(FEATURE) The Poetry of Lana Del Rey, by Scott Morrison and Maria Sledmere
In this collaboration, Scott Morrison and Maria Sledmere respond to Lana Del Rey’s debut poetry collection Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (Simon & Schuster). As Morrison explores the relationship between poetry and music, held in the nexus of lyric, performative identities, prosody and sampling, Sledmere leans into the affective overlays of Lana’s citational voicing in a poem of her own. Accompanying the text is a sound piece composed by Morrison with words by Sledmere. In this exchange, the authors examine the phenomenon of LDR’s poetry as a way of thinking through production, arts of listening, retro curation and nostalgia, patterning, reference, impersonation and that funny old chestnut, Personism.
Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is the latest record by Lana Del Rey. It’s an album of spoken word by a singer. It’s an audiobook, with music, by a poet. It’s a collection full of semblance, resemblance, and reflection.
These faint overlaps, and slight gaps, produce a fascinating friction and some curious silences. For example: what is the difference between a sample, a quotation, and a reference? The record thrives on all three and their interrelation - but how does each function, and what do they achieve, separately and together? By examining both the poetry and the music, we might reveal something a little new about each. Let’s try.
Lana Del Rey, like most people online, forms her identity by performing her consumption: her likes, her influences, her references. This is apparent throughout Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass and across her discography.
Still from Tropico (2013)
Often, Lana’s influences are not specific works by earlier artists, but the figures of the artists themselves, and the cultural shortcuts these artists have become. This point is illustrated most clearly, I think, in the opening sequence of her 2013 hot mess/short film Tropico. Therein, the Garden of Eden is peopled with Adam and Eve, but also John Wayne, Marilyn Munroe, and Elvis. Well, not quite Elvis – an Elvis Impersonator. We’ll come back to him later.
Much of Lana’s lyrical identity – ‘lyrical’ in the sense of both the expressive ‘I’, and the words to her songs – comes from her ordering and sequencing of references to earlier artists and their subsequent reception in popular culture. She is an arranger of cultural shortcuts, a curator of hyperlinks. And she is voracious in this cultural consumption, referencing everyone from T.S. Eliot to Kanye West, Nancy Sinatra to Sylvia Plath.
This scrapbook (or better yet, Tumblr-blog) style was apparent immediately with the viral video to ‘Video Games’, her first major success, which made liberal the use of found archive footage, the digital crackle of film, or digital film effects.
As well as her lyrics and visuals, the musical and sonic substance of her songs shows a similarly dense patchwork of references and shortcuts: the hip-hop/trip-hop drum sequencing and one-shots of her debut; Ultraviolence’s swinging 60s guitars and strings; and each of her subsequent releases that have melded the two soundworlds – the past and the present. These fuse most fully, perhaps, on 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! – the title itself (of course) a direct allusion to the painter and illustrator responsible for many of the now classic depictions of Americana, like Rosie the Riveter.
Norman Rockwell, 'Rosie the Riveter' (1942)
Interestingly, for such an avid cultural consumer, and as someone who so often evokes the specificities of the media through which she has encountered earlier works (insert crackling Super8 footage, tape hiss and record crackle here), Lana does not often sample in her work. By ‘sample’, I mean the technique used in electronic music production whereby an existing recording is represented, manipulated or directly reworking in the context of a new piece of music.
Lana references, as we have noticed above, and she covers songs with a greater frequency than most present-day pop stars – ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘The Other Woman’, ‘Summertime’ (a deliciously re-layered cover of a cover). But rather than directly reworking the original recordings in her new versions, she chooses to refer to the original work by re-performing it, by covering it. It’s good to remember that a song, and the popular recording of a song, are two separate cultural artefacts.
Instead of sampling – the audio equivalent of a verbatim quotation, perhaps – Lana chooses instead to reference the past by re-embodying, resurrecting earlier songs, re-performing them, ‘covering’ them. The original song is alive again, but the original recording is nowhere to be found. Given the prevalence of sampling in hip-hop and pop from the late 1980s through to the present day, and given Lana’s interest in referencing cultural artefacts from both of these traditions, I think it’s worth noting that she rarely samples earlier recordings: she chooses more frequently to cover or allude to them through lyrical references. This is important, and we’ll come back to it later.
Lana Del Rey, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (2020)
For now, let’s continue looking at Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass. Here are some of the questions it poses for me:
What is the effect of listening to an album rather than reading a book? Why do most poets sell books, and not make albums? How does being a singer affect how a poet performs their poetry? Is this an album, or an audiobook? And, if there is a difference, how does that affect our expectations and listening experience?
This record - let us hedge our bets with that vague word for the moment - doesn’t contain all the poems from the physical book. And, of course, there is the music, which doesn’t – and can’t – appear in the published book. It was recorded by a singer and released by a pop star. There is even a single: ‘LA who am I to love you’, available to stream. This is quite unusual for a book of poetry.
Furthermore, unlike most books, which commonly exist as only a hardback, a paperback, and a digital audiobook, there are nine versions of this poetry collection for sale in Lana’s official webstore. The most expansive – and expensive - set contains a picture disc LP, a regular LP, a cassette, and a CD. It does not contain the book. That is also quite unusual for a collection of poetry.
To take this line of inquiry further, let’s consider music and poetry side by side. The two are often compared, but I will admit that - as someone who writes both - I often wonder why this comparison is invited.
Here are some good reasons to compare the two:
Both music and poetry unfold in time (unlike visual art, which is revealed to us simultaneously).
Both music and poetry make use of rhythm - though we’ll come back to that.
Both music and poetry (sometimes) make use of patterning in their structures as they evolve in time.
Both poetry and music thrive on quotation and reference – we have said a bit about that already and will say more about it later.
Here are some of the strangenesses in the comparison:
Poetry, when called musical, is rarely being compared with singing, which is odd, perhaps, given that singing and poetry share more directly their central element: the human voice, and human breath.
Poetry is instead more often compared with non-vocal aspects of music, particularly rhythm. Poetic rhythms, where they exist, have very little to do with musical rhythms: if a piece of music had the unyielding rhythm of an iambic pentameter, it would grow boring incredibly quickly.
The idea of metre underpinning both bears some comparison, but metre in music, while similarly structural, is often less audible and more implicit than in poetry, in which the metre is really only perceived when words are pronounced. In music, metre/pulse is always there, even in silence. How could you syncopate a line of iambic pentameter, for example?
Furthermore, poetry’s use of rhyme is usually considered musical; but music does not rhyme.
It is perhaps when poetry and music leave tradition as far behind as possible that they come closest together from their separate points; when they draw closest to what they truly have in common: pure sound.
So, what does Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass sound like?
Well, let’s first talk about the poetry.
The title of the collection is an apt introduction: a pastel colour; a naturalistic – though man-made – reference to nature; a moment of stillness fixed from a fleeting gesture. In fact, the title refers to some innocent acrobatics performed with simple happiness by the poet’s niece, rather than anything erotic.
Familiar people and environments abound in this collection. These are poems as self-communion: intimate, diaristic and confessional. They mingle intimacy and abstraction; small details with vast distances; and make use of frequent tricks of scale.
The subjects of the poems themselves blur from personal anecdote to national politics and global climate crisis. They are poems about struggling to move on, to know yourself in relation to other people, other places, other selves. They are about trust – often self-trust - about navigating, making choices, noticing growth, or lack thereof.
There is much of Frank O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ here, with the poems – particularly when they are listened to – coming across like a letter, a telephone call, or a voice note. As in Lana’s music, some of the most powerful and memorable effects are created by mixing the old and the new, the high and the low: ‘Further down the road less travelled, your athleisure wear unravelled’…
The city of LA, the most frequently recurring character, is addressed directly, like a lover, or an ex. It comes across as teeming, multiple, complex – but somewhere that the poet knows intimately, and has imbued with her own meanings and memories. More than the urban sprawl of boring highways, shallow people and hellish heat that it is often depicted as, L.A. here is a city of neighbourhoods, memories, feelings: the poet is able to invoke the unique feelings of certain places by their names alone. To non-Angelinos I suspect these mean little: but in the sound of her voice we can hear what they mean to Lana.
Now let’s talk about the music.
In publicity materials and reviews, almost nothing is said about Jack Antonoff’s music. Antonoff is a regular collaborator for Lana, particularly on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and the two releases share a similar sonic palette. The liner notes themselves say very little about the music - ‘Production by Jack Antonoff and Lana Del Rey’ - not even a list of instruments or session musicians, as is common. That this is, apparently, the product of exactly two people is perhaps what gives it its feeling of whispered intimacy.
The sound world of this music is deeply imbued with memories of – and references to - mid-to-late 20th century Western pop and rock music. My own list of instrumentation includes upright piano (damper pedal on), saxophone, electric organs, synthesizers, drums, fragile acoustic guitars, and rich, saturated electronic guitars (I dare you to listen to ‘Salamander’ and not hear an echo of ‘Wicked Game’ by Chris Isaak).
The music functions in one of two ways: either following the contours of the sentiment in the poems – as in a film score – or by existing somewhat separately, diegetic and diaphanous.
In the former circumstances, the music functions in the way traditional soundtrack accompaniments do, oscillating between moments of tension and release, heightening the emotion inherent in the words. In the latter scenario, the music functions on a parallel timeline, disconnected, a backdrop, like the city in the back of a camera shot, or a radio playing something beneath a conversation in a car.
The words do not feel improvised, but the music often does. The words pursue a point and a process, a working out, a recounting, as words and stories and poems often do. The form of the music is much vaguer and more irregular; more improvisatory, less teleological than the narrative. Distinct musical identities between tracks are created less through melody, harmony or structure, and more through varying instrumentation, timbres and textures.
Throughout, the musical accompaniment is not so much a frame as a tableau. Whereas frames focus through exclusion, musical backdrops attempt a more subtle effect: one of diffusion, a curious half-life of absence and presence. Together, when successful, the music and the spoken words are more than the sum of their parts.
To bring the two elements together, and return to an earlier line of inquiry, both the poetry and music of Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass thrive on references.
Lana’s references are not footnotes: either in their rigour or the secondary placement. They are central, but gauzy; less quotations than invocations, sketches of shadows, implications of outlines. They always point back to her, her interests, her consumption.
When ‘eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’ is referenced, we are unsure whether Lana is nodding to Alexander Pope or Charlie Kaufman; the poem or the movie; or the movie’s referencing the poem. In fact, she is probably alluding to all three.
‘Talk to me in songs and poets,’ Lana requests in her latest single ‘Let Me Love You Like a Woman’.
As we have been discussing, references are the lingua franca of Lana’s artistic language. Because of the density and nuance of information they convey, they function like hyper-charged metaphors, or verbal hyperlinks.
Through these invocations, Lana is able to fashion a present identity from layered and curated aspects of the past. There is something intrinsically nostalgic about this.
There are two types of nostalgia that interest me at the moment: nostalgia for times and places you have yourself experienced, and nostalgia for times and places you have not experienced. The first is an unfortunate side effect of our organic memory; the latter is only possible with the help of technology, accessed through the growing avalanche of recorded media we have behind us to peruse and push us along.
This second type of nostalgia – which I will call Imaginative Nostalgia - is the one that interests me here. It is one thing to feel real longing for past events we have lived through; but how is it that we can feel such a powerful longing for bygone things we never experienced? This is not a process of recall; it is one of recasting – it is essentially imaginative; it is future-focused, rather than oriented towards the past.
Perhaps our childhoods are the blurred hinge that connects these two types of nostalgia, at least initially. It is common in later life to become nostalgic for the era in which we grew up and had our formative experiences: in the present day, for millennials, early video games, 90s fashion et al. This nostalgia can be for things from this time that we actually experienced, but it can also be for things from this time that we were too young to partake in, and perhaps never even knew about at the time - see the recent fascination in rave culture, much of which is fuelled by people who, though they were alive at the time, were not old enough or in the right place to experience it.
From this initial biographical starting point, however, it is possible for us to go further with our longing: further back in time and further outside of history. There are people who love to recreate and wear historical costume, for example, or people who make use of obsolete technology, like film cameras, cassettes and typewriters.
Obsolete technology is particularly susceptible to Imaginative Nostalgia. Technology is, at the time of its creation, almost always associated with the cutting edge, with being the best, with pointing towards the future. So, when technology is obsolete, no longer the best, from the advanced horizon of our future present, it has this burden removed from it, and is able to be appreciated on its own terms. With this pressure gone, imagination can enter into our interactions with it; we are able to use these objects imaginatively, for purposes other than they were conceived. We know now that cassettes are no longer – or ever were - the highest quality way of disseminating audio; they are certainly no longer the most portable. So now we enjoy them for their hauntological hiss – a spray of foam from the waves of Time – using them as tools to invoke other pasts and request new futures.
Now we have endless archives of recorded media available to us, we are able to look at the past not just through the organically rose-tinted deficiencies of our own memory, but by selecting the specific shade of rose (millennial pink) from a myriad of different filters at our fingertips, curating our favourite images, sounds and objects from earlier eras, creating an alternative and entirely individualistic timeline that extends backwards and forwards from our own present day.
Crucially, we have the amazing ability to encounter these recorded artefacts outside of their original context — which was usually far messier, and probably contained things we do not like. This ability to isolate only the parts of the past we enjoy allows us to construct cloudlike kingdoms of Imaginative Nostalgia, imbued with the seraphic magic of the imagined, but which feel less fragile and fanciful, because they are buttressed by the stability and realism of the past: because we think we know ‘they happened’.
The final ingredient that completes the alluring alchemy of Imaginative Nostalgia is that it not only imaginatively constructs how we engage with and combine these cultural artefacts: the artefacts themselves can be simultaneously apprehended alongside the trails in time they have left across the years; the ripples in culture and criticism they have caused, and all of the other branching references and tributes that add further layers of imaginary richness.
To return to Lana: the Elvis in Tropico is not brought to the Garden as Elvis Presley, the man, but as an Elvis Impersonator: a figure with a different, and far richer set of cultural associations.
When Lana references ‘getting down’ to Lou Reed in Ultraviolence’s ‘Brooklyn Baby’, this allows us to call to mind everything we now know about Lou Reed: his Velvet days, his glam days, his cult appeal, our own experiences of listening to him as a teen, perhaps, the veneration he has since been awarded; to experience the vigour of youth and the laurels of established old age simultaneously. This is a fantastically multi-layered chronological experience; an enormous volume of data we can consume and process instantly.
This process is enacted in front of us in the poem ‘Tessa di Pietro’ in Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, in which Lana recounts her reaction to a recording of Jim Morrison at the Hollywood Bowl, and her spiritual advisor’s response to his work and his legacy:
‘Jim died at 27 / So find another frame of reference when you’re referencing heaven /
And have you ever read the lyrics to People are Strange? They made no sense.’
Unlike the one above, then, Lana’s references, are not intended as specific individual quotations, but as clouds of media that the listener can zoom into and out of, at any resolution or clarity, revolved or re-centred at will.
This idea allows us to return a final time to the earlier idea of how Lana musically invokes the past. Sampling of direct audio artefacts, which she does so rarely, is perhaps akin to a specific referent: one timecode, in one song, from one album; the audio equivalent of a properly footnoted quotation. Instead, Lana’s is an art of much hazier, gauzier, personal quotation; rather than a scholar or historian, Lana is a curator, organising theatrically, imaginatively, lazily, creatively, freely, the astonishing number of referents at our disposal to create a new present image and body of work.
This, I think, is her magic, her poetry. She already appears timeless because she has so intricately distorted how she encounters and plays with time, and how she appears to us, on screens, through speakers, with the same artefacts as other timeless stars do. She is creating an alternate timeline, a kind of ever-present nostalgia that we can experience in the present.
Violet Bent Backwards – her actual poetry – is, I think, just another part of this process: published as much to align her with the pantheon of other venerated pop stars in her personal Garden of Eden who have published poetry – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith - as much as for its own content.
Am I to be nowhere, gently?
[Listen to the poem here.]
Desultory in my otherwise avid consumption
I was to be soft putt
auto-recovered from WhatsApp sensorium
receive all the holes
inside more holes
global pop stardom in the field of violets
a webinar on hip hop sampling
shown in heavenly ardour
we tweeze at lyric reference: non-vocal
forms of expression are candied swizzle
bite off my head
or maybe that I call her, miss all that old school
stadium production, “will literally
hold up the zoom for you to get ice cream”
a crowd sound of embarrassment
is pearlskin this close to
deer I saw by Esso station
sorry it’s so long
this isn’t Los Angeles but
also sort of love
lana del rey
in a Tennessee Williams stage direction
and the violent lateness
of her argument
and summer in general
the hour in the lap of the hour
a boulevard does not seduce
it’s only that disappearance itself is athleisure
and oft I am marshmallowed in your arms
among the well-kept greenery
of the green in me
no faraway city
of mayoral corruption
no more cash
a diorama of sporadic rave flowers
alias for pain
how a pill does
Lead illustration is by Douglas Pattison. You can find him on instagram @douglasrpattison.
Essay: Scott Morrison
Poem: Maria Sledmere Published: 5/3/21