Chandler and the Movies (and Poetry)

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep has been filmed twice with a famous American actor playing detective Philip Marlowe. Humphrey Bogart started it off in 1946 and Robert Mitchum reprised the role in 1978. Bogart’s is the one to see, directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Lauren Bacall. Here’s a clip with the wonderful Dorothy Malone in her only scene. Much of the dialogue is right out of the novel.

There’s a lot to look at and wonder about in this scene: the way the book shop is named Acme (like in an old Looney Tunes cartoon), the photo of FDR on the wall, the pocket handkerchief Bogie sports, Malone’s pince-nez, the bottle of “pretty good rye” Bogie just happens to have in his pocket…

Hawks had William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett work on the script for this movie. You may know Faulkner from his novels and, er, his Nobel prize a few years later. Brackett was a successful sci-fi writer; she also co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.

I had read The Big Sleep before I saw the movie and was a little surprised by Bogart as Marlowe. He’s not at all how I had imagined Marlowe, who is usually described as a big guy, constantly getting blackjacked and drugged and beat up by gangsters and corrupt cops, only to quickly snap back after a couple slugs of whiskey (surely one of the more ridiculous tropes of detective fiction).

Bogart might be alone in portraying not one but two famous detectives from American fiction. Five years earlier he had played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, John Huston’s directorial debut. In his novel, Dashiell Hammett describes Spade as big, six feet tall, looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” French critic Nino Frank, in his 1946 review of the Huston movie, wondered about Bogart as well:

As to the leading man, it is Humphrey Bogart: He is good, but not how we imagine this author’s heroes (no more, it may be added, would the William Powell type). That’s Hollywood.

(Powell played the lead in the series of movies based on Hammett’s novel, The Thin Man.)

Robert Mitchum, a combination hunk and galoot, is probably closer to the Marlowe of the books. The problem is the English director of The Big Sleep remake must not have understood that in Chandler, Los Angeles is practically a character, and so set it in London, which simply doesn’t work.

No amount of additional American actors in the newer movie (Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone, Candy Clark) can make up for the loss of LA. It’s like filming a Faulkner novel in Toronto and changing some of the characters’ names to boot (in the remake, old man Sternwood’s daughters, Vivian and Carmen, are now Charlotte and Camilla).

To my knowledge, Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake has only been filmed once, and it was a failure. Although star (and director) Robert Montgomery is a credible Marlowe, most of the film is shot from the point of view (literally) of Marlowe. Maybe this idea looked good on paper, but it doesn’t work at all and loses much of what makes the novel interesting.

After publishing this novel in 1943, Chandler went on to work on screenplays for several films, including Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), from James M. Cain’s novel; George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946), an original screenplay; and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. The first two got him Oscar nominations.

The Lady in the Lake feels very cinematic, and I’m surprised it was never made into a more conventional detective movie. The chapters are short, averaging about six pages each in my paperback edition, and the setting usually changes from chapter to chapter, creating the sense of movement that we expect in a modern detective story.

For example, the first two chapters take place in the waiting room and then office of Marlowe’s wealthy client, then a chapter at a suspect’s house, then a chapter in front of another suspect’s house across the street, then the drive to Little Fawn Lake via San Bernardino and Puma Point.

One thing about traditional detective movies is how so many scenes are just interior shots of people talking. These are not action pictures in the modern sense. For example, The Maltese Falcon has very few exterior scenes; in fact much of the movie takes place in Spade’s tiny apartment.

As a modern movie, Chandler’s novel could easily include plenty of outdoor scenes. Most of Chandler’s stories take place in LA or its environs, including the town of Bay City (a fictional Santa Monica). That’s true of this novel as well, but it also contains quite a few chapters that take place at Little Fawn Lake and in the resort town of Puma Point, almost rural and certainly rustic by our standards today.

Other than in a couple of short stories and a final novel (Playback), I don’t recall Chandler’s detectives spending much time outside of LA. And it sounds as though Marlowe, the solitary drinker and student of chess, doesn’t much like these locales. Here’s his description of Puma Point:

It was still broad daylight but some of the neon signs had been turned on, and the evening reeled with the cheerful din of auto horns, children screaming, bowls rattling, skeeballs clunking, .22’s snapping merrily in shooting galleries, juke boxes playing like crazy, and behind this out on the lake the hard barking roar of the speedboats going nowhere at all and acting as though they were racing with death.

Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, the angel of death in any little holiday spot she’s visiting, darkness accompanies Marlowe wherever he goes.

Still, this could be done as an ironic comic scene, the sort of thing that breaks the tension for a little while in a detective movie. As Marlowe tells us, and you can almost hear him in voiceover: “At Puma Point, summer, that lovely season, was in full swing.”

There are poetic qualities in a lot of Chandler’s sentences. And it’s not just the striking similes that detective fiction is notorious for. Although there are some good ones in The Lady in the Lake:

His door closed on the pneumatic closer and made a sound like “phooey.”

We started off side by side, as friendly as puppies again.

He looked at us like a horse that had got into the wrong stable.

I think my favorite bits in Chandler, though, are the sentences that can sound like throwaway lines from Law and Order. Often ironic, they’re sometimes even metrical:

The whiskey won the fight, as it always does.

The star on his left breast had a bent point.

“Something,” I said out loud, “is all wrong with this scene.”

If you write poetry, a good exercise is to take an author with a distinctive style or voice and try to capture something of their writing in a poem. Not just imitation or pastiche, but rather like what Dana Gioia did in his memorable poem “In Chandler Country.”

The title tells us precisely where we are, and the first lines grab brilliantly at the style of Chandler’s writing:

      California night. The Devil’s wind,
      the Santa Ana, blows in from the east,
      raging through the canyon like a drunk
      screaming in a bar.

If this were prose, it might be considered fan fiction. But unlike most fan fiction, Gioia rivals the original. Here’s the opening of Chandler’s 1938 story, “Red Wind,” which the poem alludes to:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.

The speaker of Gioia’s poem is Marlowe himself, perhaps old and retired now, ruminating on past cases during a hot, sleepless night, his memories triggered by the kind of wind that was ever-present during the “Red Wind” case, thumping and howling at the windows.

Gioia captures the feel of Chandler’s prose and converts it to poetry using unobtrusive blank verse. It’s so natural sounding you might not even recognize it as that.

And like Chandler, Gioia goes for the pithy throwaway line as well:

      The weather’s fine as long as you don’t breathe.

© 10 Franks 2023

Can You Survive? Keep Breathing

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for stories of survival. It could be an individual on an island, like Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away, or a group of survivors on an island, like in Lost. It’s all good.

I was even lured in by a new six-part Netflix drama, Keep Breathing, where Melissa Barrera’s New York lawyer Liv Rivera is stranded in the Canadian wilderness, which is like an island inverted: instead of the usual sharply defined limits, she’s stuck in a kind of boundless Eden.

Is it a spoiler to say that Liv makes it? Of course she does. Who would want to watch one of these extended things if the main character dies? Crusoe is rescued after 28 years; Hanks loses a tooth but gets rescued; even most of the Lost characters are rescued (although they do return to the island — whoops, their bad). Plus, the trailer practically promises as much. Get over it.

If Barrera looks familiar, it might be that you saw her as Vanessa in the film version of the musical In the Heights. As a veteran of Mexican telenovelas, this series, with its melodramatic flashbacks and tropes, plays well to her acting experience.

And it’s full of tropes. There’s the bear-in-camp trope. There’s even the trapped-beneath-rock-cave-in trope that every show from Lassie to the Hardy Boys to Lost in Space has probably used at least once, maybe multiple times.

Something to expect early on in any survival story is the wreck that gets things started. These scenes can be terrifying to watch, particularly on the big screen. When the sinking FedEx plane exploded in Cast Away, I think I just about jumped out of my theater seat. And then there’s Lost (brace yourself at about the 0:15 mark in this series trailer):

The crash in Keep Breathing is pretty harrowing too. It’s small scale, with a single-engine plane going down into the tranquil water of a smallish lake. But because it’s so intimate, it’s easier to imagine just how frightening and traumatic this experience would be, even if you walked (or swam) away from it largely unscathed.

Three centuries ago, Daniel Defoe was laying the groundwork for this trope. Crusoe’s ship having foundered in a storm, the crew took to a small boat, which was itself overturned. Here’s his description:

Nothing can describe the Counfusion of Thought which I felt when I sunk into the Water; for tho’ I swam very well, yet I could not deliver my self from the Waves so as to draw Breath…

Sounds very cinematic. Cue howling winds and crashing water, punctuated by occasional sucking gasps from the lone survivor.

Survivors almost always find something that washes up on the beach in the next day or so. Liv finds what appears to be a sonogram that she had with her (I know, what are the odds, right?). Hanks buries, gulp, the body of the FedEx plane’s pilot. Only in Lost do they have a big chunk of the plane and all its stuff parked right there on the beach (I know, what are the odds, right?).

Once again, Defoe was there first. Here’s Crusoe on his missing shipmates:

I never saw them afterwards, or any Sign of them, except three of their Hats, one Cap, and two Shoes that were not Fellows.

I like the title, Keep Breathing, since this has several meanings for the series. Obviously, it means don’t drown (plane, water), as well as do whatever you can to stay alive, but it’s also a rather humorous reference to the relaxation tapes Liv listens to, which are always going on about breathing. Well done. (Lost is a pretty good title too. Those folks were way beyond just lost.)

One of the issues when you have a solo survivor is how to keep the drama going. Do they talk to themselves or what? Defoe eventually introduced Friday, and at last Crusoe had someone to interact with. Tom Hanks puts a face on a volleyball and calls it Wilson to have someone to talk to. In Keep Breathing, Liv talks to the dead (guy from the plane, her father), the long absent (her mother), and the colleague/boyfriend.

This works pretty well. After all, it’s common cinematic fare: talking to someone who isn’t really there is a stand-in for introspection or decision-making, which is hard to depict visually. In a novel, you might use a different convention, one that’s probably no less phony (“She wondered what Douglas would say if he could see her in such trying circumstances…”).

However, I sometimes found these imaginary conversations to be a little distracting, as they made me think of the wonderful, deserted-island scenes with Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man. If you’ve seen that movie, you know what I’m talking about; otherwise, hop to it and track it down — I won’t spoil it for you.

There’s even a little poetry in one conversation. To distract Liv from thinking about dying, the imagined boyfriend recites the first line of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

      Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

Nice ironic choice, but Liv interrupts to say she’s more of a “Langston Hughes gal,” then recites a few lines of something. That’s Hughes? he wonders, and she admits it isn’t, but rather from a poem by her father.

So now we know what her father was, an academic and poet. There’s a flashback scene where he’s studying a book, but for all we know he could have been prepping for his taxes.

The boyfriend was right to be suspicious. Here’s the lines and they don’t sound much like Hughes to me either:

      Holding you is difficult today.
      You feel sharp and jagged.
      All shoulder blades and elbows.
      How I would love to round your edges.
      To make you smooth in my rock tumbler heart.

We also occasionally get glimpses of the “poetry” of the wilderness, the beauty of the trees and the forest floor, the dense canopy, the play of light and shadow.

According to the credits, this series was filmed in British Columbia. But it’s not the gloomy BC of The X-Files, where the woods are always wet, always full of eeriness. No, the weather is surprisingly good. And that makes sense — it’s supposed to be the first week of September, which is a great month weather-wise to be out in the woods just about anywhere in North America. Note that Crusoe was also shipwrecked in September (of 1659).

But it still gets dark, and even before the equinox the nights are long. Yet city dweller Liv doesn’t seem to be, well, bothered about sleeping outside and without any gear. Even Thoreau found the Maine wilderness terrifying.

The point of a survival story is not just the how of survival and the catharsis of rescue, but also the ways that the experience has changed the survivor. These changes can occur slowly over the course of the story or suddenly as a result of crisis or epiphany.

Robinson Crusoe on his island undergoes a religious experience. Defoe spends quite a few pages on this, something that usually gets skipped over in film and TV adaptations, which understandably focus on the story’s action and adventure aspects. With Crusoe, his change of heart is connected to guilt over his seafaring life and how he ignored his father’s plea not to go to sea. In a sense, that decision has led to his current situation.

Modern readers might wonder why Crusoe does not connect a much more recent action with his present state, namely that the fateful voyage he alone survived, marooning him on an uninhabited island, was a trip from Brazil to the coast of Guinea to trade for “Negroes” for his plantation. Yikes.

But what we think of as the abolitionist movement didn’t get started until late in the 18th century. Defoe is writing early in that century about the world of his youth in the 17th century. He lacks the moral framework for thinking any other way.

Crusoe himself was captured by Turkish pirates and enslaved by their captain for two years at the beginning of his narrative, but Defoe does not present his enslavement in moral terms. Slavery was to be avoided, certainly, a condition worth risking your life to escape from, but for Crusoe it’s more a fact of life.

With Liv, we watch her inch ever nearer to closure on the memories of her parents: her mother’s abandonment of Liv as a child, her father’s abandonment by dying. One hopes that if restored once more to civilization, Liv would no longer be so mean to others, so prone to outbursts of temper, but perhaps that’s too much to hope for (cue lawyer joke).

Virginia Woolf was a fan of Defoe’s novels, particularly Moll Flanders and Roxana, and thought Crusoe a masterpiece because of its clear vision and insistence on its own perspective. Her essay on Crusoe was used as the introduction in my Modern Library edition:

It is, we know, the story of a man who is thrown, after many perils and adventures, alone upon a desert island. The mere suggestion—peril and solitude and a desert island—is enough to rouse in us the expectation of some far land on the limits of the world; of the sun rising and the sun setting; of man, isolated from his kind, brooding alone upon the nature of society and the strange ways of men. Before we open the book we have perhaps vaguely sketched out the kind of pleasure we expect it to give us. We read; and we are rudely contradicted on every page. There are no sunsets and no sunrises; there is no solitude and no soul. There is, on the contrary, staring us full in the face nothing but a large earthenware pot.

This brings us to the weakness of Keep Breathing and why it’s not, perhaps, a masterpiece.

As Woolf points out in her essay, Defoe convinces us of Crusoe’s reality by the volume and ordinariness of the details: how to survive, how to make things you’ve never made before, how to make do when you don’t have the right materials, the right ingredients, the right tools. This is exemplified by Crusoe’s unceasing efforts to make earthenware pots for cooking and storage.

Think on this: an old man sitting in his study in London, someone who is not a potter or a farmer or a carpenter, but had been a hosier, somehow came up with this stuff, such that three centuries on, we just assume (or at least I did) that if we followed Crusoe’s descriptions closely enough, we too could grow barley, raise goats, make clothes from their skins, fashion a boat from a log, and fire functional containers from clay dug out of a hillside.

N.C. Wyeth, 1920 (Source: WikiArt)

We get bits of this in Keep Breathing. We see Liv start a fire with a pair of glasses, boil water, forage for berries, all the while keeping track of the elapsed days by carving marks on a log (just as Crusoe famously did on his post). But too often this fascinating stuff is interrupted by yet another flashback, often to her childhood, but all too often to the New York law firm where she worked.

There’s a vagueness about the law Liv practiced. The words “timeline” and “motion” are thrown around, but we never see clients or a courtroom. It has to do with “securities,” so not family law, not immigration law, not criminal law, maybe something to do with representing rich guys who game the system. Yawn. This stuff is deadly and it’s possible the screenwriters had no more interest in it than we do and so wrote generic “lawyer” scenes.

But still, this series is not all bad. At the very least, like a lot of modern TV, it looks cinematic. That alone is enough to keep me going. Rewatch the beginning of episode 5, which opens with a closeup of Liv’s face. There’s no longer any sign of makeup, maybe not much hope either. But she’s surviving.

© 10 Franks 2022

Why This Song Is So Good: Maggie’s Farm

Song: “Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan

This is one of Bob Dylan’s first songs when he started moving away from acoustic folk to a more “electric” sound (read: bigger, louder). It was 1965, he was 23 years old, time for a change, right?

      I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
      No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
      Well, I wake in the morning
      Fold my hands and pray for rain
      I got a head full of ideas
      That are drivin’ me insane
      It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
      I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

The four verses that follow are in the same form: two lines of refrain, five lines of verse proper, then a refrain line again. With each verse, a substitution is made for “farm” in the refrain lines: brother, pa, ma, then back to farm again. So it’s not just a farm the speaker is talking about, it’s a whole family.

The song begins briskly: Just a few seconds of jangly guitar, then the speaker’s plaintive voice starts right in. Who is this whiny youth, and who is this weird family he’s working for? And what exactly is this song about?

I’m usually less interested in what a song means or what its lyricist intended than by how the song is put together, how it works, how the overall sound makes you feel when you listen to it. But let me throw out some possibilities, just because it’s fun to do so:

Dylan’s own family back in Minnesota? Dylan’s mental state? The folk music world or music business? The life of sharecroppers or farm workers? (Think Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie here.) Could this even be a civil rights song? After all, this song was written less than a year and a half after Dylan sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963.

So how did he do it? Several things in this song are interesting, starting with the way Dylan sings the opening “I” in several lines. It sounds to me like a drawn-out, falling “Ah,” almost a lament.

The song also has an unusual rhyme scheme. Using Alfred Corn’s notation, where uppercase letters indicate refrain lines, I would give it as AAbcdcaA.

Normally the rhyme scheme of a pop song’s verses is independent of any rhyme scheme the chorus might have. But here Dylan has rhymed the last line of the verse proper with the refrain lines. And since the refrain lines always end with “more,” that means he had to come up with a word for each verse that rhymes with that: floor, door, door, four, bored. (Dylan also rhymes the last line of each verse with the first line of the chorus in “Like a Rolling Stone.”)

Most lines are also end-stopped, even if they’re not punctuated (songwriters often omit terminal punctuation). When Dylan sings this song, he pauses after every line, with no pauses within a line except after the occasional comma (and barely there). If you understand the rule of “line break = pause,” then you pretty much know how to recite or sing these lyrics.

Is there anger behind these lyrics, and is this a family dynamic song? What is the relationship of the speaker to Maggie’s family? Is he possibly a disaffected son or son-in-law? (This is not Dylan’s only song where the speaker is apparently part of a weird family. See also “One More Cup of Coffee.”)

And if there is anger, what specifically would that anger be all about? Let’s review the speaker’s complaints: Well, Maggie makes him scrub the floor, brother fines you if you break the rules, pa is sadistic and paranoid (surely exaggerated), ma preaches nonsense to the help, and as a group everyone is too cheerful at their labors. That’s it?

Other bands have covered this song in ways that emphasize the implicit anger. Here’s one that really showcases such an interpretation:

© 10 Franks 2022

Why This Song Is So Good: The Chain

Song: “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac

This video is of a live performance of “The Chain” done twenty years after the song was first released. Yet the middle-aged Macs are rocking this song in 1997 harder than ever.

The structure of the song puzzled me at first. It doesn’t really have proper verses. Rather, it seems to be just two interwoven choruses. It opens with what I call chorus 1:

      Listen to the wind blow
      Watch the sun rise

But it’s chorus 2 where things really get going:

      And if you don’t love me now
      You will never love me again

Although all five band members are listed as the writers of this song, my guess would be that the lyrics are primarily by Stevie Nicks. They feel like her lyrics: suitably vague, designed to be repeated over and over, incantatory style. She’s not in the story-telling business, she’s in the emotion-telling business. With her best lyrics, there’s always a line that sticks in your head for all time, whether you want it there or not.

So how did they do it? Often bands play twenty-year-old songs because the songs were hits that fans want to hear exactly as they heard them when they were younger. But interestingly, Fleetwood Mac has changed up the song’s arrangement in this performance.

Some of the changes are minor. For example, in a song that already had a fairly long intro by pop song standards, it’s now a full minute before the vocals start.

The big change is the switch to Lindsey Buckingham for the solo lyrics. And he really pulls it off, bellowing and barking as though this song was always his to sing. For a band known for the lead singing of its two female members, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks, this change might be surprising if you’re familiar with the original. (The original recording, I believe, is what you hear, not once but twice, on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.)

The sterling rhythm work of Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass can’t be overlooked even with three such prominent vocalists up front. This song features solos by both, notably the brief but memorable bass run at the 3:35 mark, which is quickly joined by Buckingham’s guitar.

If for some reason you don’t like rock, or don’t understand what rock fans are all about, listen for the moment just after Buckingham joins in where the sound builds to something uncanny, creating the magical driving feeling that rock fans live for. When the song ends, the look on Fleetwood’s face tells us that he knows they nailed it.

Many bands can be put into one of two categories: Musicians from similar backgrounds playing the kind of music they all were playing before they got together, and musicians from dissimilar geographical or musical backgrounds. The Beatles and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be in the first category, The Band and Fleetwood Mac in the second one.

The Fleetwood Mac in this video was formed by the remnant of a British blues band bringing in two California folk-rock musicians (Buckingham and Nicks). The resulting band was able to create something that neither group of musicians could do on its own.

Here’s a cover of this song featuring four female vocalists, with a violin taking on Buckingham’s distinctive guitar part:

© 10 Franks 2022

Why This Song Is So Good: Give Me Back My Man

Song: “Give Me Back My Man” by The B-52’s

The title of this 1980 song suggests that it’s firmly within the lost-my-baby subgenre of pop music. But as soon as you hear its dance beat, you begin to wonder. Or perhaps you begin to suspect there’s more here than the title can support.

The opening verse, in third person, is sung reassuringly, if a little blasé, with a nice quiet rhyme in the middle:

      She cuts her hair
      And calls his name
      Wishin’ everything could be the same
      Like when she had him

Then the song shifts to a more assertive first person (as per the title) in the chorus, with its odd lyrics. You might think, did I hear that right? Yes, you did:

      I’ll give you fish
      I’ll give you candy
      I’ll give you everything I have in my hand

So who’s being addressed in the chorus? The man? The someone (or something) who took the man? This type of pop song has such a rich history that it’s hard not to hear echoes (or a pastiche) of other songs here. For example, Dolly Parton’s 1973 “Jolene” is an appeal to the woman named in the song’s title: “please don’t take my man.”

Toward the end of the song, you hear both the third-person and first-person voices singing over each other, practically screaming at one point. And always that relentless dance beat. Yet there’s something haunting about all this oddness, the way the verse speaker describes what’s happening to the chorus speaker, who then resumes singing, sounding more and more desperate.

So how did they do it? The video above is from an appearance The B-52’s made on TopPop, a Dutch TV show. Although nothing you see in the video comes through if you listen only to the recording, it’s useful for thinking about this song.

I think what makes this song work are its discordant elements: the odd lyrics don’t really match the dance beat, and neither of these really fit with the emotional intensity later in the song. Similar discordant elements are present in the video performance too, making it visually memorable.

The B-52’s were a quintessential New Wave band, interested in trying new things in their music and performances. Maybe that’s why the band members mostly stare straight ahead with affectless expressions, even while breaking out like Animatronic dance puppets, as though voguing to their own song.

And indeed that’s practically what’s happening, as Cindy Wilson is obviously lip-syncing to what is probably the original recording of the song. Toward the end you hear two voices, yet only Wilson appears to be singing. And then at one point you hear the chorus and no one is singing. Add to this the absence onstage of a clearly audible glockenspiel.

Historically lip-synced performances were the norm for TV, although usually not as obvious as this. But why did TV shows do that in the first place? Well, perhaps it was easier and faster to shoot good video without having to worry about audio quality. And of course the TV audience would then get to hear the exact same recording they would have been familiar with from radio and records.

And certainly, if you watch a live performance of this song, you see that it’s impossible to reproduce the double-tracked singing with only one singer. Maybe the band was fine with this. After all, such obvious lip-syncing gently mocks the whole premise of TV performances, perhaps a little like how their song gently mocks the conventions of lost-my-baby songs.

Here’s a live performance from later in the same year as the TopPop TV appearance. Wilson’s voice is rougher now, as though she’s been singing this song forever:

© 10 Franks 2022

Meter and Lyrics

Are songwriters thinking poetry when they write the lyrics to songs? Well, yes, in the sense that they have many of the same goals as poets: to come up with words that sound great out loud, tell a story or convey an emotional state, and leave something memorable with the listener.

But in other regards, perhaps not so much. Because lyrics are intended to be sung, not recited or read silently, everything depends on how they sound and how they fit to the song’s music. Only poets can get away with writing things that are difficult, if not impossible, to read aloud.

Song lyrics also tend to be simpler and less abstract than a lot of poetry. Stephen Sondheim said as much in an interview a few years ago:

I’d learned from Oscar Hammerstein, my mentor, that the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself. Poetry makes, generally, very poor lyrics unless you’re dealing with a certain kind of show. It’s too allusive, that’s not what you want.

Rhyme is a feature of most song lyrics, but what about the meter that usually accompanied rhyme in traditional poetry? Like rhyme, meter also works as a sonic device that affects how a line sounds, not only to the outer ear when read aloud, but also to our silent reading’s inner ear.

Earlier articles here pointed out lines by Bob Dylan and others that could be read as iambic. But it’s hard to find many songs that use regular meter throughout. Instead, it appears as though songwriters often use meter more like a garnish: to change up the feel of the lyrics or for emphasis.

For example, in the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” John Lennon wrote this line as part of the final verse:

      Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

Read that aloud a couple times and appreciate how great it sounds even without singing it.

Was the meter deliberate, or was this line just a fortuitous accident of English speech, which often falls naturally into iambic runs?

If this were the only example available, it might be an accident. But consider this line from a half century later, by a completely different songwriter, Olivia Rodrigo, from her song “good 4 u”:

      You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do

Again, read this aloud. Doesn’t the meter add to the emphatic nature of this statement?

Two other things are worth noting about these lines. First, look at how few words of more than one syllable are used. With Lennon’s line, it’s two; with Rodrigo’s, it’s only one.

And second, both lines alliterate Ns and Hs. Together, meter, simple words, and alliteration all contribute to the lines’ appeal and their stickiness in the head.

But what kind of meter? I would scan Lennon’s line as iambic with initial truncation. But why iambic and not trochaic? Probably because the preceding lines are generally iambic. Whereas I would scan Rodrigo’s line as trochaic, probably because the mostly free-verse preceding lines haven’t established any pattern and so this line is all we have to go on.

Patterns matter. With a poem in meter, it usually takes a line or two to figure out the governing meter. But once you’ve established that, you know a lot more about how to make the poem sound when reading it aloud.

Here’s an example where working out the meter helps you hear the lyrics even without hearing them sung. This is from the song “Why” by The Linda Lindas:

      I just shout and never sing
      No one likes it anyway
      So I just drown out everything
      But it will not go away

So is this iambic tetrameter with initial truncation in lines 1, 2 and 4? Or is it trochaic tetrameter with final truncation in those lines? Well, line 3 is regular iambic tetrameter so I would go with the former. In either case, the heaviest stresses in line 4, for example, will then be on “But,” “will,” “go,” and the second syllable of “away.” And sure enough, that’s how it’s sung.

Rhyme and meter come naturally to most people. Here teenagers have come up with lyrics in iambic meter, using the familiar abab rhyme scheme. No surprise, right?

Experienced songwriters know how and when to use meter in their lyrics. Here’s the first two lines from Dolly Parton’s famous song, “The Bargain Store”:

      My life is likened to a bargain store
      And I may have just what you’re looking for

That’s rhymed iambic pentameter. Although Parton doesn’t stay in that meter throughout the song, the use of it here with the alliterative and slightly old-fashioned-sounding “likened” gives the song a great start.

A more complicated example is the first lines of Leonard Cohen’s much-covered “Hallelujah”:

      Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
      That David played, and it pleased the Lord
      But you don’t really care for music, do you?

This is iambic meter, but with substitution of an anapestic foot in the first foot of the first line (“Now I’ve heard”) and in the third foot of the second line (“and it pleased”), giving both lines a satisfying naturalness of expression. The first two lines are tetrameter; the third line is pentameter with a so-called feminine ending.

One thing to keep in mind is that song lyrics can almost be considered provisional. Not all singers will follow the original lyrics exactly. For example, in Brandi Carlile’s “Hallelujah,” she sings the first line like this:

      I’ve heard that there’s a secret chord

This is a regular iambic line, and it feels a little different than the original, perhaps also because it’s now in present tense rather than past.

© 10 Franks 2022

Good Beginnings

One thing many great songs and poems have in common is a great start. As soon as you hear the first chord or the first few words, you know that you want more.

The Beatles were very good at creating memorable openings for their songs. Take the beginning of “Hey Jude.” No instrumental prelude, no drumming to build anticipation, Paul McCartney just starts right in, his voice and piano chords firm and confident (0:50 mark):

Same with great poems. No introduction and no background stuff like from a 19th century novel (what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye called “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”). Take the first line of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”:

      A cold coming we had of it

Six one-syllable words and one of two syllables. And yet there’s something memorable about this line, probably because of its inverted word order, that’s what sticks in the head. If we write it with normal English word order, like this:

      We had a cold coming of it

something goes flat.

McCartney also begins simply, with six one-syllable words:

      Hey Jude, don’t make it bad

There’s something about keeping it simple that can make a poem or song more inviting too, with less chance for confusion over the words. With the first line of Eliot’s poem, we’re inside the tale, on the journey, and with the first line of “Hey Jude,” it’s like we’re getting in on advice addressed to someone else.

What’s the point of view or “voice” in these examples? With Eliot’s poem, it’s the slightly odd first-person plural “we.” And who’s “we”? Well, the magi of the title, of course, but it’s not all of them speaking together, it’s one magus speaking for the group, presumably, but we don’t know who he is or even how many magi there are. And with “Hey Jude,” the song is addressed to the second person “you” of Jude, not the “you” of us, the listeners.

Does point of view have anything to do with great starts? Probably not with these two examples, but it’s always worth thinking about.

Here’s a couple examples where the point of view is not so clear, which probably does add something. Let’s start with the first line from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

      After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

Here it’s a kind of third-person point of view. I say “kind of” because, this being a poem, concise and compressed and with no other information to go on, it’s natural to wonder “who’s pain?” The speaker’s? Meaning there’s an unstated “I” behind it all. Or is it someone else’s pain, perhaps someone who’s now dead and is being mourned?

In The Band’s song “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” the point of view is an implied second person in the opening chorus, which begins calmly and mysteriously with lines of variable length after just a few brief seconds of jangly instrumental music:

      Corn in the fields
      Listen to the rice when the wind blows ‘cross the water
      King Harvest has surely come

But then in the first verse the song switches abruptly to first-person singular and things rev up, making it feel almost like a different song.

With both Dickinson’s poem and The Band’s song, the title comes from the text. Many of Dickinson’s poems and those of her contemporary Walt Whitman are known by their first line. Later poets tended to give formal titles to their poems. This provides a place outside the poem’s text where additional authorial information can be supplied to the reader.

For example, without Eliot’s title, “Journey of the Magi,” we really would have no idea what its first line refers to. So when we say this poem has a great start, we should probably also add “assuming you know its title.”

“Hey Jude” is also the first two words of that song, so the song’s start doesn’t depend on knowledge of its title, whereas with the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” the title does not appear anywhere in the lyrics and is important in making sense of the song.

Sometimes a beginning can make an unexpected reference, and this can add to the surprise and pleasure the first time you encounter a poem or song. For example, take the first line of Elinor Wylie’s sonnet “Atavism”:

      I always was afraid of Somes’s Pond:

Here we have a first-person point of view, and a little mystery introduced with the pond, whose name means nothing to us. But there’s something else too. By ordering the opening words “I always was” instead of the more common “I was always,” Wylie not only establishes the poem’s iambic pentameter, but also creates a strong first line.

These examples are all more than fifty years old. Here’s something more recent, a song called “Why” by the punk rock band The Linda Lindas. The title doesn’t tell us much and certainly doesn’t prepare us for the first line, which is practically shouted:

      I look up and see the sun

This almost sounds like a variation of the rock trope of “staring into the sun,” but then the second line subverts that association nicely: “I didn’t want it anyway.”

Even though this song is a punk anthem, its lyrics also work as poetry, as they’re written primarily in iambic tetrameter, with initial truncation in the first line and elsewhere.

(The video should skip automatically to the song; if not, advance it to the 5:55 mark.)

With the three example poems, each begins with a specific choice of diction that commands attention; probably no one would speak quite like that. With the three example songs, it’s a combination of distinctive music, voice and lyrics that makes for their memorable beginnings.

© 10 Franks 2022

Best Line Ever

Most people can quote a line or two from a movie, novel, speech, advertisement, or other source that for some reason stuck in their head. For this article, we’ll look at some great lines from poems and songs. And to make sure we include Shakespeare’s plays, we’ll allow his blank verse since technically that’s poetry.

So what characteristics does a line need to be a candidate for a best line ever? After looking at a lot of great quotes, these things come to mind:

  • Memorable. If you can’t remember how the line goes, then it may not be all that great and you’ll probably soon forget about it no matter how witty or profound it is.
  • Relatively short. This is probably connected to the line’s memorability, but also forces it to be about only one thing.
  • More than just a phrase. So Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” doesn’t qualify, although the full line “To be, or not to be: that is the question” probably does.
  • Standalone. The line doesn’t require a setup or explanation.
  • Surprising, wry, or funny. The line functions almost like a short joke, with a punchline (or punch) at the end.

Let’s look at some example lines and see whether they meet these requirements.

“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

This is from Shakespeare’s rom-com Much Ado About Nothing and is a line delivered by Beatrice at Benedick during their insult match. As in a modern rom-com, insults like this might be a hint that the two characters are secretly crazy about each other. One problem with this line is that it’s prose, not poetry, so technically it’s ineligible. Romeo and Juliet speak blank verse to each other, but in this play the lovers speak prose.

“Men were deceivers ever, / One foot in sea and one on shore, / To one thing constant never”

This is also from Much Ado, part of the song “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” that presumably was sung in the earliest productions, although we no longer have the tune if so. It’s a little long, but memorable because of two things: the linking through rhyme of “ever” and “never,” which are opposite in meaning, and the image that the middle line summons of figures standing half in water, half on land, surely a perfect metaphor for indecisiveness. It reminds me of the lines in the old folk song, “House of the Rising Sun”: “Well it’s one foot on the platform / And the other foot on the train.”

“Now you’re telling me / You’re not nostalgic / Then give me another word for it”

This is from Joan Baez’s song “Diamonds and Rust.” That’s a terrific zinger at the end, but by itself that line probably isn’t enough and including the setup makes it a little clunky. But this song is just full of great lines, so maybe something else would work.

“Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe / And to love you”

This is from the song “The Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies, who probably couldn’t be accused of having a poetic bone in their body during their 60s heyday, and yet still found this early-70s gem, which really pings the best line meter. Note how it’s realistically conditional: sometimes, not always or forever. For those struggling to write about love in a song, this is how you do it. Just don’t spend almost two minutes getting to the chorus the way the Hollies do, risking a nomination for the E.B. Browning enumeration award.

So much for lines about relationships. How about some great lines about what Bob Dylan calls “life, and life only”?

“[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

This is from the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. Is it odd that Shakespeare the actor and playwright has Macbeth, who has nothing to do with the stage, describe life as a play? It reminds me of the engineer narrator and his dentist in Günter Grass’s 1969 novel, Local Anaesthetic, who view the world in terms of their respective occupations. William Faulkner took the title of his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury from these lines, as well as inspiration for the point of view of the novel’s first section, which is narrated by a mentally disabled man.

“Hope is the thing with feathers”

After the bleakness of Macbeth’s speech, this line from Emily Dickinson’s well-known poem sounds quite cheerful. Hope as a bird that survives even the storms of life feels like a fairly ordinary metaphor, but where Dickinson shines is how she describes ordinary things with such originality. Instead of beginning with “Hope is like a bird” or “Hope sings its little song,” as a lesser poet might, she starts out telling us that hope has feathers.

“I read the news today, oh boy”

This line that John Lennon sings in the Beatles’ song “A Day In The Life” is a good example of how they mixed plain-looking lyrics with sophisticated music, thus ensuring that this avant-garde song remained accessible to their fans.

And finally, some lines about the self.

“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

That’s from the final part 52 of Walt Whitman’s long poem “Song of Myself.” This is typical of Whitman’s embrace of himself as rugged individual. Incidentally, “yawp” had been around in English for centuries, yet his use of it is fresh, perfectly suggesting the sound he wants us to hear.

“I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

That’s from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In contrast to Whitman’s point of view, Eliot’s lines sound very 20th century, the speaker anxious, maybe depressed, even if the rhyme makes you smile. Eliot was only a college student when he wrote the first draft of this poem, but his speaker sounds so much older.

© 10 Franks 2022

Can You Say Melisma?

An earlier article mentioned how stress is the primary way of emphasizing syllables in English poetry and forms the basis of poetic meter. And how music has other ways of bringing emphasis to parts of the lyrics, tools that are not available to the poet.

By the standards of poetry, song lyrics can look a little flat on the page, and sometimes they include clichéd phrases or unoriginal observations. But that’s because the lyrics weren’t written to be read like poetry, but to be sung.

For example, look at the first line of the chorus that supplies the title of Dolly Parton’s famous song:

      And I will always love you

You might not be very impressed by this as poetry. But banality of the words aside, when you hear it sung, the line is transformed into something almost profound. Here’s Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You”:

Houston uses throughout this song a technique called “melisma,” where she changes the pitch of her voice on a single syllable, giving the quoted line an impact it would otherwise never have. You could also argue that in this case complicating the line lyrically would only detract from its sound when sung; here a simpler lyric is better.

Melisma has been around for a long time and it’s hard to find a song that doesn’t use this technique at all. That’s because it also serves as a way of lengthening the line to fit a musical phrase, providing flexibility both to the lyricist and the singer.

Here’s an example of a song without much melisma, something closer to a pure “syllabic” technique where each syllable gets its own pitch. This is the band Brass Against doing a cover of Alanis Morissette’s song, “Uninvited”:

Poetic stress often involves an increase in pitch on stressed syllables. With a poem in meter, the rise and fall of pitch is determined by where the “accents” fall within each word and the position of each syllable in the meter. It’s interesting to hear singing against the natural meter of the words, the way Sophia Urista does in this song, particularly with words like “unfortunate,” where the pitch increases with each syllable, which is not how the word would be sounded out in spoken English.

If you’re looking for an example of a song that mixes these various vocal techniques, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop”:

Another thing to listen to is how the singing and instruments interact. Are the lyrics sung over the instrumental parts, or do the instruments pause or drop in volume when the singing begins? And what happens during pauses between sung phrases, does the music swell in volume there or change in some other way?

A good example of this interaction is the 60s song “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” by the Electric Prunes. As an exemplar of “psychedelic” music, this song features several odd sounds not often heard in pop music. For example, just before the first chorus, you’ll hear an oboe-like sound after each phrase. That this sound doesn’t appear until about the 45-second mark makes me think it was saved for emphasis because of the effect it creates, almost like an echo of or a comment on the phrase it follows:

Returning to the example of Led Zep’s “Misty Mountain Hop” from above, one of the most distinctive aspects of this song is its grinding, relentless guitars repeating the same few notes over and over. And yet the guitars usually fade into the background with the singing, either to keep the song from becoming monotonous or maybe so the lyrics remain intelligible. In either case this grind-sing-grind-sing-grind interplay creates a drama of its own, independent of the lyrics.

Each of us has a unique speaking voice, a combination of sounds and rhythms that usually reflect how and where we learned to speak, but can also be full of random things that don’t fit a predictable pattern.

Just as a speaking voice is the result of numerous influences, so too is a singing voice, sometimes even changing from song to song, perhaps to better fit the mood or music of a song or to imitate (or differentiate from) another singer who did the song.

Earlier articles cited example songs sung by Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty. To my ear, Dylan and Fogerty do not have singing voices that I would characterize as typical of where they grew up (northern Minnesota with Dylan and the San Francisco Bay Area with Fogerty). That suggests they altered their voices in some way, perhaps more than once. In both cases they seem to have created a voice that sounds like it’s from “someplace else.”

By that I mean they have incorporated bits of how various Americans sound. For example, contrast any of the Dylan songs cited in previous articles with his cover of the old American folk song, “House of the Rising Sun,” from his first album. Is he imitating his early idol, Woody Guthrie (from Oklahoma), or some old-time singer, or is he just a young singer still searching for his voice?

© 10 Franks 2022

Beyond Mondegreens

Pop song lyrics can provide good opportunities for improving your English, but they can also be confusing and hard to decipher. Part of that is because the language of a pop song is more like spoken English and recited poetry, fast and fleeting, than it is the English of essays and literature, designed to be studied at your own speed. In addition to mondegreens, here are some other things to look out for.

Borrowings from other languages

Like a magpie’s nest, English is full of things purloined from other languages, often changing the spelling or even the meaning over the years.

For example, even though English is a Germanic language, it has a lot of French in it. This witty song by the band Wet Leg says it all in the title: “Chaise Longue.” This term means the same, but isn’t pronounced the same, as “chaise lounge,” which is how most Americans would probably say it. Once you’ve heard this song, you won’t forget the more French-sounding pronunciation:


In an earlier article, Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” was cited as an example of a two-minute classic, but its lyrics also contain references that might be puzzling to non-Americans:

  • “red, white and blue” — the colors of the U.S. flag
  • “Hail to the Chief” — the song traditionally played when the U.S. President appears
  • “silver spoon in hand” — this likely refers to the expression “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” meaning someone born into wealth and privilege, which leads perfectly into the song’s next line, “Lord, don’t they help themselves,” with its suggestion of greedy feeding
  • “star spangled eyes” — a reference to the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”


Creedence Clearwater Revival also did a cover of the Motown classic, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” first made famous in versions by Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye. So what does the title mean? Well, the song makes that pretty clear, but where did the expression come from? Perhaps the resemblance of 19th century telegraph wires to a grapevine or maybe to the strings used to train grapevines.

Here’s Creedence performing this song:

“Nonstandard” pronunciation or grammar

It’s long been common in folk and country music to employ pronunciation or grammar that could be considered “nonstandard” in written English or more formal contexts. There’s probably a variety of reasons for this practice. For spoken forms of English, it might be considered more natural or folksy. Or maybe it just sounds better to the ear, particularly when sung, and allows an easier transition between syllables.

As an example, here’s a line from Bob Dylan’s song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”:

      It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe

In written English, you might word it like this:

      There isn’t any use in turning on your light, babe

Even if you’re unfamiliar with Dylan’s song, you can hear that something has been lost in the rewritten line. The hard opening vowel of “ain’t” creates a punchy, emphatic effect that the other forms it substitutes for don’t have. Same with the double negative: just in case you might have missed it the first time, here it is again: no. And dropping the trailing “g” in “turning” allows that word to be pronounced slightly faster.

Technically, Dylan’s line could be considered iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. The rewritten line is still iambic, but now it’s longer and starts to lose energy by the end.

Later in the same song we find this line:

      I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ all the way down the road

In addition to the dropped “g” from “thinking” and “wondering,” there’s also a dropped syllable in the latter word. And then there’s the matter of the “a-” prefix added to the beginning of both verbs.

Again, this prefix is a fairly common spoken form, which serves to alter the meaning of verbs slightly. In this case, it suggests that the singer is spending some serious time pondering why he’s leaving. If you’re familiar with the musical Oklahoma! then you’ve already encountered examples of “a-verbing.”

Here’s Dylan singing this song:


Dylan is certainly not the only songwriter who can be vague and cryptic, but let’s use his lyrics as an example anyway. In his song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” we find these lines:

      When Ruthie says come see her
      In her honky-tonk lagoon
      Where I can watch her waltz for free
      ’Neath her Panamanian moon

What exactly is a “honky-tonk lagoon”? If you’re a native English speaker, when you hear “honky-tonk” you almost instinctively expect it to be followed by “saloon,” the full phrase meaning a cheap bar where music and dancing can be found. But instead the line ends in “lagoon.” Since this is a song that contains wordplay and humor, perhaps the substitution is just more of that, intended to throw the listener slightly off-balance.

Similarly, you wouldn’t associate the kind of dancing found in a honky-tonk with “waltz.” Again, is this just to upend the listener’s expectation?

And what’s a “Panamanian moon” if you’re not in Panama? Well, in this case the phrase sounds great on its own, with its alliterative m’s and n’s, and the third syllable of “Panamanian” almost rhymes with “moon.” Inside a bar, you wouldn’t be able to see the moon. So is the moon simply a stage-light, like for a singer or dancer? Or does it just go with the image of a lagoon, maybe one that’s languid and tropical?

Here’s Dylan singing this song:

© 10 Franks 2022