When I was in high school in the 1970s, poetry was the brooding lyrics of Tim Buckley, Neil Young, and Jefferson Airplane I copied into blue-lined notebooks, cueing up the records over and over to make sure I hadn’t missed a word. To this day, listening to “Coming Back to Me” or “Today” can bring me to the verge of tears. I wrote down all the words to “MacArthur Park” and Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (particularly excited that my obsession with mythology could merge with my musical obsessions), Simon and Garfunkle’s “I Am a Rock” and Dan Fogelberg’s “Nether Lands,” Tim Buckley’s “Morning Glory” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Spring,” and all the words I could make out of Patti Smith’s “Easter” and “Because the Night.” Music for people too sensitive for this world, who had only books and music to protect them.
My attachment to the music I loved was as much about what I wanted to feel or thought I should feel as about what I actually felt, about becoming or pretending to be the kind of person who felt those things. Music represented something that was not me, but felt like a truer version of me. The songs did the feeling for me, an externalization of my own emotions. Later, poems, my own and those by others, did that work too. (As Eliot wrote of the poet, “emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.”) For a long time when I listened to that music and relived the periods of my life with which I associated it, I felt nostalgia for times when I felt an unhappiness that in retrospect seemed more pure, more noble, even, though there was nothing elevated about it at the time. I would listen to sad music to make myself sad, trying to recapture that negative golden age, seeking a sense of connection with periods when I felt more deeply, endured a sadness less adulterated. (By, among other things, practical concerns: to be able to lie in bed hating one’s life, to be miserable and not have to do anything about it, is a great luxury.) I went in search of lost misery: remembrance of sorrows past. Now I hate to be reminded of those times, and wish that I could listen to that music remembering only what it meant to me, but not the pain. I look back on my past as a blighted wasteland, and what survives of value are music, poems, and a few friendships. And now there is my partner, Robert, who saved me from myself. Everything But the Girl sang that both desire and despair are hard to sustain, but I have managed both for too long.
And when I actually am sad, I find myself consoled by sad songs. They confirm that I not alone in my misery; they make my mundane unhappiness something shapely and beautiful, something the world not only wants to hear but wants to listen to. As Louise Glück has written, “There is always something to be made of pain.” I find that assurance comforting.
Patti Smith was my first image of what “a poet” might be (except perhaps for Neil Young, longing to live on Sugar Mountain, wondering what color is left when black is burned). She turned social ostracism into rebellious outsiderhood, loneliness into proud isolation from the uncomprehending mass. The mass of people I encountered couldn’t comprehend me: perhaps I could be a poet too. “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be”: I wanted to be there too, instead of just being on the bottom of society’s shoe. Listening to Patti Smith eventually led me to read Rimbaud, though he was more important to me as a figure of what a poet could and should be (a voyant, a visionary, an other to himself and the world) than as a writer, especially since I didn’t read French. I was more fascinated by the translator Paul Schmidt’s account of having tried to relive Rimbaud’s life, of having deranged all his senses in the hope of inhabiting Rimbaud’s skin, than by the lively but, I was told in college by friends who read French, rather inaccurate translations.
I suspect that for many contemporary poets popular music formed our first ideas of poetry. Some older poets have written about the importance of such figures as Elvis Presley (who, as Public Enemy rapped, didn’t mean shit to me) or The Beatles, whom I enjoyed but whose songs rarely seemed sufficiently “poetic,” though a song like “Hey, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” spoke to me very painfully. (I had a notion of the poetic long before I had any acquaintance with actual poems.) It has primarily been what used to be called New Wave and its various offshoots that has haunted my poems: arty music for artistically minded misfits, or at least for misfits who hoped that their social dysfunction might mean they were artistic, that being artists might validate their inability to fit in. I wanted to write poems as evocative as Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Ocean Rain” or Kate Bush’s “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” as coolly passionate as Japan’s “Ghosts” or David Sylvian’s “Forbidden Colours.” (Early in my encounter with poetry I understood that restraint was a form of passion, and longed for that power over my own emotions, which too often overpowered me.) I wanted to write poems as bitingly incisive as the Psychedelic Furs’ “Into You Like a Train,” poems that captured the perfectly poised sadness of This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren” or “I Must Have Been Blind.” (Both were cover versions of Tim Buckley songs. I learned about intertextuality from music also.) Along with the artists I’ve already mentioned, The Blue Nile, China Crisis, The Comsat Angels, Culture Club, The Cure, Brian Eno, Everything But the Girl, The Smiths, Talk Talk, were as much my influences as any poets that I read. That most of these groups and songs were more or less my secret, or a secret I shared only with a few friends, made my relationship to their music feel all the more intimate. It always upset me when a singer or group I liked became popular, as if something had been stolen from me.
Music still possesses my mind and my poetry, holds me in its loving and inextricable grip. My poetry is a palimpsest of various voices and discourses, shot through with song titles and song lyrics. They make up a large proportion of the voices in my head, and hearing a song will prompt a line almost as often as reading a poem will.
When I was a college student in Vermont in the early 1980s and a college dropout in Boston in the mid-1980s, I had a few friends who shared my musical obsessions, mostly gay boys from small towns and suburbs who had run away to Boston to become the gay men they’d always hoped to be. They collected Kate Bush or Culture Club picture discs, import singles and B-sides like “December Will Be Magic Again,” objects which encapsulated their emotions and experiences (loneliness and longing, mostly), the feelings they had and wanted to have, and gave them back to them as music. I collected those things too, and they’re in my poetry to this day.
In part, my will to become a poet arose from a desire to take a more active role in that transaction, to be not only the audience for my own revised emotions but their author as well, to produce others’ emotions for them.
Much more recently, I saw a banner in the music section of my local Barnes and Noble which featured a remarkable quote from someone of whom I’ve never heard, one Edward H. Howe: “When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had, and never will have.” I think that “something” is freedom, which music hints at, promises even, but never gives for more than moments. The song remains the same, but the song always ends.
It sometimes occurs to me that I know almost no one who still has that particular relationship with music, who still has that degree of emotional investment—everyone has moved past that, though to what I don’t always know—and I wonder if my continuing obsession means that I am emotionally stunted, that I have never really grown up. Shouldn’t a man in his forties have put away such adolescent preoccupations? But then, Nietzsche did once call poetry a secondary sexual characteristic (so many people write poetry in their teens, and then they grow up and do other things), so perhaps to be a poet is to be a perpetual adolescent. Hardly an original thought, but what about adolescence is?
This piece is adapted from the opening autobiographical essay in my collection Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, to be published in the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series in 2008.