We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
It’s hard to know where to bite into A Night Without Armor, the new book of poetry by pop music’s Alaskan sweetheart, Jewel. It has so much to offer. If you want to know what her last name is, you can find out here. (But not unless you turn to the title page, because it doesn’t appear on the cover. No name recognition in that, and, as we know, writing poetry is all about name recognition.) It’s Kilcher.
If names aren’t really your thing, you might enjoy the visual effectsperhaps an unusual feature in a book of poems, but she is, after all, an unusual poet, a person who, the flap copy tells us, has created “a talented artist’s intimate portrait of what makes us uniquely human.” Jewel’s picture appears on the front of her book, where it takes up a good three-quarters of the cover. It appears on the back of her book, too, where it takes up the entire cover and shows our blond heroine in poetic profile, hand pressed against her bosom in a pensive yet attractive kind of way. Her image also appears on the spine of her book, in miniature, just in case your neighborhood bookstore is insensitive enough to shelve the book in the old-fashioned manner, the way it shelves books by Yeats or Bishop. In other words, if you can remember her face from MTV, but not her name, you’ll have no problem finding her poems. And if your Jewelmania isn’t quite sated by purchasing the book, you can buy the audio recording, which contains poems by Jewel, read by Jewel, chosen by…the author. Total immersion.
All of this would be forgivable (maybe) if what came in between the Jewel-laden covers was worth reading. But Jewel’s work reminds me of an experience I had while editing my high school literary magazine. One afternoon, a friend was helping me sort through the submission pile, and he turned to me and said, “You know, I read a lot of this stuff and I just think, ‘Keep it in your journal, man.’” Alas, her notebook overfloweth.
The front flap features a quote “from the Preface,” in which Jewel explains why she writes poetry in addition to musicsomething about the “softer and less tangible parts of our selves that are so essential to peace, to openheartedness.” Huh? Softer and less tangible? Various internal organs come to mind.
This is not to say that, in general, it isn’t a good thing to write a preface to your book of poetry. Think of Wordsworth’s invaluable preface to Lyrical Ballads. The purpose of poetry, he wrote, is “to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as is possible, in a selection of language really used by men and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way.”
According to Jewel’s preface, the really great thing about poetry is that it is “the most honest and immediate art form…it is raw and unfiltered.” Forget about imagination and craft. Why not just jot down whatever angst or euphoria or everyday image happens to be whirling through your brain, call it poetry, and let HarperCollins pay you a lot of money for it?
The results are pretty much what you’d expect, only a little bit worse. Lots of ruminations on love and heartbreak and the sexual appetites of the world. Divorce, stardom, loneliness, and all their attendant horrors. When it’s good, love is, well, just like a sentimental poem filled with archaic language, bad grammar, and weird, inexplicable similes:
the sun beats itself
upon our windowsill
and dawn is well spent into day
open your eyes
lighting all they touch upon
in wondrous blaze
Upon the streets
a kitten’s mew
and beggar’s shoe
The poor, poor, sun, beating itself up that way. How does it fit on the windowsill, anyway? And when was the last time you heard a homeless guy’s footwear beckon? Of course, Jewel can be endearingly generous, even while she’s in the throes of a passionate embrace. She writes, invoking her grandmother:
I hope her breasts were admired
as mine are
two silver deities
two shining steeples
giving testament to the sky.
My breasts are twin moons
for your whiskered cheek
a harbor for your teeth
Oh infinite embrace!
The night has a chill
and I feel
I could not get you
It’s like a cross between Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
Naturally, love cannot always be so ideal. Often it’s unrequited or absent or just plain bad, and in these instances, too, Jewel weighs in with her customary flair for language. In “I’m Writing to Tell You,” a dear-John poem, she says:
But do not be sad
nothing is lost,
neither of us even loved
the other truly
you only thought you did
and I only wanted to.
As Philip Larkin once wrote, “Well, useful to get that learnt.”
Jewel’s oeuvre is just the latest addition to a well-established lineage that merges commercialism, celebrity, and what used to be known as high culture. Meg and Jennifer Tilly have published a novel. Ally Sheedy has published a book of poems. About two years ago, Ethan Hawke published a novel called The Hottest State. Little Brown paid him $400,000 for it, a staggering amount for a first novel by anyone’s standards. This for the man who said, “It’s so creepy, so unnerving, so nonconducive to good acting to take young actors and actresses who are really gifted and throw millions of dollars at them and put them in crappy movies that don’t ask much of them.”
Hawke’s book was originally sold to Random House under a different title. But Hawke decided he wasn’t happy with it and wanted to work on it more. While his puritanical work ethic may be admirable in and of itself, only a superstar has the opportunity to pull his first novel with the assurance that someone else will pick it up later. We are supposed to be impressed by the fact that he was actually working on it seven days a week for 18 hours a day at one point. But such is the “actors’ mentality,” Hawke explains. “When you work on a movie or play, it becomes your life….[It] kinda consumes you.”
Well, not really. It’s actually the writer’s mentality. The mentality of thousands of writers who work seven days a week on their books without the guarantee of even one publisher, much less two, and without the luxury of a million-dollar bank account to float them as they struggle. For Hawke, it appears to have all been an adventure, this whole writing-a-book thing. “I’ll tell you,” he gushed to the Boston Globe when The Hottest State came out, “working on this bookto get to work with a legit editor for a publishing house and talk to them about books and talk to them about writingit was awesome.”
Sadly, there seem to be very few illusions any more, even within the publishing world, about what books like these are for. Just before The Hottest State appeared, People magazine asked the head of Carol Publishing, Steven Schragis, whether he thought the book would sell well. His answer? Maybe, but “…if this were Brad Pitt’s book, I would say best seller. Even if he just wrote the same word over and over.”
It seems that there isn’t much left these days for the purists among us. Books are about movies (Applause Theatre Publishing just released Lolita: The Book of the Filmwasn’t it originally the movie of the book?), poems are about publicity photos, and going to a bookstore is just as much about espresso and picking up a date as it is about literature. If there’s no difference between a book of poems and the lyric insert in a CD case, why bother choosing between the two, or having an opinion about either? CP