It's always a dicey proposition when people start in talking about songwriters as poets.
A peculiar alchemy happens when singers give voice to their written words, transforming "she aches just like a woman / but she breaks just like a little girl" from something your creepy uncle would say to a famous lyric. That's quite a trick, and it's always made me think we should pat Bob Dylan on the back for being a magician more than a poet. No one from the Nobel committee has yet called for my opinion. Anyways, this alchemy can cause misguided English majors to declare all sorts of sappy, pretentious crooners to be "poets," something I find to be a stain on the good name. The work of even the most lauded wordy singer tends to dissolve once the words are actually on a page, free of music and voice. To be fair, I doubt I'd want to hear John Ashbery belt out "Soonest Mended" for anything beyond morbid fascination or schadenfreude, so I guess I shouldn't come down too hard. It still bothers me, though, especially because it blurs the line for songwriters who seem to me awfully close to using language the way "real" poets do.
By that I mean Vic Chesnutt.
There are no books of Vic's lyrics (yet), and so I don't know if his work translates onto the page in the way that Dylan or Lou Reed's does not, but I feel safe in saying that--baggy caveat above noted--Vic Chesnutt is one of my favorite poets.
He died over Christmas, so it seems as good a time as any to say it.
Vic's attention to words--his weird way of rolling vowels around in his mouth and clucking out his consonants--showed as much feeling for what the overly bookish among us call "the materiality of language" as any dime-store Ezra Pound currently holding office hours. But Vic also had a heart ("In My Way, Yes"), a bizarre Rome, Georgia version of a soul ("Steve Willoughby"), and a bag full of big ideas he liked to hash out in his songs ("Speed Racer"). He also had a deep sense of tradition, both in terms of song and of poetry, which drew poets and writers to him like pilgrims to the waters.
The poet Forrest Gander, without having met him, dedicated his book Lynchburg to Vic, and then later wrote up laudatory liner notes for the re-issue of Is The Actor Happy?, Vic and the novelist Larry Brown could swap stories for hours, and I know of at least two small presses who sent all of their books to him. I'm sure the list goes on from there, since Vic liked nothing more than to talk about poetry and poets, from Wallace Stevens to CD Wright to Vic's own grandma with her dictionary.
His rendition of Stevie Smith's poem "One of Many" on Drunk, shortly followed by his own masterful song "Supernatural," led a teenage me to seek him out to ask him all sorts of naive and inappropriate questions about the literary nature of his craft. That conversation, first published in Flagpole Magazine and now on Weird Deer, remains one of the fundamental experiences of my life.
About a decade later I was back at Vic's house talking about Pluto. Vic loved the then-current controversy over whether or not Pluto really was a planet. I thought it was sad to knock Pluto out of the planet club. "I love it," Vic said, puffing on a joint and fidgeting in his wheelchair. "I mean, they don't fuckin' know."
Always in tune with the mystery, Vic lives there now.
No one who knew him or listened closely to his music could be too surprised at his death, but it's still awfully damn sad. I can't yet bring myself to listen to any of his songs ("Debriefing" came up on my shuffle yesterday and I just about lost it), but I know I'll have them for the rest of my life. I'm grateful for that. Vic once told me he had a computer full of stories and poems he never showed anybody upstairs at his house. My eyes lit up, but he laughed at me and said, "They're all just stupid as hell. I don't even show 'em to Tina." I bet they are stupid as hell, but I bet they're awfully good too. That was Vic's way. I know I'm not the only one who's going to miss him.