Rock You Like a Quatrain

April 16, 2010

David Berman
Poet & musician David Berman

Jeff Tweedy wrote one.  Billy Corgan and Jewel did too.  2Pac and Jim Morrison have posthumous collections, and Bob Dylan’s began as an underground bootleg.  What, you may ask, is the connection between this diverse group of musical artists?  The answer may surprise you.  Believe it or not, all of the aforementioned rockers and rappers have a published volume of poetry to their credit, and though the critical and commerical response to each has differed, the books are a collective reminder of the following oft-forgotten fact.  Simply put, the arts of writing songs and writing poetry are not one and the same, and it’s no given that a great lyricist will make a great poet.  There are a few rare talents, however, who are accomplished in both music and verse, and one such artist is Virginia-native David Berman.  Pulling double duty as an indie rock cult hero and a critically-acclaimed poet, Berman’s debut book Actual Air is a sure bet for connoisseurs of fine poetry everywhere.

Berman is probably best known as the frontman for the Silver Jews, an indie rock band who from 1989 – 2009 released six lyrically-driven albums to a ravenous cult following.  Songwriting, however, has never been Berman’s sole artistic pursuit.  In 1995, shortly after the Silver Jews’ debut LP was released, Berman earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts.  After graduating, he continued his writing with the encouragement of his former teacher and poet Charles Wright, and in 1999, Actual Air was published despite Berman’s concerns that his poetry would be “taken less seriously because [the poetry] field just thinks I’m moonlighting in it.”  Berman need not have worried, however, because critics and poets alike were enamoured with Actual Air.  Compared by the New Yorker to the work of Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate described Berman’s poems as “beautiful, strange, intelligent, and funny” while poet Billy Collins declared, “When I first read him, I thought: so this is the voice I have been waiting so long to hear, a voice, I wish in some poems, were my own.”  For a sampling of the voice so admired by a former U.S. Poet Laureate, check out the following selection from Actual Air:

Classic Water
I remember Kitty saying we shared a deep longing for
the consolation prize, laughing as we rinsed the stagecoach.
I remember the night we camped out
and I heard her whisper
“think of me as a place” from her sleeping bag
with the centaur print.
I remember being in her father’s basement workshop
when we picked up an unknown man sobbing
over the shortwave radio
and the night we got so high we convinced ourselves
that the road was a hologram projected by the headlight beams.
I remember how she would always get everyone to vote
on what we should do next and the time she said
“all water is classic water” and shyly turned her face away.
At volleyball games her parents sat in the bleachers
like ambassadors from Indiana in all their midwestern schmaltz.
She was destroyed when they were busted for operating
a private judicial system within U.S. borders.
Sometimes I’m awakened in the middle of the night
by the clatter of a room service cart and I think back on Kitty.
Those summer evenings by the government lake,
talking about the paradox of multiple Santas
or how it felt to have your heart broken.
I still get a hollow feeling on Labor Day when the summer ends
and I remember how I would always refer to her boyfriends
as what’s-his-face, which was wrong of me and I’d like
to apologize to those guys right now, wherever they are:
No one deserves to be called what’s-his-face.

If you’d like to continue celebrating National Poetry Month by reading more of David Berman’s work, check out Actual Air and stop by our Periodicals department for McSweeney’s Issue 22 which features further examples of his poetry.  You can also cross your fingers because rumor has it that Berman is at work on a second volume tenatively titled Richard Simmons 1950 – ?.  Finally, for a sample of Berman’s musical chops, give a listen to the following audio clip.  The song is titled “New Orleans” and can be found on the Silver Jews’ debut album Starlite Walker.


[Hint: Select “Search All Libraries” to locate books by Jeff Tweedy, Billy Corgan, and Jim Morrison as well as the Silver Jews’ “Starlite Walker.”]

Russell J.

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