I seem to recall a time – maybe I’m imagining it, but probably not – when people earnestly argued over whether song lyrics constituted “real” poetry. Most likely it was during the 1960s, when Bob Dylan’s visionary, amphetamine-fueled rants (I don’t have any inside info with regard to drug use, but they did go on a bit) seemed to blow away the dry-as-dust literary maunderings sold to us as poetry in textbooks and highbrow journals.
If the issue was ever resolved – as opposed to people getting bored with abstract definitions and moving on to more tangible discussions about how to overthrow the government or organize their polyamorous communes or whatever else it was that post-hippies used to get het up about – I don’t remember how it came out. Like many young people, I arrived at a point where I began to be embarrassed over taking a folk singer so seriously and tried to find new outlets and postures through which I could show the world how cultured and sophisticated I was. By the time I was in the 30s found myself even more embarrassed by that.
By then, fortunately, the world was awash in punk rock, which only idiots and journalists took seriously, and I no longer had the slightest impetus to trouble myself over what constituted true literature or art or poetry. From time to time I’d get out the acoustic guitar, strum an old Dylan tune or two, and muse on the fact that certain of his lyrics had stuck with me throughout my life in a way that no academically certified “poem” ever had, but by the same token, most of his later work had become something of an embarrassment in itself, the sort of thing you’d expect Dad to produce upon re-uniting his garage band after all the kids have left home.
But eventually certain artists with roots in the punk scene, none more notable than John K. Samson, who’d started out with agit-pop rabble rousers Propaghandi, started catching my attention with lyrics that were powerful, poignant, and – at least in my view – undeniably poetic. Having never been much of a Propagandhi fan, I first encountered Samson through his work with the Weakerthans, a long-running and much-loved Canadian combo who wowed me not only with their instrumental virtuosity and lilting, haunting melodies, but also with the way they could inveigle a normally rowdy punk rock audience into respectfully, even reverently singing – in some cases almost whispering – along with every single word of their songs.
In 2001 I interviewed Samson for Punk Planet, and we had a wide-ranging discussion, sometimes almost verging on argument, on a number of subjects, primarily but not exclusively political. In addition to his performing and publishing careers – his “other” job is at Arbeiter Ring, a self-described left-leaning press – Samson is also a renowned activist with, for such a seemingly mild-mannered fellow, surprisingly strident views. One question we touched upon briefly, and which I’ve periodically attempted to bring up again during our occasional meetings over the years, was the old “can song lyrics be poetry?” one, because I felt – increasingly so with each new album – that his work emphatically demonstrated that they could and were.
He demurred then (“I don’t think my songs can be defined as poetry, because they are coupled with music, and that gives an extra structure to them that poetry doesn’t have. I personally think the most daring writing is poetry, because it’s just a blank canvas for words…”), and has continued to do so, while acknowledging that he considered some of Dylan’s work to be poetry.
Whether this is a literary point or simply a surfeit of modesty on his part, I can’t say. I do know that at my very traditional Catholic school, with very traditional standards for just about everything, literature included, I was taught that the defining characteristics of poetry were “rhyme, meter and imagery,” all of which are richly imbued in Samson’s while, while much of what is formally recognized as modern poetry possesses few or none of them.
Another aspect of Samson’s writing that we talked about was his instantly recognizable sense of place, something missing from much modern writing. Perhaps the internet’s ability to convince us that, no longer constrained by physicality, we are capable of being located both everywhere and nowhere, coupled with the ever greater homogenization of (in particular) Western society, has left us less likely to appreciate an evocation of a specific time and place that is anchored by the sights, sounds, smells and memories that only someone who has been there can fully recognize, but that anyone, even if they’ll never set foot on those streets or fields, can appreciate and aspire to.
Samson’s particular stomping grounds are the prairies of Manitoba and, especially, his native Winnipeg, a lovely but slightly forlorn city in the midst of the vast emptiness that is central Canada, from which, as his song “Longitudinal Centre” put its it, “the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away.” While taking me on a tour of his town some years ago, he told me how Winnipeg was once envisioned as “the Chicago of the North,” but that people eventually realized there was already a Chicago, and another, far less conveniently situated one, wasn’t really necessary.
Winnipeg has, nonetheless, soldiered on, producing, despite its isolation, a startling number of talented artists, musicians and visionaries, and while some members of his band have left for the bright lights of Toronto (which, like Vancouver, has always beckoned to and drawn away from the heartland many of Canada’s best and brightest), Samson has stayed put. Not without ambivalence, granted: see his “One Great City” (subtitled “I Hate Winnipeg”), which consists mostly of chronicling the small and larger miseries of a hardscrabble town locked into longer and bleaker winters than anyone should have to endure while counterpointing and overriding them all with his heartfelt lament for those who laugh and “watch the North End die.”
The North End is also home to Samson’s “Pamphleteer,” a, one suspects, semi-autobiographical character who becomes, pace Karl Marx, “a spectre haunting Albert Street,” trying to foist upon passersby the tracts and leaflets that even he himself might no longer comprehend but cannot stop producing. But as much as he can poetically characterize the bleak cityscape, Samson excels equally at capturing the sometimes seductive, sometimes terrifying emptiness of the vast open spaces surrounding Winnipeg. When, for instance, he sings about “Southern Manitoba prairie’s pulling at the pants leg of your bad disguise,” I never fail to feel the warm, rambunctious breeze that traveled a thousand kilometers across Alberta and Saskatchewan to slap me gently but relentlessly in the face the first time I visited one early summer.
I have had to, more than once, go back and re-read those lyrics to confirm that they said absolutely nothing about a breeze or a wind, or dust or corn fields, or grain silos or stillness, and yet those few simple words manage to evoke all of those things for me with a realness and substance that might surpass the experience of actually being there. That is the mark of a true poet, and what for me makes John K. Samson one of Canada’s national treasures.
Apparently – I did, admittedly, have to look this up – Canada already has a reigning poet laureate, but they’ll be missing a sure bet if they don’t eventually get around to naming Samson to that post, and I’ll be losing a bet (made, it’s true, only with myself) that he’ll eventually make it. There’s time – Samson is not yet 40 – but meanwhile, I recommend investigating and cherishing his new solo record, Provincial (Anti, 2012). Call it poetry, call it prose, call it simply some lovely words set to beautiful music: it’s a window into a world that you should very much like to know.