Lately I’ll wake in the middle of a conversation and realize I’m evangelizing. Odd thing is I’m always evangelizing the same man, John Darnielle, or rather the same band, The Mountain Goats, who are to its songwriter and primary vocalist as the primeval fauns, or in Darnielle’s case, fans, are to the spring-horned piper with the cloven hooves.
Odd, because Darnielle needs no help. From his start as a psychiatric nurse recording songs to cassette on a grinding Panasonic boombox, he’s now a favorite of Stephen Colbert’s, written up in The New Yorker, and interviewed by storyteller Tobias Wolff on stage. He’s the avatar of every college-age artist with a bad attitude and nervy vinyl archives.
But poets don’t quote him. Here’s someone releasing album upon album with alarming namechecks like Transmissions to Horace and Songs for Petronius, and the poetry machine figures he’s another guy with an acoustic guitar. “I play an acoustic guitar,” Darnielle advises. “But I am not one of those guys with an acoustic guitar.”
So he went electric. This was in 2002, the same year I interviewed him before a show at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill.
“Good poetry, for me, should make the reader flinch,” he told me, moving nervously around the rooftop dressing room. Fellow band member and core-collaborator Peter Hughes eyed him from the couch.
“Not necessarily because of its unpleasant subject matter, but because of its closeness to reality. I don’t think any art form manages to echo what life is like better than poems do, especially poems as songs—which to me are the same things.”
We poets write a lot about the music of poetry, its roots in oral/aural traditions, its rhythm and need to be sounded aloud, but very little about the meter of poetry—meter, which is a requirement of rhythm and of what most Westerners consider song.
It’s a missed opportunity, because for metrical verse to work, it doesn’t much matter how the stresses—or pulses—in each measure are perceived. The beat of 3/4 or 4/4 time is as effective a cadence as that of trimeter or tetrameter, and the syncopation of the vocalist as nimble a device for varying those beats as a formal poet’s phrasing. Lyric poetry, after all, was first written for the lyre.
So I call Darnielle a poet, and I proselytize. Luckily I won’t need to much longer. Since the spring, his influential death metal reviews, posting inexhaustibly to his blog Last Plane To Jakarta ever since his June 10, 2001 salvo, “Death Metal Rules,” have been exclusively in free verse. This extends a mode that Darnielle first experimented with in 2006, in a cycle entitled, “Thirty Short Poems About My Favorite Black Metal Band.”
Read the last, and best, of those thirty poems here. Now jump to Darnielle’s opener of April 23, 2010, “Globed Fruit Central.” Yes, he’s name-checking Walt Whitman, though I wouldn’t take his lines about Old Greybeard’s “total victory” too seriously.
As we hear scream through Darnielle’s five-hundred-plus song-poems to date, he’s been writing in rhyme and meter—which is to say, formal verse—for decades. If you think he plans to stop, you aren’t listening. The Good Grey Goat best give in and hoof it up.
Jim Fisher’s poetry and prose has appeared in Salon, DIAGRAM, and The LBJ: Avian Life, Literary Arts.