Lyrics to Imaginary Songs by Mark Mordue
Mark Mordue is one of Australia’s most respected critics, and was awarded the Pascall Prize for critical writing earlier this year. He reflects on a lifetime of lyrics.
When I think about poetry, about my need to read it and reflect on it and even express the odd poem here and there as if there were a more pure or direct voice in me that had somehow been switched on for a moment I recall that it arrived in my life through pop music and rock ‘n’ roll when I was barely more than a boy.
The sounds of popular culture were never just a beat to me. They became a form of melodic literature as vital as Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, or the poetry of John Keats, WH Auden, Robert Lowell and Kenneth Slessor that I was schooled in and ‘learnt’ to love so profoundly.
Indeed I see now that rock ‘n’ roll primed me for Keats’ romanticism and Auden’s rhymes, as well as Lowell’s confessional devastations and Slessor’s alienated urban shades. That I became so involved with Hamlet precisely because it was Shakespeare’s most rock ‘n’ roll work – for behind its iambic pentameters lies the rhythmic appeals of a young man in black, a grieving rebel who might well have been an Elizabethan James Dean in his day.
Flip forward to England in 1965 and what was Bob Dylan, really, but an electrified Hamlet come to life on those same old theatre stages, a hot soliloquist with a bad attitude and an acoustic guitar instead of a sword sheathed at his side? As the DA Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back reveals, Dylan even had his loyal Horatio (friend Bob Neuwirth) and an Ophelia that he tormented (lover Joan Baez), as well as a Polonius whispering in his ear (manager Albert Grossman).
Despite Dylan’s typically elusive response to a question at the time as to whether he was poet – “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man” – the Beat writer Allen Ginsberg immediately recognized the young artist’s importance. In the Martin Scorcese documentary, No Direction Home, Ginsberg talks of Dylan’s arrival on the scene and what the older poet witnessed about his performing presence: “He [Dylan] became identified with his breath, like a shaman, with all his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.”
It’s a brilliant evocation of what Dylan personified from the very beginnings of his startling career: a shift in poetic life away from the page back into the ether of song. In Ginsberg’s word, Dylan transformed himself into “a column of air”.
Dylan himself was influenced by this same singing awareness – by what he called the ‘fearless’ rhyming of Cole Porter, by the archetypal power and conviction of Woody Guthrie’s folk ballads, by country music and the blues as much as the literary work of the Beats or TS Eliot or Rimbaud. And yet despite this history and ‘breath’, an idiot wind invariably continues to blow in from another direction, debating whether lyrics can ever be regarded as true poetry? As if everyone from Dylan to Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed must submit, cap-in-hand, to the demand their songs work silently and alone on the page if they are to qualify. A matter not helped by those hard-cover editions of lyrics from rock stars that, yes, all too often, read as lifeless if not a little pretentious and gaudy in their packaging. ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy’: And Other Misheard Lyrics by Gavin Edwards and Chris Kalb probably hitting a truer note than most when it comes to the reality of how we appreciate lyrics day-to-day.