To Comment or not to Comment: Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass
I recently contributed some comments to Emma Madden's Vice article on Lana Del Rey's new book of poetry, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass.
When Emma first contacted me for comment, my instinct was to say 'no'. A quick scan of the book's reception so far told me that the article might not be a favourable one. Then I recalled defending Kristen Stewart's 'My Heart is a Wiffle Ball' poem here on my blog and wondered if perhaps the two were connected. This led me to wondering if the sometimes venomous reactions I'd seen to Del Rey's poetry were a manifestation of the involuntary sneer that seems to pop onto so many faces when a celebrity dares to attempt to write a poem.
I didn't want to dismiss the poetry out of hand, not having seen it myself. I took a look at the lines of poetry Emma wanted me to comment on. Out of context, the lines made me a little nervous, but after reading them in the context of the poems themselves, I began to convince myself that it was worth commenting. Yes, the poetry had issues - as lots of articles seemed to relish pointing out - but there were also strengths there. I didn't want to sugar-coat it and patronise Lana Del Rey - after all, she's an artist - she knows it takes time to develop skill, she must know that she's in a privileged position and that her poetry will have hit the shelves with more ease and less editing than most. Equally, there seemed to be some elements that were worth sticking up for and I didn't like the idea of them going without recognition. As a result, at times, I felt more like I was responding in the way I would to a piece for workshopping than a published poem, but I reasoned that if I were Del Rey, I'd rather someone took the time to tell me the more complex truth of where my poetry was at, rather than blowing smoke up my ass, or dismissing the poetry as celebrity fluff. Poetry collections are rarely solid gold or completely rubbish.
Though Emma used most of what I wrote in the article, what wasn't included was any of my summing up, so I thought I'd include it in here, as I think it gives a bit more context to my comments:
Some of the weaknesses here are the weaknesses of a poet just starting out – the tendency to overexplain yourself and get lost going inwards, perhaps to not leave enough room for the reader. This can be a confidence issue – confidence in yourself and in your readers. It leaves a lot of lines feeling superfluous. Though this is also partly to do with the style Del Rey is reaching for – the expansiveness of Whitman, Plath’s confessional tendencies. So yes, there is room for improvement, but there are also some nice moments here.
I think what we’ve got to remember here is that Del Rey is new to this. Writing poetry is a different kettle of fish to writing lyrics – one is no easier than the other – they both have their constraints and their freedoms. Lyrics can lean on the music to enhance their meaning and can stretch across musical phrasing to change the shapes of words. The best lyrics build and layer in a different way to most poetry, through more extreme repetition and subtle change. Poetry has to make its own rhythms and textures, and though in her audiobook Del Rey has musical backup, there is none of the corresponding constraint that a song structure might put on your words – the words lead the dance. Lines which might sound amazing in a song can sound ridiculous in a poem.
I suppose what I’m saying is that being a lyricist is a leg-up for Del Rey, but she’s still developing her poetic skills and she still needs to gain confidence. Yes, she’s put out a book of poems that, were she not already famous, wouldn’t have necessarily been published in its current form, but she’s done it for charity, she’s putting herself out there and if you’ve got the fanbase and the opportunity to do it, why not? I suppose the question is, is she looking for an audience beyond her fanbase? If so, there’s work to do, but with a few more modern poets on her reading list and some constructive feedback, there’s no reason Del Rey won’t write more, write better and learn to trust her poems and her readers. It would be a bit snobby to say otherwise. Everyone should have the freedom to be a poet.
You can read Emma Madden's full article on Vice here:
Lana Del Rey's collection Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass is out now on audiobook and available on hardcover via Simon & Schuster on the 29th of September.