09 Oct 1993

The music of poetry

The music of poetry

By John Forbes, The Age Melbourne


Paul Kelly's 'Lyrics'  is a sensible beginning to Angus & Robertson's new poetry program.


Song writing is one the most difficult verbal arts. It requires simple, direct language that addresses the Big Issues with artless precision. One slip and the words turn into clichéd tokens. But Paul Kelly can do this and make it look easy. His songs are passionate, direct and forceful.


The world of Kelly’s songs is the standard one of urban, romantic individualism-against a backdrop of city streets, travel, work, bars, drugs, love triumphant and love gone wrong. His subject is the individual surviving the machineries of terror and greed we take for granted and call ordinary life. But, Kelly is more than just a romantic. While his songs have their roots in country and western and rock ‘n’ roll, his sensibility shows a distinctive advance over the limitations of that tradition. Romantic individualism is based on the subject indentifying with absolutes-especially “love”. No sense of irony is possible and so bathos is always a danger (Roy Orbison’s beautiful maudlin songs come to mind but Bob Dylan does it too). This is especially the case when the writer ceases to be an alienated outsider and becomes a famous artist. Besides Roy and Bob, who at least do it well, the history of recent popular music is littered with gruesome examples of this process.


But in Kelly’s work, the subject is never treated as an absolute. His love lyrics have an intense awareness of romantic agony but they refuse to indulge it. For instance, from the early ‘I Won’t Be Torn Apart’:


From a dream I’ve woken
And it just can’t be spoken
What remains unbroken
Oh, baby I won’t be torn apart.


Or the later “You keep it to Yourself”


I’ve been sleeping on my own 
But I don’t sleep all the time 
Twenty four hours in one day
And sleeping is less than nine
There are many places in the sun
and many corners without you 
Keep it to yourself
Keep it to yourself
And I’ll keep my secrets too.


This refusal to be heartbroken is not bitterness but something tougher and – if you can use a word like this – more noble. And Kelly’s songs celebrating love make the same point. For him, love is an aspect of freedom. He recognizes that obsession, power and low cunning come into it but only as comic elements. Love is not dependency – see for example, the beautiful “Take Your Time’ or “We’ve started a Fire”. But the sad love songs predominate because Kelly is ready to trust Love and, unlike most cry-in-your-beer merchants, he is ready to recognise he enjoyed doing wrong:


How many cabs in New York City, how many angels on a pin?
How many notes on a saxophone, how many tears in a bottle of gin?
How many times did you call my name, knock at the door but you can’t come in?


Because Kelly is more interested in the emotion than in pinning his identity to it, his songs can be written in the voice of a woman or a man and, like Chuck Berry, he can create little vignettes that aren’t ballads or stories but convincing images of other peoples’ lives. This objectivity is behind his most famous song, “To her door” and gives him the bitter-sweet perspective on his own situation that makes “Dumb things” such a great song (which any ex-native disciple of the Muses can identify with):


I melted wax to fix my wings
I’ve done all the dumb things
I threw my hat into the ring
I thought I just had to sing
I’ve done all the dumb things


Likewise, Kelly’s ironic sense of himself prevents the descriptions in his songs from being just symbolic. While “From St Kilda to Kings Cross” and “Sydney from a 727” are occasioned by his feelings, they give us memorable images of Sydney, which are as beautiful as anything in our literature. In the same way, his political songs never give you the impression that he is congratulating himself for being on the side of the angels – unlike say Redgum or Midnight Oil.


Usually the words to a song are only half the story and, without the music, they can often look flat and clichéd. There is rarely the case with Paul Kelly, though I’m relieved to say that his non-song poetry – at least what I’ve heard of it – is mediocre. But as a song writer, and hence a poet in the earliest sense of the word, Kelly is an accomplished practitioner of a difficult art.


John Forbes is a Melbourne poet and reviewer.