Poetry with something to prove

Blackbird Singing
April 12, 2001

In the foreword to Blackbird Singing , the first collection of his lyrics and poems, Paul McCartney writes: "When I was a teenager, for some reason I had an overwhelming desire to have a poem published in the school magazine. I wrote something deep and meaningful - which was promptly rejected and I suppose I have been trying to get my own back ever since." Proof that knocks in the formative years can scar even the most successful people for life. McCartney, who by this stage has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt his abilities to the editor of the school magazine and to the rest of the world, still feels he has something to prove.

Blackbird Singing is divided into nine chronological or thematic sections, each of which has his lyrics and previously unpublished poems placed side by side, implying that McCartney believes the old songs and the new verse can and should be read in the same way. The editor of the collection, poet and friend of McCartney Adrian Mitchell, makes a somewhat unreasonable plea to the reader in his introduction: "Clean out your head, wash out the name and the fame. Read these clear words and listen to them - decide for yourself. Paul is not in the line of academic poets or modernist poets. He is a popular poet."

But it is impossible to delete all knowledge of a life as public as McCartney's, just as it is impossible to read the lyrics without hearing the melodies that accompany them. The link between the two is inextricable: they were written as songs and much of their rhythm is determined by the music. Seeing the words to "Penny Lane" on the printed page serves only to reduce them to the level of the songwords printed in Smash Hits every week. This is not to suggest that lyrics are not important or not worthy of serious consideration (think of pop-music legends such as Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith, to name but a few, who are also talented lyricists). But in McCartney's case, his lyrics, however brilliant, are part of a bigger picture, not stand-alone works of genius.

Mitchell clearly understands the difference between poetry and lyrics:

"Lyrics tend to be less concentrated, partly because a song has to work instantly, and partly because the words must allow room for the music to breathe, to allow time for the work of the music. In a good song, the words and the music dance together, so they need dancing room." It is surprising, then, that Mitchell insisted on lyrics being included in this collection. One can only conclude that he felt a book of the poetry alone, even by McCartney, would not be saleable and that the lyrics should be included to cash in on the ever-commercial Beatles angle if possible.

There is an argument that printing the lyrics will bring them to a whole new audience, but I am not sure who; it is not hard to get hold of Beatles material. Anyone reading the line "Ob-la-di-ob-bla-da life goes on, bra/ Lala how the life goes on" could easily be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. And it must sound even more absurd when you do not know the tune - although hearing the tune in your head can sometimes spoil a good poem (Andrew Lloyd Webber's accompaniment to Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats ruined, in my mind, the poems' cadence and rhythm).

The more interesting of the poems offer an insight into Paul's relationship with his wife, Linda, and his coming to terms with her death. His unnerving frankness does give the poems a certain edge, but this is not really enough. Many of them would not seem half so interesting if we did not already know who and what they were about. Any pleasure to be derived from these will come more from a gratification of the reader's voyeuristic instincts than from their poetic merits: "When we've seen/ The babies doze off/ Let me see you take your clothes off"; "When this world is dead and gone/ We will still be/ Rocking On!".

Not all the poetry is bad and not all the lyrics are really good. But, first and foremost, McCartney is a songwriter and will always be remembered as that. Blackbird Singing has hopefully satiated his urge to stick two fingers up at the school magazine that snubbed his poem all those years ago. But it does not make him a great poet.

Ronita Dutta is a freelance writer specialising in pop music.

Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics 1965-1999

Author - Paul McCartney
ISBN - 0 571 20789 8
Publisher - Faber
Price - £14.99
Pages - 164

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments