Rockers who write poems are like Rachel Ray and Bobby Flay throwing a quick dinner together for their families. It's not quite the same thing as they do in the public eye, but it keeps their instrument from getting rusty while still doing something different, extra special, and always beautiful.
We carry musicians close to us, as if we share the same soul. I would go so far as to say that they ARE our soul. The more work of theirs we find, the more deeply we know ourselves. The poems of musicians are like lyrics and thoughts stripped of musical support, gifted to fans as a vehicle to speed down the winding highways of our emotions. We owe reverence to the artists who bestow their poetic gifts upon us as well as their musical minds, so here is a verbal shrine to the coolest musical poets out there.
She's at the top of the list because she started out with poetry before becoming a rockstar! It may come as no surprise that her super groovy first hit, "Gloria: In Excelcis Deo," started out as a poem called "oath." It's much shorter than the song, but somehow twice as punk rock in its own right. This is a live reading by the grandmother of punk herself:
Though she has expressed adoration for the symbolists like Arthur Rimbaud, the defining thing about Patti's poetry is her very textbook beatnik styles which embody the culture''s defining aspect of spontaneity; such as dipping in and out of different rhythms and rhyme schemes and using crowded, punchy rhetoric. When reading Patti smith, I often wonder at the authenticity of her poetic voice: is she a product of a popular style, or just a spontaneous writer? I like to think it's a combination of both, as indicated by her friendship with and talent for reading Alan Ginsberg. Either way, her rhetoric is truly from the heart and always blend of refreshing and nostalgic. I will leave this with an excerpt from one of Patti's poems, which I think is the best possible description of her style:
"...if I could
to this space
I would be constantly here and now"
Keep writing poems for the here and now, Patti! We love you.
Florence is next on the list. Her poems are always as dynamic, heartfelt, and ever so slightly spooky as her musical material. No matter what the subject matter is, the South London witch most certainly has a way with words and we love her for it (as well as everything else about her)!
I do not think I can rank my favorite Florence poems quite as easily as I can rank the albums that Florence + The Machine has put out over the years (sidenote: her discography is beautiful but her debut album "Lungs" will always be the best. There's a sweet demo on the expanded version; check it out). When I was sixteen I transcribed Florence's poem "MONSTER" onto a sheet of cardstock using fancy pens and hung it in my room. At first, I wasn't sure why I thought I needed to read this every time I looked at my wall, but now I love it because it turns the message that art is an act of thievery from the experience of life into something of substance, light, and beauty:
"So you start to take the pieces of your life
and somewhat selfishly
other people's lives
and feed them to the song
At what cost
This wondrous creature
that becomes more precious to you
than the people that you took from
To make human sacrifices:
a late-night conversation
a private thought
all placed upon the altar.
but you can't help making a monster"
This poem is so so good because it has everything: it's witchy, personal-but-also-universal, and somehow playful. There is an ambiguity between Florence trying to defend her creative process and accepting the sources of inspiration in her life. And if that is the case, then let's all hope that Florence will keep feeding people's lives to the monster because the monster is BEAUTIFUL.
Another one of my favorite Florence poems is called "I CANNOT WRITE ABOUT THIS." It really digs deep into the spiral that people who love to make creative work often find themselves in. I'll let it speak for itself:
"I cannot write about this
It is a wordless thing
When did you become something
I couldn't write about,
Did you become real to me?
Now it is altogether
Too grown up
Too 'the best for us both'
To put into poetry"
At the risk of sounding emotionally blind, WHO CARES!? Why does it matter what or who she cannot write about when the magnitude of the poem lies in the act of being unable to write about it? Sure, each stanza contains a hint (or three) at a real-life thing that happened to our beloved Florence, but that's none of our business to try and pick apart with authoritarian high school English teacher-like intensity (or maybe my Dickinson loving self is just a sucker for abstract poetry). The thing about this poem that makes it powerful is not describing the events but inviting the reader into the emotions. That is the mark of a brilliant songwriter, a brilliant poet, and an outstanding artist.
We are so grateful for all of Florence's artistic offerings, and I highly recommend her book "Useless Magic" for more stunning poems and lyrics.
This experimental rock and roller has some awesome poems up her sleeve. Like Patti, she's generally a lyrics-first-music-second songwriter, so a lot of her songs were poems originally. However, some words stand better alone without music. This poem is called "Dance on the Mountain." While the rhetoric is not my personal aesthetic taste, every time I read it I can hear music.
on the slopes of dry grass
to watch their fathers dance.
The oldest dancer
removes his white felt hat
to place a glass of water
on his head.
He tramples the ground, he bares his teeth,
he wants to wake the dead.
In the terrible heat
the drums become louder and faster.
Some water spills
as he kneels
before the village elder,
dark stains on his short.
Then he stands
to pass the glass,
to his eldest son."
Each stanza in this work is only three short lines long, which produces a sort of visual rhythm. The story is like a stadium rock anthem: in your face and full of anticipation. The real virtue of this poem is the buildup. However, the more tension there is in the narrative, the less descriptive the writing gets. That's a crazy skill that is necessary for every lyricist, but not honored by every poet. PJ Harvey takes the lyrical, the visual, and the narrative elements of storytelling and blends it into poems and lyrics that, like her, are truly special.
Sweet, sorrowful, fabulous, rock n roll soprano Joni Mitchell; everything she does is poetry. I know we're not supposed to hold our icons to god tier, but who would refute that when she breathes in and out angels sing? Her most popular track, "Big Yellow Taxi" starts with the line "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot" which is one of the best lyrics ever written. It is difficult to find her poems online, so I would recommend buying her book of lyrics and poems: "Morning Glory on the Vine." The following poem is an excerpt from her poem "This Rain," which is partly based on the journals of Canadian visual artist Emily Carr:
"Is this the wettest place on earth?
My little fire is sputtering.
Oh, now my hot water bottle's gone and burst,
And I'm mean mad about it
And I'm muttering
The bucket brimming where the canvas leaks.
I smack my dogs for muddy feet.
Oh, this rain, this rain
will not retreat.
That painting I made yesterday -
Who would want to look at it?
It's just a mess!
The greens and greys.
I threw a stupid book at it.
I'd hoped to capture tree-souls in paint.
But hope! That's for idiots and saints.
My trees are incomplete.
Oh, this rain, this rain will not retreat
I wrote this poem for Emily Carr,
Though she's been dead for quite some time.
Most of these words are hers,
But some are mine.
I made them rhyme.
Oh, this nasty rain
This rain, this rain."
The rhetoric of Joni's writing, be it poems or lyrics, is soft yet visceral- like rain itself. It parallels the nature of sorrow, an emotion that is generally so quiet yet strong. The pairing of the visuals of rain and fire and tree-souls (another parallel to "Big Yellow Taxi") in this work with that of soggy biscuits as a result of a burst hot water bottle is done so subtly and smoothly. I write this article as I listen to the song "See You Sometime," in which Joni writes the lyrics "we're in for more rain," and the parallel is heartbreaking; the brilliance is otherworldly. Mitchell's poetry is perfection.