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Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department' is here. Is it poetry? This is what experts say

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LA Post: Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department' is here. Is it poetry? This is what experts say
April 19, 2024
MARIA SHERMAN - AP

NEW YORK (AP) — Taylor Swift has released her 11th studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department.”

But just how poetic is it? Is it even possible to close read lyrics like poems, divorced from their source material?

The Associated Press spoke to four experts to assess how Swift's latest album stacks up to poetry.

IS TAYLOR SWIFT A POET?

Allison Adair, a professor who teaches poetry and other literary forms at Boston College, says yes.

“My personal opinion is that if someone writes poems and considers themself a poet, then they’re a poet," she says. “And Swift has demonstrated that she takes it pretty seriously. She's mentioned (Pablo) Neruda in her work before, she has an allusion to (William) Wordsworth, she cites Emily Dickinson as one of her influences.”

She also said her students told her Swift's B-sides — not her radio singles — tend to be her most poetic, which is true of poets, too. “Their most well-known poems are the ones that people lock into the most, that are the clearest, and in a way, don’t always have the mystery of poetry.”

Professor Elizabeth Scala, who teaches a course on Swift’s songbook at the University of Texas at Austin, says “there is something poetical about the way she writes,” adding that her work on “The Tortured Poets Department” references a time before print technology when people sang poems. “In the earliest stages of English poetry, they were inseparable,” she says. “Not absolutely identical, but they have a long and rich history together that is re-energized by Taylor Swift.”

“It's proper to talk about every songwriter as a poet,” says Michael Chasar, a poetry and popular culture professor at Willamette University.

“There are many things musicians and singer-songwriters can do that poetry cannot,” Adair says, citing melisma, or the ability to hold out a single syllable over many notes, as an example. Or the nature of a song with uplifting production and morose lyricism, which can create a confusing and rich texture. “That's something music can do viscerally and poetry has to do in different ways.”

“She might say her works are poetry,” adds Scala. “But I also think the music is so important — kind of poetry-plus.”

As for current U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón? “Poetry and song lyrics aren’t exactly the same (we poets have to make all our music with only words and breath),” she wrote to the AP. "But having an icon like Taylor bring more attention to poetry as a genre is exciting.”

HOW SWIFT USES P OETRY ON THE SONG “FORTNIGHT”

Scala sees Swift's influences on “The Tortured Poets Department” as including Slyvia Path, a confessional poet she previously drew inspiration from on songs like “Mad Woman” and “Tolerate It.”

“Fortnight” uses enjambed lines (there's no end stop, or punctuation at the end of each line) and Scala points out the dissonance between the music's smoothness and its lyrics, like in the line “My mornings are Mondays stuck in an endless February.” “It kind of encapsulates boredom with the ordinary and then she unleashes a kind of tension and anger in the ordinary in those verses," she says. In the verses, she says Swift “explodes the domestic,” and that fights up against the music, which is “literary.”

Swift's lyrics, too, allow for multi-dimensional readings: “I touched you" could be physicality and infidelity in the song, Scala says, or it could mean it emotionally — as in, I moved you.

Swift has long played with rhyme and unexpected rhythm. “She’ll often establish a pattern and won't satisfy it — and that often comes in a moment of emotional ache," says Adair.

On “Fortnight,” it appears in a few ways. Adair points out that the chorus is more syncopated than the rest of the song — which means Swift uses many more syllables for the same beat. “It gives this rushed quality,” she says.

“Rhyming ‘alcoholic’ and ‘aesthetic,’ she plays a lot with assonance. It is technically a vowel-driven repetition of sounds,” she adds. There's a tension, too, in the title “Fortnight,” an archaic term used for a song with contemporary devices. “There’s an allusion to treason, and some of the stuff is hyper romantic, but a lot of it is very much a kind of unapologetic, plain speech. And there's something poetic about that.”

“From the perspective of harnessing particular poetic devices, this kind of trucks in familiar metaphors for one’s emotional state,” Chasar says of “Fortnight.”

He says the speaker is “arrested in the past and a future that could've been," using a dystopic image of American suburbs as a metaphor and “cultivating a sense of numbness, which we hear in the intonation of the lyrics.”

“But the speaker is so overwhelmed by their emotional state that they can’t think of any other associations with politically charged lyrics like ‘treason’ and ‘Florida’ and ‘lost in America’ that many of us would," he says.

The title “Fortnight,” he adds, “is totally poetic. It's also a period of 14 days, or two weeks. For most of us ‘lost in America,’ it means a paycheck."

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER POETIC MOMENTS ON THE ALBUM?

“She's making references to Greek mythology,” say Scala, like in “Cassandra," which is part of a surprise set of songs Swift dropped Friday.

The title references the daughter of king of Troy, who foretold the city's destruction but had been cursed so that no one believed her.

"She’s the truth teller. No one wants to believe, and no one can believe,” she says.

Swift is “thinking in terms of literary paradigms about truth telling.”

Adair looks to "So Long, London": from the chiming, high school harmonies that open it to a plain first verse, “quiet and domestic,” she says.

“That mismatch is very poetic, because it’s pairing things from two different tonal registers, essentially, and saying they both have value, and they belong together: The kind of high mindedness and the high tradition and the kind of casual every day. That’s something the Beat poets did too, re-redefining the relationship between the sacred and profane.”

___

AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.

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