Sixto Rodriguez and other poets

Rodriguez, Cold Fact album coverPerhaps it’s a generational thing but I’ve never really gotten poetry. With few exceptions poems to me seem a random jumbling of words that speak of self-indulgent rambling in the same pseudo-intellectual manner of abstract art. If you can’t discern deep and poignant meanings from a wild array of painted dashes then chances are you won’t be able to feel the pained emotions of the poet either. Apologies to all true poetry lovers, but this kind of navel gazing ain’t for me.

And yet, we all know that words can stir emotion like few other means of human expression. Perhaps only music and art can convey feeling with the same intensity – and it is therefore from the most unexpected sources that I have come to enjoy poetry. Like when a sentence in a book suddenly causes you to sit up and ponder it, quite apart from the overall story, or when you hear certain parts of a song. The latter may be good, bad or indifferent, but can stand out for the poignancy and feeling of a single line.

The inner city birthed me, the local pusher nursed me (Inner city blues, Sixto Rodriguez)

For me, therefore, the true poets are ballad singers – troubadours of the modern age. Not the mushy puppy-love stuff (hell no), but songs capable of moving something inside of you not so much with their music as with their words, and of course the intensity with which they are delivered. By intensity I don’t mean the kind of pained howling that passes for feeling amongst singers these days, but a sincerity of feeling that can only ever really be delivered by the songwriter him or herself.

Starry, starry night, Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day, With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills, Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills, In colors on the snowy linen land

Starry, starry night, Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze, Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue

Colors changing hue, Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain, Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

(Vincent, Don McLean)

Don McLean songwiriter and poetThis is why I love songwriters. People with beautiful voices are wonderful, but they are performers not true artists who create something lasting and unique out of thin air. These alchemists who take experiences, emotions, love, disappointment and even despair and distil them into hauntingly beautiful sounds are the true masters. Interestingly and unlike most pop songs, they don’t limit themselves to topics of romance and lost love, but can also touch us by putting life’s personal disappointments or larger philosophical issues to sound and word.

Under the ruins of a walled city, Crumbling towers and beams of yellow light
No flags of truce, no cries of pity, The siege guns had been pounding all through the night
It took a day to build the city, We walked through its streets in the afternoon
As I returned across the lands I’d known, I recognized the fields where I’d once played
I had to stop in my tracks for fear, Of walking on the mines I’d laid

And if I built this fortress around your heart, Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge, For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire
(Fortress around your heart, Sting)

No wonder politicians like to use the catchiest of them as the soundtrack to their campaigns. A bad habit, and I wish they’d stop, but they are effective. So when an artist is in possession of great song-writing skills and true depth of feeling, he or she becomes a poet in the truest of fashions, having not set out to write a poem but doing so by virtue of the power of the words they use to express their feelings. Different people will associate this with different stars, but among my favourite ‘poets’ are Don McLean, Sting, Joe Jackson, Simon & Garfunkel and of course, Sixto Rodriguez.

The moon is hanging in the purple sky, Baby’s sleeping while its mother sighs
Talking ’bout the rich folks, Rich folks have the same jokes
And they park in basic places

The priest is preaching from a shallow grave, He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks, Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places

So don’t tell me about your success, Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed, I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going

The sun is shining, as it’s always done, Coffin dust is the fate of everyone
Talking ’bout the rich folks, The poor create the rich hoax
And only late breast-fed fools believe it

Rich folks hoax, Rodriguez, Cold Fact

And this is what it sounds like:


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