directions, though not often put into ideological terms...when the scent of what he was getting at in Yan'an pops up today - what is being argued against, exactly? What is not needed, what is not readily accepted by the masses? Does Patti Smith not sing about these things?

Just some thoughts.

Dan C. said...

I like to think that when PS said "Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit," she did so with her tongue in cheek, with a playful tone of sarcasm in her voice. Was this an interview or a piece she wrote?

Lemon Hound said...

You may be right Dan. Hope so. I'm busy trying to read folks minds so I can write the next big poem.

Lemon Hound said...

Good thoughts. I'm not sure why that phrase evokes such ire in me. Put another way I would say, yes, of course poetry is a solitary pursuit. Lofty perhaps puts me off...

Andrew said...

hi all at LH,

1.walt whitman among others tells us that We are the people. the minute you become the 'maker' and they - 'the people' youre in artistic trouble and art dont dance to a goosestep. really, its so rare that some cultural production is both 'elevated' and 'popluar'. my first thot is The Simpsons. most poems, like most modern dance, speak only to those that can already speak the lingo. elevation comes on its time, while education (taste, etc) can be fostered.
2.i feel that PS is on point when she embodies, physically, the role of shamanic-speaker-who-channels-thru-the-device-of-rocknroll-and-delivers-the-message to 'the people'. its ancient ritual, as she says. however, im sure even back then lotsa 'the people' didnt pick up what the poet was putting down and thus werent necessarily elevated. but PS is saying that that doesnt matter - Energy is what matters in song. people feel moved. the tom waits post.... its only since the 60s that rock ( and its roots ie/ the childe ballads ) were being considered as poetry. i feel that the 'more accessible' PS speaks of came with a certain arrogance. the kind where the loudest voice means its has more truth.
as ive noted elsewhere:"LYRICS≠POETRY and vice versa!!! I can’t stand the ‘rock poet’ tag even when applied to such brilliant musicians as Stephen Malkmus, Dan Bejar, mf DOOM, Bill Callahan, or Dylan. Two different beasts. Of course, the connection is deep and essential – it’s the musicality of poetry that is probably the first hook for me when I’m reading, certainly before much of the ‘meaning’ seeps in. But to name rock lyricists as poets, is, I think, giving them a little too much credit. It somehow de-centralizes the power of the melody and sound that is integral with lyrics."
i ramble (on)

voxpopulism said...

I hate it too, Hound. And I don't understand it, outside of the fact that songs are more popular than poems, globally.

In a song, both the conception (writing) and expression (performance) of the art are owned by the artist, right? The receiver of the art just gets whatever passive response we'd call listenership.

But in a poem, all the artist gets is the conception. The expression is shared (we can't read it for people, they must attend to it with whatever linguistic, intellectual, social history they bring to the text). So, the poets share more, control less. The people of poetry have always seemed to be active participants, not just listeners.

Of course, I love being a listener, too. Maybe the passivity is part of the appeal.

vintin said...

To contradict PS, from what I've read in Ginsberg's biographies, he was writing 'Howl' as a private thing, not to be shared with anyone - which is why it emerged so honest and open. It's a handy mental trick for writing openly about difficult things.

PS seems to be talking about form, really. Certain forms - in her case, song - are more 'popular' and by their nature have a broader, deeper reach. Poetry forms, except for simple rhymy slam poem forms, maybe, are unfamiliar to audiences. They haven't been exposed to them by the mass media that delivers songs so efficiently.

There are ways to 'popularize' poetry, of course. But then, that jettisons all the nuances, intellectual playfulness,solitary pleasures of the text.

Jeffrey Side said...

I think part of the problem as to why poetry is no longer popular is the attraction of music with sung poetic content rivaling written and spoken poetry. We have had this development at least since the mid-sixties, and it is still with us. What we now call poetry is largely a specialised and hermetic form of language that is discussed within the academy, and as such is valuable within that context, but has little relevance (either emotionally or intellectually) in the broader culture. Sorry to be so negative.