If Lana Del Rey were a Spice Girl, she’d be Literary Spice. In her ten-plus years in the public eye she’s made it pretty obvious that she reads books – or has at least heard of them. She is a bookshelf, as the meme goes, full of Nabokov and Bukowski and all of the other supposed red flags you should run from. She gets down to Beat poetry. She’s been tearing around in her fucking nightgown, 24/7 Sylvia Plath. She sings the Body Electric. She is the Walt Whitman of the post-tumblr age, her internal metronome clicking to the clack of a 808 hi-hat.
No matter your opinion of Lana, you can no longer deny her status as Poet. In July she released her first collection of poetry, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, as an audiobook with Jack Antonoff-produced backing tracks and field recordings of the ocean. This month, Simon & Schuster are publishing the extended hardcover version, with her poems spread out on the page, their words slipping down the stairs on the oil slick Rupi Kaur left behind.
A lot of the people I’ve shown it to have called it trash. That hurt my feelings. It has a lack of workbench polish, for sure, but this is poetry that aspires to be music rather than a message. It’s hilarious. It’s stupid. It’s beautiful. Her lover “vapes lightly” next to her, her friends are so fucking tired of her talking about Jim Morrison. “But I’m a poet, goddamnit!” she retorts. Surely I can’t be the only one who gets off to that?
I asked some professional poets, to find out. After some initial interest, several declined to comment once I’d sent them the actual poetry. “It's not my thing really to be destructively critical,” said one. “I think her editor/ publisher is exploiting her,” said another. So, I reached out to Ben Fama, the New York City-based poet and author of Deathwish, Cool Memories, as well as the line “I found you/on Gothtrash.com” to give his verdict. For good measure, I also emailed with Scottish poet Angela Cleland, who’s a little less smartphone than Ben. She won the Templar Poetry Pamphlet and Collection Competition in 2006, and has since released numerous collections, including And in Here the Menagerie and Room of Thieves.
Excerpt One, Taken from “LA Who Am I To Love You”
LA, I'm a dreamer, but I'm from nowhere, who am I to dream?
LA, I'm upset, I have complaints, listen to me
They say I came from money and I didn't
And I didn't even have love, and it's unfair
LA, I sold my life rights for a big check and I'm upset
And now I can't sleep at night and I don't know why
Plus, I love Zach, so why did I do that when I know it won't last?
VICE: Can you identify any poetic traditions or styles Lana is writing in here?
Ben Fama: I'm getting Walt Whitman. The tradition of the poetic romanticising and self-mythologising of the "I" always begins with him, at least for me. Whitman had NYC, Lana has LA. It's something I love about her, because I love LA, and she helps me love it more.
Angela Clenand: Lana Del Rey cites Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman as two of her biggest influences. Both are evident here – the address to LA has shades of Ginsberg’s “America”, and the long loose lines and relationship between poet and place is also redolent of both.
What do you think works well here? What do you think falls flat?
Ben: I love her use of the poetic device "anaphora", which is repetition. She repeats LA, our collective sobriquet for Los Angeles, a nickname that evokes dreams and desperation. We hear this in her songs and in these poems. As far as what falls flat? You shouldn't ever say you came from "nowhere", because that's never true. Same for being in the "middle of nowhere". The truth is always more interesting.
Angela: The technique Del Rey uses here of addressing the city as an estranged lover can be effective, but for me the poem leans too heavily on Del Rey’s stream of consciousness. There are a lot of ideas, some of them nice, but not enough crafting. The lines “They say I came from money … and I don’t know why” could be read as self-indulgent and as the words of a celebrity out of touch with reality, but that would be too easy. The poems here are poems of self-examination – they’re a dig at herself. Of course, if she’s “sold her life rights for a big check” she knows why she “can’t sleep at night”. On the one hand I want to say I enjoy this dig, but the next line feels superfluous, clunky and unclear. I feel like with the application of a red pen there could be something really good here.
Can you hear her voice here? What does it sound like?
Ben: Sounds like Laura Palmer went to UCLA and wrote melancholy love poems in her dorm.
Excerpt Two, Taken from “The Land of 1,000 Fires”
I hear Dylan when I look at you
I can see it in invisible ink like a tattoo
The ying to my yang
The toughness to my unending softness
A striking example of masculinity
Firm in your verticality
Sure in your confrontation against all elements
The sun to my wilting daisy
The earth to the wildflower that doesn't care where it grows
What do you make of her representation of sexual difference here – her perceived femininity against his masculinity?
Ben: Very binary, and true to her aesthetic project of straight love, involving strong men.
Angela: I’m less taken with the masculine/feminine, hard/soft – “the ying to my yang/The toughness to my softness” feel a bit predictable and lazy from someone who has the capacity to give us something better. I’m also a little perturbed by her use of the idea of man as something eternal and steadfast (the sun or earth) and woman as the ephemeral (the flower). It feels very old fashioned and a little like Del Rey hasn’t fully thought through the gender ramifications of her imagery here. If I read this in the pages of a male poet’s collection I’d be raging.
Do you think her word choice is as precise as it could be?
Ben: "Unending softness" is pretty abstract, right? But then she says "wilting daisy", which brings that feeling into focus. I would have cut "the yin to my yang". The rules are a bit different on an album that is meant to be listened to, not read. There will be syllables, words and lines that are there for the music, to give emotional information just in how they sound. I love one syllable words, so "the yin to my yang" is a perfect line to hear.
Angela: I say from someone who has the capacity to give us something better, as later in the poem Del Rey pulls out lines like “On top of being a woman/I am scared/And ethereal/And”, “There are seven worlds in my eyes”, and “No words needed to sponge up the dark nights … shoulder to shoulder in the factory light” – these are more like it; more interesting. I feel if the poem ditched the “blue steel” lines (which are a bit DE-REK-ZOO-LAN-DER), started at “Vernon/Everything’s burnt here” and ended with “And you in your madness” it would be a lot stronger.
Excerpt Three, Taken from “Salamander”
I love you, but you don’t understand me, I’m a real poet!
My life is my poetry, my love making is my legacy!
My thoughts are about nothing, and beautiful, and for free
How did these lines make you feel? How did you react?
Angela: You can say this sort of thing in poetry, but you’ve got to earn it. (People would treat the lines with caution if they saw them in one of my poems, but then I have a whole different set of influences and a different aesthetic.) Ginsberg and Whitman, Del Rey’s top influences, make all sorts of overblown pronouncements in their poems about all sorts of things, including the self – and that’s OK, because they earn them. Does Del Rey earn it here? I think she comes close with the previous lines. “I want to leave them underneath the nightstand to be forgotten/or remembered should my thoughts come upon them in the middle of the night after a long beach day/Or by you, some afternoon, to thumb through them with your worn warm after-work hands” – these thoughts are exact and evocative. I quite like the tension between the hidden book of her hidden “stories” and the real poetry she points to as being the act of living.
Ben: I think they're really good. Funny, slant. They remind me of Chelsey Minnis or Rachel Rabbit White.
Angela: Yes, it’s over the top, but surely it’s supposed to be over the top. It would seem to be a comment on the very idea of publishing and monetising what we’re reading. And of course the proceeds from this book are going to charity, so these thoughts are better than free. In a very real sense they’re giving something back, whatever you think of them.
Excerpt Four, Taken from “Sportcruiser”
I could picture myself growing a better sense of which way the wind was blowing
And as I did, a tiny bit of deeper trust also began to grow within myself
I thought of mentioning it,
but I didn’t
Because captains aren’t like poets
They don’t make metaphors between sea and sky
And as I thought that to myself,
that’s why I write
All of this circumnavigating the earth,
Was to get back to my life
Six trips to the moon for my poetry to arise
I’m not a captain,
I’m not a pilot
Did you find this a satisfying conclusion to this poem's narrative arc?
Ben: Yeah. Everyone has a higher self that is only realised on the plane of pure expression. Lana is a lyricist and a singer, so I like the affirmation.
Angela: I rather liked the narrative in this piece, though I think there’s a tendency to ruminate on her own subject matter, which can undermine it at times. I felt strongly that it needed to decide whether it was a short story or a poem. I think it would do really well as either, as it’s got lots of strengths. It does well to relate a unique experience with some really nice details and to examine that experience’s significance to the individual experiencing it, but I want it to pick a lane.
I wasn’t convinced by the end of this piece, having enjoyed the narrative. I felt it would have been much more atmospheric and interesting to have ended, instead of with the abstraction of her imagining herself taking his advice and having her epiphany, with her actually standing in the carpark of Ralphs in the Palisade, trying to sense which way the wind is blowing. Maybe that’s not the truth of the story, but sometimes a neat ending can undermine the thing – and sometimes allowing yourself to lift off a little from the facts can get you closer to the truth.
Excerpt Five, Taken from “What Happened When I Left You”
Perfect petals punctuate the fabrics yellow blue
silver platters with strawberries strewn across the room
In Zimmerman with sandals on one summer dress to choose
This is one of the few occasions in which we find ostensible poetic devices in the collection. Do they work as an outlier?
Ben: I love these long lines. They have a muscular and romantic cadence, like Shakespeare.
Angela: A good example of us not trusting the celebrity voice is “What Happened When I Left You”. Del Rey really lays the alliteration on thick, and it would be too easy to say, god, “Perfect petals punctuate”- this is way over the top, it’s embarrassing! But if a mainstream poet did it, you’d assume they were up to something interesting – this is overly “poetic” for a reason. You’d give them the benefit of the doubt. I think a lot of people won’t do that here, but why shouldn’t we? After all, Del Rey doesn’t do it elsewhere, ergo it’s drawing attention to itself deliberately
She seems to be more playful with assonance and phonetics in general here. Is it effective? Does she have a handle on it?
Angela: I’d like to think these are lines said through gritted teeth hiding behind a fixed smile. If you don’t get that sense at the beginning, when you get to the lines “now everything I have is perfect/nothing much to do”, you surely must. Perfect, my arse. I’d like to think that’s why she’s laying it on so thick. It may also be the reason she’s chosen the carefree whimsical rhyming structure. It’s tempting to say she should have gone further here and tightened everything up – the scansion of the lines and so on – but that might undermine their throwaway nature.
Ben: To me, writing is an art, not a craft, so you practice it, you don't master it. You set yourself a task beyond what you can do, and then try to stand up to it. I love these lines and would read the rest of this poem based on the strength of them, for sure. I bet it sounds divine on the recording, like Eros whispering to Psyche.
Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass is out now on audiobook and available on hardcover via Simon & Schuster on the 29th of September.