One big intervention modern poetry made was to change our sense of the word “song,” which for aeons was a relatively uncomplicated synonym for “poem.” Surely poets couldn’t simply “sing” in the midst of war, chaos, historical belatedness, mass production, bottomless anxiety—all the bad things that supposedly came into the world after the moment in 1910 when, as Virginia Woolf put it, “human character changed.” It was about that time that the onslaught of anti-songs began: Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Pound’s discordant Cantos, Frost’s “The Oven Bird” who knows “in singing not to sing.” The definitive anti-song of modernism was probably William Carlos Williams’s “A Sort of a Song,” with its battle cry “No ideas/ but in things”:
Let the snake wait under
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
“Compose” is what musical composers do, of course, but its older sense is “to put together,” to build, to construct. The “words” of a poem shouldn’t be chosen to please the ear, but to ambush reality: “slow and quick, sharp/to strike, quiet to wait,/sleepless.” Nearly every writer of the era had a formulation of this kind. For Marianne Moore, the motto was “capacity for fact”; Wallace Stevens implored his muse to sing “accurate songs.” Frost writes, in a letter, of the need for “flat and final words,” words “become deeds, as in ultimatums and battle cries.”
American poets tend to want the benefits of song—its emotionality, its melodiousness—without its costs: its triviality, its obliviousness, its feyness. This conflict drives Michael Ruby’s American Songbook, whose title reminds us that we have no body of popular American poems to match the body of American songs, by the Gershwins and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and many others, whose tunes and lyrics many people know by heart. Ruby’s book presents his own poems, some of them loosely connected with popular songs. What would “Love for Sale,” the Porter tune Ella Fitzgerald made famous, sound like as a difficult postmodern poem? Here is the opening of Ruby’s “Love for Sale,” dedicated by him to Ella Fitzgerald:
The only sound empty street
defeats sight force
pail (of milk
I peacock throne open shop to a small group
moon of gazing down
draughts the lit tunnel
wayward town of
I peacock throne go toys to work on vanishing
This is “composed,” more in…
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