Poem-A-Day: Ani diFranco

So, the connection and crossover between poetry and song is storied and long. I think it was Paul Otremba, in a poetry workshop I was taking, who once suggested (and I’m paraphrasing) that if the song lyrics could stand on their own, if they didn’t need the experience of the music behind them to be meaningful or have an impact, they were probably also poetry. This seems like as wonderful an explanation as any I’ve ever heard about where these two forms overlap.

One of my favorite artists, without question, is the incomparable Ani diFranco. I love her work. Sometimes her albums (and her concerts) offer us a bit of spoken-word poetry, and because I’m keen to demonstrate that poetry comes to us in sometimes unexpected places and unexpected ways, tonight I’m sharing this song/poem of hers.

“Tamburitza Lingua” appears on the Reveling/Reckoning double album. It captures, adeptly, the existential angst of life in America at the apprehensive end of the last century and precarious dawning of this one, intertwined with the existential angst also of being a human of a particular mindset, age, and consciousness. I think you’ll understand this as you listen to the words, which are backed up deftly with a minimalist score that increases the feelings in the poem in an unexpectedly catchy, but never kitschy, way. (As a side note, a “tamburitza” is a mandolin-like instrument played in Slavic regions, and “lingua” means resembling or a part of a tongue.)

There are other videos of this song which are perhaps more interesting to watch, but I’m not really focused on that. This is a beautiful image, the lyrics show up like a moving poem over it, and the audio is good. Please to enjoy.


2 thoughts on “Poem-A-Day: Ani diFranco

  1. This is an old question, and one about which books have been written – the relationship between poetry and song lyrics – and it is a question raised anew by the Nobel Prize for Literature going to Bob Dylan. I say it’s an old question, because when I hear it, my thoughts instantly go to the beginning of Book I of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’:

    Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
    Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
    litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
    vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram…

    “I sing of arms and of a man…” it starts, reminding us that one of the earliest experiences of poetry in our shared Western tradition was an aural one.

    My own take is that there are definite divisions between poetry and song-writing that make them separate genres. I speak as a poet who has written poetry that can be sung, and reworkings of old folk-ballads. You can tell when something is a song and when it is a poem, ninety-nine times out of a hundred. My own current experiments are definitely poetry, for example; when the Beatles sing “… won’t you please, please help me help me help meeee oooooh” you know without having to think much about it that those words are from a song, pure and simple.

    But the division between songs and poems is not a sharp line, it is more a broad band, in which the words of songs are poetic and poems are song-like. The fact that most poetry falls clearly into its own genre-specific area is due to the fact that for several centuries our main encounter with poetry has been thanks to the technology of printing. You and I pay lip service to it when we post our poetry on screen, so much of the technology of IT borrowing its vocabulary from the technology of ink-on-page. But the affordances of 20c-21c technology gave us Gil Scott Heron, John Cooper Clarke, Linton Kwesi Johnson, a whole generation of rappers and a whole generation of more rappers; poetry was reinvented as performance, or at least performance poetry became a legitimate sub-genre, flirting with song in the broad DMZ between the two distinct genres.

    I think a judgment can be made more often than not, however, between poetry and song, and that is on the basis of the experience as we consume it, as we react to the accompaniment for example, or the rhythm, or the sonority; as we lose the words or pick up on them sharply; as our reactions – mental, emotional – tell us “This is music” or “This is poetry.”

    Take the diFranco piece you linked to. The words seem to ripple underneath the accompaniment rather than standing out; the accompaniment continues after the words cease, insisting “Listen to THIS! Listen to THIS!” The presence of ‘music’ is persuasive. On the other hand the accompaniment is pure riff, a simple melodic device to convey rhythm. The words are de-focussed, backgrounded. Does that make them unimportant, or does it in fact make us concentrate to pick them out?

    Philosophers, phenomenologists, psychologists, musicologists, literary critics – an arkful of critical thinkers have addressed the music/poetry issue. My comments here will exist only in the ADD-arena of blog thread commentary.

    Thank you for posting another braw poem. I love your Aprils.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One might argue that Aprils are the best thing this blog has to offer. 😉

      And thank you for posting your commentary here. I enjoyed it. It’s a question that may never be “answered,” and I’m not sure it ever should be in any definitive and universal sense. Like you and I both have suggested or implied, it’s really about the individual’s (reader’s, listener’s, etc.) experience.

      As a teacher, I can say that using songs to ease resistant students into poetry is often, at least in my classes, wildly successful.

      Liked by 1 person

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