Thursday, 5 May 2011

Did Rock & Roll Kill Poetry? Part 1 w/ poet Christian Watson

Not many people know that singer Pete Doherty and comedians Mark Lemar and Phil Jupitus started their careers as poets.

Going around reading poems, bantering in venues across the country and then crafting their banter into stand up, or poems into indie songs at the request of their commercially minded managers.

Why is poetry something to avoid if you wish to reach bigger audiences?

Some people (mostly poets themselves) blame Rock & Roll.

I asked punk poet Christian Watson for his take on the debate.

Christian, Did Rock & Roll kill poetry?

To say that Rock & Roll killed poetry is simplistic and, ultimately, untrue, mainly due to the fact that poetry is all around us, even if the vast majority of people choose to ignore it. I would say that the proliferation of Rock & Roll during the late fifties and the whole of the sixties denied poetry a place in the Western mainstream culture, sidelining an art form which has within it vast reserves of power.

To me, there is nothing purer than the human voice, and Rock & Roll diluted that purity by joining it with African beats and European melodies, creating a sound which no longer needed to be listened to, merely felt, and at that point the words became merely another instrument and lost the power they have when they stand alone.
I have always thought that if you need to add music to your words so that someone will listen to them then you are wasting my time.
For as long as I can recall the words in music have always had the most power over me, Hip Hop, Punk, Soul, Blues, Indie, whatever- whether it be Mr Lif breaking down the post 9/11 American mind state in 'Home of the Brave' or Ian Curtis summing up working class ennui better than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ever did with the lines "When routine bites hard/ And ambitions are low"- the music always came second. I don't care about genre, I just want words that mean something, not just to me, but to the voice singing/rapping/screaming them, and Rock & Roll, along with its degenerate offspring, has made it so that meaningless lyrics are not just easy to get away with, but in fact have become the norm in mainstream pop music.

In the mid fifties the poetry readings were starting to occur in places that they had never touched before, such as coffee shops, bars, jazz clubs and anywhere where the young and the hip were hanging, New York to Long Beach to London. Poetry was becoming a place for the young and discontent to express themselves.

Poetry became so popular that in 1960 J. Edgar Hoover was quoted as saying that the three greatest threats to American life are "Communists, eggheads and beatniks"- yes, beatniks, a media term for the young people who were smoking dope, reading poetry, squatting in cheap apartments and engaging in lifestyles that were totally removed from the type of society America was looking to create post World War II. This generation were looking for meaning and trying to express thoughts and feelings that were, to a point, illegal to express- the examples of Ginsberg and Burroughs obscenity trials can be taken as evidence of this, not to mention the trials of Lenny Bruce(a comedian who was first arrested in 1961 for apparent obscenity- the forefather of people such as George Carlin, Bill Hicks and Doug Stanhope)- and I believe that Rock & Roll diluted this self expression as it gave the discontents a way to express their feelings with sounds rather than words, using guitars and drums to make noises that their parents disapproved of, whilst at the same time singing lyrics that meant little or nothing.

Of course, there are always a few who go against the norm, who can fuse brilliant words with emotive sounds, but on the whole most bands and musicians are happy making something that sounds nice, yet is mentally unchallenging and lacking in verbal finesse. The sounds they create alienate their parents and elders, therefore those creating the sounds can feel they are rebelling, when all they are doing is commodifying their rebellion, turning it into a product that may sound like it is challenging the status quo when it is actually strengthening it, making it easier for their peers to buy into the culture of conformity through established and controlled modes of rebellion.

Popular music, whether it be Punk, Metal, Hip Hop or Chip Dub, has become the main source of expression for the discontent youth, yet, for the most part, the bands playing this music are not saying shit worth listening to.

There have also been many bands and musicians that give lip service to poetry, such as Jim Morrison or Pete Doherty, but they have rarely denounced the musical side and tried to get out there on the power of their spoken word alone.

The only place in the mainstream for pure spoken word seems to be comedy, and there it is only artists that don't challenge the mainstream views and merely reflect an audiences expectations back at them that get big, people such as Lee Evans or that bloke who talks about garlic bread, people who tell well structured jokes about relationships and airplane food. The comedians who challenge this status quo rarely become household names, and people who stand on stage and read poetry have not ever, in the last twenty to thirty years, become household names.

People like Luke Wright, Kate Tempest, Byron Vincent, Buddy Wakefield and even John Cooper Clarke are names that, in modern spoken word circles, are exalted as being at the top of the game, performing regularly to largish crowds, yet none of them are household names, names that the general public know anything about. Kate Tempest and Buddy wakefield get larger audiences when they marry their words with music, but that, to me, is placating an audience, giving them what they expect in order to get your words in their ears. Poets should not need music to gain an audience, but they do, and I blame Rock & Roll.

Rock & Roll didn't kill poetry, but it diverted attention away from a powerful, pure form of expression, a form of expression that allows for a personal and real bond between actor and audience, between writer and reader, between speaker and listener. With poetry you can't zone out the words and listen to the sounds, you can't ignore the lyrics and just tap to the beat, you can't just look at pretty dance moves and scream at a wall of sound. With poetry you have to actively involve your brain, to create a bridge between two active minds, and this takes effort.

I can only speculate, but without Rock & Roll, without the overpowering music and amplification we have now, without the vapid preoccupation with looks and style, without the slick videos and obscene budgets, without the theatre of cruelty parading fetishes youth and PR managed monstrosities across our daily media manipulated retinas, without Elvis and his wiggle, without Bob Dylan going Judas, without Punk becoming Blink 182 and weird legs in leotards becoming the next big thing. Without all this, poetry may have had a place in the mainstream. If Rock & Roll hadn't become so damn good at saying nothing and saying it with style, so good at creating and reflecting the needs and desires of youth, then maybe poetry might have become a force to be reckoned with- it was going that way, but somehow being heard won over saying something worth listening to.

Poetry isn't dead, it's just being ignored. I say fuck that, one man/woman with a pocketbook full of something worth saying is worth listening to a million times more than the Ga-Ga's and Bono's of this world. Rock & Roll didn't kill poetry, but I reckon poetry can destroy Rock & Roll.

Christian Watson is a poet based in Hastings. He publishes a poetry magazine called No.1 Fake which comes out bi-monthly. He also runs a poetry event called Slam Sandwhich. Here's a very good poetry video he made recently -

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