Pop Stars as Our Modern-Day Poets

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegPoetry isn’t much of a career choice anymore.

I had the pleasure of getting a preview of IFC’s upcoming film Adult World, in which Emma Roberts plays a smart-but-clueless aspiring poet struggling with her early 20s, and one of its biggest jokes is the futility of poetry. The movie doesn’t need to even tell you why it’s funny that Roberts’ character dreams of becoming a “famous poet” like her desired mentor, a grumbly guy with the amazing nom de plume Rat Billings, played by John Cusack. But poets really did used to be, as we say so unpoetically these days, a thing. Remember how you studied T.S. Eliot. e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost in school? They’re still famous poets. Poets bring beauty and meaning to our everyday lives, no small thing. Poets give us smart things to quote when we want to say something smart but don’t quite have their way with words.

I think pop music is our poetry now, an idea at least partly underlying another fine John Cusack film, High Fidelity. Cusack’s character in that movie uses music, at least partly, to hide behind while avoiding real adult life; but music, in the end, also lends meaning to his existence. He expresses his feelings through mix tapes. To switch right over to yet another Cusack moment in yet another movie, there’s the bit with the boom box in Say Anything. John Cusack knows that pop music is our poetry.

This all makes me think of a lovely ode to celebrated poet John Hollander, written last year for The New York Times Magazine by his nephew Sam Hollander, who has written and produced songs for One Direction, Good Charlotte, Train, Gym Class Heroes, Daughtry, and others. The two finally found common ground after a lifetime of not connecting when Uncle John called asking about this guy named Don Henley wanting to use some of his verse on an Eagles album. (It became the song “No More Walks in the Wood” on their 2007 album.)

It also makes me think of a nice moment last month when I went to a reading for the spectacular Rosie Schaap’s memoir, Drinking With Men. For the paperback release, she smartly assembled a group of her favorite writer friends to read works related to the theme of her book: That is, she asked them to read about bars. One unassuming guy was introduced as a poet (“How novel!” I thought), and he proceeded to read the following:

“All I want is to have a little fun
Before I die,” says the man next to me
Out of nowhere, apropos of nothing. He says
His name’s William but I’m sure he’s Bill
Or Billy, Mac or Buddy; he’s plain ugly to me,
And I wonder if he’s ever had fun in his life.

His name is Wyn Cooper, and he wrote Sheryl Crow’s first hit back in 1987. He wrote it as a poem before she adapted it to her 1994 hit “All I Wanna Do.” It sounds good both ways, each one different. But it made me miss a time I never lived through, when there was at least a chance I would have known the poet’s name in addition to the pop star’s. Something about it just seems like it would’ve been calmer, quieter, and artsier. Then again, maybe I’m being as silly a romantic as a current 22-year-old who wants to be a famous poet.

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