I: Youthful Bro
YOUTHFUL BRO (YB) is on a date with a woman, who considers herself a CASUAL ACQUAINTANCE (CA) of his.
YB: I know what poetry and music are and I understand the difference between them. I have an interdisciplinary cultural studies degree.
CA: What is poetry then?
YB: Poetry, like music, can be readily defined by simply decrying everything that is not poetry as such. This napkin with a girl’s number on it? Not poetry. This football scorecard? Not poetry. Not music either.
CA: There are a lot of things in the world to exhaust. Your process seems wildly inefficient.
YB: It is also important to insult everything that is not poetry or music for not being poetic or musical enough.
CA: But isn’t it reductive to give poetry and music no substance beyond “not not poetry” and “not not music”?
YB: Poetry and music are what we all agree are poetry and music.
CA: But we don’t all agree. I, for example, refuse to acknowledge your chronological list of your favourite ’90s cartoon quotes as poetry, even though you often stand on stages and label them as such.
YB: Okay you might not agree on poetry. But couldn’t we say that music is that which makes us all dance? And maybe poetry is, too.
CA: People dance when they win the lottery. Is charity gambling a new musical or literary genre I’m not familiar with?
YB: Perhaps poetry and music are that which can evoke within us the entire spectrum of human emotion.
CA: So poetry and music are like death. And also indistinguishable from each other.
I, for example, refuse to acknowledge your chronological list of your favourite ’90s cartoon quotes as poetry, even though you often stand on stages and label them as such.
YB: Poetry is that which is not wholly music and music is that which is not wholly poetry, within the realm of sensible or tangible cultural artifacts that can evoke within us the entire spectrum of human emotion.
CA: So is cinema a form of music, or of poetry?
YB: I’m getting really tired of your disdain for my earnest efforts. Why don’t you try positing an answer to your own questions, huh? I’m out of here. I have better people to do. I mean things. I mean people.
APOLOGIST (A) and CENTRAL SCRUTINIZER (CS) are old friends having a few drinks at their regular bar.
A: All I’m saying is that Bob Dylan had to win the Nobel Prize.
CS: I hate that I’m asking this, but what makes you say that?
A: How can there ever be peace between peoples when we can’t even heal the bloody gash that’s been needlessly carved between poetry and music?
CS: You do know that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, right? Not the Nobel Peace Prize.
A: What did I just say about unnecessary divisiveness?
CS: I don’t know; I wasn’t listening. My function in this conversation is to disagree.
A: Get with it, man, the times are a-changing, the chimes of freedom are flashing. Don’t you see the imperative of aesthetic resolution? Do you want art to die for your dogma? Oxygen-starved by the tourniquet of your immovable tenets?
CS: No, I don’t want art to die, though this talk is leaving my throat dry and I find myself curiously thirsting for something …
A: You must be able to feel the kinship, even the oneness, of poetry and music. How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?
CS: … hemlock. I think people who call poetry “music” and music “poetry” are either employing metaphors as flattery or else must be sentimentalists who believe that two things that make them feel the same must also necessarily be the same.
You do know that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, right? Not the Nobel Peace Prize.
A: If I’m a sentimentalist, then what are you?
CS: A gadfly who thinks folk rock is a drag.
A: I think we can both acknowledge that, if any line separates poetry from music, it is only the indeterminate tremble of a heart monitor.
POET (P) is attending a book launch at an art gallery with her friend, CRITIC (C). They are stuck standing near the washroom.
P: What is art? Is that art? To know we must ask ourselves certain questions. Who put it there? With what intent? Why and when were the walls around it built? Have others been similarly inspired to ask these questions?
C: Those are great questions for sure, but do you have to ask them every time we see a urinal?
P: Of course! Every poem, every song, every bathroom installation, is a unique opportunity that may inspire new insight into answers about what art is, what the relationships between the sub-types of art are, and whether—
C: Hold on there, what does poetry have to do with visual art?
P: A question that is both fruitful to consider if we want to know how poetry relates to other artistic forms like music and essential to ask ourselves every time we sit down to create poetry, if we don’t want the poetry to be completely reiterative. To answer your question—
C: Please tell me you won’t be employing a Venn diagram.
P: … Fine. In any case, it’s pretty obvious that poetry can be difficult to segregate at all from visual art. Just look at Fred Wah’s pictograms. Patricia Martín Rivas argued that text-based visual art like Yoko Ono’s isn’t literature because it gets hung on walls. But my grandmother framed my first published poem and nailed it up in the hallway. Did that transform me into a visual artist? What’s the difference between a Jenny Holzer billboard and a Poetry in Transit bus ad anyways?
C: Thank God music doesn’t entangle itself in the semantic indiscrimination of visual art.
P: So, you haven’t seen the smiling faces that peer out from the sheet music of “Pavane of the Reconstituted Visigoths,” a song so lovingly dedicated to the Guelph Ontario Lawn Bowling Society? I’d sooner put that in a gallery than anything resembling Barnett Newman’s big blue rectangles.
Every poem, every song, every bathroom installation, is a unique opportunity that may inspire new insight into answers about what art is …
C: You’re citing exceptional examples. Most people, in the face of most art, immediately recognize whether they are encountering a poem, a song, or a painting.
P: You’re only saying that because you’re a critic and you want to feel certain of your ability to identify the art you encounter. It’s my job as a poet to confound you as often as possible so you don’t continue to believe that definitions that exclude the margins are satisfactory. Besides, a wise person does not base their epistemology on public opinion but on the learned opinions of people they respect.
C: I think you’re trading an ad populum fallacy for an appeal to authority fallacy.
P: I’m saying that we must carefully consider how to proceed. By relying on old and constraining stereotypes, we will leave ourselves forever nostalgically penning sonnets and I-V-vi-IV chord progressions. We must open ourselves to the possibility of syncretic approaches to poetry and music and visual art and an expansion of what each of those categories may entail.
C: But if we break one law with impunity don’t we run the risk of breaking the entire structure of our law? Would you have us start looking for symmetry and synecdoche in a choir of vacuums?
P: I only want us to be able to consider a choir of vacuums. Or a chorus of mushrooms. I want law that is capable of reform and art that does not exclude anything or anyone from its universe-ranging gaze.
MENTOR (M) is an eclectic artist who has taken a young PRODIGY (PR) under wing.
PR: I want to devote myself to one art form, to strive toward perfection in it alone without the distraction of others. I need your help deciding whether to pursue poetry or music when both compel me equally for similar reasons.
M: What commonalities intrigue you?
PR: I love that they can begin as improvised ephemera but can also be committed to a more historical record. I love that every person who performs them aloud does so with such a particular tone and timbre that in renders them nonpareil. I love that they both want to make me punch someone in the face. I love that they can as easily soften me to kindness. I love their pauses, their phrasing, their shared symbolism. I love how they transform so easily into each other.
It’s my job as a poet to confound you as often as possible so you don’t continue to believe that definitions that exclude the margins are satisfactory.
M: You’ve forgotten the three commonalities shared by both music and poetry that will make you want to abandon them forever.
PR: Which are?
M: Critics, mathematics, and the irresolvable uncertainty about whether they’re a separate form of art at all.
PR: Isn’t it my job as artist to decide whether I’m making poetry or music so that people will know what criteria they can use to evaluate it?
M: What about the agent selling your work, the publisher or studio editing and distributing your work, the critic reviewing your work, the librarian or record store owner stocking your work, the audience responding to your work, the teacher explaining your work? Maybe they only enjoy your words when they’re set to music. Maybe they only find your lyrics interesting on the page. Why should the participation of all those people in the art matter less than yours?
PR: All right, well what about the identity the work asserts for itself? I think if you consider a piece of art carefully enough, you can figure out what it’s trying to be.
M: You make it sound like a poem is a person.
PR: Emily Dickinson thought that verses could breathe.
M: Emily Dickinson asked Thomas Wentworth Higginson if he thought her verses breathed. She did not ask the poems whether they were breathing. But even if poems or songs could talk, which version of them would we ask for an answer? The drafts scrawled on loose paper? The first recorded version? The last? A live performance? If poems and songs are like people, isn’t it because they too live a dozen differentiable lives, and cannot really answer the question of who and what they are?
MUSICIAN (MU) is at a bookstore doing a promotional event and meets FANATIC (F).
F: Thanks for signing my record! But I have a question. In the liner notes for “Lucky Charm” it says “rainbow’s edge.” But that’s not what you sing, is it?
MU: That’s what I used to sing. I guess I slipped into platitude while we were recording. So now “she waits at the rainbow’s end.”
F: No, “she waits at the rainbow sand.”
MU: What the fuck is rainbow sand?
F: The colourful sugar dust at the bottom of the cereal box.
MU: The song is not about breakfast.
And anyways your sweet pop melody invokes breakfast food more than meteorology.
F: Everyone I know thinks you say rainbow sand, although there’s some debate about whether you are referring to breakfast or mandalas. Personally, I think the title makes it obvious.
MU: Did any of you consider listening to the rest of the lyrics for context?
F: No one can hear what you’re saying, but we all agree that it’s definitely not whatever is in the liner notes. It sounds completely different. And anyways your sweet pop melody invokes breakfast food more than meteorology.
MU: So, if I were a poet we wouldn’t have to argue about this. Shouldn’t good music deepen and widen the range of interpretation of the lyrics, not narrow it?
F: If you’re the right kind of musician.
MU: Aren’t you supposed to be a fan of my music?
F: Oh, for sure. It offers a lot of raw material to work with. But if a million people sing the wrong lyrics, far more times than you yourself have ever sung the right ones, don’t you think that changes the meaning of the song? Haven’t you ever heard someone sing incorrect lyrics and thought they were better than the original? Like how photocopies sometimes turn out clearer, sharper, more readable.
Jade Wallace is a writer from the Niagara fruit belt currently working in law and trying to be a good member of the Draft Reading Series collective in Toronto. Jade’s short fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland, and New Zealand, including in The Dalhousie Review, The Nashwaak Review, Feathertale, A New Ulster, Acumen, The Chaffey Review, Pac’n Heat: A Noir Homage To Ms. Pac-Man from AGP Books, Breakfast in a Day from Death Cookie Soup, and seven chapbooks from Grey Borders Books. Jade also resides online at jadewallace.ca.