Dear Reader, here is my disclaimer: If you’re hoping to read this and NOT read about poetry, my apologies. You can stop here. I don’t think there’s any way that I can write about music and NOT write about poetry. POETRY IS MUSIC (sound ordered in time) more than it’s anything else. And while music isn’t always poetry, I couldn’t be OFF poetry by talking about music, anymore than I could be off birds by talking about the aviary, or off the sky by talking about clouds. Maybe this is understood by everybody implicitly, but I always like to be as explicit as possible and say the obvious things first. That way, later, when I fall from a great height there’s a scaffolding in place to keep me from plummeting into the abyss or going off on a tangent from which I’ll never return.
As I started to think about the music that’s really had an impact on me, I inevitably came to think about particular lyrics (lyrical passages and not-so-lyrical passages), and these, in turn, led me to think about some of the things I value in poetry: thievery, sabotage and failure; anarchy, negation and dissonance; transformation, transcendence, ekstasis; wildness, wilderness, bewilderment ROAR! In other words, what interests me in poetry is often really similar to what interests me in music. But even more than that, I’ve come to realize that the music I’m into has been, and continues to be, instructive with regard to what turns me on and turns me up (to 11) poetically. Or put another way: The music I listen to effects (in delirious, ridiculous and productive ways) not only my reading and writing, but also the ways I fall apart (in love and in theory) and volcano through this life (in gravity and flight).
What follows is my attempt to look at some song lyrics that are really important to me as lenses through which to think about reading and writing poetry. In the interest of not dying I’ve limited (limited?) myself here to talking about four bands, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Kenneth Koch’s long poem “When the Sun Tries to Go On,” but obviously this is only a beginning. Ready or not…
1) THE SEX PISTOLS, “Anarchy in the U.K.”—“I wanna be anarchy/It’s the only way to be.”
Enter: Wrecking ball. Exit: Decorum, civility, Beauty, and “good” sense.
I have always loved The Sex Pistols for their good/bad humor, their negativity and snarky-ness, their ferocity and electricity, their willingness to throw themselves to death against the wall—to turn themselves inside out, exposing the muck of human being in ridiculous and self-destructive terms. I think the Pistols were one of the most fully human rock bands ever—sloppy, self-indulgent, a real debacle of the intellect and a wrecking ball for everything else. They effectively ripped rock ’n’ roll into a bunch of tiny pieces and then reassembled them into a culture-negation-machine, not unlike (though LOUDER and more EXUBERANTLY—more VISCERALLY?—than) Tristan Tzara’s “How to Make a Dadaist Poem,” which constructed a poem via an automatic process, cutting a newspaper article into individual words, then rearranging them in random order and declaring, “And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd…” In other words, to look in the mirror of the Dadaist poem is to see the mess of yourself—and by extension humanity—for the very first time. All art is a self-portrait, so if the art’s a wreck (or ferocious or meaningless), it’s because the artist is, too. Anyway…
Indeed comparisons between punk rock and Dada aren’t new (see Greil Marcus’ excellent Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century), but I think it’s particularly apt (as does Marcus) in the case of the Sex Pistols. Both Tzara (Dada’s erstwhile mouthpiece and carnival-barker-about-town), and the Pistols’ lead singer and primary lyricist Johnny Rotten were provocateurs, saboteurs and, dare I say it, artistic terrorists, seemingly willing to take a beating for the anti-team if they could drum up some good old-fashioned aesthetic and cultural mayhem—even if/when such a drumming would ultimately threaten their own survival. As Rotten put it at the end of filmmaker Julien Temple’s 2000 Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury, “We did what we had to, and we didn’t survive. Only the fakes survive.”
((Big parenthetical tangent: And lest you want to declaim the Pistols’ fakeness, please remember that Rotten was actually razored—that is, stabbed/cut up—by hooligans, who, among causing other serious wounds to Rotten’s wrists, hands and abdomen, lodged a machete so deeply in his knee that the attackers themselves couldn’t pull it out and had to leave it when they finished the job of being “good patriots.” It seems the attack came as as a direct response to the Sex Pistols 1977 single “God Save the Queen,” (obviously a play on the British National Anthem) which many saw as an affront—not to mention a serious threat—to the British way of life.
People were so offended and unnerved by the song, which among other lyrics contains the following: “God Save the Queen/The fascist regime/We made you a monarch/Potential hate spark…” that the Pistols for a time became Public Enemy #1 with politicians and clergy not only banning their concerts and sales of their records, but actually calling for the band’s “annihilation.” You couldn’t ask for better press. Or worse. And the “God Save the Queen” single? Well, of course, it shot to No. 1 on the British pop charts. Interestingly, however, the song’s title “God Save the Queen” never appeared on the singles chart in the No. 1 position. Instead the No. 1 spot was left blank, as the powers that be felt the single to be so inflammatory that any mention of, or allusion to, The Sex Pistols was strictly off limits. They were literally “unmentionable.” Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering, “Hotel California” by the Eagles was No. 2 the week that the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” was No. 1. Ironically, those Eagles lyrics wound up being prophetic with regard to punk rock itself, especially this bit: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” not to mention also, “They stabbed it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast”). Onward, and back to our regularly scheduled lyric…))
“Anarchy in the U.K.” which was the Sex Pistols’ first single released on November 26, 1976 begins where any revolution must, “Right Now,” followed by Rotten’s half maniacal, half I-can’t-believe-we’re-fucking-serious (BUT WE ARE!) laughter, after which comes one of the most amazing rhymes in all of rock ’n’ roll, “I am an antichrist/I am an anarchist,” where “chist” rhymes with “christ” (and both sound like “heist”).
It’s ridiculous and terrific! A rhyme by force—by any means necessary—and this sets the tone for everything that follows. Even the English language itself isn’t stable enough to resist the incursions (the sabotage) of the Pistols’ indecorousness and incivility—we will even wreck your mother tongue—the terms of your existence, the golden cage of reason and good manners that you live in.
However, the most brilliant bit of all is that at the end of the song Rotten manages to resolve the early dissonance of the “antichrist” and “anarchist” rhyme with something even more deliberately threatening, rhyming “anarchist” with “get pissed,” followed by a terrifyingly treacherous slide down the gravel of his throat: “Destroy!” In other words, tracking the song from its beginning to its ending, one gets:
ha ha ha ha ha
I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
I want to be an anarchist
“Right now…Destroy!” These days it’s almost quaint, and yet what exhortation could be more revolutionary and terrifying to a general populace: Stop listening to this record and fuck shit up—wreck your language, wreck your country, wreck the whole world!
That said, what I most love about Anarchy in the U.K. is the lyric, “I wanna be anarchy/It’s the only way to be.” The claim is existential—that Being is contingent on anarchy, which I take (out of context and use for my own purposes—so what!) to mean a kind of (potentially self-destructive) recklessness. Herein is the idea that meaningful existence can only result from a complete and sincere willingness to fail (to destroy or be destroyed) at every turn, “only the fakes survive.” Obviously, this gets tricky in actual practice. Reckless driving, for example, will get you killed, and reckless homicide will get you dressed up in an orange jumpsuit 24/7. However, recklessness in art (thievery, sabotage, failure, etc.) is a thrilling proposition, and in some way or other necessary in the sense that risk-taking is always essential for artistic innovation (personal or otherwise). In the lyric “I wanna be anarchy/ It’s the only way to be” is the notion that the inappropriate, disruptive, destructive aesthetic response to a given set of circumstances is often the one that will explode (in the best sense) the possibilities of the work—the writer’s and reader/listener’s interest (SURPRISE!)—and not because it’s abhorrent, weird or insane, but because given the seriousness (or gravity or ecstasy) of the situation, the inappropriate (unexpected, irrational, indecorous) response makes a kind of REAL HUMAN SENSE, as opposed to a kind of well-behaved, scripted, civilized (and Oh so very British royal wedding) sense. The idea, as Greil Marcus put it in Lipstick Traces, is that “…a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not.” The Pistols’ call is a call to action, to riot, to re/activity in our own skins, to a state of 24/7-alive-and-awake to the pleasures and pains of existence: “I wanna destroy passers by […] I use the enemy […] I wanna be anarchy.”
“Anarchy in the U.K.” exposes the depths beneath the surfaces, and the surfaces’ façade: the faux wood paneling and drop ceilings, the pointless niceties and well-manicured lawns. In short, it exposes painfully and with incredible glee the raw, uncooked nerve in the meat, and then takes a bite anyway—all of it suggesting that conformity is a walking death, the zombification of culture and value. For art, the idea with which we’re left is that one must work to BE by whatever means one can, even if ultimately trying to be leads to one’s own spastic (artistic) ANNIHILATION/FAILURE. As artists we have to get better at FAILING FEROCIOUSLY, and then be able to recognize, and capitalize on, our big ugly tumble down the spiral staircase into the abyss, i.e. Fall down once and it’s a mistake. Fall down a thousand times deliberately and maybe it’s a performance or a poem or something nobody’s even thought of yet. The point is to believe sincerely that something accidental or foolish, illogical or just plain destructive can yield positive and urgent results.
from Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless
This is just like me The way I talk in class
Get so excited I pass out in the furnace
Now incinerated Now rock in a hard place
Scatter my ashes over waffles for breakfast
Let it be living, all angles and volume
Oranges and lemons and soda pop glee
Might as well be a landscape, might as well be
a sculpture a sick deflated lungfish with breathing
apparatus This year a marathon
Next year the Noumenon Everything is simple
or Emmanuel Kant The ice cream truck
with its milky ideas, imagination churning up
chocolate and vanilla, the cool aesthetic fact of it
A child’s birthday party Pin the tail
on the sophist or the Jello mold Biafra “Enjoy
the bedtime horror stories” This is how
we find our subject Sincerely/Not
sincerely, “We gotta drug, we’re gonna try it out
on you” Paper bags and plastic pills Lines
down the block to get fixed/be eternal
I can understand it, being already vanished
Or mostly or artistically or Fireside Bowl It was
sweaty and the floor ran with Old Style and butts
I ran in combat boots My dogs like the devil
in a waltz I would strangle You should’ve seen me
flopping like an acrobat angel First line to last line,
and now I bet you’re sorry Apology’s important
when you’re crushed against love
Matt Hart is the author of the poetry collections Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006), Wolf Face (H_NGM_N BKS 2010), and Light-Headed (BlazeVOX, 2011). A fourth collection Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless will be published by Typecast in 2012. He lives in Cincinnati, where he is a co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety and the Poet-in-Resistance at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He makes noise and recites poems in the band TRAVEL.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.