Last Saturday Kath and I went up to King’s Place, near King’s Cross, to hear a fascinating discussion between Jehnny Beth, the singer with the band Savages, and the poet Simon Armitage. It was facilitated by Radio 4’s John Wilson, and the topic was the relationship between poetry and music. It was part of the Poetry and Lyrics festival, which took place over Friday and Saturday.
I was tempted to go and see this because I admire both artists. Simon Armitage is a renowned English poet, who writes beautifully and poignantly about changing times, changing relationships. Jehnny Beth is a truly amazing performer live, as her band, Savages, piledrive through the riffs and beats. They were spectacular at End of the Road in 2016.
Jehnny (not her real name) is French, although she lived in England for 12 years before recently moving back to Paris. Savages are on hold for now, while she pursues a series of other projects, including poetry. She said that she discovered poetry as a teenager, when an English teacher spent time at her school – and she fell in love with him! She said that, to her, the language of poetry is English – quite something for a French person to say! Simon Armitage spoke of “hating words”, a provocative statement, which was about how poetry lays you bare – everything must come from the words, and sometimes those words aren’t adequate enough to express what you really want to say. That, of course, is where music comes in. Jehnny Beth’s words may be simpler and more repetitive than poetry, but she has the power of the music, of live performance, to express her passion.
There was a discussion about whether Bob Dylan should have received the Nobel prize for literature, whether his lyrics were poetry. Simon Armitage was adamantly in the No camp, to my surprise, given his love of music (I was pleased to hear him namecheck Prefab Sprout, as well as the inevitable Joy Division). He claimed Dylan’s lyrics wouldn’t stand scrutiny in his university creative writing classes. Perhaps not, though why not? I guess they have the context of the music, to give them some of their meaning. But I would still call some of them poetry. Simon admitted that he was being a bit of a shop steward for “proper” poets. Can’t have rich musicians stealing their prizes from them! An interesting stance, but I found it narrow-minded. Jehnny Beth was conciliatory, acknowledging how music supports and uplifts words. She spoke of how her brilliant song “Adore”, from the album “Adore Life”, was inspired by a poem called “Shame” by American poet Minnie Bruce Pratt. It’s taken from a volume called “Crime Against Nature”, which Jehnny found in a San Francisco bookshop. She likes to choose random volumes of poetry, because the subject looks interesting, or there’s a good cover. “Shame” is about Bruce-Pratt’s own experience of realising she was lesbian and having to leave her children to make a life with her new partner. Jehnny read part of “Shame” and then her lyrics to “Adore”… is it human to adore life? It was powerful stuff.
Jehnny also read some of her new poems – rather tentatively. I suspect she felt like she was being judged by Simon Armitage, in the same way as he deconstructed Dylan. There was a real vulnerability in her voice. But she got through it. Pretty brave really.
Simon read a piece which was a hybrid of poetry and lyrics, called “Zodiac T Shirt”. It was about summer holiday love, and had some lovely, wistful lines, on repeat, like a song. He also played some music in which he intoned a poem over the top. It didn’t work for me: there’s not enough light and shade in his voice. It needed someone like John Cooper Clarke to bring it alive. Good that he’s trying, though. It’s all art.
My favourite story of the evening was from Jehnny Beth. She described an awful tour when Savages were supporting the Vaccines. They were in Bridlington, on the Yorkshire coast. The crowd was laddish, making crude, sexist remarks, some of which Jehnny didn’t understand at the time. She probably would have waded into the crowd and thumped someone otherwise. She disliked Bridlington. The gloomy grey skies, the rain, the mother feeding her young child greasy fried food on the seafront. When I was in Bridlington I thought of death. Now there’s a phrase for the Bridlington tourist board!
Two fascinating artists, different as chalk and cheese, but both exploring that interface between poetry and lyrics, verse and music. Brought together with style and grace by John Wilson, a superb interviewer. An inspiring evening.