The Argotist Online
Unger lives in Chicago. He edits Spell magazine,
and co-edits string of small machines. His
first chapbook, Just as Form, is
forthcoming from House Press. Other poetry has appeared in Drill, Silo, Small Town, and string
of small machines. His two most recent CDs are Anywhere, and Ancient Songs of
the American Heartland.
Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?
My lyrics are not poetry as such. They are always written in inexorable
participation with the music. The word lyric
refers to words sung to the plucking of a lyre. I don't pluck a lyre. The
instruments I pluck are the banjo and the acoustic guitar. When I am writing
lyrics I always must begin with the music. Once you have a musical structure in
place, you can go into that structure and find the song's voice. What melody
will take the fullest advantage of this grouping of chords? So you sing it out,
you find by exploration. The modern conception of lyric poetry has always been
troubling to me, since the lyric's function has historically been in service of
the song. If we are to encourage the lyric impulse in our poetry, are we not
inviting the reader to sing aloud? If that is the case, then I say go for it. A
poet-friend of mine from Brooklyn, Eric Gelsinger, has recently taken to singing
his poetry. He was reading at the Karpeles Manuscript Library in Buffalo, which
was formerly a Presbyterian church. His
way of singing is almost akin to the practice of chanting. He said before he
started that he would be remiss if he didn't take advantage of the space he was
reading in. When he read he sang up to the rafters, he sent the words off into
the (rather draughty) space. And so the poem here takes on a different
functionality, the words do. When they are sung they go out into the community
more. Not that a straight reading of poetry couldn't accomplish a similar thing.
Music's great gift to poets is that it teaches us that where we read, our
environment, has a great impact on what we read. Think of Alvin Lucier's I
Am Sitting in a Room. The voice does not intend to have dominion over the
space, the voice allows the room to speak for itself.
Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?
Sometimes. The simple reason being that the goal is communication of a
feeling or idea. Due to the symbiotic rhythms of life and music, it is only
natural that cycles should form, that the words used should have a cadenced
motif to them. Where and when to rhyme is a different story. If to rhyme means
to strain and pull to find the right word, and you end up with the wrong word,
then don't sweat it. I once heard an interview with Jimmy Webb where he was
talking about writing Wichita Lineman. He
explained how he had written all these books about songwriting and one of the
cardinal rules was not to slant rhyme. He didn't recognize until years later
that the main chorus of that song has a slant rhyme in it. The lyric goes:
"I hear you singing for all time / the Wichita lineman is still on the
line". He rhymed time with
line. Guess what JimmyŚnobody else noticed either. It's an incredible song,
and most people aren't getting out there rhyming scorecards when it comes on the
Do 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?
Songs can be all of the above. There's no one right way to do it.
When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any
connection to the music you enjoyed?
I don't remember doing so. Until I read the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Most (but not all) of her poems of course can be sung to the tune of Yellow
Rose of Texas. But before learning that, I could hear her poetry's music.
And it doesn't always rhyme in the ways one might think it should. She had what
a poet should want to find: her voice. She found a way to say what she had to
say such that it resulted in maximum efficiency. Her poetry's wry tidiness can
really cut into you to read it. The softest things have daggers.
Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your songwriting?
Seeing the text there in front of you, you start to notice when there are
too many throwaway words. Words such as in, it, as, in, the, etc. So you try to
use as few of them as you can in your poetry. I very quickly saw that it would
behoove most songs to cut the fat, so to speak.
Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?
Because music is more immediate. It hits you straight away, for better or
worse. And it's more of a passive activity to listen to music than to read
poetry. Music doesn't always require such a sustained focus as does poetry, much
to the dismay of many composers and musicians with high expectations of their
audience's attention spans. Poets are sometimes insensitive to their readers.
They take it for granted that they have the undivided attention of the reader.
When music does this, it is very easy to just ignore it. Music provides relief.
People go to it to relax, or to reflect, or to dance. Music has the power to
just bowl you over in a way that I think poems are simply not equipped to do.
Believe me, I would love to read a poem that hits me the way Jim O'Rourke's Bad Timing hits me, when the horn section appears after 20 minutes
of plaintive guitar picking. Plenty of poems can knock you out. Ashbery's They
Dream Only of America truly knocks me out. But in a different way, you know?