Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Words & Music

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I used to scoff when songwriters like Bob Dylan and John Lennon were described as poets. When the lyrics of even their most famous songs went on the page, they seemed to me thin, ragged, and diffuse. Great phrases, even lines, got lost in windy rhetoric. Of course, I remembered songs that indubitably were poems: some of the English border ballads; Robert Burns’s “Ae Fond Kiss, And Then We Sever”; Hank Williams’s “May You Never Be Alone,” with its wonderful opening line, “Like a bird that’s lost its mate in flight.” But even in cases like these, I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t remembering the music as much as the words. Then I finally twigged: yes, the lyrics of popular songs can be poems, but to make them complete poems they require the tunes that go with them.

Not long ago I started thinking about this in connection with the Toronto rock band The Lowest of the Low. John Pepall introduced their work to me. Pepall is the author of the recent Against Reform, a book that denounces, among other things, a favourite liberal cause, proportional representation, and a favourite conservative cause, Senate reform. He became an aficionado of The Lowest of the Low on the strength of their debut album, Shakespeare My Butt. (That title alone was enough to endear the band to me.) I looked at the lyrics of their "Bleed A Little While Tonight." It’s got a driving, hard-rhyming line in it, “Damn, damn the circumstance,” that’s just made for pounding out. But the real poetry arrives in the last verse:

My mistakes are taunting me
And I'm hanging around in my old haunts
And I remember you telling me that
Alex never gets what she wants
But you've got someone
And it ain't me
I've got myself again but I just can't let this be

This seven-line verse has the rhyme scheme:


The first and sixth lines repeat the end-word “me,” consummated, like the couplet of a sonnet, in the final line’s “be.” In the first line, the internal half-rhyme, “taunting,” anticipates the full end-rhyme “haunts” of the second line and the clinching “wants” of the fourth.

The verse’s speaker laments the loss of Alex, apparently a girlfriend, addressing her as “you.” This Alex is a little odd, because she plaintively refers to herself in the third person: “Alex never gets what she wants.” She never gets what she wants, but the speaker is quick to inform us that she did get someone — and it isn’t him. What he’s left with is the incompleteness, the desolation, of his own self. Even with the false bravado of “I just can't let this be,” it’s an existential statement that transcends self-pity.

Taken overall, these lines have considerable technical sophistication and far from contemptible substance. And the music doesn’t sound bad, either.


Hint: It's one of the most popular rock bands of all time.

Karen, pardon my ignorance. Is this The Lowest of the Low? If so, what's the song?

When I'm drivin' in my car
and a man comes on the radio
he's tellin' me more and more
about some useless information
supposed to fire my imagination.
I can't get no, oh no no no.
Hey hey hey, that's what I say.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Fraser Sutherland

At last count, Fraser Sutherland has published fifteen books: one of them short fiction, four nonfiction and ten poetry, His most recent poetry collection is The Philosophy of As If. A freelance editor, he may be the only Canadian poet who is also a lexicographer. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he lives in Toronto.

Go to Fraser Sutherland’s Author Page