Sunday 21 October 2018

A bad poet? Bono? Oh no!

Radio 4 listeners in Britain got upset this week over a Bono poem on Elvis. But John Meagher talks to some experts who love his lyrics

Poetic licence: A controversial excerpt from Bono's ode to Elvis has received criticism from cerebral palsy groups
Poetic licence: A controversial excerpt from Bono's ode to Elvis has received criticism from cerebral palsy groups

Punctuation sticklers should look away now: "elvis/ on three tvs/ elvis/ here come the killer bees/ head full of honey/ potato chips and cheese". The author is Bono and these are just a few lines from his 850-word poem, elvis: american david, which will be recited by the man himself in a BBC Radio 4 broadcast next Wednesday.

The poem will be accompanied by a warning about its language. Another excerpt has already earned the wrath of cerebral palsy groups: "elvis the charismatic/elvis the ecstatic/elvis the plastic/ elvis the elastic with a spastic dance that might explain the energy of america."

First published in Q magazine in 1995, the verse has been widely debated online, with opinion polarised. That will come as little surprise to its author, whose 200-odd song lyrics have been picked over for years.

Even before its broadcast, the brickbats are flying from those who see Bono's ode to Elvis as unfit to stand alongside the highbrow poetry usually aired by Radio 4. The programme maker, Des Shaw, has offered the far from glowing endorsement of it being "effective, but bonkers".

And John Sutherland, Professor of English at University College London, slated the poem in painstaking and hilarious detail in his Guardian column during the week.

'Bono is a brilliant lyricist," Hot Press editor Niall Stokes and long-time U2 champion says. "I think Irish people can be a bit mean-spirited about U2 at the moment, and often fail to realise just how much energy, imagination and originality are to be found in their records. And a key part of that is Bono's hunger as a lyricist to try different things, to meet the challenge of crafting great lyrics both head on and sidelong too -- knowing that to take yourself too seriously is potentially the biggest mistake of all.

"But he is a serious lyricist and in the long run will be recognised as such. In fact he is already widely acknowledged as a special case by his peers. U2 write great songs. Period. For confirmation, just listen to No Line On The Horizon without prejudice. Bono has a fascination with words and with ideas.

"He also has a sense of humour that has too often been greatly underestimated. It's there in 'Stand Up Comedy': 'Stand up to rock stars, Napoleon is in high heels/ Josephine be careful of small men with big ideas.'

"It's in 'I'll Go Crazy If I Don't go Crazy Tonight': 'Everybody needs to cry or needs to spit/ Every sweet-tooth needs just a little hit/ Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot/ How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?'

"He can tell a story really well. The character in 'Cedars of Lebanon' is fully formed and the narrative is brilliantly constructed. The eye for detail is telling, the incidental domestic details slipped into a song about alienation and loneliness. 'I have your face here in an old Polaroid/ Tidying the children's clothes and toys/ You're smiling back at me, I took the photo from the fridge/ Can't remember what then we did'."

Scott Calhoun, professor of English literature at Cedarville University, Ohio, is a U2 obsessive who is organising the first international conference on the band. "I'm astonished that nobody has done it before," he says. "They are among the most important acts of the last 30 years in music, and their music has so much to say.

"Bono has written his fair share of bad lyrics, but when he gets it right his words really stand out. Look at some lines from 'Ultra Violet (Light My Way)': 'When I was all messed up/ And I heard opera in my head/ Your love was a light bulb/ Hanging over my bed.' That's so evocative and works as beautiful writing away from the music. It can stand on its own on the page and, of course, it's even more effective when accompanied by the music.

"Look at a song as universally adored as 'One'. The sentiments may be simple but they have lasting resonance. Those words have such power and have an impact in the huge arenas where U2 play. Early on in their career, Bono wrote impressionistic lyrics -- particularly on The Unforgettable Fire album -- and you could always sense that his words were informed by the fact that he was really well read and fascinated by all aspects of the arts. Much of Achtung Baby was apparently inspired by Brendan Kennelly's The Book of Judas."

Calhoun -- who has to contend with the bemused reaction of his academic peers when he talks about U2 -- is not afraid to criticise Bono's less inspired moments. "I don't think he works on his lyrics in the pain-staking manner of people like Dylan or Lennon. Often, they change at the last moment and sometimes his words can come across as lazy or very silly. I mean a line like 'some days you can't stand the sight of a puppy' from 'Some Days Are Better Than Others' is pretty difficult to defend."

Dublin-based poet Theo Dorgan believes Bono is a fine lyricist. But that does not mean he is necessarily a good poet. "They're two very different things," he says. "Bono, like any songwriter, isn't concerned with how the words look on paper. Its how they work alongside the music and in his case with his psychic twin, the Edge.

"He's certainly capable of writing strong lyrics. 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' articulates rage very well. And his lyrics to 'One' worked even better when they were sung by Johnny Cash. That's a real test of a lyric -- if it can sustain another interpretation."

The UK poet and academic Simon Armitage believes song lyrics cannot be taken in isolation like poetry can. "The best songs say things like 'la la la la la la' and when you see that on a page it doesn't look too good," he says. "I was talking to somebody about this once and I said that, in my view, one of the greatest pop lyrics of all time is in a U2 song and it goes something like, 'hey now sha la la, hey now sha la la la' (a line from 'Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses'). And once again I don't really see how you can put that down as text and get somebody to know what you mean."

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail greeted news of Bono's recitation with unbridled hostility. "Why is the BBC so in love with Bono when he's a dreadful old hypocrite?" Thursday's headline screeched. And Mail journalist Christopher Hart offered his own poem: "Bono in your sunglasses, even when it rains/ Bono in your private jet while the rest of us take trains/ Bono with your tax affairs safely overseas/ Bono, oh will you shut up, please." The poem's title? Bono: Irish Twit. Readers of the paper's Irish edition won't have been able to sample Hart's poetic attempts: it was only published in the UK.

Read John Boland's assessment of a new book analysing the lyrical prowess of Bob Dylan on page 18.

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