Blog: Nick Power

The Coral keyboardist explores the differences in writing for music and poetry as he premieres works from new collection Holy Nowhere

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They’re the same thing, aren’t they? That’s what they say. They’re just words. If you can do one, then you can do the other, surely? Setting lyrics to music as opposed to writing poetry and prose. What’s the difference? I have this conversation all the time. Honestly.

Take two polar extremes – Hal David, the lyricist who penned the words to Burt Bacharach’s most famous and greatest songs (The moment I wake up/ before I put on my make-up/ I say a little prayer for you), would spend weeks straining over the phonetic value of the most simple of words. He had a lot to consider. While he wanted his lyrics to look pretty on the page, he also had to write something his singers could croon without sounding like they had a mouthful of marbles.

With songs, mostly, the sound of a word takes precedent over the written form. For example, rhyming “wake-up” with “make-up” wouldn’t necessarily be considered great poetry, but therein lies its uncomplicated genius. It punctuates the end of the verse like a hook line. Short, memorable and melodic. It paints a clear picture of somebody so deep in the throes of love/ devotion/ infatuation that the image of that person is everywhere except imprinted on the insides of their eyelids. The emotional punch is heavyweight. All in 12 words. Compare that to the wild, uninhibited writing of, say, Robert Selby Jr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, in which whole pages of prose go by without paragraph breaks. Blocks of dialogue are heavy as breezeblocks. Descriptive segments are dark and unpunctuated. Street slang and swearwords are common. It is a snapshot of a 1950s American underworld, and feels as claustrophobic as if you were wading through the cityscape yourself.

More common ground is easy to find. Bob Dylan named Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet”. In the early sixties, groundbreaking songs like Tracks Of My Tears and Shop Around breathed new life into a form that Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and Willie Dixon had perfected through the fifties: short, witty pop songs with an emotional edge. The Beatles were hooked.

Dylan’s own homage to the Beat poets, Subterranean Homesick Blues, unintentionally predated rap by almost ten years, albeit sung by a Jewish redneck from Minnesota. Hip-hop in itself provides the biggest grey area between lyrics and poetry, as the roots of rap lie with Gil Scott-Heron and revolutionary civil rights era outfit The Last Poets.

It’s difficult to say what category my new book Holy Nowhere fits into. There are poems, prose, monologues, snippets of dialogue, snatches of songs. The form, or the definition of the form, is of no great concern. What I’ve always been attracted to is the message contained within: the attitude; the world that is built in the mind of the reader. Imagine a teenage paean to love and death, like SE Hinton’s The Outsiders set in a north west England shit-town. Write about what you know, they say.

The greatest literary review I ever read was an online comment below a Raymond Carver poem entitled Happiness. The review was sharp and to the point. It said, simply: ‘This isn’t fucking poetry.” I would’ve been proud to anger that person as much as Carver did. Carver strikes me as a writer who was in love with what he was doing, unequivocally. Like The Outsiders, I tell myself to “stay gold”. Stay fearless. As James M Cain wrote near the end of Double Indemnity: ‘That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.”

Read exclusive extracts from Holy Nowhere by Nick Power on new culture website Coneys Loft. Published by Liverpool poetry co-operative erbacce-press, the printed version will be available on Amazon from 5 December

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