It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of poetry. Whilst I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood, my first experience I remember reading poems of my own accord and not some flowery trite nonsense for the purpose of dissection and discussion in English class was ‘The Raven’, by Edgar Allen Poe, and a few of his other works. I found it dark and compelling, but something about the rhyming structure of poetry becomes distracting and gets in the way of the storytelling for me. Whether it be an unconventional rhyming structure leaving me unsure how it is to be read, and which words to stress, repeated usage of the same word for the purpose of rhyming, or even a particularly cringe-inducing ‘slant-rhyme’, I just cannot get as absorbed in the words as I would like, in the ways good narrative or lyrics encapsulate the mind. Another problem I have with poetry is – like horror fiction – it is often incredibly sterile and formulaic. By this I mean the tropes are so clearly defined and understood in our culture, even by those who do not consume the select media, that it is an almost effortless exercise for someone to amalgamate their ego’s trappings and fractured memories to spit out some divinely uninspired trollop hoping to appease the fans they so disingenuously appeal to. Some may read this assessment and think of me as an uncultured swine – a hack who pays no regard to the arts he claims to respect – and I’m fine with that.
Lana Del Rey is an American singer-songwriter (and an artist & poet, according to the dust jacket of her book). After a false start in 2010 with her oft-forgotten debut album “Lana Del Ray A.K.A. Lizzy Grant” (and no, that is not a typo) she had breakthrough success with her sophomore album “Born to Die”. Marrying baroque pop instrumentation and sleazy, sardonic and melodramatic lyrics, the album was a commercial success, but it polarized the critics. A lot of people have accused Lana Del Rey of being an “inauthentic character”, created to get appeal and an audience within the indie music scene. Whether or not that is entirely true is a matter of conjecture, however I found “Born to Die” and her follow-up release “Ultraviolence” to be a somewhat refreshing sound amid the early 2010s pop landscape. Rich sonic textures, with quality mixing and production made the albums evoke a sort-of phantom nostalgia, in part from her references to 50s and 60s Americana, and played a big part in getting me to grow the hell up and embrace pop music for it’s merits instead of depriving myself of quality tunes. However, with her 3rd album, “Honeymoon”, I found that her sound & lyrics (or ‘character’, if you prefer) had begun to stagnate, and I lost interest. Her 4th album “Lust for Life” completely passed me by, and her latest offering, 2019’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell” was just… weird. All the familiar Lana-isms were there (the opening lyric of the album is “goddamn manchild, you fucked me so good I almost said I love you”. Gross.), but the album’s aesthetic was confusing, and strange. The song titles deviate between being all lower case, somewhat lower case and traditional word capitalisation, and words cannot truly convey how much I fucking hate this album artwork.
Seriously, what in the holy mother of ass is this trying to convey? Every time I see it it fills me with a kind of inexplicable combination of disgust and rage. Also, who the fuck is Norman Rockwell, anyway? I researched him expecting him to be some controversial 60s movie star who died of a mob-related suicide (gunshot wound to the back of the head) or something, but he was just some painter, famous for his magazine covers of American social commentary from the 40s to the 70s. His significance to the album’s narrative may have been lost on me as I found myself tuning out of the album when I listened to it as it just didn’t grab me the way Born to Die and Ultraviolence seem to.
After the albums release, I didn’t take much notice of what Lana was doing with herself, however with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of artists started posting what they were up to in the interim in lieu of touring, and she was one of them. Whilst many artists were just catching up on reading, baking, or jamming out acoustically, Lana started occasionally posting pictures of typewritten poems. Painfully average poems. I couldn’t tell you if any of these made it into the book or not (I’m leaning towards they did, as I don’t think Lana has ever vetoed anything she spent longer than 15 minutes on) as I have blocked them from my memory but I found them incredibly basic and reeking of first-draft energy. Imagine my surprise and dismay upon discovering that these were in the lead up to the release of a poetry collection, and accompanying spoken-word album. The album and book release dates came and went, and once again slipped through the cracks of my memory until recently, when I saw pre-orders go up for a vinyl pressing of the ‘audiobook’. Now this was something I could not ignore (how does an entire book fit on a 45-odd minute LP?), so I secured myself a copy of the hardcover book and started to listen to the album on YouTube, as it is unavailable for us in Australia on Spotify.
So let me tell you, what a painful experience it was. I was unable to listen to more than a single poem of the audiobook, as the cadence of her speech (it sounded like it was the first or second time she’d ever read them aloud) and the words of the poem were giving me second-hand embarrassment. It’s like when someone posts a video of themselves singing on social media and there’s no production, no music, and it just sounds like absolute dogshit and you feel so bad for them your asshole puckers up so tightly you could use it to crack a walnut. It is also worth noting the poems on the audiobook have musical accompaniment, but it’s this quasi-ambient noodling shit that sounds like the safe room music from Resident Evil, except instead of feeling relaxed because you’re not being chased by the undead, you feel tense because you’re hearing a 33 year old woman read words that would be considered average for a middle-schooler. I resolved to reading the 112 page hardcover book instead. A few reviewers online said they finished it in about 45 minutes, yet it took me a little over 2 hours. Why? Because I had to keep taking breaks. It was incredibly draining, and when I finished it I had a 30 minute nap to recoup the energy I lost processing some of the most pseudo-intellectual, disingenuous prose I’d read since taking a writing class at university.
As I mentioned earlier, many of the poems read like a first draft, which is something Lana herself acknowledged when talking about how the book came together (some poems are presented with the pen edits over the typewritten pages, for some inexplicable reason, making them look more like a teacher’s graded assessment than a finished poem). She says, in the dust jacket at the front of the book:
“Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is the title poem of the book and the first poem I wrote of many. Some of which came to me in their entirety, which I dictated and typed out, and some that I worked laboriously picking apart each word to make the perfect poem”.
No shit – it fucking shows. Many of the poems in the book read like second rate imitations of her own lyrics, but without lush instrumentation and production to accompany them, try instead to stand on their own merits, and fail miserably. Another gripe I had (and this may be a more personal issue, as I know off-kilter layouts/punctuation is a common trope of poetry) was a constant inconsistency with grammar and punctuation, spelling ‘you’ in one line and substituting it with ‘u’ in the next, like she thinks she’s Prince or something. I also never want to see the words “emoji” or “bb please come over” in a poem ever again, let alone an actual goddamn watermelon emoji (seriously, why?).
One of the most stand-out poems was a piece entitled ‘L.A. Who Am I To Love You’. In this poem, she humanizes the city of Los Angeles, lamenting her absence from it whilst on some liaison in San Francisco with a man she describes only as “a billionaire”, describing the various ways she misses it as if it was a lover. The entire piece just comes across as incredibly whiny, the diction and word choices are boring and uninspired, and I actually audibly cackled like a witch over a boiling cauldron at the lines:
“but certainly I feel your body next to me
smoking next to me
vaping lightly next to me”
The entire book has what can best be described (in Lana’s own words, no less) as a “battered housewife” vibe, just a strange juxtaposition between constant lament for her poor choices in men and reaffirming her identity, self-discovery and finding happiness in smaller moments of life. She also constantly refers to herself as a poet throughout her poems, which is something I found very obnoxious and reeking of insecurity. She also consistently uses the same metaphors and imagery, with incessant references to the beach, sunshine, sugar and fruit and kissing things, which grew very tiresome and clearly shows the collection must have been primarily authored over a short time frame.
Salamander is easily the worst piece amongst the collection, as it epitomises almost every single complaint I have made about the collection onto a single page, as well as the fact that after reading it 3 times it STILL made no goddamn sense, and was somehow the hardest poem to read (maybe I was getting tired).
The final 3rd of the book is a collection of incredibly forgettable haikus, followed by some beautiful watercolours painted by the artist who also did the cover, Erika Lee Sears.
It wasn’t a collection completely beyond redemption, however. Scattered amongst the ashes are a few poems worthy of print, that I found to be very enjoyable, sincere, emotional and well-written. My 2 personal favourites were pieces entitled ‘Never to Heaven’ and ‘Thanks to the Locals’, with the former being about, in a few words, finding comfort in staying in the present moment, and the latter about Lana’s experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous, and a bad relationship. These pieces were touching, and show that despite this collection’s shortcomings, Lana Del Rey does have the potential to transition into a competent writer, she just needs to spend a great deal longer on the editing process and find someone who isn’t a complete Yes-man to proofread her work. Also of note is that approximately 50% of the book contains grainy, unexciting photos of whatever the fuck Lana decided visually accompanied these poems, which means that at $22AUD for the book, you’re essentially paying $2.50 per poem, and considering there’s at least 10 haikus, that is not worth the price of admission.
Allow me to finish this review with a haiku of my own, summarising my feelings about the book in 17 bittersweet syllables;
baroque pop artist
with a devastating book
try harder next time