Lana Del Ray – Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass (Simon & Schuster, 2020)
“I want to say something about bad writing. I’m proud of my bad writing”
– Ariana Reines
There is bad writing in Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass the debut poetry book by Lana Del Rey. I wonder if it’s quite the sort of bad writing Reines means though, whose quote continues: “I am proud of Baudelaire’s mamma’s boy goo goo misery”. Which I guess is Reines celebrating those so-called “bad” moments in Baudelaire which are too uncomfortably raw and exposed for some, parts of Reines’ own writing arguably being able to be filed in a similar category. Both Reines and Baudelaire, however, are indisputably good writers prone to occasional excesses which others can dismiss as “bad” if they so desire. But what about writers who are exclusively bad? Those writers who aren’t able to get away with occasional lapses of taste by turning to point to a massive body of work which is almost universally recognised as being “good”? Are there two types of “badness” then? Are there more? Which type of “badness” is it that’s between the cover of this LDR book?
Parts of this book seemed so bad that they made me laugh. Let me just get that statement out of the way at this stage, though let me go on to add that anything that I quote won’t be pulled from the text with the aim of laughing either at Lana Del Rey, or any of her fans, of which I am one. Here, Philip Tagg’s line on popular music seems apposite “making it [popular music] a laughing matter, although understandable (it can be hilarious at times), is basically reactionary”. No, with this review I’m just trying to think some stuff through and hopefully get some clarity on how I feel about this book.
Reines goes on (it’s a long quote…): “Excellence nowadays is too general and available to be worth prizing: I am interested in people who have to find strange and horrible ways just to get from point a to point b” which was the bit of the quote which came back to me after I finished LDRs book. Pacing around the flat muttering lines from the book to myself I remembered Reines’ line about being interested in the weird, slightly shameful stuff and I thought I’d just read a brilliant example of that kind of thing. But, again, had I? Is the LDR book quite what Reines means?
Whether it is or not, I can’t remember the last poetry book I felt so exercised, so disoriented by. I read something “good” and, sure, it leaves its imprint on me. I might mention the poem, or the lines, or the couplet to a few people. I might even read the poem over two or three times. So, “good” has an impact. But that impact compared to how this LDR book has hit me seems very feeble indeed. Right now, approximately four hours after finishing Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass I honestly feel somehow rearranged by the book, despite or maybe because of its badness.
The book is a deluxe item. Hardback, poems, photos and a few paintings inside. The poems seem to be scans of typewritten pages, complete with coffee stains, smudged ink from what may well be fallen tears, there are also handwritten amendments to some of the lines. The photos are generally empty landscapes at dusk: traffic lights, an industrial building seen through a chain-link fence, a tower-crane, a port, a motorway bridge disappearing off into the distance – all photos are credited to LDR. The paintings, which I would call Hockney-lite, are not by LDR…Coffee-stain as design choice, then, the suggestion of tears, empty landscapes evocative of loneliness and a desire to be elsewhere, it’s all Lana working the well-worn and by now well established Lana aesthetic fantastically…
A few examples from the poems: “Stay on your path Sylvia Plath / Don’t fall away like all the others / Don’t take all your secrets alone to your water grave about / lovers and mother”. On the next page there’s a poem that rhymes ‘u’ with ‘Bellevue’ with ‘Xanadu’ with ‘ Malibu’ with ‘nothing much to do’, and, indeed, rhyming such as this is a constant throughout the book so perhaps if you’ve more of a tolerance than I do for that kind of thing the book might work better for you. (Not that I should be written off as an enemy of rhyme as certain rhymes act upon me like a shot to the heart…Ted Berrigan, for example, at the end of ‘Bean Spasms’, his line about “leaving the room/ to go to the moon” just kills me every time). I think the most extreme example of LDR’s rhyming, here, appears in ‘Quiet Waiter Blue Forever’: ‘You move like water sweet baby sweet waiter / making the night smile to no one you cater / silent woodworker from midnight til later / my lover my laughter my armour my maker” . . . Is it possible that anyone, anywhere can tolerate that?
The rest of the poems: in the middle there’s a two-part prose poem kind of thing called ‘SportCruiser’ where Del Rey talks about going for, first, a flying lesson and then a sailing lesson and the syntax in both parts is just so tortured . . . It also seems like Del Rey is suffering from a type of logorrhea, desperately in need of an editor. You think her sentence must surely have ended but then there’s another four words stuck on the next line. Towards the end of the book there’s a poem called ‘’Paradise is Very Fragile which interweaves a tale of her childhood treehouse burning down with a quasi state of the nation address. It’s hard to say what, exactly, the issue is that I have with this poem . . . I think it’s just the naivety of it. A realisation which makes me wonder what the problem is that I have with naivety . . .
The final section of the book is given over to a series of Del Rey’s haiku:’I stepped on a bird / cried in my new boyfriend’s arms / to live is to kill’. That being probably the worst of the haiku I think: a pseudo-profound observation about the fragility of life delivered in such a way as to render all deep feeling nothing more than laughable. And I think Del Rey’s haiku operate as something of a key to understanding one of the flaws of the book: there are no unexpected juxtapositions in here, none whatsoever, accordingly there’s nothing for the reader to do. At no point did I find myself wondering what Del Rey might be trying to convey by placing that image next to that other image. Even the photographs have a largely tautological relationship to the poems they’re placed beside.
So, yep, there’s bad writing, I think, in Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass. There is also some stuff that I like. I guess it’s just that I’ve started with the bad because it’s much more apparent, you have to dig a little bit harder to find the good I think. The opening poem, then, from which the book takes its title, a tale of going to a party and seeing a child messing about in the grass which reminds Del Rey of the joy of being a child is not a bad poem. Alright, it probably is bad, the rhythm of the longer opening verse is very staccato and it has alternate line endings with some pretty obvious rhymes and then there’s a gap of approximately a quarter of the page between the penultimate line and the last line which is the single word ‘forever’ and that gap has the effect, for me at least, of rendering that final ‘forever, unnecessarily dramatic and ultimately comical. All that said though, I do quite like the poem – which might be some sort of indicator of my fascination for this book: I can’t quite get a handle on it. Sometimes it feels awful, sometimes it feels not that bad.
Anyway, onwards …’LA Who I am to Love You?’ is an almost hysterical hymn to LA with a lot of exclamation marks and Lana shouting things like ‘LA/ I’m upset! / I have complaints!’ and ‘LA!/ I’m pathetic/ but so are you/ can I come home now’ and ‘LAAAAA!/ who am I to need you when I’ve needed so much’. Again I suppose, really, it’s not very good but, here at least, LDR does seem in control of her effects. The poem does seem to be trying to achieve something in particular and I think she largely pulls it off. There’s a mania to this poem which contrasts effectively, I think, with the quiet, more reflective moments.
The next poem but one begins with the lines ‘Two steel blue trains run through the tunnels of your/ cool blue steel eyes’. And I really like that other than for the fact that Del Rey, to my mind seems to have overdone it: get rid of ‘cool blue steel’ on the second line and it’d be great I think.
A bit later on, in ‘Tessa DiPietro’, Del Rey writes: “Which for some reason made me think of a live show I had seen/ Jim Morrison at the Hollywood Bowl/ 1968? (check date)”. And I unambivalently do love that ‘check date’! Why so pernickety about whether she’s used the right date when, in this book, she seems to have been so un-pernickety about so much else…
In terms of influences I’m hard-pushed to say what this reminds me of. Initially, I thought the Beats and Bukowski but now I’m not so sure. There’s a kind of free, unedited spontaneity to the writing here which Kerouac claimed to be so fond of (though who really knows? I always have my doubts about those who claim not to do too much editing and just dash their work off). And the LA settings and the vaguely down-at-heel ambience of the poems reminds me of Bukowski – though, in this case, a female Bukowski who’s turned their pain inward rather than directing it onto others. I don’t know though, I read the poems again and the first comparison seems to make no sense to me anymore while, sure, yep, the impression of a Bukowski influence remains – though even there I feel on uncertain ground as I haven’t read much Bukowski and what I have read was ages ago.
Though maybe I should be trying to think about the book in a different way rather than playing the boring old game of trying to situate it on a line of descent from influences x, y and z . . . It occurs to me that parts of some of the pieces in the book remind me of social media posts and I wonder if perhaps there’s something to learn from this book about how people feel, think and express themselves these days on social media, and by people – in this context – I suppose I mean young people. So maybe this is another part of my difficulty with the book, maybe it’s just not for middle-aged men such as me which is fine – why should middle aged men assume all spaces are open to them? I suspect if I was 14 years old again this book would mean a hell of a lot to me, lines and phrases from it scribbled all over my school books.
One of the most puzzling things about the book, to me, is Lana’s insistent and repeated affirmation of her status as a poet. In the second part of ‘SportCruiser’ we find “6 trips to the moon for my poetry to arise / I’m not a captain / I’m not a pilot / I write / I write”. In ‘Quiet Waiter Blue Forever’ there is “But who am I / just a girl in love dreaming on paper”. ‘My bedroom is a sacred place now – There are children at the foot of my bed’ ends with an extended riff on the process of her becoming a poet, the last line of which is “the more I step into becoming a poet / the less I will fall into bed with you”. Finally, in ‘Salamander’, the last full length poem before the haiku section, there is “you see I’m a real poet / my life is my poetry / my lovemaking is my legacy”.
I’m just baffled as to why an international pop-star, with all the impact upon the culture that comes with being an international pop-star, would want so much to be a poet, with the accompanying zero-impact upon the culture that a poet has. That’s not even factoring in the question of money and the fact the former position delivers a lot of cash, whilst the latter position delivers exactly none. Though I guess if Lana were to give up everything, now, to become a poet she wouldn’t be a poet quite in the same sense that you or I or Simon Armitage might be a poet, additionally, she would be a different type of poet altogether ie a very wealthy one who is guaranteed a lot of interest in her work.
I guess, also, I’m being a little disingenuous here, yes, I can understand why a pop star might be drawn to poetry: the opportunity to be taken seriously if they perceive that they previously haven’t been; that and maybe the notion that poetry is somehow realer and more meaningful than pop-music. Poetry as a means to be taken seriously? Poetry lending to the poet a vibe of authenticity and depth? Does poetry actually deliver that stuff though or does it just have a great public-relations officer who’s managed to convince loads of people across the ages, including this particular innocent, very wealthy, internationally famous pop-star that it does? I don’t know. A question I don’t have the answer to. All I can say is that as neither a pop-star or a poet I would much rather be a pop-star and I wonder if part of the function of this review is perhaps to try to talk Lana down from the ledge before she pointlessly and wastefully throws herself into a career in poetry. Lana, don’t do it!
Some way above I mentioned the naivety of Lana’s writing here and said I wondered what my problem was with that, as I certainly felt I had a problem. Well, I’ve been mulling on that question since I asked myself it and it seems to me that there’s an authentic naivety to the writing in this book which can be contrasted to the popular mode (actually, is it still popular? I’m not sure, a few years ago it seemed to be everywhere) of faux-naivety adopted by writers who, along the way, always made sure to let their readers know that they were just messing with them and they were really nowhere near as daft as they were pretending to be. And I think the absence of nods and winks from LDR that the poems in this book are written the way they are as a result of her deliberately choosing this style out of all the others available to her unsettled me in quite a big way. Maybe Violet Bent Backwards Over Grass is The Real and maybe this is what The Real looks like.
On reflection, I think what unsettled me more than the manner of utterance were the poems showing Lana’s self-loathing and, seemingly, the impact of that upon her romantic decisions. ‘Tessa DiPietro’ opens with “No one ever touched me without wanting to kill me”. ‘Thanks to the Locals’ has “The man that I love hates me. But it would be easier to stay”. And besides those specific examples there’s a lot of hanging around waiting for men and reflecting on bad decisions, stuff we’re all familiar with from the records, stuff which is key to the well-worked Lana image… I guess I’m just not sure what to make of all of this. Encountering in real life someone with the particular problems that Lana appears to have is one thing, yet encountering a piece of art where there’s the suspicion that perhaps these elements are just being played with and utilised in service of some dubious ideas concerning image is an entirely other thing. The unpicking of which, of course, is all a major part of the LDR conundrum.
Which brings me back to where we started, the Ariana Reines quote, the bit in between the two bits already mentioned goes: “Sometimes the lurid or shitty means having a heart, which is something you have to try to have”. So does Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass have a heart? What do I even mean by that question?
Well, sometimes with these poems there’s the feeling that Del Rey has assembled them via some sort of algorithm: themes, attitudes and moods recur – all pretty par the course for poetry I know – but, as well, there’s an awkwardness and an unwieldiness to a lot of them which suggests that no human consciousness was involved in their construction. And so I guess if it were to come out at some point that all this work was computer generated or something that’d equate to them having no heart (though at the same time such a revelation would open up lots more interesting avenues for thought and discussion!). So I guess my question whether or not there’s a heart in this book is to do with how much Lana is there in here? Obviously a question impossible to answer but for the little it’s worth my view is that there’s a lot and that this collection – for all its bad writing, and I think that, yes, there’s a lot – has a massive beating heart which will ensure this book matters to more people and lasts a lot longer than whatever the latest critically acclaimed, technically perfect poetry book from this year’s graduating class of creative writing students turns out to be.
A final thought regarding what Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass has done to the LDR brand? For me, it’s complicated it in ways I still don’t feel entirely clear about. For others I’m sure it’s just unambiguously strengthened it. With this book are we seeing the beginning of Lana’s exit strategy from international pop-stardom, which would certainly be incredibly interesting. Or will the book prove to be nothing more than a never-to-be repeated sideline in her career? I hope not. I, at least, would like to see a lot more poetry from Del Rey.
– Richard Barrett