Through my college years of studying English Literature, my friends and I were held in thrall of that bard beyond compare, of William Shakespeare, the name that is synonymous with drama and literature like no other. While we debated, researched and analyzed his works endlessly, trying to extract meaning, interpretation and layers within the words, we also realized that this man was a pop artist of his time.
While there was erudition and sophistication in his verses, there was also ribaldry and a coarseness that was there to appeal to the least sophisticated among his audience. For at the zenith of his popularity Shakespeare’s plays were performed to royalty and the working class alike; both constituted his adoring public, and it is this catholic appeal of his work that made it endure over the ages.
Also at college I had a dawning conviction that rock musicians like Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and Jim Morrison (The Doors) were perhaps just such poets of our times. The existential angst that I could discern in their music and their lyrics was a reflection of their times; their artistic struggles.
I find many parallels between masters of yesteryear and modern musicians. As John Keats partook of hemlock and opium (Ode to a Nightingale),
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
So also did our modern poets struggle with the demons of their own addictions. As Keats was a brilliant creative life snuffed out in his prime (in his case it was tuberculosis, but also a delusional conviction of being poisoned), so also did Morrison and Cobain meet unfortunately early ends: in the case of Morrison it was drug overdose and in the case of Cobain it was suicide.
A heightened creative sensitivity also being a common trait among these notables, also perhaps made them more vulnerable to depressions, addictions or a feeling of being at dissonance with the world. The focused public gaze that is as much adoration as expectation could, I would imagine be profoundly unsettling. Witness Morrison’s sense of aloneness in the iconic Doors track, People are Strange
People are strange, when you’re a stranger,
Faces look ugly when you’re alone,
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down.
The references to faces come out of the rain and No one remembers your name are perhaps indicators of his mental state and certainly the lines of the song, evidence of his being a modern poet.
I read somewhere that modern Hop-Hop music is about ‘knowledge, wisdom and understanding.’ And these are surely the constituents of poetry?