What Song Is My Poetry?

A little while ago Danniel Schoonebeek asked a handful of poets this question: “If you wrote the poem that most completely satisfied your ambition and ideas about poetry as art, what song would it be?” Last week he posted Part One of the replies he received (featuring me, Lisa Ciccarello, and Mark Leidner), and this week he has posted Part Two (featuring Ben Kopel, Matthew Zingg, and Emily Hunt). Below I’ve re-posted my own answer to serve as a kind of preview…

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Death Letter” / “Grinnin’ in Your Face” / “Little Bird” medley - The White Stripes

Despite listening to a lot of drone and doom metal while I write, I knew off the bat when you asked this question that I would have to choose a blues song … but which one and by what artist? Skip James came to mind for his otherworldly voice and popularization of the D minor tuning (taught to him, incidentally, by a guy named Stuckey). Son House was also a strong contender because of how he allows himself to be possessed by the “lowdown shaking chill” of the blues. But let’s be honest; I’m just a Montessori-schooled white kid who has been heavily influenced by their work… But you know who else matches that description? Jack White. What I love about Jack’s playing is his emotive guitar work, which mirrors how I strive to use silence in my poems. Silence in a poem, like a guitar solo in a blues-based rock song, should come at the moment when words fail, and say what language alone cannot. Jack does this masterfully in the controlled and sorrowful solo that comes at 1:52 in “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart.” However, if I had to pick only one White Stripes song that embodies what my own work aspires to, I’d have to choose a live performance of the “Death Letter / Grinnin’ In Your Face / Little Bird” medley found in their Blackpool concert. “Death Letter” and “Grinnin’ In Your Face” are Son House staples, the hauntingly minimal originals given new urgency in the White Stripes’ hands. Meanwhile “Little Bird” only makes a cameo in this medley via a few notes at the very end, but I know the lyrics to that song (I got a little bird / I’m gonna take her home / put her in a cage / disconnect the phone) and the absence of them makes it all the more personally poignant. The wildly moaning guitar work found in this performance perfectly embodies, with a kind of frenzied duende, the silence I strive for in my own work—and the dark, elliptical lyrics tell intensely intimate stories of quiet desperation that resonate deeply with subject matter I find myself returning to again and again.