Pop poetry: rhymes without reason Local poets study Jewel's verse and conclude, 'Huh?'

June 21, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

On her multimillion-selling album "Pieces of You," Jewel asks, "Who Will Save Your Soul?"

But now that the 24-year-old singer-songwriter has published "A Night Without Armor," a collection of original poetry, the question is: Who will save Jewel's reputation?

Will it be local poet and teacher Dave Beaudouin?

"I can't stand it. It's just making me sick. It's making me vomit," he says of her poem "Wild Horse."

Will it be local poet Kim Carlin?

"This reminds me of the journal ramblings of a 14-year-old girl who needs therapy," she says.

Will it be Johns Hopkins poetry professor Allan Grossman?

"It ain't the Spice Girls on the one hand, and it isn't Sinead O'Connor either," he says.

So who's going to save Our Lady of Twentysomething Torment?

The answer: none of the above.

We asked these three poetry experts to read and review the book. And while they're not planning the first annual Jewel Poetry Festival, their reaction is not a unanimous poetry slam, either.

Hailed by some as a modern folkie prophet, dismissed by others as the world's luckiest waitress, Jewel Kilcher has put herself in the most precarious of pop-culture situations.

"When you deal with books like this or similar types of objects, like 'William Shatner sings the classics,' the issue is right away that we live in a culture that when people do this kind of crossover stuff, it's a little suspect, and they become jokes after the fact," says Beaudouin, 47, from Roland Park.

"Ultimately, it's not really fair to her, not to the pop star Jewel, but to a woman named Jewel Kilcher who has published a book of poems."

That's not to say Beaudouin thinks "A Night Without Armor" should be celebrated. In fact, he had problems with the book before even opening it.

In a black-and-white photo, Jewel stares plaintively from the cover. On the back, the poet is seen in profile, holding a hand to her heart. In both photos, she's draped in a fringed black shawl. Beaudouin cites several femalepoets, such as Marianne Moore, who have been photographed in a similar style.

"She's [Jewel] trying to put on the mantle of poetry," says Beaudouin, who has published several books of poetry and taught the subject at local high schools. "Given the way [the book] is packaged, it's going to underscore the antipathy people have toward it."

"What would be more helpful is just to get rid of this entirely," he adds, sliding off the book jacket.

Once you get past the cover and actually open the book, there are 109 free-verse poems. Fleeting youth, vulnerability, jealousy, lost love, childhood memories and sex are apparently on Jewel's mind.

Jewel's subject matter is much more personal than that of fellow pop poets Patti Smith, who specialized in erudite, detached compositions, and Jim Morrison, known for his surreal, Rimbaud-like ramblings. As far as pop poets go, Grossman says Jewel's work most resembles Joni Mitchell's.

Jewel, in the preface to her book, cites Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda and Charles Bukowski - poets her hippie parents introduced to her - as her main influences.

Grossman, 66, who lauds Jewel for not simply transcribing song lyrics onto the page, is by far her biggest fan among the three critics.

"I would treat this book quite seriously. It's neither naive nor is it trivial, and I suspect it can be read with pleasure," says Grossman, who categorizes Jewel as an American modernist poet.

He admits that the subject matter is often simple, and will most likely only appeal to young people. That makes sense, given that some of the poetry in "A Night Without Armor" was written while Jewel was in her teens.

"I couldn't help point out a few things that are wrong with this girl," says Carlin, a Govans resident. She got her master's of fine arts at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has published a book of poetry and free-lances poetry around Baltimore.

In Jewel's most vivid images - those of grotesque middle-aged women - Carlin sees a fear of aging. In the idealized males of her love poems, Carlin sees unrealistic, adolescent views of relationships.

And from poems such as "Paramount, NY, 9:34 a.m." and "Red Roof Inn, Boston," Carlin also notes that the guitar-strumming sylph spends way too much time in hotel rooms - though she's not quite sure what that reveals.

However, Carlin can't totally dismiss Jewel's literary offerings. She says poetry is so undervalued in our society that no one should be discouraged from writing it, even if the writer happens to be Jewel. And chances are that the singer, by virtue of her celebrity, may open the doors of poetry to TV- and rock-reared youths.

Even so, Beaudouin says, it still stings to see a pensive pop princess throw together journal entries and have the result salivated over by publishers.

"There are people out there who have labored in the fields, teaching and writing," Beaudouin says. "She hopscotched over a lot of grief that most poets have to deal with."

Beaudouin also says this book is symptomatic of the recent trendy packaging of poetry. "This is sort of the Barnes-and-Noble-ing of American poetry," he says. "It's acquired a quirky value insofar as being a hip thing to do. It's like going to the mall - 'Let's go to the poetry reading.'"

Judging Jewel

You may not be a poetry expert, but here's your chance to judge Jewel without having to buy "A Night Without Armor" or risk being seen reading it in the bookstore.

"Those Certain Girls"

I am fascinated by

those certain girls

you know the ones

the women that are

always girls

their tiny bodies like

neglected willow trees

controlled and contorted

which may blow away with

the slightest disappointment

"It Has Been Long"

It has been

long and

Bony since

your willing

ways since

those thirstful

days of

summer nights

and Burning Beds

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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