August 11, 2009 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Poetica/Poem Jam

I don’t often read poetry, but I have had a distant wisp of a poem stuck in my mind all day, and spent an hour or so leafing through books of poetry and some general literature compendia, seeking out something that may not even exist. I have more poetry on my bookshelves than I would have guessed, and more than I have ever read. Part of the reason that I even have any poetry at all is for moments like tonight, so that on terribly rare occasions I can leisurely look through it, wondering if anything serendipitous will catch my eye.

I didn’t find the poem I sought, but I amused myself sufficiently to share with the universe. Because one thing I found, on two different occasions, was my own scribbled marginalia, comparing a poems to song lyrics by Metallica and Pearl Jam. This is particularly amusing since one was a note I wrote in high school — reading “PEARL JAM RIP-OFF” — while one is just from a year or so ago, a note saying “like Metallica’s ‘One’ :-)”. Apparently my mode of reading poetry has not advanced very far since high school. I’ll probably spend my whole life reading poetry and thinking about song lyrics from the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Anyway here are the comparisons:

If you know the songs (and everybody knows these songs, right? at least “One”), go read the poems and you’ll see what made me laugh.

I’m surprised how striking the similarities actually are. The poems are subtler than the rock songs (Plath moreso than Heine), but they are obviously saying almost the same thing. “Paralytic” and “One” simply give impressions of being trapped inside the body — I would have guessed that the Metallica song would come across poorly in comparison, all hamfisted and literal, but honestly I think you can easily interpret it as being metaphorical. “Rats” and “Die Wanderratten” are even more similar in style and sentiment — whimsical and sarcastic, making a simplistic comparison of rats and men in terms that a high school student could easily follow. But even the phrasing is similar! It makes me wonder if maybe Eddie Vedder actually was influenced by the poem. Heine adds some political considerations that I don’t see in the Pearl Jam song, but really they are awfully similar.

I’m not saying Hetfield or even Vedder are first-rate poets, but maybe I’m just contemplating how, when you add moderately good lyrics to moderately good music, you come up with something even more appealing than a dusty book of poems.

Anyway, of course “One” (deservedly classic) is a much better song than “Rats” (one of the worst PJ songs until their most recent albums). Here are some videos that make this very clear. In the meantime I am going back to searching for a lost poem.