At a dinner party populated mostly by poets, someone asked what I’d been reading. I explained that with my new hobby (knitting) occupying my hands and eyes during my free time, I’d turned to audiobooks.
“Mostly fiction and non-fiction?” my poet friend Jacob asked. “Any poetry?”
“Mostly fantasy novels from my childhood,” I confessed. “But also, Lana’s collection.”
“Is that real poetry?” Jacob asked, yelling over all the other poets’ conversations about poetry. I pretended I couldn’t hear him, and took a large bite of homemade olive focaccia. It wasn’t a question I was prepared to answer.
I adore the audio book for Lana del Rey’s poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass.
I adore the audio book for Lana del Rey’s poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass. It’s a 39-minute abridged recording of the book, read by Lana herself and accompanied by a dreamy musical soundscape from Jack Antanoff.
She recites her sometimes-subtle, sometimes-clunky rhyming verses earnestly, with a musical, lilting voice far less controlled than in her songs. The poems are in the lyric confessional mode: stories from her (or, in poetic convention, “the speaker’s”) life, appeals for freedom from others’ ideas of her, for freedom from herself.
Altogether, it is a captivating listen, not unlike her music. It reveals a different facet of itself every time I listen, which I do often. I frequently borrow it from my library via Libby (possibly my favorite app ever) and listen to it over and over for the 21-day check out, as if it were an album.
Which is basically what it is. You can buy it from Urban Outfitters or Walmart on vinyl in a special color (ranging from cream to dark green to soupy blue). Violet Bent Over the Grass on audiobook is a spoken word album from a grossly talented, grossly privileged, high-grossing musician.
Violet Bent Over the Grass on audiobook is a spoken word album from a grossly talented, grossly privileged, high-grossing musician.
“I’m a real poet,” Lana claims in ‘Salamander,’ one of the 14 poems on her audiobook. But is she?
When she released a “single” from the book in Fall 2019 (‘L.A. Who Am I To Love You’) I was just entering an MFA program for poetry. I scoffed at the track. “It’s like she took all the lines that wouldn’t work in her songs, shoved them together and called it a poem,” I said bitterly. Did I say what I really felt at the time? Stay in your lane, Lana. Leave poetry to the poets.
But last summer, Ben, a poet I admire, recommended the audiobook to me. “It’s very Lana,” he said. “If you like her music—,” which I readily admit I do, very much, “—you’ll like Violet.”
“I’m a real poet,” she says, her voice desperate and fuzzy like it’s coming through a busted speaker while lazy minor chords trip up a piano behind it. “My life is my poetry.”
“i identify!!!” I texted Ben, referring to this line. And it’s true, or has been at times. Every choice, in certain moments of my life, has felt like a line of a long poem. Is that all it takes to be a poet? To live life, not for the story, but like a poem?
Every choice, in certain moments of my life, has felt like a line of a long poem. Is that all it takes to be a poet?
The poetry party at which I avoided discussing Lana wasn’t entirely populated by poets. The hosts’ neighbor, Jeff, came late with a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. After confirming that I was, indeed, a poet, he informed me that he was not. Jeff is a geologist.
“Rock poetry,” I said, nodding with inscrutable ironic sincerity. Even I didn’t know whether I was joking or serious.
“Sometimes I feel like I should be writing poetry,” said Katie, an essayist. “I mean, just by virtue of being here.”
“If you’re here, you’re a poet, whether or not you’re writing poems,” I offered. By “here” I meant at the party, or at the readings, or at any event with a significant number of poets in attendance. But by that time we were all more interested in discussing Jeff’s rock poetry (did you know the cement industry creates as much Co2 as cars do each year?!) than what qualifies someone as a poet.
I decided that to determine whether or not Lana is a “real” poet I needed to actually read the book.
I decided that to determine whether or not Lana is a “real” poet I needed to actually read the book. Not one of my six favorite local bookstores had it in stock, but the Barnes and Noble website assured me I would find it there. Alas, I did not. I did find 12 copies of Halsey’s collection, though.
So I turned again to Libby and borrowed the ebook. Like the audiobook, the collection on the page is a multimedia one, featuring photographs and snippets of handwriting. The last few pages are labeled ‘Notes for Poets,’ each including an inexpert oil painting by Erika Lee Sears and a few lines, assumedly on which the reader may write their own poems.
Reading Lana’s poems was an uncomfortable experience. Her sense of rhythm is undeniable. It propels me through the short lines, making them oddly readable despite their complete lack of resonance. Other than the rhythm, on the page these poems don’t cohere. They don’t read like poems. Instead, they read like someone’s best guess at what a poem is, could be, or should be—despite never having really engaged with poetry.
I returned the ebook. I kept the audiobook on my phone, and listened to it while I cooked dinner.
Strings scrape against the voices, and the ballad becomes a desperate plea for direction.
The last poem in the audiobook, ‘Bare Feet on Linoleum’ starts with a frenzy of voices repeating indecipherable lines about “stories.” When Lana begins reciting a trance-like ballad, first addressing Sylvia Plath, a howl picks up. Strings scrape against the voices, and the ballad becomes a desperate plea for direction. What next, where next, who next should Lana (or “the speaker”) be? Then, along with her voice, the howl and the strings stop. We’re left with only the other voices, robotic, automated voices claiming “People love my stories.” Then, faintly, Lana’s own voice claims it too. “People love my stories.”
But what people? In her poems, we hear about ex-lovers, current lovers, wise psychics, cold pilots, drunk boat captains, confident little girls playing alone. Long-gone Sylvia Plath makes an appearance, in a one-sided conversation where Lana projects, identifies, becomes Sylvia, rather than fully engaging with the poet’s work and life. Not featured are Lana’s friends, or the poets she surrounds herself with. Instead, we hear from robots, shakily, jarringly seeming to praise someone’s stories. Ultimately, like much of Lana’s music, this collection is a lonely one.
But being a poet is not a lonely thing.
“For poets,” Katie, the essayist, observed, “being social is as much a part of writing as making a poem is.”
Is that what makes a “real poet”? Eating focaccia and soup with other poets? Listening to them read their poems? Telling them what books you’re reading (or listening to) lately? It is living your life like a long poem, but it’s not a poem you can write by yourself. Being a real poet requires other poets. It takes a community.
So, I’m skeptical of Lana’s poetry, or her identity as a poet. Part of the beautiful thing about the poetry community—at least the one I know—is that we’re mostly doing this together. We’re workshopping each other’s drafts and publishing each other’s chapbooks. We’re making zines and journals to share our favorite poems by our favorite poets, many of whom we know, or could be introduced to at a party or a reading.
“Everyone here,” I told Jeff, “is part of the poetry ecosystem. Including you!”
Who workshopped Lana’s poems? I scrolled the ebook’s table of contents in search of an acknowledgments page. I always read the acknowledgments. They’re a compact reference catalogue—if I liked these poems, who else should I be reading? Who shaped the poet who shaped these poems?
Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass doesn’t have an acknowledgments page.
Who really believed in Lana’s manuscript, took a chance on it? I mean, no one took a chance—the success was built in by her name. She took a chance on it, allowed herself to be vulnerable in a different medium than the one for which she’s known. Good for her! Does that make her a poet?
I don’t know if Lana is a real poet or not. Who am I to say what qualifies as real poetry? I “wrote” a “poem” by compiling all the text messages I sent and received containing a common word over a period of three months. Is that more or less “poetic” than Lana’s rambling images, inconsistent “you”s, and commitment to multimedia?
My perspective is clouded. Something hard and sour inside me wants to say that only underdogs can be poets, but the soft fun parts of me want poetry to be for everyone. So maybe it’s not “Stay in your lane, Lana.” Maybe instead, I should ask: Lana, do you want to come a reading?
© Hannah Lamb-Vines (4/12/23) Special for FF2 Media®
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Featured photo: Blooming oranges. Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Bottom photo: More citrus. Photo courtesy of Pexels.