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Street Smart

Fintan Vallely

The Word On The Street, By Paul Muldoon, Faber and Faber, 96 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0571299065

Attempting to assess such a tastily designed set of lyrics is for this commentator as daunting as reviewing a notated version of a “big” tune like – say – Lord Gordon, as played with extensive variations by Sean Keane of The Chieftains. “Daunting” on two counts: the established fame and acknowledged expertise of the artist, and having to interpret one medium (song) through its representation by another (text). Yet, like any musician or singer, I often have to consider the difference between a song and a poem in the same way as I do that between an “authentic” performance and an ersatz one, or between a “noise” and a musical note. Other issues creep into the reckoning, for not only have genres and sub-genres, but art forms too, long ago run out of independence, and all now succumb to aspects of each other when necessary. The issue with The Word on the Street is that – as published – though it looks like a poetry collection, subtitled as it is with the thunderous “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize”, it is expected to be interpreted as song/music.

Some of the difficulty presented by such artistic crossover or hybridity is enshrined in the somewhat glic family of maxims concerning “writing about music”, an action which is, variously, likened to “singing about economics”1, “dancing about architecture”2, “talking about fucking”3 or “singing about football”4. Yet, apart from the fact that few artists really believe these, and none are saddened by a good review, the idea of the creative miscomparison is challenging. Not least because it is itself folklore, an evolution of a slogan which has been revamped and recycled in print for almost two centuries, used indeed by no less than Goethe: “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.”5 It is consideration of the relativity of the written word to the sung word that concerns this review.

It is emphasised at the outset that this review is not a literary criticism but a music-interpreter’s response, from one who is appropriately, nervously aware of (and has no intent to challenge) Patrick Crotty’s daunting accolade delivered from the fabulous battlements of his (2010) Penguin Book of Irish Poetry: “Paul Muldoon, the contemporary Anglophone world’s most accomplished user of rhyme and arguably the greatest lyric innovator Ireland has produced in the millennium and a half since the tonsured scribes of the monasteries hit upon the idea of getting the syllables at the end of their lines to chime pleasingly”. So this particular “tonsured scribe” (myself, that is) is not about to pull the devil by the tail. But he does have to guess whether or not one such as Crotty, in laying down the law, sees a difference between song and poetry. So, going by the Aberdeen academic’s working statement that “vernacular songs” are of oral, not literary tradition, can it be inferred that what is literary is not “song”? Probably not, since Crotty’s passion for both Robert Burns and Bob Dylan shows that there must be exceptions. And if poetry has moved away from strict syllabic metres, then this collection of Muldoon’s is indeed well within the genre “poetry”. As well as this, a defining issue in Crotty for “poetry” is “its awareness of itself in writing, its sense not only of its own textuality but of the processes – simultaneously joyful and exacting – that went into its making. Poem after poem calls attention to the act of composition and to the material contexts alike of writing and reading.” So The Word on the Street, as a printed work, written for reading, can be poetry even if it is implied by the cover that it is “song”. To conclude this seeming pedantry, it has to be said that the jacket notes are no help, for they go on to heavy-hit – with press accolades for the author’s poetry and his profound academic role at Princeton.

So qualified, The Word on the Street then will be assessed as music, even if the fact that it could be poetry too does interfere. This is a collection of thirty-one lyrics which are essentially modern songs, described as a reversion to “the essential meaning of the term ‘lyric’ – a short poem sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument”6.

The image that springs to mind here is a continuity within the Gaelic tradition which is made flesh in John Derricke’s sixteenth century woodcut of a reacaire declaiming the words of the file to the music of the cruitire on the harp7. But this is far in the past. Rather, it is Yeats and Cole Porter who are drawn into the résumé, and – contrary to the primitivism of the woodcut – the reader is actually invited to expand the act of interpretation modernistically by visiting a complementary website where s/he is told that rock versions of nine of the included pieces performed by Muldoon’s band, Wayside Shrines, can be downloaded free of charge. By now something of a tardis, this small-dimensioned book becomes a multi-media treasure hunt, and confirms that these are definitely “songs”. That, however, invites dissonance, for one cannot presume that a reader will apply to reading the words the same rhythm and resonance as the poet intended. This is borne out by listening to the web performances. The themes of the pieces are said to include “classic themes of song: lost love, lost wars …”, but they are much more a twenty-first-century inventory of a certain political attitude (liberalish, pacifist, hedonistic) which do indeed in moments take flight in classicism, but with a 1960s-related, popular culture cheek. While the titles are by no means previews of content, they do illustrate this variety: “Azerbaijan”, “Cleaning up my Act”, “Feet of Clay”, “Tin Star” … Some invoke a country feel: “You say you’re just hanging out (but I know you’re hanging in)”, “I don’t love you any more”, “Jezebel was a Jersey Belle”, while others suggest a rap approach: “Badass Blues”, “Comeback”, “Days of Yore”. Yet after reading the neat polish of the printed words the music interpretation offered by the free download often feels flat, and does not appear to always match the visual intensity that the text generates. One such is “Over You”, a satirical slash at rock-life infidelity and drug use:

Like I’d found you in flagrante
One rainy afternoon
Back in the years of plenty
The powder and the spoon

Singing aside, there is a refreshing absence of moralism or judgment in the words as written. Life’s issues are taken as given, the job of the poet is one of observer, assessor and subsequent raconteur (but more on this later). Yet, again getting back to the sung versions, in this regard the (un)accompanying music is a mixed blessing, both a necessity and an intrusion. Necessary in order to find out what the melodic and rhythmic intentions of the lyricist actually are, but intrusive as regards how the words may be read by the individual reader on the purchased page. For instance, “Head In” reads with a strong beat, but performed it is a dreamy narrative:

Her boyfriend was a biker
Who’d started his own sect
He’d done some time on Rikers
To get things all correct

“Comeback” by contrast has no performed version, and is free to feel like rap in its line-by-line pick-up on solitary assonances, consonances or rhyme:

Then our master’s voice
Told us it was cool
To park the Rolls Royce
In the swimming pool
While our drugs of choice
Were run from Istanbul
Through a girl called Joyce
Whose real name was Mule

On the page, these and other pieces are engaging, multiple-meaning nutshells which are expertly packed with wide-ranging, evocative associations. But the sung versions have a disconcerting feel of déjà vu, something sixtyish, already done. “Feet of Clay” is one such, a terrific narrative which with a pleasant, understated wit, through the medium of college life links Peace Studies, street protest, heroin, study and grades, coke, the carefree versus the cautious, all in the one tidy, powerful package:

Joan wouldn’t acknowledge
The crack she dealt at college
Was weapons-grade
When she went into shock
Her whole apartment block
Was under a blockade

This one is particularly dependent on hearing the music to bring out its full potential, a music style-range that takes in Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Leon Rosselson and Hazel Dickens, none of it easy to anticipate from the page. From the printed word there does however come across a slick self-mockery, and a somewhat witty fatalism colours many of the songs, bluntly perhaps in “It Won’t Ring True”:

Once my fake ID and your spray tan
Were all we had in our retirement plan
Then you headed for the hills
There’s a chance you’ll reconsider
And go with the highest bidder

There is variety too in the effect of the text, as there is in the sung tracks. “Julius Caesar was a People Person” has a touch of the Jungle Book, cartoon imagery, something which does manage to invoke Muldoon’s band’s interpretation straight off the page. But this is exceptional, for it is the least modernistic in being a very direct, stage-musical lyric with tight, old-fashioned ballad rhyme and logic, thematically reminiscent of Leon Rosselson’s “Stand Up for Judas”8, but with a frivolous wit as opposed to Rosselson’s (brilliantly) angry politics.

The measured flippancy of this most accessible (as read on the page) lyric brings to mind Brock Dethier’s linking of literature and modern music, for that writer argues that the soundtracks of college years determine subsequent life’s tastes9, and the bullet-point summary of “Music in our Lives” which he itemises is delivered here by Muldoon like a textbook demonstration: links to specific moments, the associations of words or phrases, family passing on of traditions, the power of contemporary song in culture, the interconnectedness of songs and relationships. But in this context it is seen that Muldoon does distance himself from “issues” as such – both as observer and, somewhat, as victim. While this might in other circumstances be seen as accepting powerlessness in the face of inevitability, a copping out, regarding society as a “given” within which the individual has no control, one isn’t sure whether or not these lyrics intend to draw attention to such issues as issues. Compared to Rosselson in this regard, particularly in the midst of economic crisis and its social consequences in bottom-of-the-heap poverty, addiction and hopelessness, Muldoon may seem careless about humanity, noting, as he does largely, the consequences of dropping out of privileged society. But that is not to say that he should have had a “plan” or stand, or have taken any other angle, for art does not have to be always socially responsible or agenda-driven. Yet intelligently applied conscience need not compromise art, and it can both be a comfort to observe and stand the test of time – as seen for instance in the powerful lyrics of such as Hazel Dickens – in her “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” – songs which deal with the lives of the very poorest of the Anglo-Americans.10 That comparison renders Muldoon’s lyrics as somewhat quirky for not campaigning or complaining, and they are certainly not the singer-songwriter angst that we know so well from late-night radio either.

It is this “singerly” stance and the ambiguity which the inspiration for, and the performance and performance contexts of, song entail that push the observer to probe deeper musicologically. Is there rigour or confidence in Muldoon’s words – as songs? Or are the conditions he indicates a personalised version of “strategic anti-essentialism”11 which is explored by George Lipsitz in his critique of aspects of the popular music industry12, in which popular music is seen as “a site for experimenting with new identities”. Muldoon’s lyrics indicate, in passing, the lovesick, broken-hearted, by the wayside fallen, drug-addicted, rich-parent college kid, the hooker, the powerless and the loser. Here perhaps is something which popular music has much of in its history ever since the minstrel shows, a “discursive transcoding”, the use or adoption of “the other” in order to express one’s own alienation. This kind of thinking may have developed out of consideration of the mega-popular in song, but The Word on the Street is a book of songs even if it is also poetry. The (recommended) web image of the band which performs this material, of which Muldoon is a member, shows that it is not concerned with cardboard-city, tent and under-bridge dwellers, but addresses its message to the somewhat alienated, disaffected or disappointed fringe of American society which has had better opportunities, an “other” which seems to be at quite a distance from the certainty of Paul Muldoon’s own age, economic and professorial college status.

These are issues in all popular culture of course, and Muldoon must address what he must. But the hip, cabaret, non-style of the band which performs these lyrics here suggests that the verses are designed for a certain social niche market, and so – selling books aside – the inclusion of “Pulitzer” on the cover is disingenuous, for this is not Pulitzer-level songwriting or music. But ignoring this, and, too, the interference of “pre-digestion” with the reader’s personal sense of rhythm which the “official” unofficial recording represents, there are some interesting song lyrics here, with those beautifully neat compressions of information and observation which are the hallmarks of great poetry.

  1. “Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a stature, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents (‘The Unseen World’ by H. K. M., p. 63, Vol. 14, New Republic, February 9, 1918).
  2. Elvis Costello, in Musician, October 1983: “songs are lyrics, not speeches, and they’re tunes, not paintings. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”
  3. John Lennon, Playboy, September 1980.
  4. Mike Oldfield, in an interview in The Montreal Gazette, November 8, 1982 about his “Tubular Bells” used a version of it to explain why he didn’t do interviews: “talking about music is like singing about football”. It is possible that he had never witnessed a major game.
  5. The origins of the train of categorical miscomparisons on this theme is most often associated with Goethe, in “Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Peter Eckermann & Margaret Fuller; translated by Margaret Fuller. Hilliard, Gray & Co., 1839. Goethe was however quoting from the earlier writing of Freidrich Schiller (c 1803).
  6. Dust-jacket notes to The Word on the Street.
  7. John Derricke, The Image of Irelande, 1581. Woodcut of “The chief of the Mac Sweynes seated at dinner”. This performance is illustrated simultaneously with a chorus from the braigetóirí – professional farters. Reprinted by Edinburgh University library, 1883; view on http://www.lib.ed.ac.uk/about/bgallery/Gallery/researchcoll/ireland.html
  8. See LP Love, Loneliness and Laundry (1977); also MP3 download, The World Turned Upside Down: Rosselsongs 1960-2010.
  9. Brock Dethier, From Dylan to Donne – Bringing English to Music. Portsmouth NH: Boynton-Cook (2003).
  10. See Working Girl Blues – the Life and Music of Hazel Dickens, ed Hazel Dickens & Bill C. Malone. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
  11. Developed from “strategic essentialism” as used by Gayatri Spivak, pp 3-4 in Outside in the Teaching Machine, London: Routledge, 1993. Cited on p 62 of Lipsitz 1994 (below).
  12. George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads – Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place, London: Verso, 1994.


Fintan Vallely is a musician and ethnomusicologist, a lecturer and writer on folk and traditional musics.



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