My Jewel

Thomas Swiss

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

Her poetry seems childish and a little silly.
—Stephen Thomas Erlewine
(a critic's review, from

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
all taciturn
like the slow migration of birds
nesting momentarily
upon my breast
then lifting
silver and quick —
sabotaging the landscape
with their absence

my skin silent without
their song
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 imagination."

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.

Nineteen Eighty-Six

And so we find my father,

one bored summer.
One summer
installing an intercom...

Room to room, the whole
house webbed —
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

the Jetsons!

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 long 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 poet 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 autographed book.

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.

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