Sunday, July 29, 2007

Patti Smith on Elizabethian lyric

Just heard Patti Smith doing a radio interview (she's coming to Madison soon) and she was praising a lyric (no idea what — I came in after the antecedent was established) this way:
The lyrics are so beautiful they're almost Elizabethian.
If you don't know her as a heart-attack serious poet, only as a 'punk singer', the whole content may surprise you. But two other angles got me. First, I'm somewhat surprised that she thinks of Elizabethan as the standard of lyric beauty. Second, the adjectival form made me jump: Why not just Elizabethan? Probably a performance error, although her form gets a fair number of g-hits.

13 comments:

Vance said...

I think lots of people think of Elizabethan as the standard of lyric beauty. Or, put another way, she's right, and in good company, to notice a sudden efflorescence of lyric from Wyat(t) onwards. I've often wondered why -- was it just that those simple forms and sentiments had never been put together before in our mongrel tongue? Let's hear it for Campion and Herrick....

Vance said...

Or that it was only at that point that our poetry starts being comprehensible as a flavorfully archaic version of the English we know, rather than something requiring translation?

Mr. Verb said...

Well, the weird thing is that probably not so much that her work has that feel to it (as I think it does), but that it works so damn well for the sound she had in the early years especially.

Mr. Verb said...

You know, I've always wondered about the role of comprehensibility in our taste in literature.

Vance said...

It's difficult to express this without banality -- but I do find that I need to feel I share the language of the poem in order to appreciate it. I learned German in my early teens, and Italian in my late thirties. Though in some ways my Italian is better at the moment, my knowledge of German runs deeper, and I get more out of German poetry than Italian. (Celan is a great poet to me, even when I hardly understand him.) I honor people who have learned to appreciate poetry in languages they don't know intimately (e.g., dead languages), but I'm not one of them. I also honor those who have learned, say, Chaucer's English well enough to respond to it intimately....

The Ridger, FCD said...

Wasn't lyric poetry often written in French earlier? I mean ... Elizabethan is late, but perhaps English wasn't considered a possibility for "lyric" verse for a while. Old English poetry certainly existed, but it's not lyric - and the alliteration vs rhyme problem doesn't help, and of course for modern English speakers it's incomprehensible.

Richard Hershberger said...

I think the various suggestions so far all have something to them. There certainly was English lyric poetry before the 16th century but there was considerably more of it from Wyatt onward, and much (though not all) of the earlier material requires extra work to read.

But perhaps more to the point, when most people talk about Elizabethan poetry, what they really mean is Shakespeare. This is both unfortunate and not entirely accurate, since it excludes some terrific work (I am particularly fond of Sidney) and much of Shakespeare's work was produced after Elizabeth's death. But what the heck: if you think of Shakespeare when you think of Elizabethan, you are thinking of darned good poetry. As a standard of lyric beauty, you can do worse.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. Yeah, 'Elizabethan' surely means Shakespeare to most folks (including when it's used to make bizzare assertions about the English spoken in the southern highlands of the US!).

Without knowing her, I'm inclined to figure that Patti Smith knows the broader body of work from the period ... though maybe the -ian (rather than -an) form of the adjective suggests otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Man, I never expected THIS blog to have a thread on the relationship betwen punk lyrics and Elizabethan poetry. Way to keep us off balance!

Vance said...

What we haven't done is to point to any connections between Smith and the Elizabethans. Reading some lyrics now (I actually don't know much of her music), I do see she takes real care with syllables and with the patterns of vowels. And without being strictly metrical, the lyrics come nearer to that than one often sees in popular song -- as if the rhythm were growing out of the words rather than the 4/4 musical frame. (I'm looking at "Pissing in a River", also the somewhat unrepresentative "Because the night".)

Matthew Guenette said...

First lyrical poet: Sappho. Check out Charles Simic, for something closer to home.

Mr. Verb said...

Sorry, but I don't quite get the point: Are you suggesting a connection between Smith and Sappho and/or Simic? It seems like the earlier comments were focused not so much on the origins of the form but on the history of material that's intelligible enough for modern readers/writers to allow a direct connection in the original language. Did I miss something?

Steve Buckel said...

All Mr Verb has to do is look up Elizabethian in the many online dictionaries and he will see it is an adjective to define the age. (If he were Mr Noun, he would probably know this!) Elizabethan is a more well-known adjective to define the Queen but tends to be used in both senses by those unaware of the form that Patti Smith used. Her employment of this variant illustrates her excellent command of the English language.