From Inverted// Decadence: The Poetics of Nirvana (Part Two)

This is the second and final part of Meg Forjater’s extract on Nirvana and poetics. To read the first part, click here.

Maybe what I am looking for in poems is not necessarily linked to the words themselves. Even though I can close-read lyrics, that’s not what I’m listening to when I play Nirvana albums.

They aren’t necessarily important, anyway. I don’t know half of them. Cobain either mumbles or shrieks. Several variations on songs exist, so arguments about “correct” lyrics still linger even 20 years after his death and the dissolution of the band. For instance, people still shit themselves over the lyrics to ‘You Know You’re Right,’ a rare live track that had been bootlegged for years until the studio session was released in 2002.

you know you're right

(A reddit page devoted to these fucking lyrics.)

There are many of these sorts songs in the Nirvana catalog. Even in songs we definitively know, the grammatical structure is so lax that it’s hard to make any sense out of the lyrics.

If I may
If I might
lay me down weeping
If I say
What it’s like
I might be dreaming
If I may
What is right
Summer time, see me heal
Those years in his blond head
The phrase from his pocket
Chains from the knowing lifelong dream

(From ‘Do Rei Mi.’ This song only exists as a home recording. I guess, objectively, if this song made it even to a demo, the lyrics would have been fleshed out more. Maybe. Dave Grohl has reported that Cobain often left the lyrics to the last second before recording. But then again, maybe not.)

This is where being a poet fails me: words and the order they go in and the meaning produced from that order is the heart of the poetry. If you substitute one word for the other, the entire meaning of the whole is radically changed. The poem is reconstructed. However, for Nirvana songs (maybe all songs?) this doesn’t matter. What I’m listening to in music is less limited.

(Nirvana “performing” on Top of The Pops, 1991. Cobain thought the idea of lip-synching for a TV appearance was absurd.)

There’s something in the fuzz and distortion of grunge that I love. Something about the disconnection from industrialized (read: capitalistic) glossiness feels authentic. I think I want my poems to pursue that sort of sound. I think I want my poems to be written on the backs of envelopes. It’s a very contemporary idea, to associate lo-fi with “the real,” with honesty. Our digital simulacra is pervasive. Instagram is worth millions. But I don’t think writing exclusively on a typewriter or wearing old sweaters makes the experience different. I don’t think Cobain’s notoriously shitty guitars and equipment made his music what it is. I think it’s an attitude. I think it’s a disenchantment. A spell to reveal. I think it’s about having something at stake.

Maybe I mean that culture feeds off the past. I mean that as an artist of any kind, you need to have fuel.

I don’t mean using Cobain as a role model, either. How do I become myself? How do I write a real poem? These are terrible questions.

In this way, poets seem to collect their mentors. Keats stared adoringly at the image of Shakespeare that he hung above his desk, and Berryman similarly revered Yeats, skipping adoring picture-worship to sit at Yeats death bed in hope that a real life flesh experience with a Big One would impart some greatness onto him. I say adoring & adored facetiously. As with Berryman’s long poem, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, I think what these poets are experiencing is a connection. A telephone skull. One’s poetics speaking directly to another. Discovering a relative sense of self. This is overwhelmingly like finding a lost twin. When I say adore, I mean connect. When I say adore, I mean adore.

“When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
(Kurt Cobain. Rolling Stone Interview, 1994.)

More so, Cobain for me is a dialectic (read: method. read: spiritual.) I can find pins on a map for similar places within my own body (read: physical body. read: real self. read: poetics.) I don’t want to be Cobain. I don’t want to dissect him. I don’t want to start a Nirvana cover band. I don’t want to imitate. I want to pass through the dark mirror he held, as all great artists hold, and make something worthy.

For instance, the ‘Heart Shaped-Box’ music video. This video knocked me out at seventeen. Cobain in a silver shirt, lying in a field of poppies. His blond hair over-saturated and so yellow. The bright, retina-burning pink in the background. How everything is painterly, and dreamy, but intensely visceral. There are fetuses, a staple of Cobain’s artistic oeuvre, and a decrepit old man hanging himself on a cross. Even Novaselic and Grohl, looking bored and a little neglected in the background, seem perfectly placed. All these images coming together, all the intense colors, typify for me what poetry should be.

Intense, calculated, and a little grotesque. There is no need for posturing. There is no need to coy, or fearful. If ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ were a poem, it would be in all caps.

(Heart-Shaped Box, 1993. Directed by Anton Corbijn)

When I started re-listening to the deeper cuts and bootlegs again for research for this project, I made myself sick. I listened to Verse Chorus Verse and Old Age (demos & practice sessions made available commercially available in 2002’s With the Lights Out Box Set) over & over again. I remember lying on my husband’s chest, listening to his heart beat and thinking, I have to die.

This is stupid. This is another shape I take with me, but not on purpose. Not because of him. This is another map point on our bodies like similarly shaped moles.

frances bean cobain

(Frances Bean Cobain’s twitter. 2014)

I don’t mean to equate Cobain or Nirvana with this impulse. I know it greatly upsets Cobain’s daughter, Frances. She recently chided Lana Del Rey over expressing a similar sentiment. Freida Hughes speaks similarly about her mother in the forward to the restored facsimile of Ariel, printed in 2004. Hughes says, “I did not want my mother’s death to be commemorated as if it had won an award.”  It shouldn’t be. I tell my students this over & over when we study Plath. I don’t mean to equate these things. The point is not romance. I say this because I had the thought. The thought has existed with me for a long time. It’s not romantic. But it is ecstatic, as is the cessation of any pain. There is no glory.

This is one of the map points. Anxiety. The earnest reach towards some sort of resolution. The point is to make something, like Plath’s emotional “material that could be pierced together to make a wonderful dress.” The point is to be brave. I mean, hearing the abyss speak, and then acknowledging that the abyss exists at all.

John Berryman said, “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify and comfort.”

I think this is what poetry is for me. It scares me. I’m scared of your father, Frances.

(Old Age, 1991 This song never made it onto Nevermind,. It later appeared on Hole’s EP Beautiful Son in 1993.)

These are the patterns and shapes I take with me via Nirvana’s distortion: black roads at night. Oppressively small towns. A fierce desire for freedom. My knee-jerk contrarianism. Guts. Alien encounters. Crusty stained velvet. Probably semen. Clunky boots. A shared image of Dionysus. The feeling of decent. My belly full of rocks. Abdominal. The lower register. Kindergarden macaroni necklaces. A calculated howl. Cassette hiss. Netflix in the background at night. Lush paintings.

Sometimes I feel like Cobain’s artistic world is like my own interior. Vacillating between rage and grief; disgust & bliss; the obstinate outsider. I do not want to fit in; I think myself better and worse. Incurable loneliness. Discordant and lazy chords.

The tragic thing, beyond poetry, is that Nirvana is dismissed. There is a core of authenticity in them that is missed; under what would be dismissed as angst or ire. Authenticity itself is a dangerous word, a concept to which people clamor too, hunger for, but can in no meaningful way describe.

I think it just means being afraid, but going anyway.

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