Saturday, December 17, 2011

Now Available! The Poetics of American Song Lyrics

It has arrived. When I returned home yesterday and saw the box by my door, I knew what it was. And I was a bit hesitant to open it. Inside the box waited the finished, the complete, the bound-and-no-more-edits-allowed The Poetics of American Song Lyrics.

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics is the first collection of academic essays that regards songs as literature and identifies intersections between poems and songs’ literary histories as a way to reveal the two genres’ connections. The contributors in this collection are a stunning group—and the essays they wrote are inspired from years of thought on this subject. They are:

Lamar Alexander

Gordon Ball

Adam Bradley

David Caplan

Wyn Cooper

David Daniel

Stephen M. Deusner

Claudia Emerson

Beth Ann Fennelly

Keith Flynn

Jesse Graves

Peter Guralnick

John Paul Hampstead

Brian Howe

Jill Jones

David Kirby

Robert P. McParland

Pat Pattison

Charlotte Pence

Eric Reimer

Jeffrey Roesner

Tony Tost

Ben Yagoda

and Kevin Young

Here is the beginning of my introduction to the collection that explains how the book came to be:

“Not many editors can pinpoint the exact moment a specific project began, but I can say for certain that it was September 12, 2003, the day Johnny Cash died. I was living in Nashville, teaching composition and poetry writing at Belmont University where twenty-seven percent of the entering freshmen are part of the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. The university sits on a hill that hovers at the end of Music Row, those legendary two streets that Nashville record labels and studios call home. When students miss class at Belmont, the reason often involves the words “touring schedule.” Essentially, the music business is an extension of the campus, and there I was teaching poetry and having students ask if they could bring their guitars to class for back-up as they read their “poems” for the class to critique.

I was a bit confused as to how to approach these songwriters in my poetry class who viewed poems and songs as one-in-the-same. It was at this moment of my questioning that Johnny Cash died and one of Tennessee’s senators, Lamar Alexander, gave a speech on the Senate floor about the loss. The speech began as expected by praising Cash, and then suddenly, I was directly implicated. Senator Alexander asked outright why Tennessee English professors, including those at Belmont specifically, were not writing criticism on songs nor teaching songs in literature courses. Immediately, I thought of many reasons why most professors did not do that. How could one discuss song lyrics without the music that was intended to accompany the lyrics? What would be the language of analysis? How was a literature professor qualified to talk about songs? And what criteria was behind this conflation between poetry and songs? I decided to investigate all of this and created a course at Belmont titled the Poetics of Country Music. As I did so, I found I couldn’t quite find the essays that I wanted—ones that discussed poetic form and history and did so in relation to song.”

Finding the essays that I wanted resulted in me asking these fine poets and scholars to write on the subject. Now, the book is in my hands. This might sound odd considering how often I have combed through each essay, but what I want to do now is sit back, read it once again, and savor it—not as the editor, but as a reader.

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