Poetry of the Heart in Search of Art
This is how the book begins, the first stanza of the first poem, “the poetry of my heart”:
Revealing now the poetry of my heart
Think birds in flight and you will start to come close
As faces come from the darkness familiar
To greet you hello again
They pluck those strings and sing those refrains I know so well, and hold so close
Now follow these birds faithfully, keeping those faces in mind
Over rivers and dales and soft greens until we come to the edge of the vast ocean
The biggest sea you may imagine and more
Lift your hand and let those birds soar with this sweet music
In other poems, Corgan intones, “the poetry of my sorrow is written in these words” or “I am your eternal love”, or he’ll exclaim “Oh how we used to laugh!” Pretty emotional stuff.
He’ll use poetic words like “vainglorious,” “supine,” and “bespeak”. He makes revolutionary, virtuoso-like decisions, such as the half-page spillage-paragraph of words which he calls “a bunch of words.”
There is this wholly original image: “There is of course the courage of a single flower/Pushing its form thru concrete/If only to be trampled into dust.” There is also the winking acknowledgement of the “of course,” as Corgan makes an intelligent allusion to his predecessors, the sure sign of an informed artist.
There is dizzying wordplay, manic music: “To keep safe my keepsakes/Till I build up enough steam to run out of steam to float upstream to lands of forgotten kings.” Or, “At the bottom of my hole lies a soul so cold/Collecting aqua blue marigold/If you are willing to dive for love this deep/You might find all that you seek.” Ah, the thin line between sound and sense.
Some of this might fly as lyrics for music, be it tribal drone-lulls or wicked thunder-sludge. And let me say here that I still find Corgan to be one of the more innovative and informed guitarists and vocalists of the 90’s, a pretty gutsy and gorgeous hybrid of Black Sabbath and the Bee Gees. Further, I can appreciate his work as a song-lyricist, as he’s always been one to dive into some seriously emotional and psychological territory, like a slightly elusive confessional poet.
As lyric poems, however, without the support of a band, it’s just totally high school, totally amateur, totally naive, and not in the good way. And that’s how most attempted music-poetry crossovers go: uglily.
Even the Literary Lord of Rock, Lou Reed, can’t stand up but so tall on the bare page. Reed continues to push boundaries and dig into depths when it comes to rock lyrics, and like Whitman or any other poet that amasses such a body of work, he’s up and down, but he remains a considered, compelling crafter of speakers within the structure of a song. I’ve loved him as a rock poet for half my life, but his book of lyrics, Between Thought and Expression is little more than a souvenir.
That’s to say nothing of the dashed off work by Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Jeff Tweedy. There are some fantastic moments in these guys’ poems, but that’s about all. The only musician I can read is David Berman of Silver Jews (perhaps it helps that I know nothing of his music), who has a book called Actual Air which does much more than survive the pressure of the page—by and large, that book makes me feel like I’m on a playground that counts.
To be fair to Corgan, he does have his share of moments here, as he’s especially good with questions that seem to bubble up: “what do they protect if not the past?”, “what survives the rush of the profane.” There is a fine stretch in “painting shade” that goes like this:
Your ancestors, when hollowed out by hungers
Climbed over oceans to get here
They figured you might need to know someday
That nothing changes but the rules of man against God
I almost wish I’d written that, but I definitely wish there were more such authority, more controlled power, like the best of Corgan’s music, but the book reads like a journal: pretty uncrafted, pretty splattered, and pretty desolate in terms of artistic worth.
This kind of rawness, if you will, seems to be Corgan’s thing lately. His website, www.billycorgan.com, is a straightforward sequence of messages from the man himself (currently at work on a novel, and also wrapping up some more recording, I might add). Rambling and chatty, they kind of just make Corgan look more and more like a freak, but one shouldn’t overlook the rarity of an icon regularly posting very personal and honest messages to whoever with a computer wants to read.
Still, this book rides on the curiosity factor, the same thing that makes people buy books of poetry from Jewel or Tupac, unoriginal books that thousands of us could write. This isn’t to denounce writers having something in common with readers, or to value seasoned writers over the green ones, but my patience grows thin when a famous musician gets published by a major press, in hardcover no less, while I know at least a dozen unknown poets who are an eternity more informed and creative. Sure, this book might be art, it might be all up to the individual poet’s inspiration-perception and whatnot, but it’s careless and unimaginative. Corgan’s music has never struck me as slack, but these poems do. Let’s see how that novel goes.