The Poetry of Ryan Adams

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(Photo by Neal Casal)

Ryan Adams is the greatest artist of all time an artist known for his idiosyncratic interpretation of several different musical styles. His favorite music is metal and/or punk rock, but he’s written some of the best Americana music of the past 20 years. He also wrote the best album not made by The Smiths, produced a Fall Out Boy EP, and is about to release his Taylor Swift cover album. And there’s that GAP commercial he did with Willie Nelson. The point is that he can do it all.

His ability to maneuver through various styles is a testament to his skill as a writer, especially with his lyrics. Even in his early days pinned as the next Gram Parsons, his way with words added depth to his deceivingly simple arrangements (“I was born into an abundance of inherited sadness”, “I’m as calm as a fruit stand in New York and maybe as strange”, etc). And even when he moved beyond Americana, Adams’ lyrics didn’t lose any of its potency or imagery but simply adaptive to its surroundings. I don’t always know what he’s singing about (bullets from a candy gun?), but very few writers can express themselves so well in a furious punk jam, a soft acoustic ballad, or anything in-between.

So how does Adams sound when you only have his words and no music? You get Infinity Blues and Hello Sunshine, his two poetry books that showcase a writing totally unhinged, unfiltered, and (mostly) unedited.

infinity_blues_by_ryan_adams_1936070316

“my money goes to old fucking men in chair uptown / married for twenty years / who lie to me / and say, / ‘one day you will laugh'”

“SOS Searchlights”

Infinity Blues, published in 2009 by Akashic Books, feels like something Adams has been wanting to release for several years, a sort of build up of lyrical prose that probably didn’t match well with any of his music. There are 144 poems, though a poem can be a free verse spanning many pages, a short story told in essay-form, or just three lines (“don’t just stand there / say something / say something” – Say Something). There’s no sense of filter or form for Adams’ writing, and maybe that’s the point – to express what he couldn’t express on his records.

“Hollywood / I could go there / because it kills everyone equally”

– “Annihilator”

Like a lot of his music, the poems here are various shades of melancholy, from the angry and spiteful to the lonesome and wishful. One minute he’s talking about his father the drunk, the next he’s comparing a girl to a lighthouse, and so on. Many of the poems are about very abstract visualizations, but the highlights here are the most direct and personal. Sometimes he’s addressing his critics head on like in “Joy”:

“I am trying to show you something

about yourself

not me

that a person can do anything

and

that is what hope is

so,

with all due respect,

fuck you if you dismiss this”

And sometimes it feels like he’s just talking to us, like in “c’mon, let’s go”:

“so go outside and watch the stars come up

don’t get caught up in way that it’s designed

it isn’t for us

to analyze

it’s up there for us to feel”

Though for all its melancholy, there’s plenty of humor to lighten up the mood. The titles of his poems sound like inside jokes or fake names for the metal bands he’s always wanted to start. The first line of “I Refuse” reads, “I refuse to edit*”, and the * refers to a note from the editor saying that the poem was originally 32 pages long. You’ll either laugh or roll your eyes, depending on whether you’re a fan or not. None of these poems will probably change your mind about his music, so this collection is very much for the fans.

“what’s more important – / first kiss or last?”

 – “Blue Wars”

But as much of a fan I am, I’ll admit that there were times when I thought the poems were too long and weren’t actually saying much. This quote from John Ciardi, one of the many translators of Dante’s Inferno, does a good job confronting this issue:

“Poetry is not made of words but of word-complexes, elaborate structures involving, among other things, denotations, connotations, rhythms, puns, juxtapositions, and echoes of the tradition in which the poet is writing. It is difficult in prose and impossible in poetry to juggle such a complex intact across the barrier of language. What must be saved, even at the expense of making four strings do for eighty-eight keys, is the total feeling of the complex, its gestalt.”

Adams is saying a lot in his poems, and a lot of it feels like too much, but he’s painting a picture using the same word-complexes that makes his music so great. He is a master of creating an overall mood, which is made clear in these poems.

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“i don’t go to bars / my body is a prison already / why drown it”

“FutureFucked”

Hello Sunshine, also published in 2009, is a shorter and less demanding read that generally follows the same mood as Infinity Blues. Since this collection is a quicker read, I recommend reading these books together to get the full experience.

Here are a few of my favorite poems from Infinity Blues:

For My Father, the Drunk

When I shave I save the mustache

for last

it reminds me of my dad

and I wish I had a dagger

I would put it in my chest

this is the place

he would not feel it best

for my heart

it is his

as he held me back

when my mother’s hand broke the glass

through the door

to grab my shirt

and try and kill me some more

when I moan about things I cannot change

and all that money

that I could have saved

but spend

killing her pain

THAT is my mother’s wish

I tuck myself into bed

but

I will never rest

she turned me into a shark

maybe from the poison

and roaches

that crawled over my brother’s face

in housing

unfit for children

where someone got raped

raped

and beaten

black and so blue

no love even now at 33 will ever get through

with the words as a shield

and a metal vest

this is the place where I feel best

paranoid

and hopeless

I take my pills for days

I take my pills for days

I was a nightmare dreams could never save

poor girls who tried

became saints in a book I bind with my veins

one sunday

this will pass

but not go away

screaming my way out from the ass-end of bars

I was back then nothing but scars

but for my father,

the drunk,

who married a stripper when I was five

I hope you close your eyes peacefully

and die

*

pa-paw special

the truth is

i am always

getting my

feelings hurt

because they

are bigger

than me or

my hands

and i have

my grandfather’s

hands

capable and daring

digits

ten

far from

zero

making

somethings

out of nothings

being a believer

these were things

he liked

and pranks

he loved them

i miss him every day

i miss his laughter

and his football commentary

and eating t.v. tray dinners

with him

and his war stories

and how

he loved my grandmother so

so

so much

he had a hat

he had a cane

he had an overcoat

and a suit for when

needed

and he fought in two wars

and cried cried sometimes

silently

as i sat beside him

both of us looking

out into the light

shifting through

the spaces in the

leaves of the

magnolia tree

in front of the

house

where i really

grew up

he couldn’t stand

Dave Letterman though

the way i can’t stand

Carson Daly

so there was that

but

easily forgivable

for the man who

said to me once,

“Ryan, you are not like other children

you are special and it will be tough

but just never forget this

if you never forget anything in your life…

Never…

Bet…

Against…

Yourself.”

my grandfather

That is who i would like to be

when i never grow up

for growing in.

*

The Statue of Liberty Is French, Asshole

Shock sets in

the blast of the hot air touches her face

like a lover might have

with hot electric sand mouth

and cabinets inside her

made of grot

from over the ocean

a witty french girl with spikes

almost mossy

a shade of green

sick tone

the statue of liberty

is on the outs tonight

for a hot bang

in the

stinking piles

of garbage in Brooklyn

Oh, you know

roof parties

and

and sensible girl gives it up

one night a week

i mean

one night a year

in that same

that

same dress

how

are

they to know that

those

easy boys all of them those easy boys

you

are

so

stupid

fuck you

says the Statue of Liberty

to Brooklyn

pissing

into

an

ocean of

dead

bodies

*

Lighthouse

when a woman leaves

she leaves

and leaves

with scents

and all the smells

of the house

when a house is calm

go

with

her

she takes with her the essence

of a place

painting the insides invisibly

while you were not looking

or shall i say, i

 

when a woman leaves

her smalls

are small

hells

each much nastier than a sting

burned into your bed

in a fiery ring

and with her went the candles too

white ones, delightful ones

lit from time to time

shining

when she left she took the pictures

too

no diety confusion

or something

either way my retinas are masked with shadows of lines of the burn mark of her face inside

tonight i missed

that scent

that smell

which is why i sleep with her sweater

it is still there

fading in the rest of a wooden ship

with a white flag

and battered sail

from storms passed

where calm is now

a lighthouse is a lighthouse with or without

a light

*

And here is my favorite poem from Hello Sunshine:

Moon

So Moon…

you seem distant

dull even

lifeless

but

so much projection around you

so much projected onto you

the sun, for one

all up in your business at night

it is so hard for you to hide

and

you wallflower satellite

so many sing songs for you

in your name

you are unmoved

you neither like

nor dislike

it

the attraction

you feel distant and you hover in place

if this were the prom

you would be back arched onto the gymnasium wall

watching the others dance

indifferent

but you also feel no pressure

even though

the sea it relies on you to know when to give and take

itself to the land

its tide entirely up to you

you don’t remember how

you don’t remember when

the sea gave you that power

you don’t care

back up against the wall

band playing a slow dance number

lipstick smeared on every other shoulder

moon,

wow

they love you down here

but

you don’t care

you’re so cool

moon

so cool

*

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber