Some reflections on Violet Bends Backwards Over the Grass
Poetry collections by popular musicians invite cynicism. More often than not, they are bad – bloated, brazen cash-grabs only picked up by publishers thanks to the guaranteed returns on celebrity. From Tarantula (the amphetamine-fuelled dreck Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wrote at the peak of his career) to Jewel’s A Night Without Armor, the overlap between music and literature is littered with utter fucking duds of the poetic variety. When an artist ventures into this cow pasture at the risk of seriously stepping in it, you know they either have something to say, or, more often, something to prove.
Enter Lana Del Rey, who published a poetry collection in September called Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass. She released it as an audiobook, with some gentle musical accompaniment, earlier this summer. Her debut book arrives at a strange moment in her career in an undeniably strange year, when one might argue she actually does have something to prove, or should at least say something. Violet Bent Backwards comes with some considerable torque from the turns in Del Rey’s career across the past 12 months.
To review: in August 2019, she released the astounding Norman Fucking Rockwell, her best work to date and an album of the year. This May, though, she posted controversial remarks about sexism, feminism and the music industry on her Instagram. A new album scheduled for early September, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, has not appeared as of this writing. A book could be a chance for Del Rey to outline some kind of political position as other musician-turned poets – from Serj Tankian to PJ Harvey – have done, or simply explain herself at length.
Thankfully, Del Rey doesn’t do either. Instead, she’s written about the same themes that have interested her since the start of her career: romance, California, American luxury. It’s pretty good stuff, as far as the poetry-by-musicians genre goes. On par with Patti Smith or Leonard Cohen (who, it should be noted, were poets before they were musical icons) it is not – there are some real clunkers. All the same, Violet Bends Backwards Over the Grass is an interesting addition to the larger body of Lana Del Rey’s work.
Her poetry is at its best when it grapples with the central tension of her music: the gap between Del Rey the person and Lana the character/narrator of her work. Last year the former made headlines when she responded to a review by tweeting: “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” The comment was met with some incredulity. While it’s certainly unfair to say that ‘Lana Del Rey’ is an elaborate charade by the woman born as Elizabeth Grant, clearly not everything she writes is explicitly autobiographical. Thus, the eternal frisson of Lana – how much of what we hear (or read) is “real”?
Depending on what you mean by real, Del Rey would almost certainly say, “all of it.” That certainly seems to be the case in one standout poem, ‘SportCruiser’. “I took a flying lesson on my 33rd birthday instead of calling you,” she begins. Somewhere between ars poetica and Ted Talk, it’s a long narrative piece about a person processing a breakup through sailing and flying lessons. “I’m not a captain / I’m not a pilot / I write,” she writes. It’s an earnest conclusion to some serious self-affirmation. Throughout Violet, Del Rey declares herself a Writer of songs, poems, and identity.
But while her identity is serious business, especially in ‘SportCruiser’, Del Rey is at her best when she has some fun with it. ‘LA Who am I to Love You?’ begins as a dramatic Ginsbergian ode to her spiritual home, but accelerates into an amusing turn at its end: “Actually I’ll do very well down by Paramahansa Yogananda’s Realization center I’m sure… I’m good on stage as you may know, you may have heard of me?” This is one of Del Rey’s more direct references to her celebrity, and certainly her funniest. The endless questions about her so-called persona are best addressed with a wink and a nod.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the collection’s best poem, ‘Tessa DiPietro’, which finds Del Rey reflecting on Jim Morrison with a healer, the titular Tessa. Tessa tells the poem’s narrator, “Singleness of focus is the key to transmission”, before imparting some wisdom about the late Doors singer.
Oh – and Jim died at 27
so find another frame of reference when you’re referencing heaven
And did you ever read the lyrics to ‘People Are Strange’?
He made no sense.
Morrison’s poetry, in some ways, may be the closest analogue to Del Rey’s. Both collections were released mid-career (Morrison published a double header, The Lords and the New Creatures), both authors wanted to assert a literary dimension to their work, both were better songwriters than poets. But at its best moments, unlike Morrison’s work, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass displays humour and self-awareness, something much poetry lacks, whether it’s written by musicians or otherwise. Whether you call her a poet or not, Del Rey is certainly a Writer – sometimes wry, always heartfelt.
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