Thank you for bearing witness to my vastness,” Lana Del Rey announces grandly in “The Land of 1,000 Fires”, one of 14 poems in the Grammy-nominated singer’s audiobook version of her forthcoming 30-poem hardback Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass.
Del Rey cites Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as inspirations – the Walt Whitman line about “containing multitudes” is her Twitter bio – and says her poems are “not trying to be anything other than what they are”. The singer is a divisive figure and her ardent poems will delight and disappoint in a Marmite taste-test way. They are a mixed bag; some are full of honest self-reflection, others are self-indulgent and mundane.
Among the best in this selection is the opening “LA Who Am I to Love You”, a quirky reflection on alienation from a performer who left her native upstate New York for Los Angeles, a city she describes as “vaping lightly next to me”. The poem finishes with piano chords and shimmering electronic music played by regular collaborator Jack Antonoff. A saxophone accompanies “The Land of 1000 Fires”, an echo of the way Kerouac used the improvisational playing of jazz great Zoot Sims on his 1959 album “Blues and Haikus”.
Reading your own poetry aloud is a tricky business. Philip Larkin came across as morose and Ezra Pound sounded demented – and few can match the theatrical tones of Dylan Thomas – but Del Rey’s fast-paced delivery and expressive, lilting voice suits the anguish of the words.
In the seven-minute “Sport Cruiser” she explores her inner indecisiveness and fear of trusting herself, using “navigator” metaphors in a poem about taking flying and sailing lessons. Problems with trust is also the theme of “Tessa Di Pietro”, about the “intuitive healer” she visited.
The mode of the poems is freestyle – with occasional stabs at rhymed couplets such as “with precision/laser vision” – and the opening to “What Happened When I left You” is weighed down by an over-eager attempt at alliteration and sibilance: “Perfect petals punctuate the fabrics yellow blue/ Silver platters with strawberries strewn across the room”.
Del Rey, widely acclaimed for her album Norman F***ing Rockwell!, is donating proceeds to charities supporting Native Americans. The most political poem is “Paradise is Very Fragile”, in which “megalomaniac” Donald Trump gets a kicking as Del Rey addresses the ravaging effects of the climate crisis. The poetry is stronger when she is being more individual, as in “My Bedroom is a Sacred Place Now There Are Children at the Foot of My Bed”. “Happy” contains a lovely ethereal image about driving with friends when “the radio was so loud that we couldn’t hear the words/ so we became the music”.
The musician says she “tore apart every word until I was able to write the perfect poem”, which seems an overly generous description of a process that sometimes ends with banal lines such as “the warmth I have found in your brown eyes”. Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is more than a vanity project (and a Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Album would not be a surprise) but it’s hard to believe that anyone other than a diehard fan would listen to the full 39-minute audiobook regularly.
Referring to Federico Garcia Lorca, the songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen said that “when you read poetry, you look for someone to illuminate a landscape that you thought you alone walked on”. Del Rey illuminates her own world but universal truths seem elusive.
Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is published by Simon & Schuster on 29 September 2020, £16.99. The audiobook came on out 28 July
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