The Argotist Online
Rothenberg is a poet, songwriter, and editor and publisher of
Big Bridge magazine. His poems have been published widely in small press publications, including
Berkeley Poetry Review, Exquisite Corpse, Milk, Golden Handcuffs
Review, Jacket, Prague Literary Review, Tricycle, and Zen
Monster. His poetry books include Man/Woman, a collaboration with Joanne Kyger,
The Paris Journals (Fish Drum Press), Monk Daddy (Blue Press), Unhurried Vision (La Alameda/University of New Mexico Press), and most recently
CHOOSE, Selected Poems (Big Bridge Press). He is also author of the novel
Punk Rockwell (Tropical Press). Michael Rothenberg has edited the selected works of Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer and Ed Dorn (Penguin Books) and the Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book of poems,
My Youth As A Train, will be published in Fall 2010 by Foothills
Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?
Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?
Rhyme can be important but I don't think it is necessary. Some melodies and
stories are better for their rhyme scheme. Rhyme acting as a mnemonic device
which moves a story through time, progressions, reinforces the melody and
meaning, reminds us we have been somewhere and are going somewhere. But again I
don’t think it is necessary to use rhyme.
you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as clear
rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can also be
like free verse?
Again structural devices are optional. It depends on what you are trying to do
with the song and story. Some songs don't need a chorus, you can harmonize a
line and place it at a dramatic moment in the song and it can act like a chorus,
or hook but not a formal one. See ‘Pineola
Lucinda Williams. Also music can create the sense of rhyme without the lyric
doing that job.
When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any
connection to the music you enjoyed?
I was into Bob Dylan when I was a teen and many of his songs reminded me of the
poems I was reading at that time. I think there was a healthy proximity between
contemporary subterranean "poetry" and “song" at that time.
Also Leonard Cohen, Brenda Kahn, David Byrne, The Beatles, Cat Stevens, Ani Di
Franco, Tom Waits, Marianne Faithful, The Doors, many others. I feel I learned
as much from songwriters as I did from poets. How about Phil Och's
‘Crucifixion’? Many, many others.
Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your
Sure, poems in books that were strong on imagery influenced my songwriting. Even
Eliot and Dylan Thomas. I have to say that Pound was less influential. Many
written ballads lend themselves to song. Folk tales resonate with Edgar Lee
Masters. Simon and Garfunkel. Though the most popular songs today don't care
that much for imagery, there are still some great songwriters that see imagery
as a way of hooking the listener.
Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?
Songs are more popular I think because songs are more interactive. You know, you
can dance and sing along to songs. And maybe there is a disconnect in today's
song and poetry from story and image because of the interest in immediate
gratification, a new music of mall culture has little interest it seems in
poetry, or reflection, just a quick fix. Of course there is hip-hop which should
not be underrated. And there are those poems that are so in the head and lack
native speech, or so theoretical in purpose they can hardly be remembered or
understood, let alone sung. This is not a judgment on that kind of poetry but it
does explain how it functions different than the poetry of song. In more
traditional songs the rhyme patterns, hooks, refrains, are all ways of getting
the listener to remember the song, sing the song, carry the news, tell history,
lineage, and follow the story.
© Michael Rothenberg