Editor's Note: Look for John Lundberg's poetry column every Sunday on Living.
Celebrities often forget that being famous doesn't mean you're good at everything. It's why we have Dancing With the Stars, Roseanne Barr's national anthem, and Alyssa Milano's Major League Baseball clothing line. So it's not surprising that some of our most praised and self-obsessed, thinking they had something deep to say, have tested the waters of poetry. The list is, in fact, a long one, featuring Ally Sheedy and Charlie Sheen, Suzanne Somers and Viggo Mortensen.
As you might expect, the poetry "establishment"--primarily the poets and critics that orbit and inhabit academia--doesn't welcome celebs with open arms. In some cases, it won't even acknowledge their existence. The Poetry Foundation's Best Sellers list, for example, refuses to include celebrities. Elitism? In part. I can't tell you how many times I've heard accomplished poets like Billy Collins--a former poet laureate for God's sake--get ripped for being too readable. It's also jealousy and frustration: if you'd worked a lifetime on your craft only to get outsold by Jewel--by about a million copies--you'd understand. And finally--let's be honest--celebrity poems can be really, really bad.
Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek's Mr. Spock), a few decades ago, went where no star had gone before in penning a series of poetry books, including Will I Think of You and Come Be with Me (from Blue Mountain Press). Here's a snippet:
I love you
not for what
I want you to be
But for what you are...
Did he find that on a candy heart? And here's a rhyme-tastic excerpt from Charlie Sheen's work:
...Teacher, teacher, I don't understand,
You tell me it's like the back of my hand.
Should I play guitar and join the band?
Or head to the beach and walk in the sand?
Suzanne Somers chose free verse for her book of poems called Touch Me (Workman Publishing). Here's an excerpt from "Organic Girl." If you thought the internal monologue of the woman behind the Thighmaster might be interesting, this poem sets you straight:
Organic girl dropped by last night
For nothing in particular
Except to tell me again how beautiful and serene she feels
On uncooked vegetables and wheat germ fortified by bean sprouts--
Mixed with yeast and egg whites on really big days--
She not only meditates regularly, but looks at me like I should
And lectures me about meat and ice cream
And other aggressive foods I shouldn't eat.
Best Actor nominee Viggo Mortensen takes his poetry more seriously than Sheen and Somers. He self-published Ten Last Night, his first book of poems, back in 1993 and in 2002 he even started his own poetry/art press. His writing, like his acting, is intense. Here's an excerpt from an early poem called "Embrace":
he rain is infected
from secret experiments
of lonely men
1. ed tongues.
Rowr! Steamy! Viggo's not so bad. And I'm happy to report that some celebrity poetry is actually pretty good.
Singer-songwriters in particular tend to make the transition more smoothly. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins have both made the jump. Tweedy's book Adult Head from Zoo Press--a legit poetry press--isn't a bad first foray. Here's an excerpt from a poem called "The Black Hours":
to climb into the unlit sky
you can see
there's so much less to this than you think
your mind's a machine
that's deadly and dull
it's never been still
and its will has never been free
it's almost dawn
and it's snowing again
There's a lot to like here. Tweedy is smart and has a quirky way of looking at the world. He conflates ambitious themes with everyday thoughts ("there's so much less to this than you think"), and I like the strange move to "and it's snowing again." Set to Wilco's music, "The Black Hours" could be terrific. Without the music, it reads a little naked, like the work of a great artist who's out of his element.
There are songwriters whose work translates to the page extremely well. Bob Dylan, maybe the best lyricist of the 20th Century, is rightfully included in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Here's his beautiful song "Boots of Spanish Leather":
Oh, I'm sailin' away my own true love,
I'm sailin' away in the morning.
Is there something I can send you from across the sea,
From the place that I'll be landing?
No, there's nothin' you can send me, my own true love,
There's nothin' I wish to be ownin'.
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled,
From across that lonesome ocean.
Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine
Made of silver or of golden,
Either from the mountains of Madrid
Or from the coast of Barcelona.
Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean,
I'd forsake them all for your sweet kiss,
For that's all I'm wishin' to be ownin'.
That I might be gone a long time
And it's only that I'm askin',
Is there something I can send you to remember me by,
To make your time more easy passin'.
Oh, how can, how can you ask me again,
It only brings me sorrow.
The same thing I want from you today,
I would want again tomorrow.
I got a letter on a lonesome day,
It was from her ship a-sailin',
Saying I don't know when I'll be comin' back again,
It depends on how I'm a-feelin'.
Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way,
I'm sure your mind is roamin'.
I'm sure your heart is not with me,
But with the country to where you're goin'.
So take heed, take heed of the western wind,
Take heed of the stormy weather.
And yes, there's something you can send back to me,
Spanish boots of Spanish leather.
"Boots of Spanish Leather" not only works well as a poem, it shows some real knowledge of poetic form. It uses the rhythm, rhyme scheme, refrain, and narrative movement of a traditional ballad. Check out the similarities to the medieval Scottish ballad Sir Patrick Spence (note: Sir Patrick sounds better if you read it with a gritty Scottish accent). Like much of Dylan's work, "Boots of Spanish Leather" is both whimsical and emotional, and when the title image finally appears, it's both rewarding and suggestive. Dylan once wrote: "Yippee! I'm a poet, and I know it/Hope I don't blow it." He doesn't.
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