Reviews

101 Poems That Could Save Your Life: An Anthology of Emotional First Aid by Daisy Goodwin

Andy Fogle

Despite the variety of emotional ailments they address, it is done so with a general monotony of procedure and voice.


101 Poems That Could Save Your Life

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 141
Subtitle: An Anthology of Emotional First Aid
Price: $15.95 (US)
Author: Daisy Goodwin
US publication date: 2002-12
Amazon
"Books have become products like cereal or perfume or deoderant."
— Alexandra Ripley

Asserting that the best art satisfies and lures academic, "high"-minded specialists, as well as the colloquial masses, is nothing new. Look at the original Star Wars trilogy, or The Matrix, and the wealth of philosophical, literary, religious, and mythic roots and branches they have -- and then watch them just for the cool action and effects. Either interaction with the film is a valid and, I'd say, important human act. Think about the Beatles, James Brown, Radiohead's Ok Computer, the novels of Tim O'Brien, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish -- all work that has been critically acclaimed and publicly feasted upon.

It's this question of value, and this fusion of poles, that I have in mind when I see a collection like 101 Poems that Could Save Your Life, lauded by its own book jacket as "the first poetry anthology designed expressly for the self-help generation."

Scott Simon's forward makes solid points in the middle ("These poems respect our grief and experience by not blithely assuring us that things will get better. Things often don't. What's easier to say is that we will get better"), but is bookended by smirky humor that squeaks of pride in occupying some emotional "edge". The forward opens by proposing poems come with warning labels and directions ("For sleeplessness, sorrow, loneliness, and grief, take two poems with water"), and closes with the final caution "Contents are definitely under pressure".

Editor Daisy Goodwin's introduction is a little more effective, citing the notion that poems are "the right words in the right order", something academics almost automatically respect, and then making sure the everyday reader's tastes are satisfied as well by asserting that "the right poem at the right time can change your life" -- she then goes a step further by admitting such an instance from her own life, where a poem by C.P. Cavafy called "The Big Decision" changed hers. This ultimately led her to compile this book, which she explicitly suggests be used "for self-help purposes." She recommends we go to the "emotional index", scan for our ailments, and turn to the corresponding section of poems. I think about my family and friends, the issues that have troubled us, and decide to check out "Divorce", "Hangovers", "Getting Married", "Staying Married" and "Friendship". With the exception of an excerpt from "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran, there's hardly a poem among these thirteen that I have use for.

In the "Divorce" section, there's one solid poem about the tendency in some marriages to sink into emptiness, while the other three are at times vicious, and at times spirited -- but I feel almost easily so -- utterances equivalent to the final middle finger in a marriage.

But at least they take some kind of risk or stand. While two of the three "Friendship" poems are from canonized British poets, they are excerpted and seem to be so just to create a section for the book. It's an almost radically neutered excerpt, not the potent entirety, of William Blake's "A Poison Tree" and a prose excerpt of John Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions that make this section, as valuable as both Blake and Donne and their particular excerpts are (admittedly, even when taken out of context like this), feel contrived. How is the Donne excerpt specifically about friendship and not other, even larger issues? What's worse is the other poem, entitled simply "Friendship" by Elizabeth Jennings, which is quite possibly one of the most faceless, gutless, pointless, awful, and fluff-full poems I've ever read.

Like a lot of poems in this anthology, "Friendship" is highly formal -- iambic, rhymed quatrains -- and represents the worst tendency here: the tendency of being a poseur rather than a poet, one trying to write something that sounds profound, philosophical, poetic, rather than simply writing as a sweaty, solitary, aching craft of both the mind and the heart.

There are a few risky poems here that seem to really matter, and actually cause a physical reaction. Tony Hoagland's "Perpetual Motion" is particularly ambient and admirable, while the closing of Carol Ann Duffy's "The Darling Letters" -- "Once in a while, alone,/we take them out to read again, the heart thudding/like a spade in buried bones" -- is a marvelous rendering of the visceral quality of memory.

But so much here is so light. Another quick glance at the emotional index yields the following topics: "Bad Hair Day", "Bereavement", "Career Crisis", "Commitment Problems", "First Date", "First Wrinkle", "Is This Relationship Going Anywhere?", "Monday Morning", and "Retail Therapy". Occasionally the more heavy-handed sections produce some strong work. Dorothy Parker's "Resume", Stevie Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning" and Emily Dickinson's "After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes" are widely anthologized poems from the "Rock Bottom" section, while W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues" (from "Bereavement") is a great poem in any anthology.

At any rate, it's a poem like Dickinson's that seems out of place here. As she seems to be one of the more troubling yet interesting figures in American poetry, her work is instantly recognizable, and also just as opaque in its often mechanical and linguistic tangle. Her work can go in three and four conflicting directions at once without resolution, and it strikes me as a little odd next to the high number of epigrammatic, amusing or soapbox ra-ra poems in this book. I read Mandy Coe's "Go to Bed with a Cheese and Pickle Sandwich" and go, "Well, isn't this cute!" At the bottom of Rosemary Norman's "Lullaby", I've written "Big deal." These aren't good signs.

The problem is the poems get predictable, with the same old moves, refrains, and rhyme schemes; despite the variety of emotional ailments they address, it is done so with a general monotony of procedure and voice. And they seem to take almost zero linguistic or emotional risks for being "An Anthology of Emotional First-Aid", but I guess we're supposed to take that subtitle lightheartedly. I think of another specialized, ailment-driven anthology of poems -- Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Redemption -- which can't fail to move a reader. It's a compelling, urgent, meaningful, and serious anthology, one which people might actually be pulled through, while this is one through which to browse, stroll, window-shop.

I can say with certainty this book isn't dressed up for red-blooded American guys watching the NCAA, and it's not for halfway serious poets or readers of poetry either. It's for everyday lightweights who aren't normally interested in, devoted to, or even patient with the arts. It's a way to "be into" and "use" the art. Maybe I'm abnormally well-adjusted, or more academic than I want to admit, but my everyday life already has enough helpful art floating around that I don't need to crawl to a pink book in my purse when someone I know dies.

I can't imagine any of these poems saving my life. I've come across a dozen or so that I cherish for various reasons, and I can say they've done more to keep me from flying off the handle or the deep end without being explicitly about depression, adultery, drugs, or bad hair. Poem's like Jeff McDaniel's "Disasterology", Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It", or Heather McHugh's "Not a Prayer" sturdy my literal and literary lives with more subtlety, imagination, and less formula, categorizing, tidying. Regrettably the general reader, thinker, liver depends on these training wheels. While it's obvious we might consider the appearance of this anthology a symptom of the danger our emotional lives are in, we could say the same for the health of our literacy.

If one of these saves someone's life, or even just gets them looking into poets they might not have before, then that's probably what matters most. Some might find genuine use here, and ultimately, I have no qualm with that. The arts should be used, not in the sense of exploitation or as in mere ornament, but they should serve -- we should look at them as toy-like tools. I just won't be keeping many of these in my garage.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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