Tuning Up - Autumn 2009

Brush Up Your Berlin

And beware of kiss-me-I’m-poetical junk

By David Lehman | September 1, 2009


The practice of poetry ruled my life from the time I entered college. Unlike some of my classmates, who waited until our junior year to declare a major, I knew after a few weeks at Columbia College that I would give up my high school idea of going to law school in favor of majoring in English and living the life of a poet. For a time the logical implications of my literary vocation seemed irreconcilable with that other great love of mine, classic American popular song lyrics. You know, “The Lady is a Tramp,” “You’re the Top,” “Someone to Watch over Me,” “That Old Black Magic,” “A Fine Romance,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”: the songs as interpreted foremost by Frank Sinatra, but also by such singers as Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Lee Wiley, and Bing Crosby; the lyrics as written by Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin, and too many others to fit in this sentence. The best lyricists had a flair for clever rhymes. Consider this couplet from “The Man I Love,” one of the first lyrics Ira Gershwin wrote for his brother George. The singer is wondering when the man she is waiting for will come along. Will it happen on Monday? Maybe not. “Maybe Tuesday / Will be my good news day.”

Great lines. But remember, too, that in the same song you’ll find the perfectly awful rhyme of “Some day he’ll come along” with “And he’ll be big and strong,” and you’ll see why a love of song lyrics seemed to clash with my new aesthetic values, which derived from the modernists’ impatience with doggerel and pretty writing. Pound had insisted that poetry be at least as well written as prose. T. S. Eliot said each venture in verse was “a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate.” In the magisterial phrases of his Four Quartets, poetry is a search for “The word neither diffident nor ostentatious, / An easy commerce of the old and the new, / The common word exact without vulgarity, / The formal word precise but not pedantic.” Popular songwriters were also on a search for the right word, but different imperatives and constraints went into their choices. Considered as poetry, Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade” would be dismissed as light verse. Considered in the realm of song lyrics, it is masterly—as in this couplet: “And you’ll find that you’re / In the rotogravure.”

There was one incident in particular that crystallized the conflict between poetry and lyrics. I was reading “Dichtung und Wahrhreit” (poetry and truth), a prose poem by W. H. Auden, which he wrote in 1959. It is an examination in 50 parts of the most common amatory sentence in the language: “I love you.” When I reached part 48, the book almost fell from my hands. This in its entirety is what I read: “‘I will love You forever,’ swears the poet. I find this easy to swear too. I will love You at 4:15 p.m. next Tuesday: Is that still as easy?”

I saw the wisdom in Auden’s observation right away. Yes, yes, he’s right. The word forever is poetical in the sense that Kenneth Koch, my Columbia professor, scorned. Beware of “kiss-me-I’m-poetical” junk, Koch would say, and everyone would laugh. This was a cornerstone of my own aesthetics. Forever is not as real as next Tuesday at 4:15. I got it. Auden was right. And so was Ira Gershwin when he rhymed “Tuesday” and “my good news day.”

But even at that moment I remembered thinking of circumstances in which nothing less than forever or always would do. Always! Yes, that was it: Irving Berlin’s song “Always,” which he wrote in 1925 for The Cocoanuts, a Marx Brothers Broadway musical. The song begins “I’ll be loving you—always.” Sometime in the early 1990s I sat in Symphony Space in New York City on a Saturday evening while an Irving Berlin marathon was in progress, free to the public, with dozens of singers donating their time. At one point a performer suggested that everyone join in on the next number. And everyone did. All these old people unselfconsciously sang along. They all knew the words to “Always.” And then I remembered that “Always” was eliminated from Cocoanuts, because Berlin’s collaborator on the project, the playwright George S. Kaufman, didn’t much like the lyrics. He pointed out that always is “a long time for romance” and suggested changing it to “I’ll be loving you Thursday.” But Irving refused and Irving prevailed.

“Always” in its unpretentious simplicity is just right for what it is. The more sophisticated line—either Kaufman’s version back in 1925 or Auden’s in 1959—would not suit the mood of the song. There are times, after all, when nothing less than an affirmation of eternal vows will do. And there it was in a nutshell, the difference between song lyrics and poems. Whereas most poems stand alone, song lyrics exist in tandem with music and in service to that whole. And sometimes the musical occasion requires the lyrics to be deliberately naïve.

Auden was not wrong: To say I will love You at 4:15 p.m. next Tuesday is to make not only a more precise claim but a more complex rhetorical gesture than to swear eternal love. But Berlin was right to stick to his guns with “Always,” because Berlin was not writing poetry or speculating philosophically. He was writing song lyrics, a different art form altogether, and one that in its heyday was arguably even more difficult than the writing of poetry, itself a famously difficult thing to do well. I would not have made this statement when I was in college. My head was full of Milton and Donne, Coleridge and Keats, Rimbaud and Mallarme, Eliot and Wallace Stevens. But the mind is capable of playing host to all these entities and others, and a devoted reader of Auden needn’t give up Berlin. You can combine the vocation of Hart Crane with an interest in the way the word heart turns up in songs by Rodgers and Hart—or in the way Berlin’s “Always” recurs throughout Pride of the Yankees, Hollywood’s homage to Lou Gehrig, his exploits on the diamond, and his marriage to his wife, Eleanor—who, by the way, joined Lou in loving that Berlin ballad.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments are closed for this post.