Norbert Ruebsaat's Blog

Golden Voice II: Call and Response

Norbert Ruebsaat


Well Norbert, what puzzles me about all this [see “Golden Voice”] is why you gave up an interest in “pop” in the first place, especially given your concerns about poetry and society. Perhaps your use of the all-embracing junk label of “pop” is to blame. There has been some seriously good music out there over the last decades under many more specific labels (rock, folk, blues, punk, and so on), and the best of it (of which there is, in my view, a lot) often acts as the carrier for contemporary poetry. Leonard Cohen is obviously a poet, and stages himself as such just as Dylan did. But lyric writing is the poetry of our age, and most certainly of the young each in their own generation. As such, it is fabulously successful, and for the steelier sort of mind, sociologically interesting. Why did you stop listening? You must have figured out that “expecting to learn something about your future” was an unrealistic demand, arguably for any sort of poetry. That doesn’t stop you from learning a lot about your times and yourself.

—commenter Barry Buzan


I used the word “pop” in the economic sense: something that is widely marketed. Cohen popularized poetry by singing it and adding professional instrumentation and related production values and he moved therefore from the world of poetry to the world of popular music—which includes, in my usage, the genres you mention.

I continued paying (partial) attention to him because I had read him before I heard him sing, and I noticed while listening that he was mindful of the words he was singing and his voice always drew attention to them. He was still a poet: a category of being with which I identified and whose existence I value.

I’m interested in the differences between words and lyrics. And between what poets do and what musicians do. Dylan, indeed, began as a poet (albeit, I was not aware that he ever published a book) but quickly became a pop star, then an icon, then a secretive celeb. I did not listen to his post-seventies lyrics because they no longer sounded like poems. They taught me—no, I’ve never grown up enough to stop believing that poetry can teach me something about my future—nothing about my future.

By future, I mean the on-going intersection of private (imaginative) and public (political) life.

My interest in Cohen lingered because he didn’t entirely stop being a poet even after be became a popular singer. I flatter myself and us by thinking this has something to do with his Canadianness. He believed in language (so I tell myself) rather than following the going tune and filling in the words.

He has certainly become a performer, which is the stage death poets can easily suffer when they try and sometimes succeed at becoming stars, and media’s elixir starts to tweak them. Dylan (in my opinion) died of this elixir, as did, say, Paul McCartney (Lennon died of other causes) or even Paul Simon, who held out for a long time and is still to be praised for bringing to world attention the singing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Cohen holds the edge, just barely, between poet and singer-songwriter. My friend Claudia, as noted in her comment on “Golden Voice”, was moved by Cohen’s recitation of a poem to the mass GM Place audience: I was moved initially, but noticed that, as more words poured into his mic, meaning began to drain out of them. The words, to my ears, became pop lyrics, spoken, country-and-western style, as I tried to explain in my earlier blog piece, and ceased being verse.

I don’t agree that music is or should be a carrier for contemporary or any other kind of poetry. When poetry requires a carrier, it’s already dying. The proper carriers for poetry are the ear and the mind of the poetry reader/listener, and when musical accompaniment is required to get the attention of this ear, the future (see above) is already endangered because the means to get there are suspect: politics and imagination drift apart and stop listening to each other.

I don’t doubt that seriously good popular music has been produced in recent decades. Two things have kept me from listening to a lot of it. Reason one is that when verses turn into vocals and are embedded in denser and denser instrumental and studio-engineered ambiences, I get distracted: the accompaniment starts to overpower the singer and I don’t know which of the two to listen to. What’s figure and what’s ground? What’s solo and what’s tutti? What’s call, what’s response?

Music labeled “folk” has avoided this foreground/background blurring, but it has become the domain, mostly, of the singer-songwriter profession, and here the problem of my future arises again: singer-songwriters teach me lots about their inner, imaginative (mostly love) lives, but they teach me little or nothing about the world of politics. The folk music legacies of Seeger and Guthrie and singer-poets like Joe Hill or Phil Ochs have gone psychological or environmental (the new political) and everyone loves the planet and maybe each other but nobody’s sure about how to do, well, simple things like sing songs together.

That’s my second reason. I’m exaggerating wildly in all of this, of course. Yes, early punk was good; I followed Billy Bragg for a while, because he was a poet first and singer second; I liked Ry Cooder and Dave van Ronk, men who stayed down in their bass voice ranges rather they crying out like whining teenagers in search of moms/dollars; I still like Johnny Cash.

Many female singer-songwriters write muscular lyrics that could lend strength to my wrestling matches with my future (which grow fiercer as the time I have to resolve them shrinks), but their tendency to become instrumentally involved with studio back-up bands, electronic modification and multi-track voices so that they comply with the standards of a music business that deals in stable, measurable audience segments, makes me morose. It’s a condition iTunes downloading doesn’t save me from.

Again, there are many exceptions. My main point here is that when poetry becomes performance, which it becomes when singing and music edge over into show business, the poem starts to die. The big story about poems is that they exist in a demi-world between life and language. They inhabit a space that is exactly halfway between music and words, between sound and meaning. That’s what the Muse is all about. When poetry strays too far into instrumentalized thickets, the Muse gets lost: there’s too much sound, and the ear starts to weep. Conversely, when the poem goes over into “texting,” the Muse weeps because sound is sacrificed.

Poetry as a form of knowledge and experience is sinking below the emotional/intellectual horizon of North American life, and I consider this a tragedy. It’s maimed by high school English classes, and then murdered when the poet-as-singer/performer gets out there on Much Music and becomes video phenomenon, icon, then legend. Platform shift onto YouTube and the planet’s your uncle. Guitar Hero greets Karaoke Man.

A eulogy, a requiem (quick, what’s the difference between eulogy and requiem?) is delivered to me when the Bob Dylan (or Beatles, or Rolling Stone) tunes jingle then jangle in my ear as I’m swimming in my local pool where the radio morning show ads on the sound system provide the bored lifeguards with something to think about while they watch my ears dip in and out of the water.


It's customary to locate singer-poets like Cohen and Dylan (the latter more so than the former) in the so-called bardic tradition of poetic performance. The point is well-taken, but does not address the difference-in-kind between aural recitation (or vocal performance) and electrically enhanced and reproduced aural recitation. The latter mode creates a split (Canadian composer Murray Schaefer called it schizophonia) between the source of a sound, and the occasion of its being listened to, and this split changes listening experience. It has huge ramifications for bardic idioms.

The voice, when split from the speaker’s mouth, face, body, and heard in circumstances removed from those in which the voice speaks or sings, lacks, in my listening, the “heroic” depth that (I’m imagining) bardic recitation in cultures with no sound systems communicated. Amplified and electronically modified vocals celebrate technological heroism as much as they celebrate physical and vocal heroism, and they steal, in so doing, a part of the voice’s soul. How? By confusing the soul about whether it’s listening to a person or a machine.

Let’s recall Walter Benjamin’s pronouncement that when art is technologically reproduced it celebrates the power (heroism) of the producer, and only secondarily that of the artist.


Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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