Jewel's book for me shows true poetic meaning, the type that comes from right inside you, igniting your deeper fires, and bringing forward your source of words your soul.
(a reader's review, from amazon.com)
Her poetry seems childish and a little silly.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine
(a critic's review, from sonicnet.com)
In 1998, recording artist Jewel (Kilcher) released a book of poems, a night without armor, through HarperCollins, the respected publisher whose roster includes such well-known American poets as Carolyn Forche, Robert Bly, Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg. Jewel's 87-poem collection eventually became one of the best-selling books of the year, selling more than 432,000 copies.
Not surprisingly, it's the only book of poems on the Publishers Weekly list, coming at #22 for the year, with sales figures similar to books by popular fiction writers such as Anne Rice, Judy Blume, and Ken Follett.
The same week Jewel's book of poems was published, the online music magazine Addicted to Noise ran a story about the book and news of a poetry contest, sponsored by her publisher. As a poet, I was intrigued. Titled "Jewel Box," the site included instructions for entering the context, "an entrancing collection of photos" of the singer, and a number of her poems. Here is one of them:
I Miss your Touch
I miss your touch
like the slow migration of birds
upon my breast
silver and quick
sabotaging the landscape
with their absence
my skin silent without
a thirsty pool of patient flesh
The contest called for an online entry no longer than 20 lines (Jewel's
own poems tend to be brief) for a shot at a grand prize of $500. Ten
runners-up would receive a signed copy of Jewel's book and a copy of the
companion CD, a "spoken word" version of the poems. Entries to be
judged, the rules explained, "on originality, vision, how well they evoke
their subject matter, creative use of language and degree of
With a laundry list of criteria like that, entering was hard to resist.
Taking a few abandoned lines from my notebook (Jewel, too, I learned
later, often writes her poems in notebooks usually while on the road),
I tried adding a few more to give the poem a semblance of narrative.
Into the boxed field provided on the Web page, I typed what seemed to me
a "Jewel-like" poem and clicked it on its way.
And so we find my father,
one bored summer.
installing an intercom...
Room to room, the whole
wires half-tacked to floors
and baseboards, all
of them leading
to the kitchen where my
mother stands pumping
the red call-button.
Space-age! my sister
declared. Just like
But all I heard was
the white noise, the bad
and the voices of my parents
like static from the moon.
What was I thinking? I'm not quite sure. I know I had lately been
reading press accounts about the future of pop music in a digital age,
especially in light of the developing power of the Web for both the
distribution of music and commentary on it. I was wondering how the Web would
change poetry which, too, had found new avenues for circulation and
critique. I know I'd also been thinking about spoken word
performances and poetry slams although they seemed, in their theatricality,
loosely "rock and roll," my middle-class white literary sensibilities could
not quite read them as "poetry." Yet the press in the last few years
had been hailing the cultural "return of poetry," largely because of
these events and the sizeable audiences they drew.
These thoughts, in turn, raised more personal questions about "popular"
poetry versus what is usually referred to "academic" poetry who was
Jewel, anyway, to be publishing with HarperCollins when most of us
academics were having a hard time finding publishers at all?
Of course, pop as a musical genre and poetry as literary genre have
engaged each other as they have evolved. The lyrics of Bob Dylan, for
example, or the psychedelic musings of Jim Morrison and the punk-lyric
innovations of Patti Smith were all influenced, as each has noted, by
the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Morrison's and Smith's poems have been
published, collected, and reviewed, and Dylan's lyrics have been
published many times in "poem-like" fashion, as well as talked about in
literary terms by the press. So has work by Nick Cave and Joni
Mitchell. And then there's Lou Reed, who studied with the American
Delmore Schwartz, and Leonard Cohen, who wrote and published poems even
before he recorded his first album in 1968...
Well, it might be nice, I thought, to win Jewel's autograph my kids
would enjoy it. On the other hand, what if I won and my colleagues
found out where I was now publishing my poems? On the Jewel Box Web site!
About six weeks after clicking in my poem on the Jewel site, I received
an email marked "Urgent." "Congratulations," it began, "your poem has
been chosen as one of the 10 runners-up in the contest...Jewel herself
selected your poem out of the thousands of entries that were submitted."
The book and CD were on their way; my poem would appear with other
winning poems at the site in about a week. Jewel herself had selected my
poem! Out of a huge slush pile! My kids would be happy to have the
I went back to read the poem for the first time since I'd sent it. Is
it a "good" poem? I don't think so, although I have some allegiance
to that last metaphor: the young narrator hearing his parents' voices
as "static from the moon." But what the poem is lacking, for me at
least, is both a sense of musicality pasted together, as it literally
was, it seems "clunky" to my ear and a sense of tension in the story.
That is, I think the speaker's point of view at the end of the poem is
too easily and too quickly foretold. And what do Jewel's poems lack?
In my opinion, it's something like what James Tate notes in his
introduction to the edited volume, The Best American Poetry:
"What we want from poetry is to be moved, to be moved from where we now
stand. We don't just want to have our ideas or emotions confirmed. Or
if we do, then we turn to lesser poems, poems that tell you killing
children is bad, chopping down the rainforest is bad, dying is sad."
Jewel's poems strike me by this definition as "lesser poems:" her
relentless confessions, her less-than-fresh observations, and so on. And
yet I have been (in her language) "touched" by Jewel's poems. Not
because they are "universal" or "timeless" or "authentic," but because of
their material involvement with what many poets distrust most: our highly
mediated technological and commodity culture. Jewel's poems came to
me, after all, via the Web and involved me not simply as a consumer, but
as a producer of writing both in response to the contest and in the
writing of this piece. Apparently, if one reads the comments on various
Websites, many of her fans, too, have found her poems to be starting
points for their own writing.
Thanks to the Jewel phenomenon, I also had a chance to (in pop
marketing vernacular) "cross over." I had written a poem that had take a
different path and found a different audience than my other poems which
tend to appear in small-circulation literary magazines. It would be on a
Web site co-sponsored by HarperCollins and TV Guide, thus read by
thousands or at least more readers than I have when I publish a poem in,
say, The Iowa Review or Ploughshares.
Unfortunately, that raises the issue debated widely these days in
university tenure review committees of what "counts" as published.
At one time, being a "published poet" was a particular kind of
credential or people agreed that it was. These days, of course, one can
"publish" anything to a Web site.
Moreover, as I found out, things can also be unpublished. When I went
to the URL for the Jewel Box as I began writing this piece, not only
was my poem gone, but the entire site had vanished. In its place, in
cyberspace, just this ghostly language:" Error. This page has either
moved or been removed " itself, I suppose, a kind of poem or else an
extremely harsh critique.
From "Jewel Case: Pop Stars, Poets, and the Press," by Thomas Swiss, forthcoming in Popular Music and the Press, edited by Steve Jones. Temple UP, 2001.